A one-off cost of living payment for 2022-23 was on the table in negotiations with the Cabinet Office, FDA union leader Dave Penman has told CSW.
In mid-April, the Cabinet Office announced a pay award for civil servants of 4.5-5% for 2023-24. Unlike offers to health and teacher unions, this did not include a backdated one-off cost of living payment for last year.
Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden told MPs in January that the government would not renegotiate the 2022-23 pay award to civil servants. But Penman said the government had given an indication a one-off payment was on offer which then “fell apart” in the 24 hours before the pay guidance was published.
“They know and we know that it was potentially on the table, even though it hadn’t been formally put to us. They withdrew it,” Penman told CSW at the union’s annual conference.
“It’s what we were talking about and what we were expecting and we were given an indication about it. We were promised enhanced dialogue and within 24 hours it all fell apart. We know it was taken off the table.”
The Cabinet Office's pay remit guidance for 2023-24, which applies to all officials below senior civil service level, is 4.5% - plus an extra 0.5% for lower pay bands.
In contrast, NHS staff have been offered 5% plus a non-consolidated payment worth £1,600 and 2% of their earnings as part of a broader package; while education staff have been offered 4.5% plus a one-off payment of £1,000.
In response to the pay remit guidance, the FDA announced it would ballot its members on taking industrial action over pay for the first time in more than 40 years.
“They were promising something different. They were clear that's not what the plan was,” Penman added.
“And it got pulled off the table for some other nefarious reason, nothing to do with the civil service. Just the civil service was a convenient tool to send a message elsewhere.”
Penman said he had pleaded with minister for the Cabinet Office Jeremy Quin not to treat civil servants differently to other public sector workers.
“I said, ‘there's no reason to do this. I don't know why you're doing it’, and he couldn't explain why they’re doing it,” Penman told CSW.
He added: “[Staff] deserve an answer. If that answer is because a minister decided for whatever reason, that's what you should be telling them.”
Quin ‘earned a lot respect’ in pay talks
Despite his anger at the outcome, Penman praised Quin for how he handled pay talks with unions.
“I don't blame him on pay I think he got his legs cut off from him a little in relation to this,” Penman said.
“I think he understands civil service values, and I think within the limitations of what he can do as a minister he tries to do his best. It's a government decision what they did around pay, not a Jeremy Quin decision.”
Penman said Quin earned “a lot of respect” for having “the moral fibre” to tell the unions in person about the pay decision rather than leaving it to officials.
“He knew he was disappointing us. He knew he had promised us something different. And he knew that was a difficult task to have to relay that message and he was prepared to do it himself.
“It's up to him to say whether he supports that decision or not. It's not for me to try to pretend that he said otherwise, because he he absolutely kept to the government line, but all respect to him for doing that.”
Penman said Quin is probably the first minister for the Cabinet Office since Francis Maude who is “engaged and understands the civil service”.
Between Maude departing from the role in 2015 and Quin taking it on in 2022, there were 10 ministers for the Cabinet Office.
“He’s spent a bit of time in the Treasury, he worked in the private sector and did I think a couple of years of secondment into the Treasury. So I think he understands the civil service,” Penman added.
“I think he's a good minister in terms of how he operates, as well as understanding that the civil service try and do the best possible.”
At the conference, former Conservative minister David Gauke also picked out Quin – who he replaced as the guest speaker after the minister dropped out due to a diary clash – for praise, calling him a “very good” minister for the Cabinet Office.
How can strikes be avoided?
The FDA is planning to launch its strike ballot at the end of this month, complete it by the end of June, and, if members vote to strike, stage a one-day walkout ahead of the parliamentary summer recess on July 20.
What does the Cabinet Office need to do to prevent strikes from happening?
“All we’re asking is to be treated equally,” Penman told CSW.
“If the cost of living crisis means that you have to make additional payments to the rest of the public sector, why do you not do that for the civil service? Civil servants, who got the worst pay deal in the public sector last year, so were less able to deal with it than other public sector workers, once again find themselves with the worst pay deal.
“They just need to treat civil servants like the other bits of the public sector. And if they do that, we don't need to take action.”
Penman said the strike ballot is not aiming to stop government from running but to demonstrate to government how people feel.
“If the most senior public servants in the Treasury and the Cabinet Office and Crown Prosecution Service and Defra are taking strike action and telling ministers how unhappy they are about pay, maybe government will listen,” he said.
Penman also revealed that the union has held “very constructive discussions” with the Cabinet Office over Fast Stream pay since fast streamers in the union voted to strike in January, meaning the union has not yet needed to take industrial action.
He said this was an example of the value of holding industrial action ballots and threatening strike action.
“Sometimes you need to develop industrial action to show the government how strongly people feel and that moves them. And that's where we are with the Fast Stream. They’ve listened, they say they’ve got the message, they want to make improvements.”
A government spokesperson said: "Our pay remit guidance recognises the hard work and vital importance of civil servants by offering the highest pay increase in 20 years, in line with forecast wage growth across the economy.
"This is also fair to the taxpayer and supports the government’s promise to halve inflation this year, which will help everyone’s incomes go further. Industrial action should always be a last resort and dialogue with unions will continue."