Heather Wakefield 03 July 2008

Money’s too tight to mention

As we head for strike action over the local government pay settlement, Heather Wakefield asks why the sector is not showing how much it values its staff
Industrial storm clouds are gathering once again over NJC pay negotiations.
Strike action hovers over this year’s offer, and is set to kick off in July, unless a fairer deal is done.
Not a scenario that fits with the Government, the LGA or Unison’s own vision for public services. Our members would prefer to get on with the important jobs they do in a neighbourhood near you and, doubtless, the Government and the employers would like that too. Unison certainly would.
So, why is it happening? Unison and Unite members have voted to strike over the latest in 10 long years of below-inflation pay awards. This time it’s 2.45% for the majority of the 1.5 million-strong NJC workforce, and an additional £100 for the 230,000 on the bottom three pay points, giving them 3.3%.
If that doesn’t sound too bad, given the Government’s unfair public sector pay policy, then consider this…
The bottom rate for NJC employees is £6 an hour. That’s by far the lowest across the public sector. Compare that with £6.29 for police support staff, £6.62 in higher education from October, £6.81 in further education if the recent 3.2% across-the-board offer is accepted, and £6.84 in probation.
Meanwhile, the lowest rate for NHS cleaning and catering workers is £6.40, although the majority earn more than £7, through Agenda For Change increments. This inequality in pay between our members and other public sector groups ripples right through the pay structure.
Three-quarters of the workforce are women. Yet, while the gender pay is closing slowly through single status, it remains stubbornly above 30% between women working part-time – more than half of NJC employees – and men in full-time jobs, leaving them out of pocket.
Conditions are also poor, with annual leave barely above the statutory minimum and parental rights trailing other public sector groups. Inadequate fuel allowances are hitting our members, required to use their cars for work, hard.
At the same time, the emphasis from the Government and the LGA alike is, rightly, on joined-up local services. The latest Local Government Act places a duty on other service providers to co-operate with councils, and there will be sensible joint planning over social care with primary care trusts. Local area agreements will deliver the joined-up vision and help councils ‘shape the place’.
So, is it surprising that local government workers feel that their work and they themselves are not valued? Can you blame them for thinking their contribution is deemed less valuable than those they work alongside in evolving partnership working?
Despite being at the heart of councils’ markedly-improved performance since 1997, the message for 10 years has been that they really are the public sector’s poor relations. This year’s offer – below even the Government’s cheating CPI inflation measure – rubs that message in.
I know that’s not a view held by most local government employers. So why the poor treatment? Some local government settlements may have been less Scrooge-like than in the past, but local government finance arrangements, pressure to keep council tax down and annual efficiency savings have left money for employees apparently too tight to mention.
Unlike Agenda For Change, single status has not been funded, leaving councils strapped for cash. Pressure to privatise leaves many wrongly thinking that they could do it cheaper and better through contractors. Last – but not least – the mantra is ‘Services before staff’, so rewarding our members’ hard work comes way down the priority list.
But our members are local government services. Children, the elderly, the frail and the homeless are served by hard-working employees with years of dedicated service, who use personal resources of care, patience and skill to nurture, protect and innovate.
Behind them are thousands more who quietly oil the local works. Without our members, there is no service, there is no improvement. No machine can replace them. So, while efficiency savings exceeded the target by more than £1bn last year, our members struggle to make ends meet, councils face widespread staffing problems and use expensive, transient agency staff to plug the gaps.
It doesn’t make sense.
Joined-up public services should mean equality in public sector pay and conditions. The employers agree, the Government can afford it. You know it makes sense.
Heather Wakefield is head of local government at Unison
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