In a typical tabloid-esque frenzy, the Hootsmon today reveals the top (bottom?) ten councils in terms of pay-outs to their own employees for unequal pay. Midlothian tops the list at £496,746 over the last five years, with much larger Aberdeen City and South Lanarkshire (both above £400k) in 2nd and 3rd slots. This sad affair has dragged on for over 12 years, costing councils £3m in legal fees alone that could have been better spent.
There is no single villain in this mess. After Scottish councils were re-organised into 32 single-tier authorities in 1996, each had a rat’s nest of pay agreements, many grossly unfair, especially to women. The idea of a single pay structure with the same pay for each job and grade, irrespective of who filled it, seemed unarguable so unions and CoSLA set about implementing this in 1999. But, as soon as negotiations hit specifics, things bogged down with staff groups each arguing for their special perks. Unions then bottled seeking a national agreement and passed the hot potato on to individual councils.
Councils, at that time, were almost all Labour-controlled and, if there’s one thing that sends a shiver running through a Labour council, looking for a backbone to run up, it’s a showdown with the unions. By 2007, no council had yet resolved the matter. Most had developed a ‘single status framework’ of jobs but the unions baulked at anyone losing pay (so-called ‘red-circled’ jobs) and no-one wanted a showdown. Many staff, mostly low-paid women ‘green-circled’ for pay rises, became exasperated waiting and went to lawyers. Stephan Cross became lawyer of the week for bringing thousands of claims to court.
But in 2007 many councils came under control of parties less beholden to (and therefore less scared of) unions. In councils like East Lothian and Stirling, the nettle was grasped and unions presented with a final position. Upon threat of strike action, their bluff was called—the staff received a deadline to sign up to avoid compulsory ‘dismissal and re-engagement’. Out of over 3,000 staff in East Lothian all but 6 did and the general mood was relief that the saga was over, especially among the three in four who were ‘green circled’. There were poorly supported day stoppages but no strikes.
Four years down the road, many councils are still administering their rat’s nest—five of the top ten listed in the Hootsmon, plus Glasgow and Edinburgh qualify because earlier Labour administrations left such a fiscal hole that cash to pay the thousands of ‘green-circled’ staff just isn’t there. Now in recession, thousands of underpaid staff will long remain so. The only people smiling are law firm like MacRoberts or Brodies or MacLay, Murray & Spens on their way to the bank.
There should long have been one simple state of affairs: Single Status in all councils. That there isn’t is down to a lack of guts and fiscal reserves, with PR flannel covering up archaic pay structures that are squandering public money.