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Public service workers need a fair pay deal – here’s what the Chancellor can do to deliver

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We’ve won the argument. There’s barely a voice in the land arguing that we should still be cutting the take home pay of prison officers, physiotherapists or social workers.
Christopher Furlong / Staff

But a pat on the back isn’t good enough. We now need the Chancellor to use the budget to provide a fair pay deal for all public service workers.

Public service workers have seen dramatic falls in real earnings as a result of a Treasury-imposed squeeze on pay rises since 2010, with many earning around £3k less per year today in real terms than they were seven years ago.

In the face of union campaigning, voter opposition and a growing recruitment and retention crisis, the government have been forced to change direction. In recent months, prison and police officers, firefighters and some teachers have been offered pay deals above the one per cent cap that had been enforced across the public sector.

While it’s heartening to see the government now accepting that the game is up, their movement to date has been underwhelming.

First, the pay offers made remain below inflation and amount to further real terms pay cuts. Our analysis shows that, under recent pay awards, a prison officer will be earning £980 less in real terms by the end of this parliament, a police officer will be £450 down and a firefighter will be £515 worse off by 2022.

Second, far too many public service workers are still subject to the cap with no end yet in sight. NHS workers, teachers and higher-paid civil servants covered by Pay Review Bodies (PRBs) have had no new offer. Nor have the majority of public sector workers, those in the civil service and local government for example, who are not covered by PRBs.

So the Chancellor needs to use the forthcoming budget to go further. We’ve set out five key tests that we believe should underpin a fair pay award for public service workers.

First, we need to put an end to Whitehall dictating the terms. We want the freedom for employers and unions to determine appropriate pay awards that meet the needs of their particular sector either through collective bargaining or genuinely independent pay review bodies.

Second, pay awards need to be funded. The Chancellor should use the Budget this autumn to provide the new funding that provides the resources needed, rather than placing the burden on already over-stretched departmental budgets.

From schools, to prisons, health and social care, our public services are creaking under the pressure of an unprecedented decade of spending cuts. Public service workers are being asked to do more for less in the face of rising demand.

We are seriously concerned that the government will indulge in fantasy spreadsheet economics, asking public service providers to fund pay awards through increasingly unobtainable “efficiencies” that will only result in further damage to services. Ask your local school governor or NHS Finance Director where all this spare cash is hiding.

Third, politicians shouldn’t be cherry-picking workers for fair pay. Any teacher, nurse or firefighter will tell you the public service workforce is a team, involving staff in a range of occupations that support vital services to the public.

Every worker in the public sector has suffered from the pay cap, and every worker has earned a pay rise. So, while we recognise that different parts of the public sector may want to negotiate deals that meet their specific needs, no group of workers should be excluded from a lifting of the public sector pay cap.

And as Sara Gorton, UNISON’s head of health says, cherry-picking like this would be a recipe for “a pay round dominated by special pleading rather than action to improve fairness, morale and long-term investment”.

If the Prime Minister genuinely wants to recognise the sacrifice that public sector workers have made during these years of wage restrictions, a fourth requirement would be that pay awards need to take into account the real terms loss of pay experienced over this period.

For example, a radiographer could be earning up to 10 per cent in real terms less today than they were when the Treasury began to impose restrictions on NHS pay in 2011. We need to find a way to recover that lost pay going forward.

Finally, it is a scandal that poverty pay still exists in our public services. There are thousands of staff in our hospitals, schools and local councils across the country who still earn close to the minimum wage. Any new pay deal for the public sector must come with a guarantee that no public service worker earns less than the real living wage.

As with all budgets, we’ll be looking beyond the platitudes and at the small print.

Let’s hope there are no nasty shocks in there for our hard-working public service workers who have had enough and want the fair pay rise that they have all earned.

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