Managers' leaders have slammed as 'catastrophic' the 10 per cent pay claim by Unison on behalf of 256,000 NHS staff not covered by pay review bodies.

NHS Confederation human resources chair Andrew Foster said the claim was 'not affordable'. The NHS was funded for inflation at 2.75 per cent next year, but the pressures on the service were so great that anything above inflation would mean spending cuts, he added.

'The higher the pay award, the more we are forced to reduce the numbers of staff. Ten per cent would be absolutely disastrous.'

Unison national officer Yvonne Cleary denied the claim was unreasonable.

'We can easily justify more than 10 per cent for ancillary workers, who are among the poorest paid groups in the country,' she said. 'It is a national scandal that NHS staff are expected to struggle and survive on such poverty wages.'

The claim, which covers 66,000 ancillary staff, 150,000 administrative and clerical staff and 40,000 professional and technical staff, coincides with new figures showing that average earnings are rising at 4.75 per cent.

The government has said it is determined to control public sector pay this year. Health secretary Frank Dobson told nurses last year: 'Times are hard and settlements will be tight.'

The NHS Executive said it would resist 'unreasonable' claims but would take a 'fair approach to public sector pay'. The need to recruit, retain and motivate staff would be taken into account in settlements.

Unison said the government should enter 'a new era of co-operation by restoring hope and dignity' to ancillary and other NHS workers.

Its claim includes a call for a minimum wage of pounds4.61 per hour, compared with current basic rates for non-supervisory ancillary staff of between pounds3.46 and pounds4.14 an hour. The claim also calls for the working week to be cut from 39 to 35 hours without loss of pay, and an increase in annual leave from four to six weeks.

Ms Cleary said: 'The NHS could not operate without the dedication and commitment of its long-suffering ancillary staff. After years of wage discrimination and disadvantage, many of this predominantly female workforce are now at breaking point, trying to balance the demands of their job and struggling to survive on poverty pay and chronic conditions.'

A Unison survey of 3,300 NHS employees last week showed that only one in 10 feel well paid, with widespread support for a minimum wage - including from 81 per cent of managers.

Nearly half of managers surveyed worked more than four hours' overtime every week without pay. And more than half reported frequent staff shortages in their work areas, mainly because of staff sickness.

Nearly nine out of 10 staff reported increased stress levels, while a quarter of managers were worried about their jobs.