A health minister has branded proposals for NHS workers in the South West to be paid a different rate to counterparts in other parts of the country as "heavy-handed".
Marking a sharp change in the Government's position, Health Minister Daniel Poulter said the Government favoured national pay negotiations, blaming the last Labour government for putting in place measures to allow health trusts to set their own pay and conditions.
NHS trusts and hospitals across the Westcountry have joined the South West Pay Consortium, dubbed a "cartel" by unions, which is reviewing staff terms and conditions.
It could mean changes to pay rates, working hours, annual leave and sickness leave entitlement.
Unions fear staff could suffer pay cuts or be forced to sign new contracts and believe the proposals could make it harder to recruit and retain staff.
Ministers have been unwilling to interfere since the proposals emerged this summer, and have been at pains to point out that it is a decision for local NHS bosses to make.
Conservative Dr Poulter was questioned about the consortium during health questions in the House of Commons yesterday.
In response to questions from Scottish Labour MP William Bain, who claimed regional pay could "destroy the national character of our health service", the minister said that there was a general agreement that national pay should be maintained.
Dr Poulter said: "We have had encouraging results from national pay negotiations at the recent NHS Staff Council, and unions are to consult their members on those results.
"There is general agreement that we need to maintain national pay frameworks, provided they are fit for purpose.
"I hope my honourable friend will find that the South West Pay Consortium, which has been somewhat heavy-handed in the way that it has conducted its affairs, also sees the benefit of maintaining national pay frameworks.
"That is why we would like to see a quick resolution of the matter at a national level."
Some confusion surrounds whether ministers can intervene, with claims the consortium is using powers created by the Conservatives in the 1990s, which are subject to veto by the Secretary of State, rather than more recent Labour legislation.
The consortium has said it will draw up a business case by the end of the year.
NHS bosses point out the service is under pressure from the biggest efficiency drive in its entire history, with trusts expected to have found at least £20 billion in savings by 2015.
The South West grouping includes organisations running hospitals in Plymouth, Exeter and Truro. Twenty trusts were signed up but the Bournemouth and Christchurch NHS Foundation Trust recently withdrew.
Chris Bown, chairman of the consortium, said: "We have stated from the outset our willingness to engage with staff representatives, and that we support national, fit for purpose pay structures.
"This means supporting trusts in continuing to provide the depth and breadth of services we currently offer, as well as increased job security for our staff. A recent survey by the Foundation Trust Network found that, nationally, an overwhelming majority of trusts share this desire.
"The consortium was established to face up to the very real and serious challenges that exist in providing health services and secure employment, at a time when options to meet these challenges are increasingly limited.
"The consortium published, in an open and transparent way earlier this year, ideas looking at how pay, terms and conditions may be amended. I accept some of these ideas may be seen as controversial. However as responsible employers I believe it is right that we examine in detail our area of greatest spend."