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Trade unions meet Government ministers for talks on pay

Trade unions are meeting Government ministers for talks on pay, though the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has put the chance of strikes being called off at less than 50%.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay is meeting union leaders on Monday morning, including from the RCN, amid cautious optimism that the Government might soften its stance on pay.

Teaching unions will attend talks with Education Secretary Gillian Keegan ahead of announcements this week over whether their members will go on strike.

And rail minister Huw Merriman is also holding talks on Monday with train workers after sustained action crippled services, with only one in five trains running between Tuesday and Saturday.

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak raised hopes over the weekend by saying he is willing to discuss pay with health workers, though it is understood officials are keen to limit talks to the next round of pay deals.

Health unions have said the pay rises for this year must be renegotiated if strikes planned for later this month are to be averted.

Writing on the ConservativeHome website on Monday, the Prime Minister said: “Today, ministers from across government will be meeting with the unions to set out how we can resolve these disputes in a responsible and reasonable way.

“I accept the freedom of individuals to strike, but this must be balanced with the rights of everyone else to safely go about their lives.

“That’s why we introduced new laws – in common with countries such as France, Italy and Spain – to ensure we have minimum levels of safety in critical areas like our ambulance and fire services.”

Meanwhile, Mr Barclay, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, said he is “ready to engage with the unions on what the Government can do to support the workforce, and I look forward to talking with them about how we make any pay settlement done through the independent pay body more affordable where there are productivity and efficiency opportunities.”

Patricia Marquis, director for England at the RCN, said on Monday that it feels “unlikely” the nurses’ strikes planned for Wednesday and Thursday next week will be called off.

She told Sky News: “At the moment, it feels unlikely but we’ll see what today brings in those conversations with Steve Barclay.

“If there are chinks of hope, if there are further meetings, then I and my colleagues will all maintain optimism that we can get a resolution without nurses having to be on the picket lines again later this month.”

Asked if it is not even a 50-50 chance at the moment, she said: “I don’t think it is 50-50, but there is some hope and we maintain that hope.”

Earlier, she said the RCN is “willing to compromise” on pay and “we’ve asked that they meet us halfway”, adding: “The exact detail of what that would look like, obviously, needs to take place within a closed room, within a negotiation.”

But she said: “Unless we’re able to have a conversation about this year’s pay award, then, sadly, this isn’t going to resolve the dispute that we currently have with the Government.”

Mr Barclay has suggested a deal may be struck in return for efficiencies but Ms Marquis said this left her feeling “very, very worried”.

She said: “It shows a level of misunderstanding of the situation the NHS and nursing is in at the moment.

“There aren’t enough staff to deliver the care that needs to be delivered and there isn’t enough funding in the NHS.

“Of course, there’s always some sort of efficiencies that can be made but it really does sound like what they’re trying to do is get … the NHS to fund its own pay award and we don’t think that’s possible. We really think this needs to be extra money that is clearly earmarked for for nursing pay.”

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting told BBC Breakfast that RCN chief executive Pat Cullen is “a tough negotiator” who “stands up for her members, and I think she’s genuinely speaking for nurses and representing the opinion of nurses”.

He added: “She actually offered to call off the nurses’ strike before Christmas if the Government would sit down and negotiate on pay.

“She is now offering to meet the Government halfway. Surely that is a good starting point now for serious talks on pay?”

He added: “She’s shown a degree of reasonableness in the face of Government unreasonableness.”

Elsewhere, Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said “children are being harmed every day by the crisis and the catastrophe of the workforce shortages in our schools”.

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Ms Bousted, who said she is “very pleased” to be meeting Ms Keegan on Monday, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “If the Government is serious they have to do two things – they have to put more money on the table now, and a one-off payment may sound superficially attractive but that brings all sorts of problems with it.

“We want a pay rise which is incorporated into pay in a proper way.

“Secondly, they’ve got to commit to proper negotiations, because this is not just a crisis about the cost of living, although that is a crisis.

“This is a crisis which has been building for 12 years, as we have seen teachers leave our schools and children are left without the specialist teachers they need in order to fulfil their potential.”

She added: “If we take strike action it’s a last resort to say this cannot continue.”

Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison, said talks about pay are a “major step forward” and the union has “hope” the dispute can be resolved.

Speaking outside the Department of Health and Social Care ahead of her meeting with Mr Barclay, she said: “At the moment, getting in a room and talking about pay is a major step forward. So, let’s see what happens today – we travel in hope.

“We’ll exhaust every possible opportunity to resolve this dispute.”