Published: 20/06/2002, Volume II2, No.5810 Page 7

The consultants' deal has sparked anger and frustration among other NHS staff unions, with both the scale of the doctors' rise and the timing - while Agenda for Change pay modernisation talks are stalled - provoking criticism.

Health secretary Alan Milburn said the consultants' pay rise - 10 per cent over three years - would be extended 'to other staff in exchange for reforms in their contracts'. But unions have been waiting for weeks for the government to make an initial proposal on the new grading structure for NHS staff and for funding commitments to 'unlock' the Agenda for Change talks. The cost of the consultants' package - around£310m - is more than 10 per cent of the£3bn that the Royal College of Nursing has estimated would be needed to fund the Agenda for Change pay modernisation over three years.

An announcement on Agenda for Change is expected soon, possibly at the 'HR in the NHS' conference on 1-2 July. Unison lead negotiator Paul Marks said this week: 'It will be pretty poor if It is not out by the HR conference.'

But he added: 'It should come to the unions first.'

RCN acting employment relations director John Humphreys said: 'In terms of nurses and other health service staff, they will be very angry if the most highly paid staff group are treated more generously than them in Agenda for Change.'

Mr Humphreys added: 'This is unhelpful in terms of negotiating a package for other staff. It clearly comes across as treating medical staff differently from other workers, when the thrust of the HR strategy and government policy has been about multidisciplinary working.'

He was concerned about the implications of the three-year deal, because it was 'predicated on the overall package for consultants', while for other staff 'we do not know what the offer is'.

The deal also 'places a question mark on the role of the pay review bodies', Mr Humphreys added.

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said the consultants' new starting salary 'raises the benchmark for NHS pay'. But it was 'ridiculous' to talk about extending the three-year deal to other staff before a new structure had been negotiated.

Mr Marks added: 'It is very frustrating that we do not yet have an offer. We can't make much more progress until some sort of proposed structure is put on the table.We have been waiting for that for a while. The Budget statement included a spending settlement for the next three years. We thought that would unlock the talks. But it hasn't so far.'

Royal College of Midwives general secretary Dame Karlene Davis said: 'We now expect to see a comparable investment in other NHS staff, including midwives, for whom low pay is still a major reason for leaving the profession.'