Another budget, another unmissable opportunity for the opposition in Leeds City Council to use the “living wage” as a stick with which to beat the ruling Labour Party.
Last year it was the opposition Conservative Party who tabled an amendment, lecturing Labour leaders that it was about time the “living wage” was introduced at the council.
This year it’s the Lib-Dems who have tabled an amendment to the 2014-15 budget (that gets debated and passed tomorrow) calling for an end to “the scandal that means over 1,500 council staff receive less than the ‘living wage’ of £7.65 an hour”.
Like the Tory one last year, this year’s proposal will be voted down by the Labour majority.
“Hang on,” I hear you ask, “isn’t the Living Wage a key LABOUR Party policy? Isn’t it what Ed Miliband and his crew are always banging on about? How come it’s the Con-Dems who have been pushing it in Leeds and not Labour?”
Well, it appears that pronouncing about the Living Wage as a matter of policy principle or from the moral high ground of opposition is one thing, making it happen and sustaining it at one of the country’s biggest councils in the current economic climate is another.
Ask the Labour-run council in neighbouring Bradford. They carried out a pretty exhaustive enquiry into the issue last year and came up with as many questions as answers (check out the Key Findings of their report).
Two-tier wage policy?
What’s the problem?
First you’ve got to find the money: £2.3m would be needed, say the Leeds Lib-Dems, to bring those 1,500 staff up to £7.65 hourly wage rates. (They’d take it out of the council’s reserves)
Then you’ve got to be certain that as a council you’re going to be able to cope with the permanent uncertainty that would come with having a two-tier wage policy, with one tier – the Living Wage – set annually by an outside body over which you have no control.
That’s before you get to factoring in the likely knock-ons for those working for schools (not covered by the Lib-Dem calculations), and, in the long term, for the thousands of workers employed by firms that the council contracts work out to. Equal pay? Tricky.
And then there are the pay-scale issues. Bring the 1,500 lowest-paid workers up to the Living Wage and you’ll almost inevitably end up with some staff suddenly earning the same as their supervisors. Career paths and pay differentials thrown into confusion at a stroke.
None of this is necessarily insurmountable – they implemented it in Birmingham in 2012 – but none of it is easy either.
Which is why, presumably, it’s a long time coming in Leeds.
There’s obvious scope, for example, for narrowing the difference between the highest and lowest paid in the council – in Leeds the chief executive currently earns 14 times as much as his lowest paid colleague, up from 13 times last year – but you might have a struggle getting most better-off staff and their unions to buy in to such solidarity.
So what’s the situation now with the Living Wage and Leeds City Council?
Well, after last year’s conservative proposal to introduce it was voted down, there were indications that Labour was looking to include it in the 2014-15 budget. Here’s a tweet from a Labour councillor at the time (27 Feb 2013):
There was a pledge too from Labour council leader Keith Wakefield, who told the budget meeting last year that “by working with trade unions to make more savings, this Council will become a fair wage Council next year.”
Fair wage? Living wage? Whichever, it hasn’t happened, and isn’t happening in tomorrow’s budget. Talks with the unions were still going on last month.
“We are very much committed to making Leeds a Living Wage economy and are still negotiating with the trade unions to determine how we can deliver the savings we need to be able to finance the scheme for council employees,” Cllr Wakefield told the Leeds Citizen in January.
In the meantime provision has been made in the 2014-15 budget for a 1% pay award across the board (subject to national pay negotiations). That will mean an extra £126 a year if you’re on the lowest salary of £12,600, £1,500 a year if you’re on £150,000.