10 October, 2011 | By Steve Ford NURSING TIMES

The Nursing and Midwifery Council has issued a statement “clarifying” its position on industrial action, after unions threatened the regulator with legal proceedings.

The NMC confirmed today that nurses could take industrial action without breaching the nursing code of conduct, highlighting that it was the primary function of employers to provide sufficient cover for staff taking part in official protests. But it reminded nurses that sharing information with staff covering their roles was “especially important” in such situations.

It follows a row with unions last week, sparked when the NMC issued a press release telling nurses they “must ensure that patient safety is not compromised by industrial action”. It warned nurses they would
“need to consider very carefully the impact of their actions on the people receiving their care”, or risk placing their registration in jeopardy.

The union Unison responded by threatening the NMC with legal action, accusing the regulator of being “heavy handed” and arguing that official industrial action would not be in breach of the code. In a response statement today, NMC chief executive and registrar Dickon Weir-Hughes said: “We recognise that many  nurses and midwives are members of trade unions and respect their democratic right to express support for their trade unions and to lobby on a wide range of issues.

“This does of course include their right to support and take part in strike action. The NMC respects those rights and wishes to confirm this in response to questions from Unison as to its position.” He added that the NMC “naturally has concerns as to the impact of any industrial action on patients” but said he recognised it was “primarily the responsibility of employers to ensure there is adequate cover in the event of any such lawful industrial action”.

“The code does not prohibit nurses and midwives from taking part in lawful industrial action but they remain, as regulated professionals, subject to their professional obligations under the code,”

Professor Weir-Hughes said. “In particular we remind nurses and midwives that the requirements to
share information with colleagues will continue to apply even after industrial action has started; while the duty to keep clear and accurate records becomes especially important where it is understood
that alternative cover is to be provided.”

Unison said it welcomed what it described as a “significant climb down” by the NMC. General secretary Dave Prentis said: “We are pleased they have accepted that the code of conduct in no way stops nurses and midwives from taking lawful industrial action.

“We will still be seeking answers from the NMC about what was behind this heavy handed and threatening statement.”

Unison has responded by saying it does not now plan to take legal action against the NMC.

Unions including Unison, Unite and the GMB are preparing to ballot members on holding a “day of action” on 30 November 2011 in protest at the changes to public sector pensions. Unison began polling its members today.

The Royal College of Nursing and the British Medical Association have opted not to ballot members but have said they support the day of action.