'Throwing water on a chip pan fire': ministers urged to reject post-coronavirus cuts and wage freezes

Written by Beckie Smith on 14 May 2020 in News
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Unions say freezing key workers' wages after leaked Treasury documents reveal further austerity among policy options

Photo: Patrick Pleul/DPA/PA Images

Civil service unions have urged the government to rule out imposing public sector pay freezes and austerity to offset its coronavirus spending bill.

Further spending cuts and wage freezes after the Covid-19 crisis would be like “throwing water on a chip pan fire”, Mike Clancy, general secretary of the Prospect union for public sector professionals, said.

His comments came after leaked documents suggested the Treasury was considering drastic measures to try and claw back some of the £337bn projected budget deficit.


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A proposed Treasury “policy package” obtained by The Telegraph said the measures may have to be signalled within weeks to “enhance credibility and boost investor confidence” in the UK economy.

Unions and opposition MPs have immediately pushed back against the proposals, which they say are especially galling given the role many public sector employees have played as key workers amid the Covid-19 crisis.

Mark Serwotka, head of the PCS, said the civil service union’s biggest union would resist “any talk of public sector workers paying for the corona crisis”.

"It is outrageous to suggest some of the lowest paid who have already been unnecessarily put in danger by ministers insisting they go to work without necessary health and safety measures in place, should now pay for the privilege by enduring yet another pay freeze,” added Serwotka.

"Civil servants have already suffered 10 years of pay restraint and cuts and will not tolerate paying for the corona crisis which was not of their making."

Clancy added that cutting key workers’ wages would “not only be immoral, it would only make the situation worse, leading to a spiral of cuts and unemployment that will hamstring Britain for a decade”.

He urged ministers to ignore the proposals and “focus government attention on saving jobs, supporting incomes, and getting the economy firing on all cylinders once it is safe to do so”.

“Responding to an economic shock on this scale with more austerity and pay cuts for public servants would be like throwing water on a chip pan fire,” he said.

Last month Clancy and Dave Penman, general secretary of the senior civil servants’ union the FDA, wrote to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove last month calling for  civil service-wide pay settlement for this year.

They said negotiating with each civil service employer, as usually happens, would be “a distraction that the service does not need” amid the coronavirus pandemic.

FDA assistant general secretary Lucille Thirlby said pushing for a simple, fair settlement would remain the unions’ primary focus as members “continue to do extraordinary work to respond to this public health emergency”.

She said it would be “unconscionable” to give public-sector employees, many of whom are key workers in the coronavirus crisis, with a pay freeze after the crisis.

“It’s unavoidable that speculation around spending cuts would come as the country faces an uncertain future and the government discusses the best way to meet the far-reaching challenges posed by Covid-19,” she said.

“However, one would hope a lesson learned from this pandemic is that those who provide our vital public services have been undervalued for too long and cannot continue to be undervalued as we move forward.”

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Beckie Smith is a reporter for CSW who tweets @Beckie__Smith.

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