Prime minister Boris Johnson used his speech to this week’s Conservative Party conference to pledge a wealthier, better-skilled future for the nation, but pay and reward for civil servants was conspicuously absent from the six-thousand word clarion call.
And while the PM thanked NHS staff, council workers, volunteers, public health specialists and the pharmaceutical industry for their work in getting the nation through the coronavirus pandemic, the efforts of departmental staff went unmentioned.
Johnson also used his speech to add crime fighting to the array of issues that form part of the government’s levelling-up agenda, extending its parameters to putting more police on the beat and toughening sentences in the criminal justice system.
But it is the prime minister’s observations on pay that are most likely to rankle with civil servants subjected to the current pay freeze for public sector workers. Johnson told Conservative Party members assembled in Manchester yesterday that “after years of stagnation” wages were now going up faster than before the pandemic began.
“We are embarking now on a change of direction that has been long overdue in the UK economy we are not going back to the same old broken model with low wages, low growth, low skills and low productivity – all of it enabled and assisted by uncontrolled immigration,” he said.
In a direct reference to the HGV driver shortage that has disrupted the supply of fuel and other goods to shops, Johnson said the nation would no-longer “use immigration as an excuse for failure to invest in people, in skills and in the equipment the facilities the machinery they need to do their jobs”.
Johnson said the nation was now going “towards a high wage, high skill, high productivity and – yes – thereby low tax economy”.
In a further signal that should ring alarm bells among public sector workers outside of the NHS, Johnson also cautioned that he was not minded to take a more relaxed attitude to the public sector finances as the nation emerges from the pandemic.
“We spent £407bn on Covid support and our debt now stands at over £2tn and waiting lists will almost certainly go up before they come down,” he said.
“Covid pushed out a great bow wave of cases people did not or could not seek help and that wave is now coming back a tide of anxiety washing into every A&E and every GP.”
He added: “Margaret Thatcher would not have ignored this meteorite that has just crashed through the public finances. She would have wagged her finger and said more borrowing now is just higher interest rates and even higher taxes later.”
Elsewhere in his speech, Johnson reiterated the government’s plans to deliver 48 new hospitals over the course of the decade and defended his proposals to fund the reform of social care.
He thanked NHS staff for saving his life after he suffered complications related to Covid-19 in the early weeks of the pandemic, but civil servants were absent from his list.
“We in turn thank the volunteers, the public health workers, the council workers the pharmacists but above all our untiring unbeatable unbelievable NHS,” he said “As a responsible Conservative government we must recognise the sheer scale of their achievement but recognise also the scale of the challenge ahead.”
Johnson also gave a side-swipe to the Department of Health and Social Care as he spoke in praise of the private sector’s role in combating the spread of Covid-19.
“Let me come now to the punchline of my sermon on the vaccine,” he told the party faithful. “It was not the government that made the wonder drug; it wasn’t brewed in the alembics of the Department of Health.
“It was ... of course it was Oxford University, but it was the private sector that made it possible.
“Behind those vaccines are companies and shareholders and, yes, bankers. You need deep pools of liquidity that are to be found in the City of London. It was capitalism that ensured that we had a vaccine in less than a year.”
He concluded: “The answer therefore is not to attack the wealth creators, it is to encourage them. Because they are responsible for the aggregate increase in the country’s wealth.”
Responding to the speech, Garry Graham, the Prospect deputy general secretary, said that government ministers arguing for employers to pay higher wages to recognise the skills and contribution of their staff and to combat the cost-of-living crisis will come as a surprise for many public sector workers working for those very same ministers.
“These are the politicians who imposed a pay freeze across the public sector last year and have presided over a decade of pay austerity,” he said. “Pay in the civil service has fallen behind similar jobs in the private sector, jobs elsewhere in the public sector and inflation.
“If ministers are true to their word then they will bring in a pay policy committed to protecting living standards in real terms and which recognises and rewards the acquisition of knowledge skills and experience through appropriate pay progression. These key elements have been notably absent over the past decade.”