Nurses, teachers and Downing Street's attempt to take direct control of strike negotiations

Split image. Left image: Door for No 10 Downing Street. Right image: A striking nurse holding a sign which reads: "Claps don't pay bills."
Health unions are currently locked in a bitter disupte with the government over pay, jobs and conditions. Credit: PA

This week on ITV's Peston I asked Labour's Peter Kyle whether the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) talking to ministers about a potential pay deal was a good thing, and he said, it was. The next morning, I received a call from a senior figure in another union.

"The RCN's talks are NOT a good thing," they fumed.

It's hard to overestimate the irritation among other - particularly health - unions about the apparent thawing in relations between the biggest nursing union and government.

So, how did we get here?

Two things seem clear to me: firstly that the government judge nurse walkouts to be the most problematic part of the strike jigsaw ministers are attempting to solve; and, secondly, that Downing Street decided to take direct control of negotiations with them.

I've heard suggestions that discussions between senior figures at No 10 and those at the RCN have been ongoing for around two weeks, with both sides agreeing (on the request of senior advisers inside government) not to brief information. Even the Department of Health has been in the dark for periods.

However, it seems clear that ministers and officials enticed the RCN with the promise of not just a higher pay deal for 2023/24 than the 3.5% deemed affordable by the Treasury, but a non-consolidated (one-off) payment for this year too.

In truth, it is hard to see how the figures will be enough to satisfy the union's members, given the sums they have previously rejected north of the border. But it's clearly in a ball-park that the RCN general secretary, Pat Cullen, feels is worth playing for.

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And it's not only support for nurse strikes that will be worrying figures in Whitehall. They will also be alarmed to see polling data showing large number of parents backing teachers right now.

So, can they stop regional strikes due to go ahead next week?

In this case, I'm not hearing of direct talks with Downing Street. But it is clear to me that folk in government feel that they have offered a similar enticement to the National Education Union (NEU).

It seems likely that Gillian Keegan - the education secretary (who is highly rated by No 10 on the issue of strikes) - is ready to talk about a one-off payment if regional teacher strikes are paused next week.

Gillian Keegan has been leading government negotiations with education unions. Credit: PA

But whatever officials may feel they have put on the table, it clearly is not something concrete or clear enough to make NEU leaders - Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney - take a decision to pause strikes.

Personally, I suspect teaching union leaders know there is the possibility of discussing a one- off payment for 22/23, but have less detail than the RCN; and regardless a non-consolidated payment is unlikely to satisfy teachers who feel they've faced years of cuts.

All of the NEU's executive will discuss the issue on Saturday, but a pause is unlikely.

Meanwhile, the government's behaviour is causing angst among other unions. In education the National Association of Head Teachers' (NAHT) leader called Keegan's offer of pay talks an "olive branch with thorns attached".

And in health the bad feeling is arguably even more intense.

Some argued that the fact nurses' pay is meant to rise at the same rate as every NHS worker who is not a doctor (as they are all part of what is known as the Agenda for Change (AfC) pay process) means an RCN breakthrough could benefit the wider workforce.

But the fury of other unions - including Unison, who represent huge numbers of healthworkers including nurses, and GMB and Unite, who represent thousands of ambulance workers - shows that there is widespread suspicion.

They fear that the government will somehow abandon AfC in this negotiation and offer nurses a separate amount - perhaps arguing that a one off payment is separate to the wider contract.

Overall, everything feels quite febrile. Clearly there are hopes that the government could negotiate something with nurses, which could break the damn on rolling strikes.

But the strategy is high risk for both the government and RCN, and could lead to even more entrenched hostility among other striking workers.