Fair pay is only way to combat poverty
The General Secretary of Unison commends the Chancellor for attempting to reduce child poverty levels, but says more should have been done for public sector workers hit by rising living costs and rewarded with paltry pay increases
Congratulations should go to Labour's Chancellor Gordon Brown who has played a central part in delivering both a stable economy and record investment into public services; building these vital two pillars concurrently is something many, including the Tories, said just wasn't possible.
And one aspect that I could welcome in the budget was the continued focus on fighting child poverty. The support to lift an extra 200,000 children away from poverty is clear red water between Gordon Brown and David Cameron's makeover obsessed Conservatives. However, it makes little sense for tax credits and other in-work financial support schemes to subsidise persistent low pay in the public services employers should be paying at least a fair and decent living wage in the first place.
Over recent years, a harsh reality is biting hard at millions of British public sector workers who have been knocked for six by the double whammy of soaring living costs and a tight squeeze (to put it politely) on their pay packets. During the last couple of weeks around two million health (including nurses) and local government workers have been left stunned by government and employers offering a paltry 2% pay 'increase' to cope with living cost rises.
How can this be either fair or realistic? Gas prices have soared by over100% in the past three years costing the average sized family £30 a month more; electricity charges have risen from around £240 a year in 2003 and now average £400; water bills skyrocketed by 12% in 2005 and are set to rise another 20% during the next two years; and staff are being charged for parking at hospitals and councils and facing inflation busting rail fare hikes year on year.
We all know the absolutely critical jobs that nurses and other health workers do. But whom exactly am I talking about when I use the umbrella phrase 'local government workers'?
In short, they are our community champions. The legions of people that serve our local communities; delivering vital public services to our neighbourhoods, often in high-pressure and even hazardous situations. They could be our grandparent's care assistants, our kids youth workers or teaching assistants, our local fire station support staff, housing officers, librarians, refuse collectors, street and park wardens, school cooks and many more unsung grafters.
Over 60% of those covered by this miserly pay award earn just £15,825 or under annually, some £8,000 less than the national average. And 75% of these workers are women. Staff morale across the public services from nurses to night shelter assistants is deteriorating alarmingly. Sadly the Chancellor missed an opportunity to step in and alleviate the burgeoning level of financial hardship among our public sector workers.
I¹m afraid that a £30 a year pay 'increase' will not be of enough help to millions of low paid public workers who are finding it increasingly difficult to escape the breadline. Especially when living costs are rising at 4.6% according to the Retail Price Index.
The Chancellor also failed to address obligations that kick in this week for local councils to deliver equal pay for staff under the Single Status agreement, supported by the Labour government on its election in 1997.
Local government employers risk creating extreme tension through attempts to introduce single status on the cheap. This has led to large swathes of workers, both male and female, facing pay cuts - in some cases worth thousands of pounds. One of our women members in Staffordshire doing a vital job in a school was told that her pay would go down by £16,000. Scandalous.
UNISON called before the budget for the Chancellor to bite the bullet and provide the cash to finally implement Single Status another sensible solution to combating poverty pay and the causes of poverty. Equal Pay must urgently be addressed at this Autumn's Comprehensive Spending Review.
More than half of the kids living in poverty in Britain have at least one parent in work. Brown's introduction of the National Minimum Wage (following UNISON's long campaign), Sure Start and early years learning in every community, and a raft of in-work financial assistance (such as tax credits) is irrefutable progress. But the real route out of embedded social poverty is by decent wages to employees in the first place, and it was here that Budget 2007 fell short.