Why council employees won’t be welcoming Osborne’s Living Wage

Local government and school workers have been singled out for the harshest treatment of any group in the public sector


A strong association between unhappiness and lack of money was highlighted in a recent survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – hardly surprising perhaps. The survey also showed that self-worth and life satisfaction are at their lowest amongst those in the lowest paid jobs, while anxiety is at its highest.

Among these unhappy, anxious, dissatisfied workers with low self-esteem must be many local government, school and care workers, almost 93,000 of whom will be earning less than the government’s new ‘National Living Wage’ of £7.20 pence an hour when it takes effect in April 2016.

As a new round of pay negotiations begins for the 1.3 million employees covered by the National Joint Council for Local Government Services (NJC), it is time to reflect on the treatment of key workers who help educate our children, care for our frail and elderly and who are keeping our local services and communities going as austerity bites.

And nowhere has austerity bitten harder than in local government, where George Osborne has cut budgets by an average of 40 percent and where there will be a £6 billion funding gap by 2016/17, according to the Local Government Association (LGA). All but statutory services will be threatened by 2020, while half a million jobs have been lost and average NJC pay has fallen by 20 per cent since 2010.

Local government and school workers have been singled out for the harshest treatment of any group in the public sector as government public sector pay policy has taken effect. A unique pay freeze in 2010, followed by two more ‘freezes’ and three years of below-inflation pay increases, coupled with widespread cuts to sick pay, annual leave, car allowances and unsocial hours pay have meant poverty for many and an increasing dependence on in-work benefits.

This dissatisfaction and low morale are further highlighted by a soon-to-be-published survey of over 2,000 UNISON members in local government and schools carried out for UNISON by Incomes Data Services Ltd. Only 29 per cent of respondents felt they were fairly paid, while 63 per cent said that morale had worsened and 58 per cent had considered leaving their jobs in the last year.

And that’s not all. While the LGA argues for funding from the government to pay for an increase from the paltry bottom rate of pay of £7.06 pence to the National Living Wage (NLW) of just £7.20 in April 2016, cuts to in-work benefits will hit our members in councils and schools hard, leaving many worse off after the NLW than they are now! Hard to believe, but true. 

A full-time NJC worker over 25 in a single earner couple with no dependent children and on the bottom rate of pay of £13,500, would need an annual pay increase of £371 on 1 April 2016 just to move to the current NJC pay point 8, which delivers the NLW. However, her working tax credits will be cut from £1,877 to £148 at the same time, leaving her worse off overall by £1,358. Those above the NLW and dependent on benefits to top up their pay will also be worse off.

A full-time, qualified school cook who is the sole earner in a household, with one child, currently earns £15, 207 a year. On top of her pay, she is also eligible for £4,502 in Working and Child Tax Credits. From April 2016, these will be cut to £2,654 – leaving her worse off by £1,765. Since she is very unlikely to get a pay rise of more than 1 per cent – £152 – she will lose overall income of £1,613.

The National Living Wage is no more than a smokescreen for overall cuts in the incomes of the low paid on in-work benefits – including many vital school and council workers. Let no-one be fooled.

Heather Wakefield is head of local government, police and justice at UNISON 

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