UNION officials have gone into “crunch talks” with the firm contracted to provide support services at The Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle in a last-ditch attempt to avert a strike.

More than 150 porters, cleaners, catering and switchboard staff have backed a walk-out next week over a pay-deal which Unison and GMB union officials say was agreed more than a decade ago but never paid.

The workers - employed by the private firm Mitie rather than the NHS - were ‘promised’ enhanced pay rates for working unsocial hours.

This is already the arrangement for staff who do similar work but are employed by the NHS.

The Infirmary’s support staff, formerly employed by Interserve but since December by Mitie, have never been given the extra pay for working nights or weekends.

The issue is complicated because Mitie has been contracted to provide services by the PFI company which owns the hospital, HMC (Health Management Carlisle).

The trade unions involved have called for an investigation into the whereabouts of a “substantial sum” of public money that they say was handed over by the trust and was meant to fund the payments for unsocial hours.

Unison said that Mitie, the NHS trust running clinical services at the hospital, and Health Management Carlisle (HMC) were ‘squabbling’ over whose responsibility it was to ensure the hospital support staff get unsocial hours pay.

The union’s North West regional organiser David Atkinson said it was not good enough for the trust to say it handed over a ‘substantial sum’ to HMC to pay unsocial hours without putting anything in place to ensure it happened.

Recent figures showed Mitie’s revenue in the third quarter of the this financial year rose by 6.7% to £574m. So the firm could “easily afford” to settle the dispute, said Mr Atkinson.

He added: “We congratulate mega-rich Mitie on their mind-bogglingly high levels of revenue. As Phil Bentley [the firms Chief Executive] acknowledges, this money was made by profiting from the fight against coronavirus.

"Chief executives do not have to put their lives at risk in the UK’s pandemic efforts.

"But hospital cleaners, porters, caterers and switchboard staff do. To add insult to injury for Mitie workers at Cumberland Infirmary, when they work away from their families overnight or at the weekend, they receive less pay than colleagues employed by the NHS who do exactly the same jobs.

“It's these health service heroes who have kept our hospitals clean and safe during the pandemic and it's the same health service heroes who have driven Mitie’s monumental profits.

"The least Mitie could do to reward them is to pay the NHS rates for the job- their recent financial results show that they can easily afford it."

If Mitie pays the money that was promised, added Mr Atkinson, the strike can be averted.

The support staff involved plan two 24-hour strikes on Friday, February 26, and Monday, March 1.

A spokesman for the NHS trust said: “The Trust is working with its PFI provider on this specific matter and is unable to comment further at this time. There is dialogue between the parties in order to manage the situation effectively.

“The parties are working to ensure there is minimal disruption.”

A Mitie spokeswoman said: “This is a longstanding issue, predating our acquisition of Interserve’s facilities management business.

"We are keen to work with all parties involved to reach a swift resolution. We value all our key workers and the critical role they are playing in keeping the UK running during these unprecedented times.”

She added the following points:

* Mitie acquired Interserve's 'support services' division on November 30, 2020, and so had only been privy to this contract for a few months. Interserve’s commercial contract for that work was agreed with HMC and is not equivalent to all Agenda for Change terms.

* The firm is paying the agreed rates and terms in line with the commercial and employment contract. She said it cannot make changes to these terms without agreement from the client.

* She said it was "misleading" to use Q3 revenue figures in isolation. "In our announcement at the end of January, we communicated that revenue to date was down 4% year to date and profit for the full year would be significantly lower than last year."

* She aid the firm operated in a low margin industry, with the majority of our costs being labour. Therefore any decisions to pay staff more must be supported by the client.

Interserve continues to operate as a 'global construction and justice business' and it was only the firm's support services division which was sold to Mitie.