Dave Penman: MPs are benefitting from their pay review body, why aren’t civil servants?

If set up properly and honoured, pay review bodies deliver better results for officials. Now all we need is for ministers to stop ignoring their advice…

Photo: PA

By Dave Penman

01 Mar 2019

Let’s just get this out there at the beginning: MPs deserve a pay rise. They are, with a few exceptions, hardworking public servants who are committed to improving the lives of citizens. I recognise that is not a universally held view by cab drivers. Politicians, by the nature of their role and the behaviour of a few egomaniacs [insert name here] end up getting it in the neck for everything from Brexit to holes in the road.

They deserve a pay rise, though, and they’re getting one: 2.7% to be exact. It’s not a figure plucked out of the air, it’s the Office for National Statistics calculation of the average increase across the public sector. It follows from a review conducted in 2015 by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), which looked at their roles and compared them with a range of jobs across the public sector. This comparability exercise lifted their pay quite a bit and introduced a system where their annual rise followed the public sector average.


Before this, MPs’ pay had been held back because, well, you know, cab drivers, the Daily Mail and those egomaniacs who, to be honest, give sentient beings a bad name. Parliament used to decide on pay for MPs before this was removed after the expenses scandal. Prime ministers thought it was good politics to wear the hair shirt of pay restraint. There are not many votes in fair pay for MPs, after all.

IPSA are no mugs, they know all of this. They get that setting pay for MPs is controversial and has been subject to political posturing over the years. As an independent body, they set about doing what was right. Sort out pay levels – the comparability exercise from 2015 – then set up a system that delivers a fair settlement each year. “Simples,” as the prime minister says.

This is not an original idea. It’s why pay review bodies exist. Pay becomes a controversial subject in the public sector. It’s often the focus for an annual jousting match with unions and politicians are tempted to fly the flag of pay restraint for political point-scoring. Pay review bodies have been set up to avoid this. They’re independent, though often subject to some affordability constraints, and take evidence before making recommendations. They are proof that politicians recognise that sometimes, when there are difficult decisions to be made, it’s easier if these come as evidence-based recommendations.

Whilst some in the union world think battling round the negotiating table is more productive, my long-held view is that if set up properly and honoured, pay review bodies deliver better long-term results.

It was all the more ironic then, that the very day that IPSA announced the pay rise for MPs, I had on my best whistle and flute to deliver our oral evidence to the Senior Salaries Review Body (SSRB). All of the pay review bodies have been frustrated in recent years due to the government’s public pay policy of a 1% cap. The SSRB is no different and so when this was lifted, they recommended a total award of 2.5%, some of which was to try to resolve long-term pay anomalies.

Let’s be clear, SCS pay is a dog’s breakfast. It’s almost defined by inequities and inequalities after nearly a decade of restraint that followed years of unhelpful tinkering. Overly long pay ranges, no progression and huge differentials with external pay levels have a created a system where individuals were incentivised to move around as the only way to “negotiate” a pay rise. 2.5% wasn’t going to solve this, but at least it was a start and, of course, coming from a review body, was evidence-based. All of this was ignored by ministers who, trapped in the delegated pay fiasco that was 2018, held pay back for the SCS to 1.5%.

SCS pay is always going to be inconvenient and politically difficult, just like fair pay for MPs. That’s why independent pay review bodies were set up in the first place. I still believe that, over the longer term, they have the potential to deliver better outcomes. We’d like to explore with the government whether the whole of the civil service would benefit from a review body. Avoiding annual confrontation and, with the benefit of evidence, starting to address the long terms problems that plague pay at all levels has got to be good for the civil service.

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