Iron Angle: Work itself is a bonus at Birmingham City Council
There are occasions in Birmingham local government when even seasoned observers are forced to sit back, take a deep breath of fresh air and check that they have not somehow been transported to a Victorian rotten borough or, perhaps, the set of an edgy satirical political television drama.
The immediate fallout from the result of an employment tribunal, which found the city council to have been treating thousands of women employees unfairly, is just such an occasion.
It is necessary, briefly, to rehearse the main issues in the test case of Barker and others versus Birmingham City Council.
Employment Judge Goodier was asked to decide whether 4,000 women – mainly cleaners, care workers, cooks and clerks – had been discriminated against because men employed on similar pay grades were earning three times or even four times as much because the council paid them huge cash bonuses for simply bothering to turn up to work.
Judge Goodier duly found in favour of the women, variously describing hefty “bonus” payments handed out to men for tasks such as collecting garden waste, picking up all of the refuse sacks they were in any case contracted to pick up and completing their rounds on time as a “sham” and “untenable”.
My personal favourite is something euphemistically called “policy pay” for refuse workers, which amounted to a 20 per cent increase on basic pay.
Asked by Judge Goodier to define policy pay, council witnesses could not do so, nor could they give any plausible explanation as to why supposed productivity payments were made with no attempt to monitor or measure productivity.
The tribunal’s finding against the council could be very costly for the public purse in Birmingham.
Firstly, it exposes the gamble taken by cabinet equalities and human resources member Alan Rudge, who decided to offer three years’ back pay in an attempt to buy out equal pay claims by women workers, rather than the statutory maximum of six years back pay.
Those who accepted Coun Rudge’s offer may now have further claims, while thousands of others who were not offered any form of compensation for being discriminated against are likely to be asking m’learned friends to get them to an employment tribunal pronto.
Secondly, the tribunal judgment throws open the possibility of virtually any council employee, female or male, bringing a claim that they are being treated unfairly when compared with colleagues performing a similar task.
The total bill, according to solicitors – so treat this with a pinch of salt – could be £3 billion.
It is, however, the reaction to Judge Goodier’s ruling that tempts one to seek solace in an improving book, or perhaps to go for a long walk in the countryside.
Labour spin doctors in London were quick off the mark, seeking to present the city council’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition as a bunch of incompetent, merciless, misogynists discriminating against downtrodden women.
Sir Albert Bore, leader of the council’s opposition group, fumed that the whole issue of equal pay had been mishandled. Birmingham would now pay the price.
Yes, well, mishandled indeed, but not necessarily by the current Tory-Lib Dem administration.
The outrageous and indefensible “bonus” payments were in fact put in place largely during the 21 years of Labour council rule from the mid 1980s to 2004 as the party bowed to trade union demands. Union demands which, incidentally, were expressly designed to reward male employees over low-paid women.
The first part of Judge Goodier’s ruling sheds light on the chaos encircling Sir Albert as his period as leader of the council shuddered to a sticky end in the run-up to the 2004 city elections.
Desperately attempting to hatch a deal on Single Status pay negotiations, Albert was faced by the unions’ position that “it was the fault of Birmingham City Council” that employees were receiving bonus payments and that it would be unfair to remove them.
Negotiations broke down between 2001 and 2004, and there was little progress on implementing equal pay until the Tory-Lib Dem administration began to grapple with the issue in 2005.
A press release from Labour commenting on the tribunal beggars belief, even in the middle of a General Election campaign. It says: “Councils knew that the bonuses paid to these job groups were likely to be discriminatory and something had to be done about it, but nothing was.”
Something had to be done, but nothing was? A familiar, and sorry story.