Published: 11/07/2002, Volume II2, No.5813 Page 6

Health secretary Alan Milburn has laid down an ultimatum threatening to resume transfer of support staff in private finance initiative schemes unless Unison's health service group executive votes to accept the 'retention of employment' (RoE) model now being piloted.

A question mark was raised over the fate of the retention model and its extension to all PFI projects when delegates to the union's health conference in May voted to condemn their service group executive for agreeing to the terms of three pilot schemes.

Delegates were particularly concerned that the deal would still mean staff from groups other than five protected trades - cleaning, catering, laundry, portering and security - being transferred to the private sector, and that although at least 85 per cent of staff in the protected groups would remain NHS employees, supervisory staff would be transferred.

Since the conference, Unison leaders had written to Mr Milburn looking to re-open negotiations with the government over the terms of the deal and seeking assurances that it would not be extended nationally.

But in a letter to union assistant general secretary Bob Abberley, Mr Milburn said: 'If Unison are unable to vote in favour of RoE, in the absence of any other agreed policy within the government, I will be forced to revert to the old policy of the TUPE [Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment)] transfer of all staff in order to start signing the many outstanding PFI projects.'

Mr Milburn cites the government's manifesto commitment - to 'seek ways in which, within the framework of PFI management, support staff could remain part of the NHS team' - but adds: 'There are no further changes that can be made to the RoE model.'

Mr Milburn also set a deadline for 'a final response by Unison on the RoE model' for 24 July. The union is consulting its regional health committees on two options: to accept RoE as 'the best achievable by negotiations' for those PFI sites where the union has failed to secure a public capital scheme or exclusion of staff from PFI; or to embark on industrial action - including strikes - 'in every PFI site possible' to prevent staff transfer or to secure the best-possible terms under TUPE employment protection rules.

Unison national officer Jon Richards said: 'He's put it to us straight. It gives members a clear choice.' The service group executive would meet to discuss the consultation results and its response to Mr Milburn on 23 July, he said.

But left-wing union activists are enraged by Mr Milburn's ultimatum. A leaflet signed by eight leftwingers on the service group executive said the union should 'reject New Labour bullying', uphold 'conference democracy' and tell the government 'that we will organise many Dudleys [home to one of the NHS's longest-running strikes] if they do not come back to the negotiating table and agree to keep all staff in the NHS'.