Department asks trade unions to pause on industrial action

Date published: 29 November 2019


Department of Health Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly has publicly appealed to trade unions to pause industrial action and enter into an independent conciliation process.

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Mr Pengelly said: “It is clear to everyone that our health service is in an extremely fragile state. Industrial action will certainly exacerbate this situation.

“The latest disturbing waiting time statistics have just been released, hospital Emergency Departments remain under severe pressure and winter-related illnesses are impacting on the population.

“I fully understand the deep-seated anger and frustration of staff dealing with these escalating problems day and daily. Indeed, I share those feelings. My appeal to unions is simply this – please don’t allow a bad situation to become worse.

“The ultimate resolution to this dispute rests with Ministers. The Department does not have the budget or the authority to meet union demands on pay for this year – I understand how frustrating that position is for the trade unions, but it is the reality we face.

“However, we are ready and willing to enter into a conciliation process with unions to map out an implementation plan for incoming Ministers.

“Trade unions have so far said they are unable to accept our conciliation proposals. I am now publicly urging them to think again.”

In addition, Mr Pengelly has today written to colleagues across the health and social care system setting out the Department’s proposals.

The letter to staff also takes the opportunity to correct misunderstandings relating to the dispute. Key points include:

* Serious health staffing challenges are by no means limited to Northern Ireland. Nursing and midwifery vacancies in England are at the same level as Northern Ireland, as statistics published just this week showed. There is no short term fix to this problem.

* The Department has not received enough money through the Barnett Formula to replicate England’s health pay settlement. Barnett Formula funding allocations will always fall well short of the money needed to reproduce any English pay deal. That’s because our workforce includes social work and social care employees and is therefore proportionately much larger than England’s. 

* Funding cannot be switched from agency expenditure to improve on the 2.1% pay offer for this year. Reducing agency spend is not something that can be achieved overnight. At present, agency nurses help keep wards and other health facilities open.

Notes to editors: 

1. The Department’s conciliation proposals involve independently chaired discussions to deal comprehensively with all issues involved in the dispute. This would include work on a five-year implementation plan on pay, reducing agency use and safe staffing.  The Department remains open to suggestions from trade unions as to how a conciliation process would work.

The Department would progress with its proposed 2.1% pay package as an interim measure, while acknowledging it does not necessarily represent a final settlement for 2019/20.

Under the proposals, industrial action would be suspended but the Department would accept that union ballots for action would remain valid subsequent to the talks if they were to be unsuccessful.

The aim of the proposed discussions would be to develop an action and implementation plan on pay and staffing for the next Health Minister and Executive colleagues. It would also allow an independent and impartial person or panel to assess the impasse between the Department and unions on how to move forward this year and in the future.

2. The letter to staff can be viewed online.

3. For media enquiries please contact the Department of Health Press Office on 028 9052 0575 or email: For out of hours please contact the Duty Press Officer on 028 9037 8110.

4. Follow us on Twitter @healthdpt

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