Council votes against living wage employer proposal

Labour councillor Jocelynne Scutt

Labour councillor Jocelynne Scutt put forward the motion for Cambridgeshire County Council to become an accredited employer with the Real Living Wage Foundation. - Credit: YOUTUBE/ANTONY CARPEN

Cambridgeshire County Council has voted against a proposal for it to become an accredited employer with the Real Living Wage Foundation.

The opposition Labour group put forward a motion to a session of the full council on Tuesday (March 16) that the council pay the “Real Living Wage” now and in the future.

The Real Living Wage Foundation’s current “Real Living Wage” is £9.50 an hour outside of London – compared with the legal minimum of £8.72 an hour for those aged over 25.

The county council’s current lowest hourly rate is £9.25.

The Real Living Wage rate is calculated annually by the Resolution Foundation, “based on the best available evidence about living standards in London and the UK”.

The annual per-hour figure is set by a “calculation made according to the cost of living, based on a basket of household goods and services”.

The motion put forward to the full council was defeated by the Conservative majority group.

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Labour councillor Jocelynne Scutt put forward the motion, and said: “We must adopt this motion if we are to treat all of our workers fairly”.

“There will be Cambridgeshire County Council workers who are visitors to food banks. Some of our employees are food insecure.

"That it is our obligation to acknowledge,” she said, adding “all workers should be paid a wage that meets everyone’s everyday needs”.

Conservative councillor Josh Schumann was one of a number of councillors who argued against the commitment.

Cllr Schumann said an “impartial” briefing note provided by council officers said: “If the council were to become a real living wage employer we would have to sign up to any future pay increases that are yet unknown”.

He said “that is simply irresponsible – it’s not the kind of fiscal management this council adopts and it’s the kind of leap of faith that could land this council and the taxpayers of Cambridgeshire into positions that we just don’t know.”.

He said negotiations with staff over pay are “national negotiations” and added "I wish to stay part of those national negotiations.

"This is because the clout and security it provides for our employees, when they know they are part of a bigger organisation that can negotiate their pay, for me far outweighs any sort of virtue signalling that you can get from trying to say that we just want to pay more and we are going to go it alone”.

He noted the council’s minimum hourly pay rate has increased from £7.07 in 2015 to £9.25 now.

The leader of the council, Conservative Steve Count, reference the national pay negotiations and said: “I’m surprised that [the Labour Party] would be willing to undermine their local unions in this way”.

He said it “undermines the vast majority of our staff by taking us out of pay negotiations” and said it “is not really the way I want to go forward”.

And he added: “It’s through efficiency and productivity that we will be able to afford to pay everybody a much better wage”.

Conservative councillor Steve Tierney said: “I’m always in support of anything that helps people live a better life and have a better time but I think we approach these things too simplistically sometimes.

"We forget that it the council is going to pay more through staff than there are only a limited number of places that that rise can come from”.

He criticised the Labour group, saying: “When you make a virtue-signalling motion you ignore all the consequences that you will later cause”.

The leader of the Liberal Democrat group, councillor Lucy Nethsingha, said the cost for the council to increase its lowest pay scale to the Real Living Wage for the year would be £7,343 – a figure included in a Labour budget amendment on the same subject earlier in the year.

“I think this is something that Cambridgeshire could afford to do on that basis and therefore I will be supporting,” she said.

But two Lib Dem councillors announced that although they said they supported the council paying the Real Living Wage, they would abstain on the basis that they are also members of South Cambridgeshire District Council, which pays more than the Real Living Wage, but that has not committed to the pledge to raise pay annually in line with the Foundation’s assessments.

Labour councillor Claire Richards noted Labour-run Cambridge City Council is accredited as a Real Living Wage employer, and added: “I don’t see why it precludes negotiations with the trade unions, I do not see that at all. It is my understanding the unions support the Real Living Wage”.

She also said that staff working in the care sector have “risked their lives” and said “we should be paying them the Real Living Wage”.

Cllr Scutt concluded the debate by saying that the suggestion becoming an accredited employer would be “lacking in business acumen” is not consistent with the range of “top level companies” and businesses large and small that have taken on the commitment.

The motion was defeated with 32 votes against, 20 votes for, and four abstentions.