No evidence nurses forced out of profession over pay, says health minister
Stormont's Health Minister has questioned claims that nurses are leaving the profession due to an on-going pay dispute.
Simon Hamilton told the Assembly he had seen no evidence of nurses quitting or recruitment difficulties in the profession.
Mr Hamilton had been challenged on the issue by Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy during Assembly question time.
Nurses' representatives have threatened industrial action over the terms of pay award set by Mr Hamilton for 2015/16.
Mr Hamilton has said the majority of healthcare staff will receive a one-off additional payment equating to 1% of their salary this year.
Health unions have criticised both the substance of the pay award and how it was implemented, claiming they were not fully consulted.
During question time, Mr Murphy claimed there was "dismay in the nursing profession" and said this was having an effect "on people leaving the profession and perhaps even on the ability to recruit people to the profession".
Mr Hamilton replied: "The Member's premise is that there is a difficulty in recruiting and retaining nurses.
"Some people have made those arguments, but I have seen no empirical evidence to back them up. I would put an argument back to those people, which is that nurses' pay in Northern Ireland is a little below the pay in other parts of the United Kingdom, but it is about 99% of that.
"The average pay in Northern Ireland, for example, is 86% of what it is in England so, in that respect, nurses' pay is keeping in line with national pay in a way that many other professions are not."
The minister said the unions' pay demands would have costed his department £40 million.
He added: "The £40 million that it would have cost to meet that pay demand would have been the entirety of what we are putting into tackling waiting lists in Northern Ireland."
If nurses vote for industrial action, it would stop short of a strike, rather a work-to-rule form of protest, with steps such as a refusal to work unpaid hours.