When you become a civil servant, it doesn’t take long to recognise that there ain’t a lot of sympathy out there for you. Especially not from certain politicians and commentators.
Should you put your skills to use for the public good and climb the ranks of the service or, indeed, be a highly skilled professional – you may well earn a relatively high salary compared to the average. Just don’t forget it’s “taxpayer-funded”, that get-out-of-jail-free card for every politician looking for a headline and well, really, you’re just asking for it aren’t you?
Which brings me neatly to Liz Truss, chief secretary to the Treasury and self-proclaimed “disruptor in chief”. I never really know what that means. It’s one of those phrases that you see on someone’s Twitter profile and your first thought is “what a twonk”, usually confirmed by a quick look at their timeline.
The Great Disruptor has announced with a column in the Daily Telegraph that, given the current tumultuous state of our nation’s politics and declining international reputation, a government priority is capping redundancy payments for public servants at £95,000.
It’s a policy first floated in early 2015 by another publicity-shy minister, Priti Patel. I say early 2015, as it was actually January 1: a good day for publicity-hungry politicians to take to the airwaves with their very-well-thought-through ideas. At that time, the policy included protection for those earning less than £27,000 a year. But wait, how could that be? Wasn’t this all about golden goodbyes for fat-cat public servants? Live on the Today programme, as I jousted with said publicity-shy minister, listeners at home could hear what I could see: the panic as Patel flicked through her notes when repeatedly challenged over why protection was needed for those earning less than £27,000 if this was all about those fat cats. Happy days.
To be fair to Liz Truss, she has learned from the other minister’s experience. No longer will the lower-paid be protected, as clearly it gets in the way of the narrative. That narrative, as outlined very clearly in her Telegraph column, (did I mention the Telegraph column?) is a real emotional rollercoaster. It also provides great insight into the mind of the Great Disruptor. It starts, of course, with the hardworking taxpayers bit, setting the scene of children being deprived of a “holiday or treat” because their parents had to pay tax. Yes, really. Then, of course, we come onto the part about the evil high-paid, taxpayer-funded public servants. This bit could really do with some musical accompaniment, like in a black and white movie when the villain appears. She actually uses the phrase “golden goodbyes – all from the taxpayer's pocket” as she states that “we’re prioritising spending on things the public actually wants”. Nice.
However, as we ride the next emotional wave – or paragraph as it’s known to journalists – don’t get her wrong, oh no: she believes “public servants should be fairly paid” and is making sure “valued workers are paid competitive salaries to attract the best people”.
“We’ve raised nurses’ starting salaries by nearly £3,000 over three years,” she continues, “increased many teachers’ pay by £800, and made sure that the average police officer earns £38,000.”
Now, aside from the wisdom of claiming a £800 a year rise for teachers as some kind of government largesse, she makes abundantly clear who she values as public servants. Maybe she’s right: she is the Great Disruptor, because I can imagine that a minister who makes clear that her own staff don’t appear on the shortlist for “most valued public servant of the year” is likely to cause a bit of disruption.
Not only did they not make the list – maybe an oversight or an over-zealous subeditor, God knows we’ve all suffered there – but apparently valued workers are entitled to “competitive” salaries. Her senior staff in the Treasury, as she well knows – she sees the evidence – are paid a fraction of what they could earn elsewhere. Honestly, if I made such a public gaffe, then I wouldn’t trust FDA staff not to put something unpleasant in my tea for the next fortnight.
As with many Great Disruptors, it’s the disrupting rather than the actual outcome that’s important. Demonising public servants just because they’re paid a higher salary for doing some of the most complex and difficult work in the country plays well if you’re a politician happy to quote the TaxPayers’ Alliance – which Truss does in her column. Is it a strategy for attracting the best talent to public service, knowing they’ll be attacked by the very politicians they’re asked to serve? Clearly not. But that’s not what’s important when it’s the headline, rather than delivering public services, that counts.