The pay gap: managers’ salaries race ahead of social workers’

While local government employees have reluctantly accepted a pay rise of 2.475%, new figures from the Taxpayers’ Alliance reveal that the top 300 public sector bosses enjoyed an average pay rise last year of 12.8%.

News of this disparity has angered social workers across the country – 98% of the 400 who voted in our web poll last week said the pay gap between frontline staff and senior managers working in the public sector had become too wide.

We asked people from different parts of the sector to consider the justification for, and impact of, large pay rises for senior managers in social care.

Ray Jones,
Former social services director, Wiltshire

How do you defend the salaries of the top public sector managers in social care? To start with, you need to consider what it is that drives high salaries. First – and let’s not deny this – there is a degree of self-interest for those who have the power in organisations to set wage rates. Second, there is the comparison across the marketplace. Social care organisations are large, and the management and leadership task is considerable. For 14 years, I was the director in an organisation that spent £126m a year, employed 3,200 people, provided services from 120 locations, and assisted 40,000 children, disabled people and older people a year. There was also considerable public and political exposure – much more so than in the private and voluntary sectors – with decisions being taken in open meetings monitored by often hostile media. So recruiting and retaining competent and confident managers and leaders who are champions for social care is a good idea, and salary is a part of this.

Third, in big organisations the necessary hierarchical management structures have required salary differentials between management levels, and these are intrinsically linked with career pathways and the growing and keeping of competent and experienced managers within public services.

Finally, those who work in social care are politically infected with a view that they should be as poor and marginalised as the majority of the people they work with. Let’s make an argument here for proper, fair and comparable wages for everyone working in social care public services – whether they are practitioners or managers.

But if managers are paid more, the expectation should be that they are the “can-carriers”, absorbing risk and taking responsibility that they are competent in sustaining large enterprises that they are champions for social care in alliances with service users and practitioners that they are committed to, and successful in, shaping the contribution we make to the lives of service users that they contain rather than create chaos and that they stay long enough to give continuity and credibility to what we create between us.

Ian Johnston,
Chief executive,
British Association of Social Workers

What the huge pay differentials underline is how poorly paid practitioners are. Individual social workers are often maligned when tragic cases occur, yet the same people who are castigated will be the worst paid, not only within their own organisations but in comparison with those in related professions such as teaching and the police.

It seems ironic that the least financially rewarded should be held to the greatest account. Many of us remember the conclusions of Lord Laming when he led the Victoria Climbié Inquiry: he was adamant that those in higher positions should take greater responsibility in such cases rather than placing the onus on frontline staff.

But despite this recommendation, we are still waiting for this change to take place. Sadly, there have not been that many examples of those in seniority assuming responsibility for the shortcomings of their departments and services. Not only that, but senior managers are still not required to register with the General Social Care Council. This does not inspire the profession when it comes to leading by example.

This issue has come up at what many regard as a pivotal time in social work with various statements, green papers, white papers and bills talking about a different type of social work and new ways of working.

Although all this attention is welcome, it is frustrating as we seem to be playing catch-up with other related disciplines.

The bottom line for us is that the career progression for social workers is in desperate need of modernisation. We need to ensure highly skilled social workers are given incentives to stay in practice rather than forced to look for financial rewards in management positions.

Deborah Littman,
National officer, bargaining support,

Local government workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have expressed anger over this year’s 2.475% pay award. With inflation forecast to run at 4% into 2008, it will leave more than two million council staff struggling to pay their bills.

But while tough limits to public sector pay rises have been rigorously applied to local authority frontline staff, the same cannot be said of those in senior positions. Figures collected by the Taxpayers’ Alliance show that 578 people in 230 local authorities now earn more than £100,000 a year.

Most alarming is the rate at which these fat-cat salaries are rising. Between 2005 and 2006 there was a 35% increase in the number of senior staff earning more than £100,000, and their total pay bill climbed from £53m to £72m – up 36%. In the same period, the pay of ordinary local government workers inched up by only 2.95%.

So why have salaries at the top risen so steeply? According to the Taxpayers’ Alliance, frequent reorganisations have given authorities an excuse to grant huge pay rises to restructured posts. In one authority, changing a post from that of director of social services to director of children, schools and families resulted in a salary boost of 30% in a single year.

It might be unfair, however, to assume that all such increases are entirely unjustified. The government’s Every Child Matters policy has compelled authorities to merge their education and social care functions, and new “mega-posts” combining the former duties of social services directors and education directors carry responsibility for up to half the council’s budget. The holder of such a post is essentially answerable for every child in the authority.

But while we can argue the merits of any particular post, there is no question of the growing resentment over the widening gap. Equally important are the inequities being created as mergers bring together workers from different services on significantly different pay and conditions.

Peter Corser,
Social worker, Midlands

As a frontline worker, it is almost my duty to be affronted by the big pay hikes enjoyed by chief executives and their ilk. But certainly nobody who has sat through talks on the inception of foundation trusts and their philosophy should be surprised.

The whole ethos of these organisations appears to be about being big but lean, or your rival will gobble you up. And if you accept the business ethos of downsizing workforces and rationalising services, it is but a small step to take on other business practices like paying the chief executive a whacking wage and handing them bonuses for the hard work of their staff.

However, it is far too easy for frontline staff to be to cynical and dismiss the people in these posts as empty suits. We may not like policies that have brought us foundation trusts, but they are the only show in town. And if they need to be set up, you need people with some expertise in this area.

I doubt I am alone among social workers in admitting I would not have the first idea of where to start with such a project. I envy the wages, but certainly not the job. The reality is, most of us became social workers to work directly with people. Social workers and nurses have always been exploited for their vocation, and probably always will be.

It is galling to have the government tell us we have to be responsible and accept paltry wage rises while the top people not only get huge salaries but big raises and bonuses on top. But, as a public sector worker, I have long become used to the taste of the bitter pills the government asks us to swallow.

I would be happier if I saw the big pay awards going to the first-line operational managers who work long hours helping frontline workers with day-to-day problems. They make the vital decisions and are the true stars of management, yet often get only a fraction more than those they support.

Related articles
Pay gap ‘too wide’ says poll as bosses pocket huge rises

Editorial Comment: Mind the salaries gap

Is the public sector pay gap too wide?

The public sector pay gap is too wide – read the Social Worker Blog

This article appeared in the 29 November issue under the headline “Pound for pound the bosses are quids in”



More from Community Care

Comments are closed.