DHSC perm sec rules out pay-dispute arbitration with junior doctors

Chris Wormald tells MPs third-party mediation is “not something the government is pursuing”
Striking junior doctors rallied in Leeds last week, demanding higher pay. Photo: Bridget Catterall/AlamyLiveNews

By Jim Dunton

20 Apr 2023

Department of Health and Social Care permanent secretary Sir Chris Wormald has said there will be no arbitration with junior doctors seeking a 35% rise to restore pay to 2008-09 levels.

The permanent secretary’s comments were made to MPs on the Public Accounts Committee today ahead of a session on improving mental-health services in England. They followed a call from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges for the government and the British Medical Association to “rapidly engage” with an independent organisation to help break deadlock that saw junior doctors strike for four days last week.

“The Academy of Medical Colleges called this morning, I don’t think specifically for Acas but for third-party mediation,” Wormald told MPs. “That is not government’s preferred route. So that’s not something that we would be taking up.

“We of course agree with the colleges that the effect of strikes on patients is unfortunate, so we do want to see progress in the strikes. But third-party mediation is not something the government is pursuing.”

The BMA says the pay of junior doctors has seen a real-terms cut of 26% over the past 15 years and that “pay restoration” is “essential to the future of the NHS”. Data published by the Office for National Statistics yesterday said inflation as measured by the Consumer Prices Index was 10.1% in the year to March.

DHSC perm sec Wormald was more upbeat on the broader NHS pay offer made to nursing and other staff – even though the 5% deal with an extra 2% non-consolidated payment was rejected by members of the Royal College of Nursing last week.

Wormald said that the revised deal tabled for staff covered by the NHS’s “Agenda for Change” pay and grading system was still being balloted on by several unions.

“Some of those ballots have come in: the RCN rejected and Unison accepted,” he said. “There are a number of other ballots to close at the end of April. And then the absolutely key thing is the meeting of the Agenda for Change staff council, when they decide on the basis of their votes their overall response to the deal that’s on the table. And then the government will respond to whatever it is that they decide.”

Wormald said the AfC staff council brought together all of the unions representing NHS staff who are not doctors, and that it had a mechanism for agreeing to government offers as a whole group. He stressed that the whole staff-side response was “not necessarily the same as what each union does”.

In addition to doctors, senior managers within the NHS are also not part of the Agenda for Change system.

Earlier this week, Wormald wrote to the BMA rebutting concerns expressed by its chair of council Prof Philip Banfield about a DHSC Twitter post on junior doctors’ pay.

Banfield had complained to cabinet secretary Simon Case that the post used “inflammatory language to undermine the junior doctors’ ongoing pay dispute” and misrepresented its 35% claim.

He urged Case to investigate the post as a potential breach of the civil service code because of DHSC’s responsibility to uphold political impartiality.

In his response, Wormald said the reference to a 35% pay demand was a reflection of the BMA’s publicly stated “starting position” and material relating to junior doctors’ mean earnings had been taken from NHS England staff-earnings estimates that had not been challenged.

The perm sec said the figures clearly stated that they included “additional earnings on top of basic pay”.

“I take concerns about the conduct of the department very seriously,” Wormald wrote. “Having reviewed the material that you pointed towards in your letter I have not found any instances of breaches of the civil service sode or other guidance.

“Communicating the government of the day’s policies and positions on issues, such as public sector pay, is a core part of what the Government Communications Service does.

“Whenever formulating graphics for use on social media, the department’s civil servants take care to ensure that the material in the graphics is accurate and precise. This is the case in the tweet.”

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