As energy costs and inflation shoot up, a 2% pay rise is cold comfort for civil servants

Many had hoped, after the lifting of the “pay pause”, that pay austerity was coming to an end. They were disappointed, says Garry Graham
Photo: Andrew Seaman/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

By Garry Graham

31 Mar 2022

Those covered by this year’s remit guidance, with the range set today at 2-3%, will see it as a kick in the teeth. Employers covered by the guidance will look on it as clear evidence that the Cabinet Office and ministers do not live in the real world. For all civil servants, it will provide literally cold comfort. We already had examples during the pandemic of managers having to tell staff that it is acceptable for them to wear bobble hats and winter coats whilst dialling in for Zoom meetings because they couldn’t afford to heat their accommodation. That was prior to the energy price hike forecast and inflation at a more than 30-year high.

Many had hoped, after the lifting of the “pay pause” and the announcements of the Spending Review, with proud boasts of real-terms increases across departments, that more than a decade of pay austerity was coming to an end. We, supported by other unions, pressed for urgent discussions with the Cabinet Office as to what the lifting of the “pay pause” would mean in real terms.

This was against the backdrop of a recognition both by the Cabinet Office and individual employers that pay systems are broken. For over a decade, pay in real terms has continued to fall and also increasingly lagged behind not only the private sector but also other areas of the public sector. This is not just the view of the unions but also we know, because of our legal challenge to previous guidance, the view of the Cabinet Office.

It is worth remembering that while the pay of civil servants has been kept down, the pay of MPs, which is governed by an independent pay review body, has increased by 28%. In a number of years, MPs got more than twice the percentage increases of the staff who serve and support them. Staff who are unable to claim for the heating of their houses when they need to work from home and do not have the ability to undertake lucrative second jobs, unlike some MPs.

I recently met with a government minister who genuinely believed all staff received progression increases and all staff had recently received an across-the-board increase as a result of the lifting of the “pay pause”. How can someone in a position of authority be so removed from the people delivering their programme that they get this so wrong?

“I have never known a business to make decisions in the arbitrary and, frankly, stupid way I see officials and ministers making decisions in the civil service”

How do we break out of this bind? A first step would be agreeing to the setting up of an independent pay review body for those covered by the remit guidance. If the principle is good enough for MPs, why not the staff who work for them?

Let’s have a sensible conversation about pay. No one comes into public service and expects to receive film-star salaries, but they do have a reasonable expectation that their living standards do not reduce over an economic cycle and for more than a decade.

Let’s get some transparency as well. The government has made repeated statements that “public sector pay growth over the next three years should retain broad parity with the private sector”, but this year’s remit guidance falls at the first hurdle in living up to that commitment.

Let’s also agree what we want pay systems to do and support. Minsters talk in glowing terms about the private sector – and I have negotiated pay in the private sector for decades. I am not suggesting it is easy, but I have never known a business to make decisions in the arbitrary and, frankly, stupid way I see officials and ministers making decisions in the civil service.

This is not just about the pay of our members; it is about developing pay and reward strategies that add value to organisations enabling them to deliver on their goals. A pay system should help our members to build their careers and contribute to helping defend, protect, support and enhance the lives of those living in the UK and beyond. Instead of this approach, employers and unions are faced with labyrinthine guidance where the Cabinet Office seeks to second guess employers who allegedly have “delegated” authority in a Kafkaesque process where the concern is that the “computer says no” at every turn. As one frustrated organisational leader said to me recently, “there is not a problem I have that the Cabinet Office cannot make worse”.

It is time for an independent pay review body. It is time to stop pay in the civil service being a political football. It is time to ensure that our civil servants are rewarded fairly for the work they do and to support the knowledge, skills and experience the civil service needs.

Garry Graham is deputy general secretary of Prospect

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