Furlough top-up confusion in museum sector

The National Gallery. Some museums are topping up furloughed staff's salaries while others aren't.
Photo: Shutterstock

There is confusion over whether it is permissable for the salaries of furloughed staff to be topped up at some of the UK’s most valued cultural institutions.

The Job Retention Scheme funds 80% of furloughed workers’ salaries up to £2,500, with chancellor Rishi Sunak announcing in March at the scheme’s launch that employers could top up salaries further if they chose to.

But according to the Prospect Union, the national museums and galleries have had to submit requests to furlough staff and top up their salaries to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which in turn has had to seek approval from the Treasury.

Prospect has suggested that the Treasury issued guidance that arm’s length bodies in the heritage sector that receive some central funding should retain any cash reserves to deal with other cost pressures, instead of paying the 20% top-up above the 80% under the scheme.

In recent days, some prestigious employers in the sector, such as the Natural History Museum, V&A, Imperial War Museum, British Museum and Tate, were permitted to furlough workers on their full salaries. This would suggest that DCMS, the sponsor body for more than 30 non-departmental public bodies including several national museums and galleries, has not followed the internal guidance in many cases.

Prospect described this case by case approach as unacceptable because overarching guidance was still not to top up wages.

The union 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,” it stated.

Prospect national secretary Alan Leighton added: “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.”

He described it as extraordinary that heritage employers had been singled out in this manner and urged the government to rethink its policy.

“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: “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.”

The heritage sector employs about 190,000 people in the UK, according to ONS figures, with about 16,000 working at museums.

Personnel Today has contacted the Treasury and DCMS for further clarification.

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