Ministers ‘making no effort’ to resolve public-sector strikes, union chief claims

Plus, think tank criticises government for hiding behind independent pay-review bodies to avoid negotiations
DVSA staff on a PCS picket line in Northamptonshire Photo: PCS/Twitter

By Jim Dunton

03 Jan 2023

The general secretary of the FDA union has accused the government of making no effort to resolve the wave of pay-related strikes that are affecting a range of services from the NHS to immigration and driving tests to job centres.

Dave Penman, whose organisation represents senior civil servants, Fast Stream members, NHS officials and a host of other staff, accused prime minister Rishi Sunak and his ministerial team of wilfully ignoring the gulf between current pay offers and the rate of inflation.

“What’s striking about the government’s response in all of this is that they’ve done nothing,” he said in a Times Radio interview.

Penman accused ministers of using the Royal College of Nursing’s inflation-busting pay demand – which the nurses' union describes as a starting point for negotiation – as an excuse to avoid engaging in necessary talks to help workers with cost-of-living pressures.

“They can always say that it’s 19% the RCN are asking for. OK then: What are you offering?” Penman asked.

“What are you doing to try and resolve it? And they’re doing nothing. That’s what we’ve said to the minister for the civil service as well: You’re not attempting to resolve this.

“We know it’s difficult. We know it’s tough for the government because this is public-sector pay, which means it's taxpayers’ money.

“But you’re making no attempt to resolve it. And you can see that in places where they are – like in Scotland, for example – they’re getting results. It’s not guaranteed. But at least they’re trying to find a solution.

“It’s not about plucking a figure from the air, it’s about understanding the different pressures that are there both in terms of the economy and public services and trying to find a compromise. But there’s no sign of that from the government just now.”

FDA members are not currently taking part in industrial action in the civil service, although a ballot of members in the Fast Stream is running until 16 January. It follows an indicative ballot that showed 81% of FDA members in the Fast Stream were in favour of strike action over pay levels.

Members of PCS, the civil service’s biggest union, at more than 100 government departments and arm’s length bodies have already voted in favour of strike action, demanding a 10% pay rise and pensions improvements.

Border Force staff at six airports and the port of Newhaven staged eight days of strike action over the festive period, prompting the Home Office to draft in hundreds of army personnel to provide passport-control checks.

PCS members employed by the Department for Transport-owned National Highways are striking today and tomorrow, with other regional action due to take place later in the week. Union members at the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency are due to strike in London, the south-east, the south-west and Wales for a week from tomorrow.

Strikes over pay are also affecting Rural Payments Agency offices at Workington, Newcastle and Caernarfon.

The Prospect union, which represents civil service professionals such as engineers and scientists, is due to ballot its members on strike action in the face of the government’s 2-3% pay offer for departmental staff.

General secretary Mike Clancy said late last month that he expected 2023 to bring the “the most widespread industrial action by Prospect members in a decade”.

Clancy said the outcome of the current disputes would “set the bar” for the type of labour market public-sector workers would have for the next decade.

Ministers ‘wrong’ to hide behind public-sector pay bodies

Independent think-tank the Institute for Government has accused the government of being disingenuous in seeking to portray pay offers set by public-sector pay-review bodies as distanced from ministers’ wishes.

There is no pay-review body for rank-and-file civil servants, and the 2%-3% tabled for departmental staff is the work of HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office. However around half of public-sector workers have their pay set by a review body.

In the case of NHS staff, Department of Health and Social Care ministers have repeatedly deferred to the offer made by the NHS Pay Review Body, worth around 4-5% on average for nurses – according to minister Helen Whately.

IfG chief economist Gemma Tetlow said ministers were “wrong to suggest” that the independent pay review bodies dictated public sector pay settlements.

“Resolving the strikes will require flexibility on all sides and a willingness to take on board changes that have happened since the review bodies last gathered evidence in early 2022,” she wrote in a briefing.

Tetlow emphasised the extent to which ministers set constraints within which pay review bodies need to work – such as last year’s request for them to “pay heed to the government’s inflation target” and consider departments’ fixed budgets.

“Ministers should not hide behind having followed the pay review bodies (constrained) recommendations as a defence against pressure to reopen pay negotiations and to accept responsibility for the decisions that ultimately fall to ministers,” she said. 

“The pay review body model – of an annual round of evidence gathering, evaluation and recommendations – works well in stable economic conditions. But it risks falling behind the curve when unexpected things happen.

“The recommendations made by the NHS pay review body in July, which the government accepted in full, were – for example – based on evidence submitted between January and March.

“Since then, not least because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, prices have risen more than was anticipated back in March. The labour market is also tighter than was expected, as inactivity rates have risen. Both could affect how much the public sector needs to pay to recruit, retain and motivate staff.”

Tetlow said resolving public-sector strikes would ultimately depend on whether the government, the workforce and union representatives wanted to do a deal.

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