To anyone not familiar with public sector pay wrangling over the last decade, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s appeal for public-sector unions to suspend strikes over pay – in return for talks about “fair and affordable” settlements for 2023-24 – may have sounded eminently reasonable.
To Mike Clancy, who leads the Prospect trade union, it sounded anything but. For one thing, foregoing planned industrial action in protest of the current year’s pay settlement – between 2% and 3% for most officials – in the hope of a higher pay rise next year feels like a raw deal.
For another, Prospect, which represents professionals such as scientists and engineers in the public sector, has “no confidence that ‘23-24 is simply not going to be a repeat of the previous 10 or 11 years”, which has presented a series of pay freezes, caps and sub-inflation rises that the union says has led to a real-terms pay cut of around 20% over that time.
Civil service unions have told ministers that “if they are serious about a good faith conversation about ‘23-24, they have to do something different and convince us it was worthwhile”, Clancy says. But he says there is a suggestion that the Treasury believes public-sector pay rises may need to be capped at 3.5% for the coming year, he says.
Prospect is calling not just for a one-year deal – but a complete overhaul of the pay remit process that determines pay rises for civil servants each year. “Because there is no pay strategy for the civil service. There is simply an inexorable driving down of pay in relative terms,” Clancy says.
Speaking to CSW ahead of the launch of its cross-civil service strike ballot today, Clancy says it is the decade-plus of real-terms pay cuts that have made the vote not just necessary but “inevitable”.
“And then this crashes into the worst cost of living crisis in several decades. There is no willingness from the government in terms of the Cabinet Office to recognise this – and now there has been a series of meetings which are frankly, inflaming the position and making it worse.”
Along with its fellow civil service unions PCS and the FDA, Prospect has met with senior officials and ministers a number of times in recent months to discuss the concerns that have driven its members to consider strike action: pay, pensions arrangements, job security, and proposed cuts to redundancy payments.
The unions were particularly frustrated after talks with Jeremy Quin earlier this month – at which the Cabinet Office minister was unwilling to put any money on the table. Clancy said at the time that the meeting left Prospect with “no alternative” than to ballot members on industrial action. The general secretary says Quin conducted the meeting “in his usual courteous and cordial way – and we were the same in tone – but in terms of substance, it's completely unacceptable”.
Days after CSW spoke to Clancy, Quin’s Cabinet Office colleague Oliver Dowden publicly cemented the government’s position that there will be no negotiating the current year’s settlement. “We are engaging with [unions] for this coming financial year but it's been a principle across government – and I think a correct one – that we can't start unpicking deals that have been previously agreed, Dowden told MPs on parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee yesterday.
But neither Prospect nor its fellow trade unions have agreed to the 2022-23 pay deal, and believe that negotiations are not closed. If Prospect members vote to strike, they will be joining some 100,000 members of the PCS union, which began staging walkouts across a number of civil service organisations last year; while the FDA, which represents senior public servants, is also considering its options.
Shortly after that meeting, Prospect and the FDA wrote to Quin setting out their objections to the government’s approach, reiterating their call for ministers to move beyond just talking and put money on the table.
The two unions have called for a complete overhaul of the pay remit process, which Prospect believes to be “broken beyond repair”, Clancy says. The talks proposed by ministers earlier in January about “fair and affordable” settlements related specifically to discussions that feed into the evidence submitted by departments to independent pay-review bodies, which make recommendations on pay for workers such as health-service staff and teachers.
But while the Senior Salaries Review Body makes recommendations on pay for senior civil servants, there is no equivalent body relating to other officials. This discrepancy not only means there is no independent recommendation for rank-and-file civil servants – but also influences the advice given to and by the SSRB.
Last summer, the Cabinet Office rejected the SSRB’s recommendation to increase senior civil servants’ pay by 3% in 2022-23 – on the basis that it was higher than the “headline figure” it had already decided upon for the delegated grades. It opted instead for the 2% rise it had suggested to the pay-review body a couple of months earlier.
The question Clancy has for ministers, he says, is: “If you also disregarded senior civil service recommendations last year, because you didn't want to blow a hole in your pay control for the rest of the civil service, where does that leave us?”
All of this meant ministers’ assurances of engaging in good faith “rang hollow”, Clancy says. The FDA and Prospect are seeking a “genuine commitment to completely overhaul the pay process”, which could include setting up an new independent pay-review body for civil servants.
Ultimately, Clancy says members need to know when they can expect to see a pay rise “that meets inflation – or maybe, whisper it quietly, slightly exceeds inflation”.
“Our members have got great commitments to public service, and some of the work they do is obviously absolutely fascinating, it's got a moral purpose. But moral purpose and fascinating work doesn't pay the mortgage,” he says. “It doesn’t feed the kids, doesn't allow people to have a reasonable lifestyle.”
Clancy adds: “They are the sort of people that really don't want to be taking these steps. We want to engage – we don’t want industrial action.”
But he says civil servants have spent too long at the “back of the queue” for public-sector pay rises in the public sector, and the cost-of-living crisis is hitting civil servants hard.
If ministers will not negotiate, he says, “this has to have a consequence”.