The Chancellor needs to provide clarity and set out clear proposals on pay for the civil service and the wider public sector as part of the budget. Civil servants can be forgiven for being cynical as to what the government’s position is on pay. Carefully crafted statements seem designed to assuage the public mood (who support the lifting of the 1% cap) – but have not signalled a meaningful shift in practice.
The prime minister has made statements about recognising the sacrifices that public servants have made in what can be seen as a “lost decade” for many on pay. Pats on the back and warm words however do not pay the bills. The prime minister and others have also been very careful and selective in the examples they have given when talking about the impact of the 1% cap - making repeated reference to staff “benefiting” for pay progression. Not in the civil service they haven’t - and it was Conservative ministers who were the architects of the withdrawal of arrangements that the prime minister seeks to rely on to defend her position. The prime minister is either being poorly advised or playing fast and loose with the truth.
Similarly - statements are made about the role of review bodies. This year the Senior Salaries Review Body questioned their ongoing relevance given their terms of reference were so prescriptive it gave then little scope to address the issues they were faced with. Importantly, the vast majority of civil servants are not covered by pay review bodies - their pay is determined by guidance issued by the Treasury. On that issue there has been a resounding silence.
The government has also sought to use the smokescreen of pensions and pit private sector worker off against public sector worker. We know however that the Cabinet Office and the Treasury are sitting on independently commissioned evidence that points to the fact that the public sector and the civil service in particular is lagging behind the private sector not only in terms of pay but also “total reward” including pensions.
A cursory examination of the civil service people survey reflects this reality. The vast majority of staff believe that they would be better rewarded elsewhere doing similar jobs. Almost half are struggling to achieve a reasonable work life balance in the face of headcount reductions and increasing work loads. Pay in real terms has fallen by around 15%, the civil service has reduced in size by around a quarter, workloads for many have exploded. Lectures about increasing “productivity” which the Treasury and Cabinet Office struggle even to define will be met with derision by many given their day to day experience. Working in the civil service is now increasingly synonymous with low pay and long hours.
Over the past number of months - thousands of Prospect members have written to their MPs on the issue of pay. Good constituency MPs have raised the issue with the Treasury and continue to press the issue. Responses from the Treasury show a disdain for civil servants or a detachment from reality. The idea that the pay cap has saved jobs is ludicrous when you look at where and how the axe has fallen.
This government lauds the private sector - but no private sector employer would take the approach to pay and reward that this government has done and believe that it paves the way to corporate success. To state that the current policy is sustainable – you would have to be a fool or a liar. Organisations are reporting increasing difficulty in recruiting and retaining the skilled staff they need.
At this year’s general election, the majority of the electorate voted for an ending of the 1% cap on public sector pay and increased investment in our public services. The budget provides the Chancellor with an opportunity to demonstrate that the government is listening. We need a lifting of the 1% cap – and funding provided to halt the erosion of pay in the public sector and bridge the increasing gap between pay in the public and the private sector. Prospect has also been calling for a truly independent review of the pay of our members working in the public sector.
If the Chancellor does not address the issue of public and civil service pay as part of the budget - he will be putting himself on a collision course with the work force and will be showing himself to be out of step with public opinion. Our public servants help defend, support and enhance the lives of citizens in the UK- they deserve better and it is about time the government recognised that.