Treasury guidance on furlough pay of museum staff 'untenable', union says

Prospect union says not paying 20% top up to workers on the Job Retention Scheme would be “unacceptable”

Some employers, including the Science Museum (above) are topping up furlough pay, but approval is on a case-by-case basis. Photo: PA

The Treasury has told the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport not to allow museums and other cultural arm’s-length bodies to top up salaries of workers furloughed during the coronavirus crisis, a union has said.

The exchequer’s Job Retention Scheme allows employers to furlough workers and funds 80% of their salaries, up to £2,500. When he announced the scheme in March, chancellor Rishi Sunak said employers “can top up salaries further if they choose to”.

But the Treasury has told DCMS this should not be the policy for its ALBs, the Prospect union, which represents public-sector professionals, said. Instead, it has said heritage-sector ALBs that receive central government funding should retain any extra funds to help ease other cost pressures, rather than paying the 20% top-up.


DCMS is the sponsor body for more than 30 non-departmental public bodies, including several national museums and galleries.

In the last 24 hours, some employers – including the British Museum, Science Museum Group and the Natural History Museum – have been given the green light to furlough workers on their full salaries. However, this is happening on a case-by-case basis, which the union said remained unacceptable as overarching guidance was still not to top up wages.

Prospect said the implication of a 20% wage cut would be “dire for many workers”, especially since many museum staff earn “at or around the living wage”.

“Prospect union, which represents heritage workers, and other unions will not accept furlough of these workers on just 80% of salaries and will urge members to reject it too. The JRS requires agreement before staff can be furloughed,” the union said.

It added that civil servants in central departments who are unable to carry out non-essential jobs from home are being paid their full salaries, while staff at the National Museums of Scotland are having their furloughed salaries topped up too.

“This is entirely the right thing to do and demonstrates how untenable the Treasury’s position is in relation to these heritage employers,” Prospect said.

Prospect national secretary Alan Leighton said: “The government should be leading by example on topping up furloughed workers’ wages, instead the Treasury are blocking some employers from doing so even where they are willing to fund this from their own income or reserves. This is unacceptable and will be strongly opposed by Prospect and other unions.”

“Given that other ALBs do seem to be able to top-up salaries it is extraordinary that heritage seems to have been singled out in this way by government,” he said.

“Government must urgently rethink this policy, support its own heritage workers, and make clear that they want other employers to do as they do, not just as they say.”

A government spokesperson 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.

“It may be appropriate for a public sector employee’s pay to be topped up under the scheme, in some exceptional cases.”

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