Local government remuneration: it’s time to pay up

10 Jul 17

Concern about public sector pay limits has focused on NHS and emergency service workers. But pay for more than a million school and council workers has been kept down for longer and it’s time for things to change

It’s hard to see why local government and school support workers should face a further 2.7% cut in basic pay next April when their current two-year pay deal comes to an end. But another big cut it will certainly be, if the government’s 1% public sector pay cap is not scrapped.

Inflation is currently at 3.7% and forecast to remain above 3% up to 2021. With damning evidence on pay and conditions since 2009, the unions’ claim for the Foundation Living Wage rate at the bottom rate and a 5% increase for all from April 2018 is modest.

Since 2010, 1.3 million school and council workers covered by the National Joint Council for Local Government Services – aka the NJC – have suffered a three-year pay freeze, followed by 1% increases for the majority since 2013. That’s one year-long ‘freeze’ more than other public sector groups and equates to an overall, real-terms cut in basic pay alone of 21%. Seventy eight percent of this group are women.

During that period, the lowest pay rates have fallen so low that they have had to be upped by more than 1%, just to keep them above statutory National Minimum Wage and Living Wage rates – and keep councils and schools within the law. That should be shocking. In 1999, the lowest NJC pay rate was 24% higher than the NMW, but by 2016, there was just a 0.3% difference. NJC pay is now poverty pay.

The need to raise the lowest rates to ensure legal compliance means that the bottom of the NJC pay scale has become ‘squeezed’, obliterating differentials and job evaluated pay rates. The consequence is the threat of a new wave of equal pay claims, workplace disharmony and calls by local employers for a restructuring of the pay spine to restore fair differentials and pay transparency. A joint NJC pay spine review is underway.

It’s not just basic pay which has been hit either. Wage packets have withered as conditions of work have been under local attack by councils and schools feeling the heat of austerity. More than 75% in a Unison survey in 2016 had had unsocial hours and Bank Holiday payments, sick pay, car allowances and overtime pay cut.

It leaves our members who are dealing with the local aftermath of austerity – from the Grenfell tragedy to homelessness, poorly resourced social care, schools short of equipment and broken families - with the lowest pay in the public sector from top to bottom of the NJC pay scale. Only probation support workers – shockingly denied an increase since 2013 – and a relatively small number of support staff in further and higher education have bottom pay rates below the NJC’s £7.78 an hour.

The lack of parity and comparability in public sector pay is an issue not being aired in the vital debate about the government’s pay cap, a debate which – as ever – has largely focused on pay review bodies, NHS and emergency service workers. But with 71% of councils facing recruitment and retention problems, 750,000 fewer and significantly worse paid local government workers than in 2010 and endemic over-work and stress, NJC pay cannot be ignored.

Funding is critical to a fair outcome for NJC workers – 75% employed by councils. Devastating local authority budget cuts of 40-70% by governments since 2101 have left councils reeling, cutting non-statutory services, pay and conditions to keep afloat. It will require the Treasury to put its hands in its pockets to fund our claim and the pay spine review, which will also carry costs. If local government – or Teresa May’s reign – are to have a future, there is no option but to pay up.

  • Heather Wakefield
    Heather Wakefield

    National Secretary for Unison’s local government, police and justice section

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