Government must raise ‘out-of-date’ mileage rates for struggling public service staff, says UNISON.

Mileage rates are woefully out of date. Research shows that the ‘mileage gap’ is costing NHS, social care, police and local government employees up to £6,000 a year

Out-of-date mileage rates are leaving frontline workers out of pocket, with some of the lowest-paid workers losing up to £6,000 a year, UNISON can reveal.

Using UNISON data, The RAC Foundation, a transport policy and research organisation, has calculated that approved mileage allowance payments (AMAPs) should be 63.4p per mile, a significant increase on the existing HMRC rate of 45p, which has not been updated since 2011.

The ‘mileage gap’ – the difference between what workers can claim back and what the RAC Foundation calculates the costs are – is costing NHS, social care, police and local government employees up to £6,000 a year.

Working as a social worker is stressful enough as it is

One in five UNISON members use a car for work. The majority of these are social care and local government workers in community-facing roles who drive to visit clients or patients in their homes, or to check that vulnerable residents or children are safe. The median salary of a public service worker required to drive for work is £22,499.

UNISON member Adya is a social worker in Birmingham who has a one-year-old child. She says: “I am having to deny myself a lot of things to ensure I can drive into work, visit clients and make a difference. Sometimes I’ll go to bed having eaten just a yoghurt, because I need to make sure my child has the best I can afford of everything.

“Working as a social worker is stressful enough as it is, without having to check my fuel every morning before I leave, hoping and praying I can afford that day’s visits. It is leaving me with sleepless nights.”

Adya is one of many. According to UNISON data, more than two in five UNISON members who use their car for work are skipping meals and one in five are avoiding cooking hot food, in order to cut down on living costs.

How the mileage gap affects workers

  • NHS worker on Agenda for Change rates driving two hours daily: £6,087.64 a year out of pocket
  • Care worker on HMRC rates driving two hours daily: £5,127.04 out of pocket
  • Local government worker on NJC rates driving two hours daily: £6,406.32 out of pocket.

Outside of the main HMRC rates, alternative benchmarks exist for public service workers within their collective pay agreement terms and conditions, and across NJC and NHS Agenda for Change terms. In Scotland, local government rates are set by each local authority.

For NHS staff on Agenda for Change terms, mileage is paid at 59p per mile for the first 3,500 miles and 24p per mile over 3,500 miles.

However, Anne, a child health assistant in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland, said the 3,500 mile cap needs to be addressed, as well as the mileage rates.

She says: “I spend my days driving to around six homes per day. Some months I’m doing 400 miles, and some over 600. The mileage calculations run from the tax year, so the first six months are fine. But when I hit December, I’ve gone over 3,500 miles and I’m onto the lower rate of mileage. Fuel-wise I’m spending more than what I’m getting paid and it’s not enough.”

It’s frustrating being out of pocket and seeing your money depleted by working life

In Northern Ireland, the health minister Robin Swann announced a temporary increase in mileage rate payments for health trust staff, so that miles driven over 3,500 miles will be reimbursed at 30p per mile up until September 2023.

However, Anne says that she hasn’t seen this uplift put into practice. “There’s been no adjustment. It’s frustrating being out of pocket and seeing your money depleted by working life.”

UNISON member Carmella is a community nurse in Rutland. Her job is costing her £400 a month in fuel. Though she’s spoken to her managers and now works from home two days a week, she spends an average of £50 each driving day on petrol.

“We are paid so much a mile for fuel, but this has not changed in the 12 years I have been working in the community,” she says.

“I am having to cut back on food. Luckily it’s summer, so I can prepare meals that don’t need much cooking. I am worried that I will not be able to pay for the fuel to put in my car, to do my job.”

UNISON is campaigning for the government and employers to take urgent action to increase mileage rates.

UNISON’s recommendations for government

  • Increase mileage rates, now, to 63.4p per mile, and commit to a quarterly review and recalculation to coincide with Advisory Fuel Rate calculations*.
  • Restructure AMAPs to raise the cap from 3,500 to 10,000 miles – and ensure mileage rate tiers are removed in NJC and Agenda for Change terms too.
  • Take urgent action on public sector pay and low wages, so that staff are not in such a vulnerable financial situation again.
  • Invest in a public sector Electric Vehicle (EV) fleet rollout, ensuring the funding is available to public bodies to offer all grey fleet (meaning cars that are owned by the employee but used for work purposes) drivers the option to use an EV to drive between clients or sites.
  • Explore introducing a grey fleet scrappage scheme similar to the Mayor of London’s ultra lower emission zone (ULEZ) scheme that supports low-income drivers to scrap the highest polluting vehicles. 

* the rates set by government to assist businesses in reimbursing or being reimbursed for fuel costs of company cars.

While workers wait for central government to take action, a number of public sector employers have already increased mileage rates, including North Derbyshire Mental Health Trust, which has increased the rate for mileage up to 3,500 miles from 56p to 71p.

In Hounslow, UNISON secured an increase in car mileage rates to 65p a mile for the first 10,000 miles and 45p thereafter. UNISON Hounslow Local Government branch secretary Bill Reed explains how that was achieved.

“In May 2022, petrol prices were rapidly increasing and workers were questioning whether the council would increase rates. We submitted a backdated claim for 55p on behalf of 800 members and, while waiting for the council to respond, workers started submitting mileage claims with the rate we were asking for, which put good pressure on.

“The council replied four months later, offering 65p per mile, without backpay, and members accepted. It’s made a huge difference to people.”

Mr Reed describes how vital it is to reframe how mileage costs are viewed: “It’s not an allowance or a grant, it’s a repayment from the council to us, for them using our cars for their business.”

Some of our members had made suggestions about potentially leaving their job

In Knowsley, UNISON pushed for a temporary 38% uplift in mileage rates to 50.5p per mile for essential car users and 65p per mile for casual car users, between August 2022 and March 2023.

UNISON Knowsley branch secretary James Robinson says: “It started from members coming to us and asking what the union could do with the rising fuel prices. We ran a survey on how the fuel price increases were affecting members and approached the council saying that we’d be filing a collective grievance on behalf of 1,556 members.

“We managed to secure that increase at a time when fuel spiked almost overnight for people. Some of our members had made suggestions about potentially leaving their job [for one] where they didn’t have to use their car, so it did a job of retaining those staff as well.”

For branches that want to take matters into their own hands, UNISON has produced a  guide on bargaining for mileage rates.

A failure to act now risks worsening the already dire staffing crisis

UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea comments: “Mileage rates are woefully out of date. No one should pay a penalty effectively for doing their job, least of all those providing vital services.

“Petrol prices have skyrocketed. Care workers, nurses and other frontline employees can barely make their incomes stretch to cover the basics, let alone the costs of using their vehicles for work.

“The government must tackle low pay now, not threaten to hold public sector wages down. Essential staff shouldn’t be out of pocket for going to work. A failure to act now risks worsening the already dire staffing crisis.”

Steve Gooding, director of The RAC Foundation, says: “We know that some of our most important workers – those employed in health and social services, and in supporting roles, often working outside ‘normal’ office hours – need to drive their cars for work, but are being left out of pocket by the failure of ministers to sanction an uplift in the amount per mile they can receive tax-free for getting around to do their job.”

Last month, UNISON hosted an event in Parliament, ahead of a Westminster Hall debate, to present these research findings to MPs. The union will continue to lobby the government on this in the lead-up to the autumn statement later this year.