Lowest-paid public servants denied Osborne’s £250 rise
Guest post by Heather Wakefield
In this week’s Budget, the Chancellor announced a two-year pay freeze for public sector workers from 2011-2012. However, with uncharacteristic magnanimity, he also said that those earning £21,000 or less would receive an increase of at least £250 a year - about enough to buy five rolls of Osborne and Little’s cheapest wallpaper or perhaps pay one quarterly fuel bill. Civil servants, who have yet to negotiate a pay deal this year, will have their pay frozen in 2010-2011, except for those earning less than £21,000, who get £250 immediately and “will then exit the pay freeze ahead of other groups”.
But we in local government, the poor relations of the public sector, have already had a pay freeze imposed on us from 1 April this year. Without as much as the courtesy of a meeting, the employers’ side sent a message in February to say that an increase for the lowest paid group of workers within the public sector was ‘unaffordable’. Imagine our excitement then when the Chancellor seemed to offer some mitigation for the real reduction in earnings our members face as a consequence of current 5% inflation rates. Alas, it was not to be. Yesterday the National Employers’ Organisation for Local Government Services said:
“...we can confirm that the announcement does not affect:
• Local government pay for 2010/11, where the position remains that the employers have not offered an increase, or
• Contractual annual increments, which should continue to be paid.
Ahead of any negotiations on local government pay for 2011/12 we shall be consulting councils in the usual way through regional pay briefings.”
So, on the day the teachers’ pay award of 2.3% from September 2010 was quite rightly confirmed by the same local government employers, our members get zilch.
Let’s take a look at what this means for someone near you who might be helping to ‘re-enable’ your mum or dad, support your child’s teacher (or even teach your child when the teacher’s not available), keep urban foxes at bay, or rescue you next time there are floods or snow storms. The bottom rate in local government is the lowest in the public sector by some measure: £12,145, or £6.30 pence an hour. The £250 increase would amount to a 2.06% rise for the 100,000 workers languishing on that bottom rate – way below inflation.
There are around 200,000 council employees – mostly part-time women workers - earning less than £12,500 a year (full-time equivalent) and median earnings are almost £4000 a year lower than the economy average. Annual leave, maternity rights and other conditions are worse than the NHS and other equivalents.
This ‘unaffordability’ business is a bit mysterious too. In April this year, UNISON sent a Freedom of Information request to all 401 councils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland asking them what assumptions they had made about the percentage increase in pay from April 2010 for all groups of local government workers (except teachers and related professionals). Interestingly, in these times of avowed ‘transparency’ in local government spending, the Local Government Employers sought to frustrate our FOI request by circulating advice on the use of ‘exemptions’ to councils.
But we still have the results from 280 councils: 59% said that they had assumed there would be a pay rise in 2010/2011. Increases from 0.2 to 2.2% were included in budgets, the most frequent assumption being 1%. Of the 40% who assumed there would be no increase this year, a number had nonetheless made provision for a pay award in the contingency sum in their budget or had significantly increased the contingency sum compared to the previous year.
Despite this, and despite government claims of fairness towards the public sector, some of Britain’s lowest paid workers will receive nothing. If we are ‘all in this together’, then that goes for public sector staff too.
• Heather Wakefield is head of Unison’s local government service group.