Published: 24/10/2002, Volume II2, No. 5828 Page 6 7

The annual pay review process has been put on hold a second time - and oral evidence sessions have been cancelled - in a bid to allow joint evidence to be submitted when the Agenda for Change talks on a new pay system conclude.

The review process was first delayed in September amid expectation that the negotiations were about to finish. But although the Department of Health and union negotiators are now signalling an end to the four-year talks 'in the next month', key issues are still outstanding, including - crucially - the level of funding for the new system.

Correspondence seen by HSJ shows that the nursing and allied professions pay review body proposed cancelling the evidence sessions called for 5 and 19 November following a letter to review body chair Professor Clive Booth jointly signed by NHS head of pay Ben Dyson, joint staffside chair Paul Marks and joint staffside secretary John Humphreys.

The joint letter states that management and staffside aim to conclude the Agenda for Change talks 'with an agreement that will be presented as joint evidence to the review bodies later in the autumn'.

It also reveals that health ministers have been directly involved in meetings with the unions.

But it says an Agenda for Change deal is 'unlikely' before early November and suggests that joint evidence could be presented to the review body 'around the final week of November'.

Unions have stressed that the review body will need to make an award for 2003 as, with the exception of around 15 early-implementer sites, NHS staff pay will not be affected by Agenda for Change until 2004.

But the new delay means it is unclear whether the review body will be able to complete its work in time for an award to be paid to staff in April.

A review body spokesperson said this week: 'That will not be known until negotiations are complete and we start to talk about what the timetable will be.

If There is an agreement, it can all proceed quite quickly.

'What becomes a problem is if negotiations are stalled and things get squeezed.'

Josie Irwin, staffside and joint secretary of the nursing and midwifery staffs negotiating council, said: 'We always knew that things could get complicated as Agenda for Change reached its conclusion and We are optimistic that the results for nurses will be good.

There is not an issue for us about the change of dates, which we are pragmatic about.'

But Amicus research and policy officer Colin Adkins said: 'I am highly sceptical that We are going to reach agreement in November.

There are around 60 drafting differences in the agreement - and That is without pay, where we still do not know the size of the funding envelope. We can have an equal pay-proof system, but without investment [to fund pay levels] all it will do is reorder misery in the NHS.'He added: 'If the conclusion looks remote, we should proceed with the review process as normal.'

And Royal College of Midwives negotiator Jon Skewes told delegates at last week's Association of Healthcare Human Resource Managers conference that there was still contention over 'gateways' to assess staff before they could progress within pay bands.

'Unions remain to be convinced that the normal system of incremental progression is not better.'

He later told HSJ: 'We would have to be absolutely clear that the vast majority of our members would make progress from the bottom to the top [of pay bands], that It is not going to rationed and it will be properly funded.'