The government has been accused of failing to recognise the impact of its continued pay restraint for public sector workers, which one MP has described as keeping some civil servants on pay close to welfare level.
Conservative backbenchers failed to take part in a Westminster Hall debate yesterday, which was triggered when two petitions calling for fairer public-sector pay passed the 100,000-signature mark. One of the petitions was launched by the PCS union and sought a 10% pay rise for staff to offset a decade of real-terms cuts for many.
Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell said ministers needed to understand the petitions – both begun before chancellor Rishi Sunak confirmed a pay freeze for public-sector workers in last month’s Spending Review – represented more than self-interest on the part of workers.
“Getting petitions on this scale reflects a depth of anger among those most affected – civil servants, of course – as well as their families and the whole community,” McDonnell said.
“That depth of anger is felt because these are the people who kept this country going for the last nine months.”
Scottish National Party MP Chris Stephens, who chairs the PCS union’s parliamentary group, said public sector workers and civil servants had “performed heroics” during the past nine months.
He noted that at one stage prime minister Boris Johnson had confessed to being “lost in admiration” for the work of civil servants during the crisis.
“I can only suggest that a pay freeze is an extraordinary way of showing that,” Stephens said. “And the general public seem to think so too.”
Stephens and other MPs urged ministers to end the the current pay setting arrangements in Whitehall, which see around 200 “bargaining units” across departments reaching different incremental deals, rather than across the board settlements for all civil servants.
“It is clear that pay delegation has also led to pay segregation by gender, and that the gender pay gap can only be reduced by increasing the pay of staff in the lowest-paid departments and agencies,” he said.
Labour MP Kate Osborne said government workers in her Jarrow constituency simply could not afford a further pay freeze and did not deserve it.
“A great number of the civil servants in my constituency are employed by the Department for Work and Pensions in Newcastle,” she said.
“Many of those who administer benefits are at virtually the same income levels as those receiving them. How is that situation sustainable?”
Labour MP for Easington Grahame Morris raised concerns about the treatment of prison officers. He said ministers had last week rejected the recommendations of the independent Prison Service Pay Review Body, which suggested a £3,000-a-year rise for some staff to aid recruitment and retention.
“The government claim that is unaffordable,” Morris said. “However, no exceptional circumstances have been cited to justify their decision, as is required. The government have earmarked around £4bn for a new generation of private prisons yet claim to have no money to pay prison officers. This is an abuse of power and an insult to people’s intelligence.”
Exchequer secretary to the Treasury Kemi Badenoch was the only Conservative MP to speak in the debate and gave the government response.
She congratulated the “thousands of people who secured the debate” by taking the time to express their support for key workers.
“On hundreds of occasions, government ministers have, in public and in private, expressed their gratitude and respect for what our millions of key workers have done, and I would like to do so again,” she said.
However Badenoch went on to insist that public sector pay restraint was vital.
“We all believe in fair pay, but we disagree on where it is sent. I remind honourable members that the public also want fiscal responsibility," she said.
“To paraphrase the chancellor, our health emergency is not yet over, while our economic emergency has only just begun.
“At a time like this, it is the responsibility in – fact, the duty – of government to prioritise and target support where it is most needed, in a way that is fair and sustainable, that protects jobs and businesses, and that limits long-term damage to the economy.”
Badenoch said “fairness” had been a “guiding principle” for the government. She did not agree to any requests to give way during the debate.
Minister confirms pay freeze will apply to Senior Civil Service
Separately, parliamentary secretary for the Cabinet Office Julia Lopez has sent out a remit letter for 2021-22 to Senior Salaries Review Body chair Martin Read.
It confirmed that the Spending Review pay freeze set out for the majority of rank-and-file civil servants would also be apply to members of the Senior Civil Service.
“Whilst we will not be seeking a recommendation from the review body for SCS pay uplifts in 2021-22, we will submit evidence for this group after Christmas recess in the usual way, covering the usual factors and in line with the pay policy announced at the Spending Review,” Lopez said.
“This will include setting out our recommendations and current thinking on a new workforce strategy for the SCS including full proposals for a capability-based pay progression system for comment from the SSRB.”
Lopez said HM Treasury would set out the justification and evidence for this policy in more detail in an evidence session later this week.