The Royal College of Nursing has been accused of being 'insensitive' to its staff, following its decision to cut an agreed pay award for its workforce while negotiating an improved pay package for a new general secretary from the US.

As HSJ went to press, the college had still not heard whether Dr Beverly Malone, who was offered the post of general secretary two weeks ago, will accept the job. It is thought that Dr Malone's lawyers are in negotiation over her contract.

The£90,000-plus salary earned by outgoing general secretary Christine Hancock is one of the highest among union heads and has been the subject of criticism from RCN members in the past.

As negotiations with Dr Malone's lawyers continued, the RCN cut an agreed pay formula, which would have given all staff - including the general secretary - a 5.7 per cent pay rise from 1 April, to 3.2 per cent. The GMB union, which represents many RCN staff, will ballot for strike action if there is no progress on the issue by the end of the month.

GMB organiser Dawn Butler said: 'Cutting staff wages at the same time as negotiating a pay package for a new general secretary is both inconsistent and insensitive.' RCN central Scotland officer and GMB representative Gill Robertson attacked the decision to cut the pay award and said: 'We have some concerns . . . that the pay of the general secretary has been added to.'

But RCN director of personnel Christopher Cardwell said the 5.7 per cent pay rise was 'simply not affordable' and there was an understanding that the 'methods ofdetermining annual salary increases' could therefore be revisited.

While 'on-message' RCN members welcomed the news of the offer to Dr Malone, there is still underlying concern about the method in which the job was offered. David Rye, vice-chair of Bournewood trust, a fellow of the RCN and visiting professor at Southbank University, has resigned his posts with the college as a mark of protest at the appointments procedure.

He was convenor of the RCN Fellows, a member of the finance committee and of the RCN Institute board of governors. 'I've resigned on a matter of principle, ' he said. 'It was politically naive to appoint someone from the US. I find it unbelievable we can't appoint from the UK.'