Even though I’ve lived in England for more than 15 years, as a Scot I’m always slightly appalled that 2 January is not a public holiday. I was still in holiday mode – in fact I was still on holiday – when I was rudely awoken from my Celtic malaise by the announcement from the Conservative Party of a manifesto pledge to cap public sector redundancy payments at £95,000. On a very rainy Saturday morning I was up with the lark, responding on the Today programme opposite the Treasury minister, Priti Patel, then later on the BBC and Sky News.
The idea of a cap has been circulating around Westminster for a while. Clearly the first Saturday after the New Year was going to be a slow news day, so why not launch the policy then? The cap is a blunt instrument and the reality of redundancy arrangements is that they are used to deliver any number of objectives in managing a workforce, and therefore need careful consideration. We negotiated new arrangements and agreed a deal with the current government in 2010. At the time, minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude – incumbent both then and now – said the deal was “fair and for the longer term”.
Yet here we are four years later, already dealing with changes announced by the chancellor in the summer on “claw back” provisions for those re-employed – and now we have a clear statement of intent from the Conservatives should they get back in power. Maybe our idea of “longer term” is different to theirs, but the difficulty is that such an approach will also undermine faith in the longevity of other negotiated agreements.
The Conservatives clearly think this is a vote winner. Their press release quotes examples of redundancy payoffs of £450,000 in the civil service, more than £500,000 in the NHS and more than £1m in the BBC, and talks about “hard-working taxpayers” funding “huge pay-outs when well-paid people get made redundant”.
“It’s dog-whistle politics, designed to pitch ‘hard-working taxpayers’ against so-called feather-bedded public servants. But those impacted by these proposals are also hard-working taxpayers”
I have two problems with this. Firstly, the reality of the proposal is that a cap of £95,000 will impact upon many hundreds of thousands of public servants. Their proposal specifically includes provisions to protect those earning under £27,000 (which presumably is their threshold for “well-paid”) as they recognise some earning under this could be affected. Therefore, anyone earning above that figure could be covered by the cap. So while the rhetoric is “fat cats”, the reality is nurses, firefighters, midwives, teachers and many other public servants who earn more than £27,000 a year. The cap of £95,000 is transparently concocted to be below six figures, which then drives the need to put protection in place for those on lower salaries. So it might make a good headline, but it doesn’t make good policy.
Secondly, the whole policy is the worst type of dog-whistle politics designed to pitch “hard-working taxpayers” against so-called feather-bedded public servants. But those impacted by these proposals are also hard-working taxpayers.
This is not simply about the Conservatives, however. The response from Labour was effectively that this should have been done sooner. Their shadow health minister, Jamie Reed, said prime minister David Cameron “can’t get away from the fact that this horse has already bolted”. There is an obsession in the main political parties with the most senior public servants and civil servants in particular; one shadow Labour minister said he could not understand why any civil servant should be paid more than £100,000 per year.
Instead of being proud of public servants who do some of the most complex and difficult jobs in the country and who, in any other organisation, would be paid multiples of what they earn in the public sector, politicians almost seem embarrassed by what senior public servants earn. Too many are too ready to jump on the “fat cat” bandwagon at a moment’s notice. It’s one of the principle reasons why successive governments have baulked at reforming the SCS pay system, which is so clearly not fit for purpose and is riddled with inequities.
I’m sure this will not be the last bit of public servant bashing we see over the next few months, if it makes for a convenient headline or smokescreen in the election campaign. As a union that has as its founding principles defending public service as well as public servants, the FDA will do all it can to publicly challenge the rhetoric. It genuinely fills me with pride that when I speak to civil servants, in the main, they accept that this is the nature of politics and don’t let it distract them or dilute their commitment to their role. If only that was recognised more widely, then we might have a few less dog whistles to listen to.
Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA union