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Let councils have a say over pay

first_imgRelated posts:No related photos. Let councils have a say over payOn 20 May 2003 in Personnel Today Previous Article Next Article Socpoclaims local authorities are saddled with an outmoded system when deciding whatto pay staff. It is urging the Local Pay Commission to allow each authority toset individual pay levels, dependent on local economic conditions. Jane Lewisfinds out whether such autonomy would work or if it would lead to chaos A radical new approach to paying local authority staff is needed, allowingindividual councils a much greater say in how they reward their staff. This is the view of local government HR body, the Society of Chief PersonnelOfficers (Socpo), in its submission to the Local Pay Commission, which isconsidering whether pay negotiations should continue to be set at a nationallevel. Chancellor Gordon Brown favours devolving pay negotiations to the regions,but Socpo has called for even greater autonomy so the 350 local authoritiesaffected can set salary levels individually. Socpo vice-president Alan Warner said the real problem lies with localauthority employers being saddled with a system “dating back to the 1940sand 1950s”. The unions, which remain vehemently opposed to local pay bargaining, argueit will result in pay being driven down in some areas. However, Warner said thereal message is that pay levels “don’t need to be driven any higher”,with even the lowest pay in local government being set well above the minimumwage. Indeed, what he terms the “blunderbuss” approach to setting pay,regardless of local economic conditions, has created some startlingdisparities. In London and the South East, for instance, public sector managers(paid an average £530 a week) trail way behind their private sectorcounterparts at £780 per week. Conversely, public sector managers in the NorthEast are overpaid by comparison. “What looks relevant in one area begins to look bizarre inanother,” said Warner. He also maintains that the narrow slant of nationalpay bargaining has detracted from the importance of other issues such astraining and development. “You can’t handle pay in isolation of the wholeemployment experience, but that’s the system we’ve got now,” he said. The arguments for doing away with national pay rates have been wellrehearsed. Proponents insist that fixing public pay centrally undermines thetwo critical factors that should determine reward: local market conditions andperformance. By controlling their own budgets – and setting their own terms andconditions – local employers could move quickly to address key skills shortagesand provide the kind of flexibility more sophisticated services that a modernsociety demands. The ‘premium’ pay rates for overtime currently enshrined in the NationalSpine (which sets uniform pay rates), for example, make it prohibitivelyexpensive for many authorities to open libraries, school and advice services attimes when the public wants to use them. The Socpo report’s robust tone represents a change for HR in localgovernment, said the body’s president Mary Mallett. “Personnel people haveshown they are very good at making policies [devised by other people] work. Butwe were very keen that the HR voice was heard loud and clear on thisissue.” But how realistic is it to assume that local authorities have either thewill or the expertise to take on the responsibility for negotiating pay levels?As Socpo points out, local authorities have always had the option of going italone – national pay bargaining has never been compulsory for individualauthorities – yet only a handful have chosen to do so. Moreover, opponents argue that exposing essential services to market forcescould be a recipe for disaster, exacerbating skills shortages in poorer areasand fanning conflict. You need only look at the difficulties the rail industry has experienced interms of staff shortages and strikes since competing companies began settingdifferent pay rates. Not even the most aggressive private sector companies setpay on a regional, let alone local basis, they say. Far from aiding modernisation, the move to local determination is a”dangerous and dated policy”, said Unison general secretary DavePrentis. Some critics also question local employers’ ability to handle negotiationseffectively. During the firefighters strike, for instance, even Downing Streetslammed the employers’ negotiating team as “a shamblesÉ who clearly do notknow how to put together a properly costed deal”. That kind of allegation makes Mallett really angry. For a start, she said,the fire employers were negotiating nationally rather than locally. And critics”are perhaps forgetting how much more sophisticated local authority HR hasbecome”. Those who doubt it need only look at the “ingenuity”they have repeatedly demonstrated just trying to make the National Spine work. So what can account for the ‘painfully slow’ movement into local bargaining?Certainly, some authorities have been opposed to reform on ideologicalgrounds. But many more, who would like to seize the reins, have been thwartedeither by their size (the shift would be prohibitively expensive for manysmaller district authorities) or by a system which, despite paying lip serviceto the notion of greater local autonomy, is easily hijacked by the unions. Socpo is particularly critical of Part 3 of the 1997 Single Status Agreement– the national blueprint for negotiating terms and conditions – which theunions have consistently used to block local variations. This led manyauthorities to conclude that changing terms and conditions was simply toodifficult to attempt – a fact made all the more infuriating given that only 50per cent of council workers are union members anyway. Socpo remains optimistic that when the Local Pay Commission reports thisautumn, it will recommend removing these impediments. In an ideal scenario,said Warner, organisations would be looking at a gradual, and completelyvoluntary, roll-out over three to five years. In the meantime, HR needs to get its house in order. Many local authoritiesalready have a good foundation in terms of excellent data on employee profiles,job descriptions, competencies, pay rates, working arrangements and so on. Nowis the time to build on that by being absolutely clear about your authority’spriorities and the strategies needed to achieve them. “Make sure you’ve got all the building blocks in place so when you needto take decisions you can make them in context,” said Warner. This willinvolve holding lengthy sessions with staff and unions. Bear in mind that localunion officials, accustomed to leaving negotiations to national leaders, mayneed training in this area. Realise too that while any move to local negotiation will undoubtedly bechallenging, the Socpo proposals provide for a continuing national framework toset overall pay budgets and advise on best practice. “We’re not saying let’s tear up national pay bargainingaltogether,” said Warner. “We still need some benchmarks set out at anational level. The emphasis should be on “setting a climate in whichpeople will be tempted to make the shift”. What is being proposed here, isnot “dramatically radical so much as relevant”, added. Mallett, meanwhile, is “eternally optimistic that when the chips aredown, local government falls back on commonsense”. “What Socpo recommends will work. More importantly it will make senseto the people who have to deliver,” she said. Socpo’s proposals in a nutshell– Abolishing the National Pay Spine(“an inconsistent and outmoded product of history”), which sets outspecific salary levels for all employee groups – An end to the specific procedures for negotiating terms andconditions laid out in Part 3 of the 1997 Single Status Agreement – The maintenance of a watered-down national pay body thatwould set overall local authority pay awards, yet leave decisions on howbudgets are allocated to the discretion of local employers. The national bodywould act as an overall framework, responsible for best practice advice – Rejecting regional pay bargaining, which has “none ofthe advantages of national standards” and many disadvantages in terms of”constraining the ability to produce local pay strategies”– A move away from the irrelevant low pay and genderdiscussions that have dominated the local government remuneration debate Comments are closed. last_img read more

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