Tate is one of the national institutions that will offer the 100% top-up to furloughed workers. Pictured: Tate Modern, London

Treasury U-turns on top-up pay for furloughed national museum workers

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 24.04.2020
But there are concerns that 20% top-up could count against museums in future funding requests
The government has backed down from its stance that furloughed workers at national museums and galleries cannot have their pay topped up to 100%.

A row broke out earlier this week after it emerged that the Treasury had told the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) that arm’s length bodies, including national museums and galleries, should use their funding to deal with other cost pressures instead of paying a 20% top-up to employees furloughed under the government’s Covid-19 Job Retention Scheme, which covers 80% of salaries.

The move led to an outcry in the museum sector, where many of the affected workers are already on low wages and would be severely affected by the loss of pay. Alan Leighton, the national secretary of Prospect, the union that represents workers in the cultural sector, said at the time that “it was extraordinary that heritage seems to have been singled out in this way by government”.

The Museums Association's policy manager, Alistair Brown, said: "Government should be respecting the arms-length principle and allowing museums to make the right decision here."

Union representatives subsequently met senior DCMS officials to make the case that workers should be paid the additional amount. National museums and galleries also presented a unified case to government for topping up wages. Museums Journal understands that some took legal advice that the Treasury had no ability to prevent employers from paying the top-up.

Following the meeting, the DCMS confirmed that the Treasury was prepared to consider allowing the top-up in exceptional cases, although museums and galleries were told that the top-up should not come from grant-in-aid. Since then it has not yet turned down a top-up request.

Several national museums and galleries have confirmed that they've been cleared to pay the additional amount, including the Science Museum Group, Tate, National Portrait Gallery, Natural History Museum, British Museum and National Museums Liverpool. Others are still awaiting government decisions, while some have not yet furloughed any staff.

But Museums Journal understands that there are concerns that the decision to pay the extra 20% in wages may count against museums when they request grant-in-aid in future. One source said that the Treasury’s position – that topping up would reduce the funding available for other cost pressures – was a clear indication that it would take top-up decisions into account when assessing funding requests.

Leighton said: "It looks as if some good progress has been made on the top-up issue but it is vital that in the medium to long term the government is persuaded of the need to provide additional funding to cover the loss of self-generated income."

A government spokeswoman said: “The coronavirus job retention scheme is designed to protect businesses and jobs across the economy at this unprecedented time.

“We expect all decisions by public sector employers accessing the scheme to be taken on a value-for-money basis and we have always been clear that it may be appropriate for a public sector employee’s pay to be topped up under the scheme, in some exceptional cases.”

The government says it will continue working with national museums to assess the financial impact of coronavirus and consider future financial measures.

Update
28.04.2020

Edited to include a response from the UK Government.

Comments

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27.04.2020, 15:35
While this is of course good news for those in nationally-funded museums (and I am pleased to see this change of heart by UKGov), I am concerned at the way this has been covered both in the national press and here. It ignores the wider sector who have had to furlough staff.

It would be nice if some reference could be made that this only covers a small number of museums, many other museums (run by charitable trusts for example) have put their staff on furlough simply to avoid financial disaster-it was that or make staff redundant as the museums simply didn't have the money to cover salaries during the Lockdown. For those working in those museums, there is no possibility of the topup. I have had comments from non-museum friends already going "at least you museum types are getting your full salary while furloughed" and it's taken a lot to explain to them why for a lot in the sector, this isn't the case.

This is not a criticism of the museum doing the topup, indeed I am delighted to see they have taken this step, but from an advocacy angle, the fact it hasn't be highlighted clearly that only a part of the sector are getting this topup, must be viewed as a communications failure.
29.04.2020, 08:47
Hi Jason,
Thanks for your feedback about this and I take your point. We have covered the furlough scheme and impact it has had on the sector more widely in other articles, but I should have made clear that this piece only refers to the nationals. I've changed the headline to reflect this more accurately.
Best,
Geraldine