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As a leading employer of women and part-time staff local government must show the rest of the economy how to behave...
As a leading employer of women and part-time staff local government must show the rest of the economy how to behave, says Carole Thornley

When I was commissioned by Unison to review the single status agreement of 1997 I had high expectations. Local government seemed to be leading the way in pay modernisation across the public sector, and, like many members of the public, I had an image of council workers as well paid.

The findings of my research therefore came as a bit of a shock. In fact, local government staff as a whole and National Joint Council staff covered by single status - home carers, social workers, non-teaching staff in schools, administrative and clerical staff - have fared poorly in terms of comparative pay over the last ten years. Local government is characterised by endemic problems of low and unequal pay.

To understand the situation it is worth looking at all local government workers, including teachers, police and fire service staff as well as NJC staff. Gross pay for these staff has worsened by comparison with both the private sector and economy-wide earnings. Non-manual workers have continued their historic decline, while manual workers fare particularly poorly.

The gender pay gap is still a major issue. Within local government itself the gap has barely narrowed in the last decade, while pay differences between women employed in local government and men working in the economy as a whole have actually grown. Unsurprisingly, low pay is endemic among female manual workers.

NJC staff covered by single status have had an even worse experience. There is little evidence of any significant benefits so far. Average gross pay is below the private sector and economy-wide averages. Over two-thirds of the workforce are officially on low pay, earning only£13,044 in 2000 against a national average for the whole economy of£19,406.

Again the gender gap is striking for these staff. Female NJC staff earn just two thirds of their male colleagues' average gross pay, and suffer right across the pay distribution. As with female local government staff generally, the gap between NJC women and men working in the economy as a whole has widened - gross earnings are two thirds of the average for men across the economy, while part-timers earn less than half the male average pro rata.

The slight narrowing of the gender pay gap seen in the wider economy has not been reflected in the local government sector, which is now one of the poorer pay options for women.

These are worrying findings at a time when modernisation and equality of pay are supposed to be priorities for local government. As the largest employer in the public sector, with high numbers of women and part-time staff, it is vital local government takes a vigorous approach to tackling pay inequalities. Local government should be seen as a model employer, setting the standard for the rest of the economy.

As Denise Kingsmill's report on her review into women's pay and employment points out, there are important business reasons for pay equality - litigation becomes a more likely option for workers who cannot negotiate improvements. Failure to modernise pay can create problems with recruitment and retention, industrial relations and staff motivation and morale.

The single status agreement of 1997 offers a potentially radical programme for improvement. But even in the most positive published cases only a small minority of councils have implemented new pay structures.

An important part of my ongoing research is to analyse the reasons for this painfully slow progress, as well as uncovering best practice. It is already clear that 'pump-priming' of these initiatives may be essential. But in the short-term there is a strong case for a substantial boost to national pay scales to avert the more immediate problems of low and unequal pay.

Dr Carole Thornley

Senior lecturer in Industrial Relations,

Keele University

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