Hearing what isn’t said

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A view from West Midlands Employers on the need for clarity on the public sector ‘pay pause’ and the risks to the goodwill of an already stretched workforce.

As one 10 regional employers’ organisations, West Midlands Employers (WME) is concerned that a lack of clarity from Chancellor, Rishi Sunak may lead to differing views in the Local Government sector. 

The announcement by the Chancellor will have dismayed tens of thousands of Local Government sector workers who believe they are included in the broad sweep of public sector workers that will be subject to a “pause” in their pay next year.   However, initial responses from our Councils seems to suggest that was not made explicitly clear that they are not included, and this may lead to different assumptions by the employers and their workforce.

In reality, for the time being it is unclear what the real impact of this announcement will be on Local Government workers. Whilst clear and perhaps understandable messages were given to NHS colleagues of being excluded from the pay pause, the more complex position for Local Government pay was not alluded to.  Whilst it is reasonable to accept many Senior Officers and HR leads will appreciate how Local Government pay is negotiated and the nuancing around this, many employees wont be aware of that and will have heard what wasn’t said, and Chief Executives are limited in what they can say to reassure their employees as this is in the purview of the National negotiating body – with negotiations often not concluding until late in the following year, by which time the damage is done in the minds of employeesThis leaves a workforce making assumptions and wondering what that means for them, their families and their future, which at this time isn’t helpful.

Shortly the National Employers will listen to the views of local authorities and  commence negotiations  with Trade Unions for 2021, in very difficult circumstances which need to balance the views from the employers and the unions in the sector, with the background of a  setting from the Treasury  of a public sector ‘pay pause’.

Whilst we know that the national negotiating body acts on behalf of Local Government employers outside of any Government announcement, we also know from previous experience that pay freezes have been imposed on Local Government outside of existing bargaining arrangements.  Sustained pay freezes in the Public Sector have a significant impact on the sector’s ability to compete and recruit, and arguments about job stability become moot in a sector facing inevitable budget shortfalls and redundancies. This is compounded by pressures on the Local Government Pay spine from advancing increases in the Minimum Living Wage which are above any likely increases across the whole pay structure. This bottom loading fails to recognise the need to attract and retain skilled professional workers in key roles not at the bottom of the salary structure.

As a regional employers’ organisation, we have a role to help our Councils interpret and implement legislation and what we need is clarity – even if the message is disappointing.  From our perspective it would have been helpful and reassuring if the Chancellor had made express provision to say that Local Government Employers make their own arrangements for pay and are therefore not part of the “wider public sector”? And what message does it send, that he has not done this?

It strikes us that the big issue here is that Councils are independent employers – and in the West Midlands many are committed to the national pay bargaining process through the Joint National Council.

WME Chief Executive, Rebecca Davis says “As independent employers, the collective ability to take balanced, reasonable and evidenced based decisions and enter into negotiations on pay should be trusted and respected.  Local Government’s independent decision making as an employer has already been undermined through the introduction of the Exit Cap this year.  Employers are now finding that the ’levers’ they use to manage their workforce, satisfaction and retention are being taken away – and more than that, being taken away at a time when the ‘ask’ of them and the workforce is increasing.  It’s an unsustainable position”

We have a consistent view emerging across Chief Executives in the West Midlands Region who want to know their workforce is being acknowledged and rewarded for their efforts and whilst many are doing things locally to recognise achievement, anything which reduces the ability of Local Government to determine its own approach to pay would be a significant constraint on those efforts of reward.  By not publicly excluding the Local Government workforce from the ‘pay pause’ could mean a significant impact on the levels of vital ‘discretionary’ effort from our workforce. Something our Councils rely heavily on, and now more than ever that’s not something we need to fall in short supply.

In the West Midlands, Chief Executives, politicians and service users have stood behind the Local Government workforce, praising them for stepping up in difficult situations, being adaptable and flexible to ensure services continue at all cost.  West Midlands Employers ran a successful #EverydayHeroes campaign, profiling workers across the Region to raise awareness of some of the less visible work that our sector does in the media. This work will not end here – and yet many Council workers are now being asked to support test and trace, mass vaccination programmes and ongoing local restrictions.

Even accepting the high cost of this pandemic to the Country, we need to retain flexibility for Local Government Employers to motive and reward their workforce.

 

 

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