There is no question that public sector workers have earned a pay rise. They have led the fight against Covid-19 over the last few months, working long hours, dealing with stressful conditions and even putting their own lives on the line for us.
So after years of government undermining the independence, role and purpose of Pay Review Bodies, it is refreshing to see ministers accepting their headline recommendations in full and committing to giving public sector workers a rare, inflation-busting pay rise.
But scratch the surface and the government’s announcement on public sector pay leaves a lot to be desired.
It leaves out some of our most essential workers, including:
Social care workers
Social care workers have been vital in confronting the Covid-19 pandemic , often working without basic protective equipment, access to testing or decent sick pay. Seven in ten social care workers earn less than £10 per hour and a quarter are on zero-hours contracts. Yet the fragmented and privatised nature of the current system means social care workers will not benefit from today’s pay offer. Social care needs urgent reform: we need to create a national care service and to reward staff with decent pay and conditions.
Local government workers
Pay negotiations for local government workers, which includes low-paid key workers such as school support staff, are currently stalled over the question of how much funding local government will receive next year.
The government needs to make good on its promises to boost local government funding and ensure all public sector workers get the pay rise they deserve.
Low paid civil servants
While senior civil servants are being rewarded a 2% pay increase backdated to April, lower paid civil servants are at the mercy of decisions yet to be made by individual government departments.
The government has imposed blanket restrictions on any pay award of between 1.5-2.5%, which means senior civil servants could see greater rises than the job centre staff and other public servants who have delivered the emergency support that has kept our economy alive during lockdown.
Nurses and other NHS staff
The government excluded most NHS staff from today’s announcement on the basis that they are already covered by the final year of the three-year pay deal agreed in 2018.
This amounts to a rejection of the joint call by 14 NHS unions to deliver an early pay raise to NHS staff in recognition of their hard work during the pandemic. Despite months of ministers ostentatiously clapping for our carers, it seems most NHS staff will be offered no reward for the sacrifices they have made.
How will pay rises be paid for?
There are also serious questions about how the pay rises will be paid for. The government has insisted that the funding can be found from existing departmental budgets, but it is far from clear this is the case, even after recent increases in funding are accounted for.
Take schools, for example. While the latest funding settlement should leave schools with enough to cover the pay settlement on average, the distribution of that funding implied by the National Funding Formula is likely to leave schools in inner city areas struggling.
Cynical gestures from the government
Perhaps most worryingly, however, just hours after the pay rise was announced, it emerged that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has written to government departments clearly stating that ‘we must exercise restraint in future public sector pay awards’.
Over the last ten years, public sector workers have seen their real pay fall – by up to £3000 a year in some cases – as a result of cumulative below inflation pay increases. This cannot continue. Unless the government will guarantee that today’s rises will not be clawed back in subsequent years, today’s announcement is nothing but a cynical ploy to hide its plans to transfer the cost of the looming economic crisis on to public sector workers.
This isn’t the only example of the government giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Today, the government also announced its intention to press ahead with its plans to cap exit payments (the amount received as part of a redundancy settlement) for public sector workers, despite unions pointing out that this will adversely effect those on very moderate incomes with long years of public service. This follows the revelation last week that the government plans to offload the costs of addressing the discrimination identified in the McCloud case onto public servants.
The government claims that pay restraint is necessary on the grounds of fairness to make sure that public sector pay doesn’t outstrip pay in the private sector. But it isn’t a zero sum game. On the contrary, with the private sector facing its biggest crisis of demand in decades, more public spending is exactly what is needed. When public sector workers are paid more, they have more to spend, which means business have more customers and the economy does better.
In the last decade, we learned the hard way that austerity and pay restraint slow down recovery. The government needs to stop making the mistakes of the past and do everything it can to protect jobs and pay to keep spending going – starting with our valued public sector workers.
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