Heather Wakefield 30 January 2008

Give us more than carrots

It’s time public service workers were paid their worth, says Heather Wakefield
While police officers march on Parliament to protest at the ‘staging’ of their 2.5% arbitration award, negotiations are about to start on this year’s award to local government workers covered by the National Joint Council.
A thunderous air of discontent rumbles around Unison, the TUC and other public service unions, over the Government’s policy of keeping public sector pay awards consistent with a 2% inflation target.
Economists, everywhere, agree that public sector workers – around one-fifth of the labour force – are not responsible for inflation. Students who suggest so in exams will be failed, say professors of economics.
Pay increases follow cost-of-living indices, not create them. No-one disputes that spiralling housing and fuel costs underpinnned last year’s 4%-plus RPI figures.
The Government’s preferred measure of inflation – CPI – excludes housing costs and council tax. Unison members, generally, don’t live in tents or caves, and aren’t exempt from council tax, so there’s no apparent reason why CPI should determine their pay increases. Private sector negotiations are based on the RPI.
The trade unions’ claim for NJC pay in 2008-9 is short and sweet – an increase of 6% or 50p an hour on all pay points, whichever is the greater. We see a minimum rate of £6.50 an hour as modest, and a vital step towards a minimum living wage of £6.75. We want to make up for real cuts of 2% in NJC pay in 2007-8, and keep up with predicted inflation over the coming year. Recent price rises of up to 18% in domestic fuel have led some to suggest that RPI could reach 5% – economic slowdown, or not.
The key indicators for NJC pay are good. As the Local Government Employers pointed out last year, our members have made a huge contribution to the improvement in councils’ performance. In 2006, 79% of single-tier and county councils in England achieved three and four-star CPA ratings – 9% up on 2005, and light years away from the situation in 1997.
Not a single council now lurks in the bottom, ‘no star’ category. This could not have happened without the dedication and skill of our members.
The pay and conditions of other public sector workers becomes increasingly relevant as more and more joined-up service delivery mechanisms involving council employees are established.
The Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act will, rightly, require co-operation between public authorities. At Unison, we believe this should mean equity in pay and conditions across the public sector. At present, there’s anything but. NJC workers are the lowest paid of all – barring those in sixth form colleges.
The starting rate in local government is £11,577 a year. This compares with £12,773 in higher education, and £12,137 for police support staff. Before the 2008 award, NHS rates begin at £12,182. However, most NHS catering and cleaning staff are at the top of band 1, earning £13,253 because of incremental progression under Agenda for Change.
These differences are neither a recipe for harmonious industrial relations or productive partnership working.
The local government pay and workforce strategy – led by CLG and the IDeA – wants ‘high-performance, citizen-centred, skilled and motivated staff, who are proud to be local public service workers’. So does Unison. Yet the very same strategy ignores the shortfall in pay and conditions facing NJC employees, and calls for reductions in the pay bill.
The sums just don’t add up. Between 2005 and 2007, local government in England alone delivered more than £3bn in efficiency savings. That sum is predicted to rise to £4.25bn by March this year – almost £1bn more than the saving required by the Government.
It is time some of those savings were invested in the workforce – a precious asset which has delivered for councils – not just a cost factor to be constantly squeezed. n
Heather Wakefield is head of local government at Unison
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