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

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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