The tried and tested strategy of ignoring a problem in the hope that it will go away is well established in the Walsall political zeitgeist. Elephants in bedrooms are continually spared investigation. However, the newly formed council can no longer disregard the vast herds of pachyderms ensconced in the Civic Centre and elsewhere.
Shortly after Tony Blair’s first election victory in 1997, the Single Status Agreement between trade unions and local authorities was introduced to ensure fairness and equality in pay and terms and conditions for all council employees. Some 14 years later and with 41 years since the Equal Pay Act, 75 per cent of women working for local authorities do not receive equal pay. The time frame for the agreement intended equality by 2007.
Fairness was to be achieved by undertaking a comprehensive review of job descriptions and terms and conditions intended to “harmonise” pay scales and so reduce numerous and potentially ruinous industrial tribunals. Local authorities signed up to the agreement because they assumed that central government would pick up the bill. The local authorities were wrong. Trade unions signed up to the agreement because they assumed that unfairly underpaid employees would at last see a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. The trade unions were also wrong.
Blair and then Brown, and their chums at the treasury, held the view that it is the responsibility of an employer to adhere to equality legislation and to pay the correct wage. Central government, they argued, was not responsible for the past and continuing errors of councils. This alarming concept of “employer responsibility” took a while to register with numbskull councils up and down the country and across the herd instinct of political one trick ponies. It took even longer for the fact that “something had to be done” to permeate the municipal psyche and once the full consequences were realised, Single Status was firmly on the back burner, kicked into the long grass, saluted and then pulled down from the flagpole.
Meanwhile, local authorities were paying vast amounts of public money defending equal pay tribunals and even higher suitcases full of beer tokens in out of court settlements once some beak in a wig, gown and gaiters told them that they were acting illegally. Now, with conman Cameron, horrible Osborne and the ridiculous Eric Pickles dismantling local councils, the chickens and the bills are coming home to roost.
Add to this heady mix of prevarication, deception and denial the utter ineptitude of Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council, and the result is a farce worthy of Moliere or Spongebob Squarepants. Because Walsall council did not address the Single Status requirement when it had the chance, it now owes back-dated pay to the employees it has discriminated against with some entitlements going back seven years. That is an awful lot of money.
Slowly, quietly and buried deep in the vast emptiness of the council intellect, a tiny spark ignited the realisation that something was very, very wrong. The reaction was predictable. Quick, hire some lawyers.
The council managed to buy some time and a financial strategy from m`learned friends for an undisclosed fee. Avoiding responsibility and, more importantly, avoiding paying the correct wage would be achieved in three ways. Firstly, make redundant as many posts as possible, preferably the posts that will cost the most to settle. Secondly, look at the job evaluations and rather than increase the wage of the underpaid, reduce the fair wage to the lower level so equality is achieved by universal discrimination. Thirdly, when all else has failed, offer the underpaid a bribe in return for giving up employment rights.
Back in June 2010, our glorious leader publicly stated that 29 per cent of the council workforce would be subject to a pay cut as a result of Single Status. Councillor Bird obviously knew more than Councillor Towe, the financial wizard in cabinet, who said that the council would have to borrow the “notional” sum of almost £50million to pay for the fiasco. The figure was “notional” because not a living soul had any idea how much this mismanagement would actually cost or the numbers of staff involved. It is probably time for Mike, who previously told the world that he works 28 hours a day, nine days a week and 399 days a years, to change his calculator.
Since then, there has been not a word about the £50million borrowing requirement or the leader of the council’s charming disregard of basic mathematics. Instead we have the automated, repetitive droning mantra of inherited debt brought about by the reckless borrowing of the previous government and it’s not our fault even though we are useless. Does anyone spot a flaw in this argument?
Given that Walsall council have said that they intent to borrow their way out of this mess that they have created, the reality of who actually pays for the shambles is somewhat different. The cost of equalising wages and the legal entitlement of years of back pay will be met from existing departmental budgets and redundancies. Schools, for example, where non-teaching support staff come under the auspices of Single Status, are obliged to make the settlements from the already reduced formula capital arbitrarily allocated to them. This is where is gets nasty.
All schools in the borough are, by law, required to set a balanced budget for the coming academic year. The cost of books, computers, materials, services, buildings, utilities, staff and everything else that makes a school has to be planned and accounted for. The moronic Michael Gove, who has slashed funding for schools, insists upon it. Because our hopeless Walsall council has made such a cock-up of Single Status, it’s not just dedicated and professional support staff who will suffer. Schools and, remember them, children will pay the price for the incompetence of our masters.
In panic and desperation, the local authority have offered support staff a “lump sum” to sign away their right to equal pay. Some have signed, some have not and others haven’t a bloody clue what’s going on. The really evil part of all this is that because the settlement will come from a depleted individual school budget, it has been suggested that not signing and standing up for your entitlement will result in redundancies. Because of the uncertainty of the numbers of staff who have signed or not signed, schools across the borough cannot set a budget. The council budget, however, remains set in stone without any details made public. In a different reality, this could be described as blackmail.
It gets worse. Those that decide not to sign away their rights will face tribunal and litigation, cases that could last years in the courts and make the budget setting process impossible. Ambulance chasing law practices are already urging people not to sign and the unions, having agreed to Single Status cannot go back and change what they agreed to in the first place. There are rumours that some Walsall schools face a bill of more than £1million to pay for the failings of our municipal executive. That, in some cases, is more than the annual school budget. Other whispers say that some schools will “borrow” the money to be repaid over 20 or 30 years. That means that the children of the current Year Six will not only inherit the school debt, but also the £50million debt taken out by the clueless cowboys in cabinet.
And what of the £50million that councillors Bird and Towe wish to borrow to dig themselves out of a hole? It sure as hell won’t be spent on schools. Jobs, services and even schools may go down the pan but the fools that have presided over this pantomime can look forward to a local authority pension. They may wish to continue to bleat about inherited deficit and reckless borrowing and ignore the elephant in the room, but they would do well to remember one thing.
An elephant never forgets.