Garry Graham: If the PM wants a high wage economy, let’s see that reflected in the civil service

Officials have suffered a decade of pay restraint. If the government is serious about boosting pay, it must show it in the coming pay round

By Garry Graham

08 Oct 2021

Over the past decade, pay increases and pay levels in the civil service have fallen behind pay the private sector, the wider public sector and inflation. Over one of the most demanding of decades, hard working public servants have seen their pay fall behind their peers and their living standards drop in real terms. This is not just our view; it’s backed up by ONS data and reflected in the advice given to ministers as part of the union judicial review challenge on pay.

This is what made last years announcement of a “pay pause” most galling to members. After a decade of pay restraint the freeze was introduced under the guise of “fairness” as earnings were allegedly falling in the private sector. Putting to one side that the rationale given wasn’t factually accurate – not just our view but also the view of Incomes Data Research and other bodies – what rankled most was a very partial rendition of fairness. No mention of fairness when pay was buoyant in the wider economy. No mention of fairness when pay levels are clearly higher in the wider economy for similar jobs, and where the gap widens by specialism and seniority. In fact, the government only discovered the word fairness to justify even more austerity.

There are some who will argue that the government had no choice. But the governments in Scotland and Wales chose to tread a different path. At the time we argued ruling out even a modest pay increase on such a blanket basis was wrong and economically illiterate. Politics is about priorities. A 2.5% increase instead of a pay freeze would have cost the same as the government paid the top eight private sector management consultancies in the previous year. Tells you something about their priorities.

Listening to ministers and the PM and their conference speeches and recent pronouncements it would appear the scales have dropped from their eyes. There would be no “cost of living” crisis if employers paid their staff fairly to protect their living standards in real terms. Not only should employers work hard to protect the living standards of their staff, but they should also reward and support the acquisition of knowledge, skills and experience to develop capability and enhance productivity.

One could be forgiven for wondering what government had been in power for the past eleven years, but it is unthinkable that this is just spin and bluster from the PM and ministers isn’t it? Just another soundbite to be tossed aside after the adulatory headlines are achieved.

We will be holding ministers and politicians to account. Our members have worked tirelessly through the pandemic to defend, protect, and support the country and the government. Through the most difficult of times they have stepped up and always been willing to go the extra mile. It is time their contribution was recognised. It is not a great deal to ask that their pay does not fall in real terms. It is not too much ask that they are able to progress as their skills, knowledge and expertise increase. Indeed, based on recent announcements one could have the view that that is now government policy.

We look forward to the coming pay round. Based on what we have heard protecting living standards should be a priority. We should also be reforming pay to enable staff to progress and support and reward the acquisition of knowledge, skills and experience to build capacity and capability. If the price of this is paying a few less private sector management consultants, it may be a sacrifice we have to make. After all, it’s not just them that should get to level up.

Garry Graham is the deputy general secretary of Prospect

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