Editorial: Election plus pay claim equals a strike

There's only a week until elections for local authorities in England and Scotland and for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. The strongest focus is on Scotland, where the advance of the Scottish National Party raises fundamental anxieties about the future of the Union. But the elections north of the border have also brought to a head some key questions for the voluntary sector all round the UK.

Quarriers is a long-established charity with an excellent reputation. It employs 1,750 people working on 100 social care projects, mostly on contract to local authorities. Members of those authorities, trying to hold down their council tax to enhance their hopes of re-election, have increased funding of their contracts with Quarriers by an average of only 1 per cent. Unison, which has 553 members in the charity's workforce, has asked for a 3.4 per cent pay rise, using persuasive information about increases in the cost of living.

Quarriers, already concerned about the way it subsidises its contracts from voluntary income, has offered 2.5 per cent, which it says is the average for the voluntary sector across Scotland. Thirty-one per cent of Unison members voted in a postal ballot on industrial action, and 65 per cent of those - or 108 individuals - voted to strike. So today, barring further developments, there will be a strike at four Quarriers projects, including a school for children with behavioural difficulties.

Quarriers is not anti-union and pays a branch secretary to work two days a week on Unison business. But it is understandably exasperated about the voting figures, and its chief executive, Phil Robinson, produces perhaps the most cogent warning about the dangers of the situation: "Where the local authority/Unison alliance succeeds in driving out the voluntary sector, we will not be replaced by a return to local authority-run services, but by the private sector, which pays less, does not recognise trade unions and provides poorer quality services." Unison and other unions are equally aware of this and have warned from time to time that service delivery by the voluntary sector can lead to "privatisation by another name".

More problems like this are building up in Scotland and elsewhere. Local and national politicians like to say they choose to give contracts to the voluntary sector because the service is better. But until they put their money where their mouths are on full cost recovery, and guarantee pay broadly comparable to the going rate in the public sector, the suspicion will always remain that they're actually trying to get things on the cheap.

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