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Austerity won’t be over until…public servants get the pay rise they deserve

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After eight years of austerity, every public sector worker deserves a decent pay rise - and we won't accept any cherrypicking in next week's Budget
Firefighters have lost £6,705.69 in real pay since 2008. Credit: Getty/Steve Stone

At this year’s Conservative Party conference, Theresa May announced with much fanfare that austerity was “over”.

Next week’s Budget will be the first chance to see if she meant what she said.

Because public sector workers have had a rough deal over the past decade or so.

On Monday the Chancellor has a chance to make some amends – and we’ll be watching closely to see if he takes it.

Because we’re clear that austerity won’t be over until our hardworking public servants get the pay rise they deserve.

Feeling the squeeze

The chart below gives an idea of the price that public sector workers have paid for austerity over the last decade:

Real terms public sector earnings growth 2008 – 2018, CPI & RPI
Real terms public sector earnings growth 2008 – 2018, CPI & RPI

But pay cuts are not the only reason why public servants are getting a raw deal.

According to Unison, 44 per cent of public sector support workers reported doing unpaid overtime most weeks.

68 per cent said the service they deliver to the public was suffering and 30 per cent were considering leaving.

And the School Teachers Review body has warned a mix of job losses and real terms pay cuts is damaging teacher morale and making it harder to recruit and retain staff.

So it’s clear that the government’s pay policy is not only hurting public sector staff but also damaging service delivery.

Lifting the cap?

Last September, the government announced it would lift the public sector pay gap put in place in 2013.

But the pay offers that followed failed to match Treasury promises to pay public servants fairly.

In July, ministers announced a 3.5 per cent increase for some teachers, 2.9 per cent for the armed forces, and a 2 per cent consolidated rise for prison and police officers.

Yet these pay deals were still well below what was needed. For instance, the award offered to police and prison officers still amounts to a real-terms pay cut for both.

In any case, the Treasury shouldn’t be fixing pay awards by diktat. 

As a result, school leaders and teachers on the senior scale were denied the 3.5% awards their colleagues got. The Department for Education only offered them 1.7 or 2% each, well below inflation.

And the Treasury has only offered 1-1.5% for the civil service – a deal so bad, it was rejected by 94% of workers at the Ministry of Justice.

We have pay review bodies in the public sector for a reason, and we should trust them to set pay in negotiation with the relevant unions.

What this Budget needs

There are a few things the Chancellor needs to keep in mind:

1. The public sector is a team

It’s simply not fair to cherry pick services and force them to accept divisive and artificial “payment by results” splits in pay. Every public sector worker has earned a decent pay rise.

2. The Treasury should let unions and independent pay review bodies do their work.

There’s no point having a review if the terms of the settlement were set in advance.

3. Pay has got to take account of what public sector workers have lost after a decade of frozen and capped pay.

That means above inflation rises so public sector workers can start to regain the ground they lost.

The public sector has endured a decade of pain and staff are still suffering.

On Monday the Chancellor has a chance to finally do something about it. Let’s hope he takes it.

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