A Department of Health shake-up of NHS senior managers’ salaries will only go through if it can be shown not to push up their overall pay bill.

A pre-tender document for the project, aimed at helping primary care and ambulance trusts attract and keep talented staff, says a “key criterion” of any change will be keeping cost stable.

The DH document says: “The aim is not to increase pay, but to link pay more clearly to job weight.”

It may result in “modest” increases for some but this would be offset elsewhere.

In November HSJ reported many employers were fudging and gaming the rules to overcome strict pay bands, pegged to job titles and organisations’ served population (news, page 7, 6 November).

In particular, widespread and excessive use of recruitment and retention premiums is resulting in large pay variation for similar jobs between organisations.

NHS Employers previously said the framework was “incompatible” with PCTs’ need to attract and retain talent to meet world class commissioning demands.

The job evaluation programme the DH is planning to tender for would allocate a score to very senior manager roles then model cost changes to ensure no overall increase.

Work is not expected to begin until the autumn, significantly later than earlier calls for it to be in place for 2009-10.

Jon Restell, chief executive of union Managers in Partnership, said: “Obviously we are disappointed with that but if this is to be a serious study, in the current [economic and political] climate, a steady approach might be sensible.”

He said members were “realistic” and not expecting significant increases to be approved.

However, if the evaluation includes comparing salaries with similar roles in other markets, “cost neutrality may be a hard line to maintain”, Mr Restell said.