To some people, a trade union conference in June 2018 discussing the public sector pay cap might seem a little confusing. Indeed, if you got your information entirely from government press releases, it would be easy to think that the cap was a thing of the past. On this logic Prospect national conference in Birmingham this week should have been a scene of jubilation as public servants basked in the sunlit uplands thanks to the incredible generosity of their bulging pay packets.
But back in the real world, the conference debate has a more sombre feel. Public sector workers explaining that they still struggle under the cap. Prospect delegates heard now familiar stories of difficulty in recruitment, of morale at rock bottom and of losing dedicated colleagues to the private sector because they have simply had enough. Because of course, as we all know, reports of the death of the public sector pay cap have been greatly exaggerated.
In fact in many areas the problems is getting worse, not better. Prospect members in Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and its agencies, for example, are dealing with massive increases in workload thanks to Brexit, but with no recognition of this in their pay. The same is true in departments and agencies across the board. Take our members at DSTL in Porton Down, so recently in the headlines for their amazing work in response to the Salisbury chemical attacks. These people have world class skills and care deeply about their work protecting the public, but a recent staff survey found that only 15% believed their pay was adequate compared to other sectors, and only a third believed they were motivated to achieve their objectives.
Yet Porton Down and other civil servants feel they are at the back of the queue for a pay rise. With 1% cap busting pay offers in the NHS and local government and suggestions that ministers are supporting a 3% pay increase for the military, then it is time for the 1% cap to go in the civil service. The Scottish Government has thrown down the gauntlet – maintaining pay progression and tabling a ground-breaking deal to the unions earlier this year.
This was clearly recognised by Prospect members as they backed a motion calling for the cap to be lifted across the breadth of the public sector and encouraging their union to step up the campaign. They instructed Prospect to work with other unions to continue our ‘scrap the cap campaign’, redouble our lobbying efforts, and keep the option of further action on the table if the government remain deaf to our concerns. The overwhelming show of support from our mostly private sector membership just goes to show the widespread solidarity that exists across society for this cap to be lifted and our public servants properly rewarded.
The role of unions is clearly to fight for more pay for our members, but this campaign goes beyond this. It is about the future of a public sector that has been undermined by a pay policy that has eroded morale, held back recruitment, and caused highly skilled staff to leave the sector.
Capping public sector pay at 1% was always unsustainable over the longer term. The government announced in September last year that the cap was to be lifted. The test as to whether the government actually values its civil servants will be what is contained in the long overdue pay remit guidance for this year. If there is not a fundamental shift, it will demonstrate a fundamental disdain for the huge efforts of thousands of loyal and hard-working public servants.