Nurses face 3-year pay deal

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INFORMAL, but high-level talks are under way between ministers and union leaders in an attempt to thrash out long-term pay deals covering up to five million public-sector workers.

The contacts follow the announcement by the Chancellor of a strict, three- year expenditure plan, which is intended to help the Government meet the 2.5 per cent inflation target.

Ministers have been warned already, however, that public servants are unlikely to agree to their pay being fixed for up to three years without some guarantee that it is proofed against inflation. Some employees' representatives have argued for an "inflation-plus" guarantee which would mean that considerable savings would have to be made through efficiency measures.

Initiatives for long-term agreements have come from Frank Dobson, Secretary of State for Health and David Blunkett, the Education Secretary. The Department of Trade and Industry is also known to be interested.

The Department of Health wants nurses and ancillary staff to sign up to a three-year deal starting next March, while education ministers want teachers and all back-up staff to sign up to a two-year agreement.

If the two departments manage to strike a deal it would cover 1.3 million employees, but senior managers responsible for local authorities and civil service agencies are also known to be interested in the idea.

As part of his public expenditure package Gordon Brown announced that the terms of reference of pay review bodies, which cover employees from senior military personnel to teachers, would now have to take into account "affordability". He also devolved responsibility for pay to the individual ministers concerned.

There are significant hurdles to be surmounted particularly in the health service where the GMB general union and public service union Unison are keen to address the long-standing disparities between the pay of men and women.

Both unions are keen to avoid litigation under equal pay law, but employees' leaders believe that tens of thousands of women have the right to claim parity with men on the basis that while they may be in different jobs they perform work of equal value.

Elsewhere trade unionists are blaming the Government's anti-inflation policy for forcing people on to short time working and then making it more difficult to claim benefit.

There is evidence that the state is taking a tougher attitude to claims for Jobseekers' Allowance made by workers who are laid off for short periods.

The Department of Social Security has rejected applications from workers who had been granted the benefit in the past, according to Duncan Edwards, a senior official of the GMB.

Francis Maude, Tory spokesman on Treasury affairs, argued yesterday that there were increasing signs of a rising toll of such lay-offs and redundancies in the year ahead.

"The introduction of the national minimum wage and the business costs associated with signing up to the European social chapter will be kicking in at precisely the wrong moment."