Opinion: Sunak’s pay freeze adds insult to injury

Government claims on the generosity of public sector earnings mean it really is time for an independent pay-review body, says Prospect’s Garry Graham
Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

By Garry Graham

26 Nov 2020

Hundreds of thousands of civil servants and workers in the wider public sector will see the announcement that their pay is to be frozen for the coming year as a low blow. The fact that chancellor Rishi Sunak has sought to justify this in the name of “fairness” will be even more galling. The suggestion that those subject to the freeze have received pay increases averaging in the region of 4% this year will be met with incredulity.

The chancellor’s rendition of the notion of fairness is wholly partial. It ignores the experience of the civil service over the last decade where pay austerity has continued to be a feature. Pay growth has lagged behind increases in private sector earnings by around 20% as well as inflation over the period. This has fuelled problems across the civil service in terms of recruitment and retention – particularly with regard to the need for specialist skills. Insult was added to injury when the chancellor said staff could still receive pay progression increases when it was his own department that instigated and oversaw the removal of pay progression for the vast majority of the civil service a decade ago.

Prospect represents members working across the public and the private sector. Often they will work side by side, in defence for example or with a common endeavour in safety critical industries such as energy and more broadly ensuring workplaces are safe – something which has never been more to the fore.

The challenges we face as a country are huge, both in terms of dealing with the pandemic and delivering Brexit to name but two. Core to dealing with those challenges is an effectively resourced civil service. I have seen the extraordinary efforts made by staff giving their all to support the country and citizens through the pandemic, and wrestling with the challenges presented by Brexit, seeking to ensure people remain safe and the country functions and remains defended.

To rule out even a modest pay increase for those who have worked so hard gives no recognition to their contribution. It ignores how they have been treated over the past decade. It creates a false dichotomy between the public and private sector.

No one is more aware of the economic headwinds we face than Prospect or our members. Equality of misery is not, however, an economic strategy let alone a strategy that enables effective government and organisations to recruit and retain the skilled staff they need. Not one more private sector job will be created or be more secure as a result of the government’s decision to arbitrarily freeze pay in the public sector. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be the case as the key challenges the economy faces are lack of demand and confidence. The politics of equality of misery take you into a downward economic spiral.

Prospect has long called for an independent pay review body to oversee pay for our members working in the public sector. This would command public confidence, help stop pay being a political football and put an end to dog-whistle politics. All workers, whether they work in the public or the private sector deserve a fair deal. Across the public and the private sector our members have made extraordinary efforts to keep the country going and support the needs of citizens. Clapping for their contribution is not enough.

Garry Graham is deputy general secretary of Prospect

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