Public sector pay to be cut in poorer areas

George Osborne to end national pay deals in Wednesday's Budget.

Teachers, nurses and other public sector workers in poorer parts of the country face pay cuts of up to 10 per cent.

George Osborne is expected to announce the end of national pay deals in Wednesday's Budget, meaning that workers will be paid in line with local costs of living. The news led both the Guardian and Telegraph newspapers this morning, and was accompanied by reports that the 50p tax rate for those earning over £150,000 a year will be cut to 45p.

The argument in favour of ending national pay deals is that they are unfair to workers in the south-east where housing, transport and goods are more expensive. In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, public sector workers earn 10 per cent more than their private sector counterparts, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

As the Guardian reported:

The chancellor will argue that public sector pay should mimic the private sector and be more reflective of local economies. He intends to start the process in three Whitehall departments in the coming financial year, as part of a phased introduction.

Critics say the move will entrench economic divisions between north and south and depress regions of the country already struggling in the economic downturn.

It has not yet been decided if localised pay will apply only to new staff or to existing staff as well, but it was being stressed that no current employee would suffer a pay cut. Instead pay levels will gradually be adjusted to take account of costs, leading to larger pay rises in the south-east where some labour shortages exist.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.