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Politics matters

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Heather Wakefield, Unison's head of local government, on why cutting back will harm all of us.

Pay negotiations for local government workers started on 19 March amid the hurly-burly created by the government’s two percent public sector pay limit. That’s an inauspicious enough climate for bargaining for the UK’s largest group of employees also, incidentally, the worst rewarded group in the public sector. But LGC’s front-page story on 13 March (“Two-thirds ready to make job cuts”) lobbed a large grenade into the mix of anger and demoralisation already felt by council staff everywhere.

LGC revealed that 68% of councils appear to be ready to cut staffing levels to meet government’s demand for£4.9bn worth of ‘efficiencies’ by 2011. That won’t go down well at all with the large proportion of Unison’s local government members who already have to work significant unpaid overtime to get their jobs done enough to add an average of 15% to their earnings, should councils somewhere, sometime, cough up for their time and dedication.

It won’t go down well either in councils spending very large sums of money indeed on pricey consultants; in authorities which contribute to local government’s£2bn bill for agency staff; or where councillors’ allowances and chief officers’ pay have managed to clear the two percent bar by an Olympian margin while unfilled posts abound.

Job insecurity

Let’s also lob in the ongoing gender pay gap; the fact that our members will be paying more for their pensions from 1 April; that petrol prices now far exceed the National Joint Council mileage allowance for fuel; and that a cleaner or catering worker in local government already earns almost£2,000 a year less than her counterpart in the NHS. Oh and real inflation not the consumer price index is over four percent.

LGC’s Improvement & Efficiency Week has just taken place. Unison wants improvement and efficiency too we welcome the new powers being given to local government and we support joined-up service delivery. But what does the ever-bleaker employment landscape mean for councils’ ability to deliver the new agenda? In the LGC survey, 55% said that efficiency targets could not be met without ‘affecting front-line services’ a euphemism for job insecurity and even worse conditions for our members. They are mostly women and do a good job against the odds.

Library shelves are lined with tomes highlighting the importance of employees’ sense of being valued and control over their working lives to productivity and innovation. The imminent future for local government would suggest that many of our members will be even less valued than at present and will face redundancy and insecurity not control over their working lives. This is bound to hinder sustainable innovation and genuine long-term efficiencies.

Local economies

In total, 27% of all British jobs are public sector jobs most in local councils. The quantity and quality of those jobs not only affects service delivery and our members’ lives, they have a direct impact on local economies. A recent study by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies found that 96% of Swindon’s front-line workers live in Swindon and 28% live in one of England’s most deprived wards within the borough. Many of our members are dependent on their council for an income and local services, while even their meagre spending ‘power’ helps sustain local economies.

Pay awards which reduce living standards and cuts and redundancies which undermine services will harm us all. We hear all about RIEPS regional improvement & efficiency partnerships. We say Restore Investment in Employees Pretty Soon please.

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