A gagging order issued by Birmingham City Council is preventing the publication of potentially embarrassing material about plans to impose wage cuts on hundreds of local authority workers.
Council lawyers are blocking a Freedom of Information Act request by The Birmingham Post to disclose all correspondence and reports relating to negotiations on Single Status - the Government-led initiative to end pay inequalities between men and women and blue and white collar jobs.
Using its powers under Section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act, the council decided to refuse The Post's request on the grounds that disclosure of the information requested would be likely to "inhibit the free and frank provision of advice and exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation".
Publication of the material by a newspaper would hamper sensitive union negotiations, the council argued.
In a formal letter to The Post, the council explained why it was refusing to comply: "Consideration of the public interest in disclosure is weighed against the potential detrimental impact that disclosure would have, and in this case it was felt that the potential detrimental impact that disclo-sure would have to the negotiations with the trade unions would far outweigh any public benefit from the advance release of information."
The council would release the information when negotiations with the unions are completed. It did agree to release Single Status reports dated between June 29 2004, when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took control of Birmingham, to December 31 2004.
The documents show that: The cost of wage rises and grading reviews under Single Status is estimated at £14 million a year - about three per cent on the wage bill; The council does not hold any records estimating how many employees will have their salary increased, how many face a wage cut and how many will remain on the same pay; Pension entitlement for employees suffering a wage cut can be protected for 13.5 years; By August 2004 the council had managed to evaluate the jobs of only 300 employees, against a target of 3,500
Council leaders are midway through consulting the unions, but have vowed to introduce Single Status on April 1 next year irrespective of the progress of negotiations.
The new system will put paid to hefty bonuses, often in excess of £10,000 a year, enjoyed by manual staff in the highways and street lighting units while increasing wages for low-paid staff including office cleaners and school cooks.
In replying to The Post's request the council said it does not hold records about the likely impact on wages.
Alan Rudge, cabinet member for human resources, said there were as yet no firm estimates.
But he expected about 8,000 of the 38,000 employees affected would be better off.
A "smaller number" would be worse off although most would suffer only marginally.
However, Coun Rudge (Con Sutton Vesey) admitted: "A very small number of people will suffer at a significant level."
He stressed that measures would be put in place to protect for a maximum of three years the salaries of employees facing severe cuts.
Workers qualifying for enhanced pay could have wage rises backdated for six years.