Latest high-earners figures detail government’s best-paid officials

Data shows cab sec Simon Case and civil service COO Alex Chisholm are way down the table and both earn less than their predecessors

By Jim Dunton

18 Dec 2020

Rail industry leaders continue to dominate the civil service top-earners rankings, according to the latest transparency data on the highest-paid officials on the government payroll.

Mark Thurston,  chief executive of High Speed 2 Ltd – the Department for Transport company tasked with delivering the next-generation London-to-Birmingham rail line, topped the Cabinet Office’s 2020 high-earners list with his salary,  bracketed at £620,000-£624,999.

The figure is more than three times the salary of newly-appointed cabinet secretary Simon Case, who had been in post for barely a month on the snapshot date for the just-published salary data.

Despite being the country's most senior civil servant, Case only ranks No.107 in the pay stakes. According to the figures, Case’s salary band is £200,000-£204,999 – a £10,000 cut on the 2019 salary of predecessor Sir Mark Sedwill, now Lord Sedwill.

HS2 boss Thurston’s pay is described as unchanged since 2019, but it is the third time in a row he has topped the earnings table. Appointed in March 2017, Thurston was second placed in that year’s high-earners list behind Network Rail chief exec Mark Carne, whose salary band at the time was £760,000-£764,999.

Although eight of the UK’s top-10 highest public-sector earners work in the rail industry – a figure unchanged since last year, the balance has shifted. In 2019, Thurston was one of three HS2 officials in the top 10. This year he is the only HS2 executive and Network Rail officials occupy the other seven rail-industry slots. 

Current Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines is second-placed on the list, with a salary band of £585,000-£589,999.

Highways England chief exec James O’Sullivan and Nuclear Decommissioning Authority chief exec David Peattie are the only top-10 earners from outside the rail industry.

The high-earners list details salary data on government employees earning £150,000 a year or more. The 2020 tally reveals that 552 individuals fell into that category as of the end of September this year – up from 517 last year: a near 7% increase.

According to the list, 186 roles had seen a pay increase, 233 were recorded as “no change”, 104 entries were described as a “new post” and 29 were described as “down from 2019”.

Both cab sec Case and civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm’s roles were categorised as “down from 2019”.

Case did not appear on last year’s high-earners list and Chisholm had yet to move to the Cabinet Office when the 2019 snapshot was taken. He was perm sec at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy at that time, with a salary bracket of £180,000-£184,999.

Chisholm’s current pay for his role as civil service COO and Cabinet Office perm sec is banded at £195,000 to £199,999. Predecessor Sir John Manzoni had a pay bracket of £235,000-£238,9999 in last year’s table.

HM Treasury perm sec Tom Scholar is the highest-paid head of a Whitehall department, according to the 2020 rankings, with a salary band of £195,000-£199,999. The band represents a £5,000 increase on the previous year’s figure.

It is not uncommon for some officials to have significantly higher salaries than the permanent secretaries they are answerable to.

For example, Department for Transport perm sec Bernadette Kelly. DfT is the "parent" department for 164 of the officials on the 2020 rich list, 86 of whom have a higher pay bracket than Kelly's  £170,000-£174,999.

Six officials from HS2, five from Network Rail, and one each from the East West Rail and Highways England are in the same pay band as Kelly.

The latest figures show Department for International Trade perm sec Antonia Romeo secured a rise that boosted her pay bracket by £10,000 to £170,000-£174,999. The increase closes the gap between her salary and that of DIT chief trade negation adviser Crawford Falconer, who did not get an annual rise. However his pay is still considerably higher at £265,000-£269,999.

Department of Health and Social Care chief medical officer for England Chris Whitty has had a considerably higher-profile year than would have been the case without the coronavirus pandemic. The same is also the case for chief science officer Sir Patrick Vallance, whose home department is BEIS.

Whitty’s salary band of £205,000-£209,999 is a clear £30,000 ahead of DHSC perm sec Sir Chris Wormald’s £175,000-£179,999 range.

Vallance’s pay band of £180,000-£184,999 also outpaces new BEIS perm sec Sarah Munby’s £160,000-£164,999.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said the civil service had to be able to attract “high calibre people” capable of delivering quality services and driving forward projects on behalf of taxpayers.

'However, very high salaries in the public sector must be justified, so it is absolutely right that we publish this information and allow it to be scrutinised,” they said.

Read the most recent articles written by Jim Dunton - Covid Inquiry: Case quizzed on the Dominic Cummings 'culture of fear'


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