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Pay debate centres on perception

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Maybe the eagle-eyed researchers at the Taxpayers’ Alliance were on holiday when the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives announced plans to take its claim for a 1% pay rise to conciliation service Adivsory, Conciliation & Arbitration Service.

So far, the anticipated furious reaction from the lobby group famous for having its sights trained on the public sector – normally dutifully flaunted by most of the national media - has failed to materialise.

Few in the sector would have expected less than “outraged” rebuke about perceived ‘town hall fat cats’ demanding more during a time of austerity. Fewer still are happy to go on the record and express an opinion on the issue. Even the Conservatives have been understated in their reaction at a national level.

The questions, however, are how long the calm will last and whether pushing for a rise at a time when council pay levels are never far from the firing line could lead to a fresh round of chief executive bashing.

Arguing

Alace, along with unions the GMB and Unison, will be arguing that a pay rise that is good for the majority of the sector is good for the 300 chief executives and 7,000 chief officers who are knocking on Acas’ doors.

Communications from the employers’ side emphasised that rises for senior staff was ‘not appropriate’ rather than unaffordable

Jim Dunton, reporter, LGC

Questioned individually, most chief executives contacted by LGC favoured leadership by example and restraint, but Alace says it has a clear mandate from members to ask for a 1% rise.

Former honorary secretary Alastair Robertson said it was “disappointing” that Local Government Employers’ (LGE) failure to budge from its proposed pay freeze had led to chief executives’ first pay referral to ACAS since 1997.

Unlike the debates over the 2009-10 pay rises for the more than 1.5 million council staff in England, Wales and Northern Ireland covered by the National Joint Council collective bargaining arrangements, affordability is not being cited by LGE as the reason for its stance on this issue.

Perceptions

Communications from the employers’ side emphasise that rises for senior staff are “not appropriate” rather than unaffordable, which is the major bone of contention.

“The employers made it clear their concern was of perceptions and they wanted to communicate that times were difficult so chief executives should have their pay frozen,” Mr Robertson says.

“We made it clear that our employers were giving us a very negative message at a time when our advice and expertise would be needed more than ever.

“If the employers want to play to the media this year then why not next year and the year after, as the economy is likely to continue to be in difficulty? It is an issue of equity and fairness. We are not worth less than the bulk of our staff. No other part of the public sector is having a pay freeze imposed for 2009,” he adds.

Common ground

While the summer’s deadlock over rank-and-file pay pitted Conservatives and Independents in a dead heat against Labour and the Lib Dems, there is more common ground when it comes to senior staff.

Both Steve Bullock (Lab), who chairs the Local Government Association’s human resources panel, and David Parsons (Con), who chairs its improvement board, use similar words when they talk about the need for councils to show restraint in the face of hardships being endured by residents, and cite examples of elected members refusing increases in allowances.

But both sides will need to put more detailed and reasoned arguments before ACAS, assuming the claims make it that far.

Brian Strutton, GMB national secretary and union-side lead on chief-officer pay issues warned of the potential for crucial goodwill to evaporate if senior staff are denied rises offered to the  workers they manage.

Another chief executive pointed out that if the higher echelons of local government are to be seen as a career of choice for the best and brightest recruits, pay levels will need to be competitive.

Tellingly, they added that tax, pension and National Insurance changes are likely to result in real-terms pay cuts for most chief executives and senior officers over the next 12 months in any case.

 

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