Civil service unions have reacted with scepticism to chancellor Rishi Sunak’s confirmation that the government plans to end the public-sector pay freeze from April – without identifying funding for the move.
Sunak used yesterday’s Autumn Budget and three-year Spending Review settlement to increase departmental funding by an average of 3.8% a year over the period to 2024-25. At the same time he set out plans to pare back “non-frontline” civil service headcount to pre-pandemic levels over the period and reinvest savings into priority areas.
But while the chancellor confirmed that the public-sector pay freeze introduced for 2021-22 – and which affects all civil servants earning more than £24,000 a year – will end, civil servants have been left with little idea about whether the result will be a real-terms pay rise.
His sole reference to public sector-pay in the Budget speech was to say that public-sector workers would “see fair and affordable pay rises across the whole Spending Review period”. Sunak used “fairness” in comparison with the private sector as a justification for introducing the pay freeze at last year’s budget.
Mike Clancy, general secretary of the Prospect union, said Sunak’s assertion that those “fair and affordable” rises would result from a return to “the normal, independent pay-setting process” overseen by independent bodies was particularly problematic for civil servants.
“Hundreds of thousands of civil servants, and millions of public sector workers, aren’t covered by these bodies and need government to guarantee a fair pay rise for them,” he said.
“With inflation soaring and pay rising across the private sector, this is an opportunity to reset the job market and make the public sector an attractive a place to work for skilled workers.”
Clancy said that now the government had pledged to end the pay freeze it had to ensure that departments did not try to short-change employees by failing to offer proper pay rises.
He added: “What mustn't happen is yet another free-for-all on expensive consultants, wasting public money and failing to reward public servants who have been heroes of the pandemic.”
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, said Sunak’s pay-freeze pledge was “fake news” because it was not backed with funding to deliver.
“It is an empty gesture to announce you are ending a pay freeze without providing extra money from the Treasury,” he said.
“With inflation running at 3.1%, with some forecasts predicting 5% by early 2022, any lifting of pay below that level, is akin to real terms cut.
"Civil and other public servants have been living the reality of a pay freeze for over a decade. None of today's rhetoric will do anything to alleviate the real economic hardship our members are experiencing every day.”
FDA assistant general secretary Lucille Thirlby agreed the pay freeze would not be at an end unless Sunak funded pay rises above the cost of living.
“Our members have seen their pay slashed in real terms since 2009 amid over a decade of pay restraint,” she said.
“High quality public services are essential to the resilience our economy needs and they can only be delivered with good pay and conditions to attract and keep high-quality staff.
“It’s all well and good for the chancellor to boast at the dispatch box about being the ‘party of public services’ but this rhetoric means nothing if not backed up with the funding needed for departments to address historic underfunding of pay and pay systems for the very people delivering those services.”