Councils struggle with ‘fair pay’ deal

    Evidence emerged last week that social workers are facing salary
    cuts as local authorities struggle to meet the cost of implementing
    the single status agreement (SSA).

    Hull and Dorset councils are in dispute with public sector union
    Unison following job evaluations that have seen some social workers
    left £4,000 worse off because of the method of assessment that
    has been used (news, page 16, 15 July).

    It is unlikely they are the only local authorities to be
    encountering problems. The SSA was signed by Unison, the Transport
    and General Workers Union and GMB together with the National Joint
    Council for Local Authorities in 1997 to ensure a fairer deal for
    thousands of low-paid workers.

    They agreed the introduction of a single pay spine, a standard
    working week of 37 hours or less, equal status for part-time
    workers, and grading reviews based on equal pay. But implementation
    has been frustratingly slow and, seven years on, only 30 per cent
    of councils have reviewed their pay and grading, between 25 and 30
    per cent are in the process, and at least 40 per cent have yet to
    start work on it.

    Undoubtedly, the financial cost is the “single biggest barrier” to
    implementing the single status agreement, says Unison national
    officer Fiona Westwood. The union has been pushing for additional
    financial help for councils from central government without
    success.

    Deputy prime minister John Prescott (above) has yet to make any
    commitment and, with an April 2007 deadline councils will be forced
    to start work on the SSA using money raised from council tax or
    service cuts.

    Extra pressure has also emerged in the shape of several no-win,
    no-fee solicitors who are helping low paid staff to take their
    employers to industrial tribunal for back pay. Last year a case was
    successfully fought – Preston v Wolverhampton Healthcare Trust –
    involving discrimination against part-time employees, which now
    means workers can claim six years’ back pay instead of two.

    To head off the threat of huge payouts, Redcar and Cleveland
    Council has been offering ex-gratia “hurt feelings” payments of up
    to £6,000 to 2,600 staff, totalling £3.2m. But it still
    has 140 people who are seeking legal action. It has has met the
    £1.8m cost of single status by increasing council tax by 4 per
    cent. The council claims it would have only needed to raise it 1.5
    per cent but for this.

    Others may have to follow suit if they want to avoid a deluge of
    employment tribunals. A spokesperson for the Employers’
    Organisation local government services team says: “No-win, no-fee
    solicitors are costing councils millions in back pay. We are saying
    you might as well bite the bullet rather than wait for one of those
    to come knocking at the door.”

    Westwood argues that the Preston case has set a legal precedent
    which encourages councils to think about the implications of the
    ruling when they are claiming they do not have the resources to
    implement the SSA.

    But without additional funding we may see increasingly desperate
    councils resorting to similar methods employed in Hull, where the
    National Joint Council job evaluation process, which measures the
    complexity and emotional demand of a job, was not used.

    Although councils are advised by the Employers’ Organisation to use
    the National Joint Council process for evaluating jobs, the
    organisation also says any alternative system will do if it has the
    same basic principles.

    Westwood says: “I would not expect any social worker to be
    downgraded if their job was evaluated using the NJC code. If they
    have been, then something has gone wrong.”

    With the EO powerless to dictate local arrangements, wrangles
    between unions and employers seem likely to continue as pressure
    increases on councils to find the cash to implement the SSA.

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