Strikes looming over public sector pay in Northern Ireland

Civil servants are disadvantaged compared to the rest of the UK, unions claim
Source: Alamy

By Jonathan Owen

18 Jul 2023


Trade unions representing civil servants and other public sector workers in Northern Ireland are to hold talks next month to discuss going on strike amid an unresolved row over pay. Carmel Gates, general secretary, Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance, told CSW: “The civil and public service unions affiliated to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions will be meeting in August to discuss coordinated industrial action in the Autumn.”

She described the situation facing civil servants and other workers as “truly dire” due to a “punitive budget” set by Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.

“Departments here are strapped and have had to reduce functions and services to save money,” she said.

The union leader claimed that the Northern Ireland Civil Service has 3,000 vacancies that cannot be filled and “civil servants are having to take decisions that should be made by politicians.”

Decisions surrounding public sector pay in Northern Ireland are usually made by the Northern Ireland Executive, which has still not been re-formed after it collapsed last year.

A NIPSA briefing to MPs last Friday stated that civil servants had been instructed by Heaton-Harris to make budget cuts of £330 million. This meant that “the maximum allocation for pay for the majority of civil servants would be a flat rate payment of £552" in 2022-23.

The budget set by Heaton-Harris for Northern Ireland in April stipulated that any extra funding that might come as a result of additional spending announced in England and Wales would have to go towards balancing the books.

“Civil servants in Britain were recently offered a compensatory payment of £1,500 along with some other promises and were offered up to 5% for 2023. There has not been any such offer made to civil servants in the NICS and none is expected unless the secretary of state resiles from his position set out in the budget and the Treasury makes more money available,” the briefing stated.

It noted that civil servants in Northern Ireland suffered a real term pay cut of 26% between 2016 and 2023. The £552 offer for 2022-23 is worth less than 1% to the majority of civil servants, excluding administrative assistants, according to the briefing.

Health workers, teachers and some civil servants in Northern Ireland have taken part in industrial action in recent months amid ongoing disputes about pay and conditions.

And while more than one million public sector workers in England and Wales, including teachers, police and doctors were told last week they would be offered pay rises of up to 7%, this does not apply to Northern Ireland.

There is growing anger among public sector workers who are seeing their pay falling further behind their counterparts in the rest of the UK, unions claim.

FDA’s national officer for Northern Ireland, Allan Sampson said: “As a result of the ongoing political stalemate and the lack of a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland, no-one, at any grade, junior or senior, has had a meaningful pay rise this year in the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Therefore, the FDA does not regard the pay process for last year as having concluded, let alone for the current pay year.

“We of course acknowledge the very challenging budget set by the Secretary of State in the absence of Ministers at Stormont, but dedicated civil servants in the NICS – who have continued to deliver vital public services in the most challenging of circumstances – deserve a pay deal comparable to those in the rest of the UK.

“Whilst their colleagues in GB are receiving payments of above 5%, NI civil servants are simply being left behind.”

Joe McCusker, regional organiser for Unison Northern Ireland, said: “Health care workers across the health service in Northern Ireland are already being paid 5% less than their counterparts in other parts of the UK and this will increase with this recent announcement." He added: “If the pay review bodies' recommendations aren't given to workers in Northern Ireland this will increase to around 10 to 12% paid less in Northern Ireland, and that is just unacceptable, contemptible, and it's all unjustifiable."

Justin McCamphill, national official for education union NASUWT and president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, commented: “Our members have made it clear to us that they are prepared to take strike action if teachers don't receive at least the same level of pay as teachers in England."
And Liam Kelly, chairman of the Police Federation of Northern Ireland chairman, said: “The PSNI is having to deal with a deficit of £38 million…our officers are entitled to know if they are getting 7% or if, for the first time, there will be a break with pay parity."

Responding to the mounting concerns over pay differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, a Northern Ireland Office spokesperson said: “The UK Government has no authority to negotiate pay in Northern Ireland.”

They added: “The secretary of state has commissioned a range of information and advice from the Northern Ireland Civil Service on potential measures to raise more public revenue, or otherwise to improve the sustainability of public finances in Northern Ireland, for an incoming Executive to consider. His priority remains to see the return of locally elected, accountable and effective devolved government, which is the best way for Northern Ireland to be governed.”

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