Championing Pay Parity and Defending Our Health Service: A Pledge from the Ulster Unionist Party - Chambers

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Championing Pay Parity and Defending Our Health Service: A Pledge from the Ulster Unionist Party - Chambers

Ulster Unionist Party Health Spokesperson Alan Chambers MLA looks at the challenges facing health staff in the run-up to the day of action on Thursday.

‘This Thursday, thousands of nurses will reluctantly stand on cold picket lines alongside colleagues from across the Health Service. They will be part of a massive strike by tens of thousands of public sector employees protesting about the lack of movement on acceptable pay settlements.

‘After a three-year shutdown of Stormont, initiated by Sinn Féin, who at that time held the Health Ministry with Michelle O'Neill at the helm, the Assembly returned to business in January 2020. My Ulster Unionist colleague, Robin Swann MLA, took on the health portfolio after all other parties avoided the opportunity to take up that particular challenge.

‘Within days of being appointed, Robin was confronted with the first strike by Northern Ireland nurses in living memory. He immediately engaged with the nurses' representatives and gave a commitment to offer pay parity. He subsequently gained the unanimous support of the Executive. That decision was honoured in both 2020/21 and 2021/22. Problems arose in the 2022/23 year after the DUP First Minister at the time resigned his seat in February 2022, and the Executive collapsed before an overall 2022/23 NI budget was agreed.

‘In January 2022, Robin issued a statement thanking all Health Service workers for their efforts that went well beyond the call of duty during the Covid crisis. He stated, "The blunt truth is that our health service would not be standing at all, were it not for the superhuman efforts of staff. I sincerely hope you are never placed in that position again."

‘The Minister found some additional funding within his department amounting to £25m and made a one-year uplift, backdated to the previous April. In formulating the actual figures, he ensured that the outcomes would be slightly more generous to the lowest-paid staff in the health service.

‘He went on to say, "I can promise you that I will continue to fight with all my energy for better funding for health and social care and better wages for staff. That's my heartfelt pledge for the remainder of my time as Minister and for whatever comes next for me." He continued, "Despite all the challenges and uncertainties, I remain confident about the future. That's because I know that we are blessed with an incredible workforce who deliver compassionate care every single day and who have carried Northern Ireland through the last two years."

‘Robin still stands by those sentiments and pledges regarding pay parity with the full support of the Ulster Unionist Party. It is completely understandable that the patience of the health service workforce has run out. We cannot continue to expect these workers to hold together our crisis-hit health service with continuing goodwill alone. They feel undervalued and undoubtedly must experience anger seeing colleagues in other parts of the United Kingdom being better paid than they are for doing the same work.

‘Reform of our local health service will require the efforts of a workforce that has had their morale lifted by the certainty of pay parity with colleagues across the UK. The battle of health service reform will need the retention of all our current trained staff, with none of them being tempted by better terms to leave Northern Ireland to work. It will need a fair package of salary and working conditions to attract vital new recruits into this caring sector.

‘The actions of the DUP in continuing to boycott Stormont, despite the prospect of being able to release the funding included in the £3.3bn package that would enable the start of the process of settling public sector pay settlements, is both heartless and unconscionable. The effects of ongoing unrest in our public sector and, more importantly, the damage that the reluctant actions of health service workers withdrawing their labour will have on the future recovery of our crisis-hit health service are totally avoidable.

‘The actions of the Tory Government are no better, and their current position is just as shameful as the DUP's. The Prime Minister stated in Parliament, “Our focus has always been on delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.” Really?

‘The Secretary of State is quoted as saying, “A returned Executive could stop these strikes and the disruption it brings to people across Northern Ireland. By getting back to work, they will unlock the £584 million made available by the UK Government to address public sector pay.”

‘The PM’s remarks ring hollow. At the stroke of a pen, the money ring-fenced for public sector pay settlements could be made available immediately by the Government to meet reasonable pay demands. There is no excuse or justification for further delay.

‘Both the Government and the DUP are playing a game of chicken with the Northern Ireland public left to suffer the pain. It needs to stop! I will proudly stand in solidarity with our nurses on the picket line on Thursday.’