Published: 05/12/2002, Volume112 No. 5834 Page 4 5

Crucial information that will allow 1 million NHS staff to find out whether they lose or gain from the Agenda for Change pay system has yet to be finalised, despite the Department of Health's claim that talks had been 'successfully concluded' last week.

The key outstanding issue is finalising around 200 job profiles that will determine where individual staff slot into the eight new pay bands. Drafts were still under discussion between unions and employers this week.

Royal College of Midwives head of employment relations Jon Skewes said: 'It is not a deal or an agreement yet because the critical thing we have to do is finalise all the job profiles, because that shows where people actually go [on the new pay bands].'

Amicus research and policy officer Colin Adkins said jobs at higher levels of practice or with a high level of pre-entry qualifications 'appear to be not properly reflected in the job evaluation scheme at the moment'. This includes senior speech and language therapists and pharmacists.

HSJ understands other elements of the package are still under negotiation, including 'gateways' that would allow staff to progress through the pay bands after an assessment of knowledge and skills, rather than automatically.

One source said talks had shifted away from a 'closed gate', where staff faced a significant hurdle before they could progress. 'In the past few days [it has changed to] an fiopen gatefl, where managers would have to push it closed and say why and what sort of training they are going to offer so staff can progress, ' he said.

Papers seen by HSJ show that the gateway clause was included in the document at the last minute.

Managers' leaders paid tribute to what negotiations had achieved.

NHS Confederation human resources policy manager Alastair Henderson said: 'It is important to acknowledge the achievement it has been. This is the largest pay restructuring ever in this country, and probably anywhere. It shows you can have partnership-working in the health service.' But he added:

'It is clearly a huge task understanding what the implications are.'

Association of Healthcare HR Management president Elaine Way said: 'AHHRM sees Agenda for Change as a win-win situation. It will facilitate new ways of working to support service modernisation and it will fairly reward staff for gaining and applying new skills.'

But she said there would be 'huge challenges' for managers and HR professionals to ensure systems were in place to support implementation.

And professor of health employment research at Queen Margaret University College Edinburgh James Buchan warned that successfully implementing the system would take 'years, not months'.

'It is not a political timetable any more. Now, timing depends on organisational capacity. The key issue is communication, getting the full message out and explaining to individual staff what it will mean for them... The announcement on Thursday was characterised by confusion as the deal is complex and all the details have not been clarified.'

Tension has also been stirred by the perceived 'over hyping' of potential pay rises. One source said: 'We are concerned at spin the Department of Health is putting on Agenda for Change. They and the British Medical Association had their fingers burned when the [proposed consultants' contract] was hyped too heavily.'

Unison's health service group executive, angered by comparisons between NHS pay modernisation and the firefighters'dispute, passed a resolution saying 'it would not be appropriate' to consult on the Agenda for Change until the firefighters' dispute was resolved.

Royal College of Nursing head of employment relations John Humphreys said the response of a stewards' conference this week 'was positive but people will want to get their heads around it'.

A DoH spokesperson said the start of consultation was 'a matter for the unions', but material to support consultation would be 'available by January'. It would include the full text of the proposed agreement, a terms and conditions handbook, knowledge and skills framework and job evaluation scheme, including 'the initial set of nationally evaluated job profiles'.

Twelve early implementers to pilot the scheme will start work in the spring.

ltash. shifrin@emap. com See comment, page 17;

politics, page 19.