‘Iron Hunt’ blocks NHS pay deals

Isn’t he part of the problem? – Owl

Jeremy Hunt has been “captured” by the Treasury, according to a Westminster insider.

Caroline Wheeler www.thetimes.co.uk

The chancellor is seen as the stumbling block in talks with the unions over disputes that have brought Britain grinding to a halt.

The insider points to Hunt’s determination to boost growth by getting economically inactive people back into work while blocking pay rises for public sector workers.

It is understood that the Treasury has told Steve Barclay to find savings in his health department if he wants to give nurses a pay rise. He has resisted the idea after having to find £250 million to plough into social care to free up hospital beds and ease the A&E crisis.

Barclay believes nurses should be an exceptional case, but the Treasury has rebuffed his approach for more money. In talks with the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) last week Barclay asked for this week’s strikes, on Wednesday and Thursday, to be called off while discussions continue. The union wants a 19 per cent pay rise.

Rishi Sunak had promised unions a fresh approach, and ministers were told to begin negotiations on pay deals for 2023-24. The RCN talks are still open but this week’s action — involving up to 100,000 nurses — is expected to go ahead after the government refused to talk about this year’s pay deal.

With no sign of a breakthrough, the RCN is set to announce further strike dates for the start of February.

In more bad news for the government, the National Education Union and the National Association of Head Teachers are expected to announce that their members have voted in favour of a strike.

One Westminster insider suggested the blockage was Hunt: “Last year he argued for more funding for the NHS in his book Zero. Now he has become the iron chancellor, saying no to everything.”

The prime minister is likely to come under more pressure to resolve pay disputes as May’s local elections loom. One former cabinet minister said a way to put more money into health could be to tap the Treasury’s £4 billion windfall from the Bank of England’s sale of the long-term gilts it bought to quell panic after Liz Truss’s mini-budget.

A settlement on the railways is said to be “within touching distance” as ministers scaled back their demand for driver-only trains. The deal on the table is a 9 per cent pay increase over two years.

The chance of a breakthrough brings a glimmer of hope after a gloomy start to the year, with public services on strike on a scale not seen since 1926. The disputes have added to the bleak economic landscape. The UK narrowly avoided a 2022 recession after a “surprise” 0.1 per cent rise in growth in November. The risk of recession still looms large, however, with the Bank of England and the Office for Budget Responsibility both forecasting a contraction in the first half of 2023.

Sunak and Hunt have told business leaders that tackling Britain’s shrinking workforce is a priority that will be at the heart of the budget in March. Mel Stride, the work and pensions secretary, has drawn up proposals to tempt Britain’s nine million economically inactive people back to work.

He aims to lure over-50s who have taken early retirement back into the office and has prioritised efforts to keep younger people in employment.

Stride is expected to meet Hunt this week to discuss his proposals, which are understood to include putting a duty on pension providers to offer “midlife financial MoTs”. It is believed many over-50s took early retirement using assumptions made before the cost of living crisis.

Stride is also looking at the childcare element of universal credit and is considering plans to increase the benefit.

“Mel wants there to be as radical a target as possible to help those with treatable conditions, including those with mental health and skeletal conditions, back into work,” a Whitehall source said.