The much-trumpeted opening of talks on the government's proposed pay system for the NHS ended in shambles last week, with no agreed statement or date for further talks.

Although all management and union bodies attended the meeting, no progress was possible because the staff side was unable to present an agreed line.

Unison deputy head of health Paul Marks told staff-side representatives beforehand that he had no mandate to take part in the talks because his union's health policy committee had not yet considered the government's proposals.

That committee was due to meet this week.

The opening of the talks had been announced by health secretary Frank Dobson as heralding a new system that would let staff 'give their best for patients' and pay them 'fairly for work done, with better career progression'.

Its timing was intended to allow NHS human resources director Hugh Taylor to report initial progress at a major conference in Birmingham next week.

But the hold-up meant no decisions could be made on who will serve on various working parties to examine detailed proposals for the new pay system, set out in the consultation document Agenda for Change.

Mr Marks said he 'did not find it at all embarrassing' that the meeting had ended without any progress.

He said the government's proposals were 'flawed' and lacked internal coherence, particularly over the proposed three pay spines and how to ensure equal value.

Managers' leaders said the non-outcome was 'disappointing' but remained optimistic that the talks would be resumed this week after a staff-side meeting.

Royal College of Nursing employment relations director Stephen Griffin said that the lack of consensus among the staff side showed 'what a huge challenge' the pay proposals were.

More time was needed because of the complexity of the proposals, he added.

The meeting was presented with an 18-page draft document, NHS Pay Modernisation: mapping the way forward, which elaborates on the proposals in the consultation document.

It proposes seven separate areas of national discussion, covering job evaluation, pay spines and pay progression, conditions of service, the consultants' contract, good human resources practice and implementing change.

Talks involving a management side team of four to six members and a staff- side team of approximately the same size are expected to start in April and continue 'intensively' until July.

The aim is to conclude by September, with a firm agreement setting out the main features of the new system.

The timetables set for the working parties are longer, with an agreed job evaluation system not expected until April 2001.

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