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Strike action is looming in the NHS after four unions voted to reject the 3 per cent offer made to 300,000 staff not covered by pay review bodies.

The votes reflect what one union leader described as 'growing discrimination' in the health service between pay review body staff and the rest. The offer was made in June, months after nurses and professions allied to medicine had been offered an average increase of 4.7 per cent. Non-pay review body staff had been pressing for parity, in line with practice over the previous three years.

Three of the four unions included a question in their consultative ballots asking members whether they would be prepared to take industrial action if they rejected the offer.

NHS Confederation human resources chair Andrew Foster said he hoped that there would be no strike action because 'action by any group of employees in the NHS causes great distress to patients and other groups of staff'.

He added that unions were questioning the underlying fairness of the system, which was something the talks on a new NHS pay system were trying to address.

The offer to non-pay review body staff was only slightly less than the award to doctors, he said. It was not fair to compare the offer with the nurses' award because there were not the same recruitment problems with other staff.

GMB members voted 10-1 to reject the offer, while Unison members were against by a 'wide margin'. Maintenance staff belonging to the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union voted by 60 per cent to reject the offer.

Health union MSF was due to announce the results of its ballot today, but members rejected the offer by 4-1 in a 50 per cent poll. This was described by national secretary Roger Kline as a 'heavy' turnout.

All four unions are now seeking to reopen talks with the NHS Executive.

But there is little sign of movement because the government believes a higher offer would distort the allocation of resources agreed in the comprehensive spending review.

The Department of Health issued a statement regretting the unions' decision to reject the offer, which was 'fair and reasonable in the current economic climate and well ahead of the headline inflation rate of 1.3 per cent'.

MSF will be meeting tomorrow to decide 'what form of action, if any', to take.

If the union decides to go ahead with a ballot over industrial action, it is likely to campaign for a 'yes' vote.

Unison national health secretary Paul Marks said he would be asking the union's industrial committee to organise a ballot on strike action.

GMB national officer Brian Strutton said he would be seeking to reopen talks and, if that was refused, to see health secretary Frank Dobson in a bid to persuade the government to put more money into the offer.

Geoff Whitlow, national officer of the AEEU, said maintenance staff 'didn't reject the 3 per cent as such' because 'in terms of inflation, it is not a bad deal'.

'What they did reject was the differential compared with the 4.7 per cent to pay review body staff,' he said.

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