Right of Reply: Rodney Bickerstaffe

The general secretary of Unison responds to David Aaronovitch's article on public pay
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The Independent Culture
DAVID AARONOVITCH'S pleasant conceit to use the monetary unit of a "nurse" (the equivalent of a nurse's average pay of pounds 13,000 a year) to compare relative salaries, underscores the less than rational basis on which people are paid in our country. But I am sorry he finds it necessary to conclude that the answer is to pay selectively on the basis of individual performance.

Most jobs in the public services are done by women. They are badly paid. Their work is undervalued. After 30 years of equal pay caring, cleaning or catering are still seen as "women's work" and accordingly paid less. The problem is that the whole pay structure for large groups of health and education staff is too low. Unions and employers have devised imaginative and flexible agreements. But if salaries are too low, damaging skill shortages will appear once unemployment falls.

Productive efficiency requires the co-operation of workers in any sector - and low pay, poor conditions, harsh supervisory regimes and unemployment are a bad way of achieving it. But in providing public services, often to people who are ill, vulnerable or distressed, co-operative working and high-trust relationships are essential. One of the casualties of 20 years of contracting out has been the idea of the health "team" - for often it is the domestic on the ward who comforts a dying elderly woman, not just because the nurses have no time, but because she speaks her language and feels her pain. It was mean spirited of David to speak of such people as "too dim, too inflexible, too bolshie to succeed".

The hard truth is that more money is needed to sustain civilised standards of service - and these depend irreducibly on the people who provide them.