‘A pat on the head doesn’t pay the bills’: Garry Graham on Theresa May’s letter to civil servants

The prime minister’s warm words are well intentioned but ring hollow when civil servants are under attack and pay restraint remains

Photo: PA

By Garry Graham

29 Apr 2019

I have been taken aback by the number of civil servant members who have approached me over the email letter they recently received from the prime minister. For those familiar with the Private Eye column featuring a different T May – the Head of St Theresa's Independent State Grammar School for Girls (and Boys) – one wonders whether she reached out to that prestigious organ for inspiration.

I don’t want to appear churlish but I have a duty to represent and reflect the views and interests of Prospect members working in the civil service. I am an advocate of transparency but it is probably best that I do not fully set out the language used by members reflecting their views on the letter. Let’s be polite and say the consensus has been that the “warm words” (warm for this PM anyway) ring hollow. Well-intentioned but hollow.


April saw Tory MPs continue to attack the civil service for an alleged lack of vim and vigour in pursuing Brexit. One called for Olly Robins to be locked up and meekly sat back as an audience member called for him to be shot. This is not public school banter, this is behaviour that is unacceptable in any modern workplace, which is toxic and which demeans and debases our politics. What has our head done to this wayward pupil? Nothing.

April also saw MPs receive a 2.7% consolidated and pensionable pay increase. As I have said before, I do not begrudge them the increase but this is at the same time that average pay increases for the civil service are capped at 1.5%. How can that be right? Her letter to staff was an opportunity not only to thank civil servants for their hard work and commitment but to set out the steps her government is going to take to ensure that the civil service is rewarded fairly. Instead she has said nothing.

There is a briefing doing the rounds among Tory MPs on how to respond to constituent letters on civil service pay suggesting the 1.5% cap is not a cap. I am not sure whether this briefing has come from the head or the school bursar. But I am sorry, if it looks like a cap, operates like a cap and is implemented like a cap for the vast majority of civil servants, then it is a cap.

For once the PM could have shown leadership but she has again chosen not to. When her government boasts that pay across the broader economy is rising at 3.4%, and when those working in the NHS, local government and other parts of the economy have seen real terms pay increases, the civil service has yet again been singled out for the harshest of treatment. This is neither fair nor sustainable. As one member put it to me (expletives deleted) “a pat on the head doesn’t pay the bills”. In that context, the description of the letter as “hollow” is rather tame.

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