Finally - HV strike success

07 February 2020

Following the long-running dispute with their county council employers, Lincolnshire HVs began the New Year with significant pay awards, with most taking up upgraded contracts and increased pay. Journalist Juliette Astrup takes a look at the dispute from its very beginnings.

In July of last year, health visitors in Lincolnshire took the step – unprecedented in the profession – of taking strike action, after all efforts to resolve a pay dispute with Lincolnshire County Council (LLC) failed.

The situation continued to change so rapidly that Community Practitioner covered the updates of the dispute in CP fortnightly e-newsletter for much of the latter half of 2019.

Caught in a catch-22

The seeds of the dispute had been sown two years previously, in 2017, when the HVs in the county were transferred from the NHS to council employment – taking with them their Agenda for Change contracts, terms and conditions.

However, when in April 2018 NHS staff saw their pay uplifted, it became apparent that these HVs’ pay was to remain static - and that the council would not agree to give them pay rises in line with other council employees.

Unite regional officer Steve Syson says: ‘Our members were caught in a catch-22. The council told them they could keep their static Agenda for Change contracts and have a permanent pay freeze, or move over to the council’s contract.

‘But the council placed the HVs across two contracts – Grades 9 and 10. They insisted that the HVs should move over onto the lower level - the Grade 9 contract. But most of our members were at the top of Band 6 [equivalent to Grade 10]. In effect, what the council was trying to do was to pinch people into moving into a lesser level of contract just to secure pay rises. They would have moved overnight from being a top HV to a lower HV - just because the council said so.’

The union was also concerned about the ‘erosion’ of the professional responsibilities of HVs due to this new two-tier division within the roles of Grade 9 and Grade 10 – which it feared could adversely impact vulnerable families.

After months of unsuccessful attempts to resolve the issue, in June 2019 Unite-CPHVA balloted its 58 Agenda for Change members for strike action – with 84.5% voting in support.

In June the council made 30 Grade 10 HV jobs available ‘to pull people away from the strike and undermine the industrial action’, says Steve. But action began in July, in the form of a series of 48-hour stoppages.

Steve explains: ‘A lot of our members had young families to support so they simply couldn’t afford to take action at the full level. It was also an emotional wrench for them; these HVs are some of the most caring people I’ve ever had cause to meet, and there was great concern from our members about the families they worked with.’

Going up a gear

In August, the 48-hour strikes continued, along with multiple demonstrations and one rally that was well attended and met with considerable public support. Unite support has also been extensive, adds Steve, with Unite members donating £60,000 to back the HVs’ fight.

Action was stepped up again with a strike lasting nine days straight in September. Steve says: ‘In all, action was maintained across 32 days over 12 weeks, during which the council lost some 450 shifts – but we couldn’t get them to move their position on the Grade 10 contracts.’

The next step was to re-ballot members on the two-tier system the council has in place. This time the ballot included more than 70 Lincolnshire HVs, as the HVs already in Grades 9 and 10 joined the battle along with Agenda for Change members. They voted by 67% to strike.

Upon the news of this second strike action, the council offered an additional 43 Grade 10 HV jobs, but Unite continued to argue that, as all HVs have the same community nurse qualifications, their role is equivalent to a Grade 10 job role, and they should therefore be paid the same rate. HVs started to take further action on 18 November to run through 13 December. But that action was suspended after a week due to the council offering out more jobs. ‘

The council has already lost some 20 experienced HVs over the course of the dispute, before finally giving ground – agreeing to upgrade their HVs,’ says Steve.

‘The only reason our members are moving onto grade 10 contracts is the strike action they have taken’

Was this really about‘career progression’?

However, the council’s interpretation of events is different. Heather Sandy, interim director of education, said: ‘The county council has always valued the professionalism and work of our HVs and the support they provide to Lincolnshire families.

‘In October, we introduced a new career progression scheme, which offers HVs competitive terms and conditions and has led to pay increases for many of our existing staff.

‘Prior to its introduction, there were extensive discussions with Unite, facilitated by ACAS, and we wrote to staff explaining how the scheme would work and how it would offer salaries beyond those available in the NHS.  

‘Unfortunately, we were unable to reach an agreement initially, which led to the strike action.

‘The council is pleased that Unite are considering accepting the offer we put to them earlier this year [2019], and that the dispute is now nearing completion.’

Jane Beach, Unite lead professional officer for the East Midlands, clarifies: ‘While the council did make an offer on pay in October, it only applied to those at the top of the scale and, in addition, one of the conditions of that offer was that Unite members accept the two levels of HV under the “career progression scheme”.

‘When we put it to our members, they were clear they certainly didn’t want to agree because they voted for additional industrial action on the two levels. The new offer on pay now applies to those lower down the scale as well – and we haven’t had to agree to two levels of health visiting – which we’ve said we’ll never do.

She adds: ‘The council has enacted the two levels anyway, but now state that this is to allow newly qualified HVs to gain experience. The proof will be in the pudding as to whether it is a true career progression system, or if, as we fear, it is used to control finances and hold people back, particularly those who speak out.’

What this victory means

Now though, members are able to take up the upgraded contracts and increased pay.

Steve adds: ‘The council has made an unlimited number of Grade 10 HV positions available and our members have taken them up where they have wanted to, with the majority doing so. What that means is that, depending where they were in the Agenda for Change gradings, they will receive a pay uplifts of between £2000 and £6000 along with future increases in line with council contract employees.

‘The improvements to transitional pay result in quite a significant amount for our members and all employees will be able to move through the incremental pay awards in the normal way as they would have under Agenda for Change contracts.’

Of the members involved in the latest strike action, many of those who applied were fast-tracked to the Grade 10 posts, but a significant number have left or are departing to take up alternative employment within nursing.

Don’t stop now

Jane at Unite says: ‘The council has lost some of its most experienced HVs, which could have been avoided, and even now the action is concluding, there are some who are leaving because they don’t want to work for a council which wouldn’t listen to their concerns. This hasn’t been an easy process, and this council has been difficult to work with due to their culture and the constant moving of goalposts.’

Unite has pledged that it will explore avenues to get those still on Grade 9 uplifted to Grade 10 as soon as possible. Steve says: ‘This is a massive success for our members – the Grade 10 positions were clearly not available before industrial action – the only reason our members are moving onto Grade 10 contracts is because of the action they have taken.

‘It has been very difficult for our members – but they have been fantastic and achieved a great result - we are finally moving forward.’

As ever, Unite will ‘continue to work with and challenge employers where there is a belief that our members want to take issues forward on pay terms and conditions,’ says Steve.

‘The relationship with LCC has been difficult and the industrial action taken by our members came out of the blue and was a complete surprise for the council to have to deal with. Hopefully we will be able to work more constructively together in the future.’

The bigger picture

The repercussions of this unprecedented action go further than the county boundaries, and beyond this specific dispute, Jane says. In ‘enacting the values of health visiting’, this indomitable group in Lincolnshire have ‘rejuvenated other HVs and shown them that you can and should stand up and speak out’, she adds.

Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe, Unite national officer for health, agrees: ‘What they have done is really inspirational, not just for HVs, but other health professionals all across the country – they stood together, they fought and they won.

‘It is a signal to other public health nursing employers that HVs won’t be easily rolled over – you can stand up against these vicious cuts to the service you provide. It wasn’t easy, it’s taken its toll on them personally, on their families and professionally. Many Lincolnshire HVs have sought employment elsewhere as a result.

‘We will continue to fight for safe staffing levels and to restore commissioning rights to NHS from local authorities. The message to HVs, school nurses and community nursery nurses is - it’s worth fighting for your services. The CPHVA, your professional officers, your regional officers and your national officers are there to support you. When we all stand together, we can win – the Lincolnshire HVs have proven that.’

  • If you are concerned about the condition of your contracts or any of the issues raised here, discuss it with your local Unite representative or office.