Local government pay has been in real-terms decline since 1997 – ironically, the year in which the single status agreement promised a brighter future for school and council employees.
Equality of treatment for blue- and white-collar workers and equal pay for work of equal value for women - the majority of the workforce - were the prizes promised. Sadly, efficiency reviews, central government cuts and employers’ adherence to the austerity myth have denied our members pay justice ever since.
Pay for local government and school staff within the National Joint Council pay scales is far lower than for any other group of public sector workers. To give you a quick illustration: the bottom rate of £7.06 for more than 30,000 NJC staff compares badly with £7.94 for police support staff on the bottom pay point, £7.63 for those in higher education and £7.57 pence in probation. Poverty pay, coupled with conditions such as unsocial hours payments which are constantly being chopped at local level, leave many of our members dependent on in-work benefits, unable to meet daily living costs and/or heavily in debt.
So acute has the problem become that last year the LGA had to take emergency steps to raise the bottom rate of pay, which would have fallen below the new national minimum wage. A two-year pay deal ending in April 2016 included significant increases for the lowest paid which solved the problem for a while.
Then along came the national living wage (NLW). The Chancellor’s apparently magnanimous gesture – which will set the lowest statutory rate of pay for those over 25 at £7.20 in April 2016 – will mean initial deletion of the bottom two pay points in local government. To reach the £9 level in 2020, it will mean the deletion of the bottom 11 pay points and a heart-stopping increase in the pay bill for councils.
Not only has the government cut council budgets by a minimum of 40%, the Chancellor has also failed to take account of the shift to the NLW in local government funding levels. The NLW will rightly apply to those on outsourced contracts too and so councils and schools strapped for cash will struggle.
But for Unison members reliant on in-work benefits, the NLW will mean no pay rise at all. Instead, they will face a pay cut in real terms from April 2016 because their benefits are being cut. So a school cook, in a single-earner household with one child, on pay point 11, will lose almost £2,000 a year. A procurement officer half way up the NJC pay scales will lose £2,200, and so it goes on.
It is hard to conclude that the NLW is much more than a smokescreen designed to disguise the harshest attack yet on public service workers.
Heather Wakefield, head of local government, Unison