Trade unions hit out at delay in 'miserly' pay rise for health workers in Northern Ireland
More than 55,000 health and social care workers in Northern Ireland are set to receive a 1% pay rise - but the long-delayed move has been slammed as too little, too late by trade unions and politicians.
Unite industrial officer Kevin McAdam welcomed the decision but said the latest Retail Price Inflation (RPI) figures mean staff are still effectively suffering a 2.9% cut in living standards.
"It is completely inadequate - healthcare workers are still seeing their pay decrease year-on-year, losing 15% in pay in real terms since the banking crisis 10 years ago," he said.
"It is sure to be welcomed by healthcare workers coming just before Christmas but the delay in providing the pay increase was completely unnecessary and appears to be politically-inspired."
The pay award, which was recommended by the independent NHS Pay Review Body in March and implemented elsewhere in the UK back in April, did not come into effect here.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health (DOH) blamed the delay on the lack of a regional public sector pay policy, which was only announced by the Department of Finance yesterday.
The claim prompted Royal College of Nurses director Janice Smyth to demand an apology to staff who have been subjected to "unnecessary waiting, uncertainty and financial detriment".
"Since March 2017, we have consistently been told that it was not possible to implement the award in Northern Ireland in the absence of a health minister," she said.
"We are now told by the department that the refusal to implement the award is attributable to 'the absence of a Northern Ireland public sector pay policy for 2017-2018'."
The pay increase - worth around £300 to individual employees - will be backdated to April 1 of this year and is expected to be fully implemented by the end of the financial year.
A total of £26m has been set aside to cover the cost.
Unison regional secretary Patricia McKeown said members are only getting the "miserly" amount they are owed and called for payments to be made as quickly as possible.
"The money should be in our members' pockets for Christmas and not stuck in the system," she said.
Ms McKeown called for recognition of the fact that the decision does nothing to address the wider public sector pay cap or the fact that health workers in Northern Ireland still face a pay deficit compared to their colleagues in England, Scotland and Wales.
"Our members remain seriously undervalued and continue to suffer whilst the cost of living rises relentlessly," she added.
Permanent Secretary of the DOH, Richard Pengelly, said he understands the frustrations and uncertainty regarding pay issues.
"Our workers are our most valuable asset and they deserve to receive the hard-earned pay which is owed to them," he said.
The SDLP's Mark H Durkan hailed the move - which comes two days after a delegation from his party met with NI's top civil servant David Sterling and Mr Pengelly urging them to take action - as progress for public sector workers. "The SDLP has campaigned tirelessly alongside these workers and their unions to champion their cause for fairer pay," he said.
But the Foyle MLA also warned there is "a long way to go" to ensure they are given a "fairer" deal.
Alliance MLA and health spokeswoman Paula Bradshaw also called for further action. "Now what is required is a minister in place to consider how health workers are to be compensated for the rising cost of living, now we have seen a further rise in inflation," she said.
Mrs Bradshaw said it's important to deliver a fair policy which also takes account of awards in other parts of the UK.
DUP MLA Paula Bradley acknowledged the pay rise was "small" but said it was a welcome boost for "hard-working" NHS staff.
Sinn Fein health spokesman Pat Sheehan described the announcement as "long overdue" and vowed to keep campaigning for the cap on public sector wages to be scrapped altogether to ensure all vital public sector workers are paid what they deserve.