Defra accused of ‘undermining’ unions with pay survey

PCS urges members not to express willingness to sacrifice terms and conditions in return for inflationary rise
Defra's Marsham Street headquarters, which it shares with the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities

By Jim Dunton

10 May 2022

The civil service’s biggest union has expressed concern over a pay update and survey circulated by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that it says undermines recognised processes for negotiation.

PCS said the survey, which has been published via the Defra intranet and also covers staff at the Rural Payments Agency, the Animal and Plant Health Agency and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, could hamper its chances of securing members the best 2022-23 settlement possible.

The Cabinet Office’s pay remit guidance for this year, published in March, proposed average increases of up to 2% for civil servants, with the potential for an additional 1% where departments can demonstrate it will help deliver long-term priorities. The Bank of England is currently predicting that inflation will hit 10% this year before dropping back to “close to 2% in around two years”.

Departments can make business cases for pay flexibility above 3% so long as they do not cost the Treasury more money or increase financial pressure within departments. The pay remit guidance says multi-year settlements such as those designed to drive transformational reform will be subjected to “robust and thorough” scrutiny by both the Treasury and the Cabinet Office. Cases are supposed to be submitted by the beginning of December.

PCS’s concerns at Defra centre on an update on its pay-flexibility case. It said the department had given staff more information than would usually be shared ahead of negotiations with trade unions on a pay offer and that the survey encouraged staff to gauge their willingness to surrender terms and conditions.

“While we are not opposed to transparency, the update was not shared with us before it was published,” PCS said.

“We are disappointed at the contents of the update and the fact that the survey has been included.  Whilst we believe that staff engagement is key, we believe that as the elected representatives for one of the recognised unions for Defra this undermines the process which they are bound to follow.

“The way that the survey is presented appears to ask those taking part to apportion preference to their hard-won terms and conditions, without context and value, and is highly subjective.”

PCS said results of the survey could be used to “potentially undermine” its ability to secure members the best possible 2022-23 pay deal.

It added that the level of pay flexibility Defra was understood to be able to offer was “limited” in comparison to other flexibility cases in different parts of the civil service, such as last year’s HM Revenue and Customs deal, worth an average of 13% over three years.

The HMRC deal applied to staff below senior civil service level and incorporated a range of terms and conditions changes, including a standardisation of annual leave and working hours. The deal includes an average 5% rise for 2022-23, which is the last year of the arrangement. Departments with bespoke multi-year agreements are excluded from the 2% to 3% rise set out in the latest pay remit guidance.

PCS said it was up to members at Defra, RPA, APHA and VMD whether they took part in the pay-flexibility case survey. However, it encouraged anyone who chose to provide answers to make it clear to the department’s remuneration committee that a proper cost of living pay rise should not be dependent on sacrificing terms and conditions.

Defra said it did not comment on leaks but had “engaged regularly” with its recognised trade unions to discuss the department’s approach to any potential business case for pay flexibility.

The department said it would enter into negotiations with unions representing staff if a decision was taken to submit a business case to HM Treasury and the case was approved.

This story was updated at 2.00pm on 11 May 2022 to include a comment from Defra

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