Garry Graham: Warm words from ministers don’t cure the pay chills

Written by Garry Graham on 19 August 2019 in Opinion
Opinion

Damascene conversions on civil service brilliance should be backed with proper recognition and reward, says Prospect deputy general secretary

Newly-appointed Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg Credit: PA

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s decision to lavish praise on civil servants having discovered  they are “highly-dedicated hard-working individuals” comes within a week of Boris Johnson writing to UK civil servants saying that “after just a short time as prime minister it is already clear to me why the UK’s civil service is so highly regarded around the world, both for its expertise and its dedication to duty”.

This tells us much that we need to know about politics in the UK at the moment. Rees-Mogg on the back benches had a track record of criticising civil servants. A habit shared by his colleagues in the European Research Group.lthough unlike Mark Francois MP he has not described them as “traitors” or called for them to be locked up – or worse.

So why this “Road to Damascus” conversion? One could question whether his previous criticisms were designed to achieve partisan political advantage. Would Rees-Mogg criticise those who cannot answer back to score a few political points? Perhaps that analysis is too harsh. Just perhaps.


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Another and perhaps more charitable explanation is that “impression” has been challenged and changed when confronted by reality. The PM’s comments are a bit more difficult to fathom. He after all has been a minster, but only now “after such a short time” has he twigged why the civil service is so highly regarded “for its expertise and its dedication to duty”.

Don’t get me wrong – I am desperately trying not to be churlish – but does the civil service not deserve better? Does the political class really know so little about the civil service that faithfully serves them? The civil service has been the subject of unjustified criticism from MPs based on impression and unfettered by knowledge. Hopefully the new PM and Rees-Mogg will use their new-found knowledge to bring members of their own party into line, in a way that the previous prime minister was never able to do when they unfairly criticised civil servants.

Civil servants are proud of what they do. They look to the minsters they serve and their political masters in parliament for support and respect. That has felt sorely lacking in recent years

I am left wondering what else don’t they know about the civil service? Do they know that when MPs received a 2.7% pay increase this year that their government policy was to ensure that civil servants received barely half that amount? Do they know as a result of workloads and poor pay around a quarter of civil servants want to leave either immediately or in the coming year? Do they know that even the Cabinet Office agrees that pay levels and pay increases in the civil service lag behind not only the private sector but also the wider public sector? Or that almost half are struggling to achieve any kind of reasonable work-life balance. Rees-Mogg and Johnson should ask to see the staff attitude survey for the civil service.

Rees-Mogg has said of his new civil servant team: “I had previously thought only corporate bankers worked such hours”. Corporate bankers are rewarded handsomely for the hours they put in. Pay in the civil service is far more modest and the vast majority of civil servants don’t have the benefits and safeguards of being independently wealthy. They are proud of what they do. They look to the minsters they serve and their political masters in parliament for support and respect. That has felt sorely lacking in recent years.

Prospect and the FDA wrote to party leaders and the PM recently asking them to pledge to: maintain the impartiality and integrity of the civil service; defend those principles, and those who seek to uphold them, from political attack; and to encourage the civil service to provide robust evidence-based advice to inform the development of government policy.

We have yet to receive a reply from Downing Street.

There has not been a government in peace time so reliant on the hard work and professionalism of the civil service, and it would appear that that is just being recognised by some. Perhaps when the PM next talks about the public sector he could announce a fair pay increase for civil servants? Or perhaps he would describe the odds against that as being a million-to-one.

I also wonder on what other big policy issues their views have been based on “impression” and how those views will change on contact with reality.

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Garry Graham
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Garry Graham is the deputy general secretary of Prospect

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