George Binette

Public secor pay: cap lifted but not broken

George Binette

IN EARLY DECEMBER the Local Government Association (LGA), the umbrella body for council employers across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, tabled a two-year offer in response to a joint union claim of 5% across the board for staff covered by the National Joint Council (NJC) bargaining framework.

The NJC workforce ranges from support staff in community and many voluntary aided schools through to refuse workers, social workers and policy officers. Historically, NJC pay deals have also set the benchmark for parts of the voluntary and housing association sectors.

The LGA proposal, which covers the period from this April through to March 2020, translates into a 2% rise each year for the vast majority on annual salaries of more than £19,430, with higher percentage rises for the lowest paid - in some cases by 16%. The higher increases partly reflect the need to keep pace with a rising national minimum wage for those at the very bottom.

The offer marks a symbolic end to the 1% public sector pay cap, which in the case of local government followed a three-year absolute freeze for most council workforces. However it not only fails to meet the claim from the GMB, Unison and Unite on behalf of nearly 1.5 million workers but falls substantially below the headline inflation rates. The November 2017 Consumer Price Index showed prices rising at an annual rate of 3.1% with inflation measured against the rarely reported but more relevant Retail Price Index running at 3.9%.

Even more notable is the fact that the current offer is ‘unfunded’ as Tory Chancellor ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ Hammond made no provision for public sector pay rises in his November budget. What amount to begging letters to Hammond and Theresa May from national officers of the NJC unions have thus far failed to elicit replies. Meanwhile, a number of local councils are on the brink of setting budgets for financial year 2018-19 based on 1% NJC awards.

Unison is by far the largest of three recognised unions and is in the process of holding briefings for local branch officers about the offer as a prelude to a 23rd January meeting of the union’s NJC committee, made up of lay representatives from the union’s regions, other than Scotland. That meeting is due to agree a recommendation to Unison members. Given conference policy agreed two years ago, committee members will be required to make a Yes or No recommendation with a split vote likely.

The ensuing consultative ballot of members in councils and schools would continue into March and even if the offer were overwhelmingly rejected any industrial action ballot is unlikely to start until late spring. So the prospect of a united front of public sector unions to break the pay cap decisively recedes still further.


Chair of Camden Trades Council and trade union co-ordinator, Hackney North CLP