Midwives halt ballot as chiefs agree to talks

Royal College of Nursing annual conference

Midwives yesterday suspended their threatened ballot on industrial action after health chiefs agreed to 11th hour talks on pay, writes Barrie Clement.

Health ministers have given the green light for the exploratory talks to be held next week, the Royal College of Midwives said.

The general secretary of the college, Julia Allison, said: "The ballot has been suspended for the time being."

Ballot papers on industrial action short of a strike were ready to be sent to the RCM's 30,000 members within days, a spokesman said.

In March midwives voted overwhelmingly to overturn their 115-year no- strike policy after the Government offered them the same 1 per cent and local pay negotiation as nurses.

Meanwhile, relations between ministers and leaders of the Royal College of Nursing deteriorated further in the wake of a Government threat to abolish the nurse's review body.

Christine Hancock, general secretary of the college, yesterday delivered her formal reply to an open letter from the Health Minister, Gerald Malone, which she described as "offensive".

The minister had threatened on Wednesday to scrap the pay body after the RCN voted to recommend abolition of its rule banning industrial action.

In his letter Mr Malone rejected the union's contention that limited disruption to the health service's financial system would not hurt patients.

Ms Hancock told the minister he was right to acknowledge the power that nurses now had to disrupt administrative tasks. However, RCN members understood their patients. "It is this understanding that will enable nurses to take action without ever harming a patient. Nurses practice their profession to prevent and alleviate pain, not to cause it, and for you to suggest otherwise is offensive."

It was unacceptable that nurses' pay should be singled out for different treatment. Doctors were balloting on industrial action, but their review body was not under threat. And a review body system was imposed on teachers despite strike action.

Ms Hancock said she was therefore at a loss to understand the Government's reasoning.

She told the minister she thought nurses' "outrage" at the Government's handling of pay had reached its peak when they voted to rescind the no industrial action rule. However, the letter from Mr Malone had caused further fury which led to an overwhelming vote of no confidence in him on Wednesday.

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