Mileage Rates – Why it Matters

Whilst pay is important and a core part of NIPSA’s dispute, it’s time to highlight the issue of AFC mileage rates for HSC staff because this has become a critical issue for a large section of our membership and something that was put to members when they were balloted in November 2022.

Firstly, let’s go back to when Agenda for Change was introduced in 2004. It is NIPSA’s view there has always been a disparity for NI health workers on AFC mileage rates. Before AFC, many NIPSA members were on NJC Terms and Conditions and the mileage arrangements then meant a lump sum payment on top of their mileage rate. But the main issue was the under NJC mileage rates you stayed at the top rate for the first 9000 miles (now we believe it’s 10,000 miles).

When AFC was introduced, this changed and many workers moved to the top rate only being payable up to the first 3500 miles after which staff dropped to the lower rate. Currently, AFC members receive 56p per mile, before it drops to 20p per mile. Temporary measures, due mostly to the huge spike in petrol rates last year, were introduced by the then Health Minister Robin Swann MLA to add 10p to the lower rate. At the moment this will end in March 2023 and with no Minister in place it is unclear whether this will be extended. Despite the current drop in fuel prices, paying for petrol/diesel remains a significant cost to HSC workers and it remains a fluctuating market. Irrespective, it is difficult to see fuel prices dropping to below the £1 per litre they were a number of years ago.

AFC mileage rates were largely premised on hospital staff working in the NHS and while some hospital staff will do significant mileage the vast majority don’t. There was no separate arrangement for NI staff despite us having an integrated health and social care system where workers in community settings could undertake very significant mileage as part of their job. At the time Agenda for Change was a national agreement between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with very few localised arrangements (e.g., London rates). It is also important to point out that at the time AFC was introduced many social care staff worked in much smaller community health trusts in our case North and West Belfast and South and East Belfast were separate HSC Trusts, delivering health and social care. But in 2007 this changed to the 5 much larger HSC Trusts that exist today.

The knock-on effect for this was that areas such as the Northern Health and Social Care Trust were geographically much much larger, which meant social care workers, Social Workers and Nurses etc. in particular had many more miles to cover. Whilst Belfast is much smaller than the Northern or Western Health Trusts, we have a bigger problem of ever-increasing traffic congestion. Other factors such as the development of kinship placements and lack of foster carers has seen Social Workers driving significantly longer distances to undertake statutory visits to looked after children. The lack of psychiatric beds has also impacted on Approved Social Workers who are now driving much longer distances as often a bed may only be available many miles away.

The AFC mileage rates have never considered these factors for NI HSC staff as the current rates still apply to all regions equally irrespective of the differences in service provision. The cost-of-living crisis has also had an impact with car wear and tear being so much more expensive to fix compared to a few years ago, and even then, it could be very expensive. Added to this all HSC workers have seen a significant pay cut after years of low pay increases and on occasions non-consolidated one-off payments.

It’s time that the Health Service in NI was viewed differently, and a specific NI rate applied that recognises these differences and in particular our social care element.

District Nursing, Social Work, Domiciliary Care Workers, Social Care Workers are all difficult areas to recruit into partly, in our view, because of the cost associated with running a car. Many workers have reported to NIPSA that they have hit the 3500 threshold within a few months of the new financial year (which begins every April), meaning they are soon out of pocket discharging their duties on behalf of their employer. It also has to be said, some leave because of this.

This has also impacted on recruitment of these grades which in turn means discharges from hospital can take longer, or high mileage areas such as FIT/LAC Social Workers and Contact Workers are difficult to recruit into, meaning further cost of Health Trusts through the use of Agency. Also, HSC staff pay more in car insurance for the work that they do, something that tends to not be recognised.

We need to make jobs attractive to recruit into and never has that applied more than in the HSC. Improving mileage rates is one part of recruiting and retaining valuable staff especially those working in social care, but a very important part.

It is NIPSA’s view that having a regional AFC Mileage rate for NI is urgently required.