Brighton and Hove council chief speaks out about binmen’s dispute

Posted On 17 May 2013 at 3:34 pm

Council chief executive Penny Thompson is resending individual compensation offers to Brighton and Hove’s binmen and street cleaners.

Letters were first sent last week but dozens were ripped up or handed back unopened when the refuse crews marched on Brighton Town Hall on Thursday (9 May).

She was concerned, she said, that as a result many of those caught up in the dispute would be unaware that they could be entitled to a four-figure sum of money.

The money is intended to compensate those who stand to lose out as Brighton and Hove City Council works on bringing in a new set of allowances.

She said: “For some of the staff who were very angry and upset they didn’t even want to entertain what the offer was.”

When the proposed changes were announced, staff at the Cityclean depot in Hollingdean went on unofficial strike.

Penny Thompson

Penny Thompson

Ms Thompson went to the depot to speak to them last Wednesday (8 May). She said: “Meeting the staff reinforced to me that we needed to get the information to them by post.

“They weren’t in a mood to receive the information so I resolved that it would be posted out that night as the best way of calmly conveying the facts. And it was.

Concerned

“I was concerned that they should look at the facts of the case as it affected them individually.

“We’ve resolved to send letters out again and we’re continuing to offer to meet staff.”

She said that surgery-style sessions were being held “not where we’re talking at staff but where we’re listening to their concerns” and there was also an in-house helpline.

Questions being raised in one-to-one meetings with managers were not just being answered but when the answers affected more than one person they were being posted on the staff intranet, she said.

Two days after walking out the binmen and street cleaners went back to work. The backlog of rubbish is still being cleared.

Since then the street cleaners and binmen’s union, the GMB, has since decided to hold a formal strike ballot, overseen by the independent Electoral Reform Society.

The ballot opens on Wednesday (22 May) and closes on Friday 7 June. The result should be known the same day.

If the binmen and street cleaners vote for industrial action, any official strike would be expected to start no sooner than a week after the ballot result was declared.

Changes

The changes to staff allowances affect about 1,000 of about 8,000 council employees. The 8,000 do not include teachers.

Of the 1,000 staff who are affected by the changes, the council said that about 550 should be better off and 450 are expected to be worse off.

The average gain is about £1,100 and the average loss is about £1,000. Compensation is based on the amount likely to be lost over three years.

Cityclean staff confront council leader Councillor Jason Kitcat outside Brighton Town Hall

Cityclean staff confront council leader Councillor Jason Kitcat outside Brighton Town Hall

So for a worker expected to lose £1,000, the compensation payment would be £3,000.

Street cleaners and binmen currently earn £15,444 at £8 an hour for a 37-hour week. This will not change.

Some receive up to an extra £4,800 a year. Most of those who lose out will be between £600 and £2,000 a year worse off.

All the numbers are best estimates, not least because they are based on allowances for things such as overtime and car mileage which can vary widely from week to week.

The GMB has said that its members would lose between £5 and £95 a week. The union has also said that some members – thought to be as few as three people – would lose as much as £4,000 a year.

The biggest group to lose out is based at Cityclean. Of about 270 workers there, most will be worse off with just two expected to gain and about a dozen unaffected.

Readier

The rest of those losing out are spread around a number of the 800 services provided by the council. Only those working at Cityclean are balloting on whether to strike.

Traditionally they have proved readier to use their collective bargaining power than, say, carers and social workers.

One member of Cityclean staff said: “It’s all well and good sending out letters but some of the men working on the bins don’t find reading all that easy.”

He also said that highly paid council officers had “no idea what this is going to mean to those of us who rely on overtime just to feed our families”.

Council chief executive Penny Thompson said: “For most people this doesn’t have an impact. For the 10 per cent on whom it does have an impact, I don’t want to minimise that.

“They are anxious, angry and concerned. I understand and empathise with that. But the existing mish-mash of arrangements are unfair although they weren’t meant to be.”

In part, she said, these were a result of the merger of Brighton Borough Council and Hove Borough Council 16 years ago. At that time, the council also inherited staff from East Sussex County Council.

The historic differences in pay grades among workers inherited from the three councils have been aligned after court and tribunal rulings and changes to the law.

Similar pressures are believed to be in play with allowances although some of the discrepancies also reflect localised agreements.

Fair

Ms Thompson said that the new arrangements were intended to be “fair, comprehensible, consistent, affordable and transparent”.

She said: “The proposals we have put out meet those criteria but our minds aren’t closed if there are better ways of doing this that meet the criteria.”

The negotiating team held further talks with union representatives yesterday (Thursday 16 May).

Ms Thompson said that the proposed changes had been prompted by a sincere desire to have an open and transparent pay and allowances scheme.

“We’ve been at the forefront of councils offering the living wage and reducing the pay differential between senior officers and those who receive the least.

“A lot of our citizens might imagine that in one large organisation you would have one set of pay and conditions (for comparable jobs) but that isn’t the case at the moment.”

A report to councillors in January said: “A significant number of staff receive allowances and additional payments because of the nature and pattern of the work that they do.

“These allowances are locally determined but over time the current system has become complex, is based on historic requirements and is no longer fit for purpose.

Obligations

“Ensuring that the council maintains a fair and consistent pay and allowance system that takes into account current case law and changes in European Union law is critical to meeting its gender obligations under the Equality Act.

“Any negotiation of the pay and allowance system must therefore consider the equality implications and must not change or add elements that may give rise to gender inequality and potential equal pay claims.

“The proposals … will assist the council in minimising the risk of potential legal claims which, irrespective of their validity or merit, could be costly, time consuming and a distraction from achieving a speedy implementation of a consistent, modern and transparent system of pay and conditions.”

The report also said: “Although the council’s wish is to implement the scheme by agreement, that may not be possible for variety of reasons, including the legal position of the unions regarding any advice they give their members about settlements.

“In the event that there is no agreement for whatever reason or an agreement cannot be reached within reasonable timescales, it is proposed that officers be given authority to implement an appropriate modern pay package and take all necessary steps to secure implementation from October 2013.”

In an email to council leader Jason Kitcat earlier this year, GMB official Mark Turner raised his concerns about the prospect of a settlement being imposed.

He said that it would mean “serving three months’ notice on all your employees in the council and imposing new terms and conditions”.

He added: “This would mean dismissing them and re-engaging them which has never been done in Brighton and Hove to date.

Unrest

“You can imagine what kind of industrial unrest this would cause within the city.”

The three-month or 90-day consultation started last week and ends in early August.

In the meantime, Ms Thompson said: “We will keep up the opportunities for helping people to understand and discuss this.

“We have to coalesce the interests of the city and its citizens, the council and its workforce and that’s quite challenging in relation to this particular issue. They are all legitimate interests.

“We are public servants, including Cityclean, whose purpose is to serve the citizens of this city and the people who work here and visit and we mustn’t forget that.”

Cityclean staff could benefit from some possible changes in the pipeline, for example, efforts by the current administration to improve recycling rates, which could involve extra collections outside of usual working hours.

The potential for extra overtime may not please everyone, for example, some people living near the Hollingdean depot would oppose any extension of the current operating hours.

Ms Thompson said: “I don’t want anybody to think that we are at all taking for granted how serious this is for individuals but it can’t be left.

“We entered into these negotiations very much with the values of the organisation to the fore – open, collaborative and respectful of the unions and the job they have to do.

“All the time we’re in discussion and our preferred outcome would be to negotiate an agreed settlement as soon as we can practically achieve it.”

 

  1. Valerie Paynter Reply

    This should have been done at the time of unification…and wasn’t. All previous Administrations have a share of the blame for this.

    But people’s lives are organised and commitments are taken on based on their wages staying the same or going up. Compensation is a short-term sweetener. What about the long term?

    All that said, £8 an hour is, I believe, more than agency home helps get. And home helps have a lot of pressure on them along with sometimes unpleasant working conditions as they care for people’s needs.

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