Civil service unions vow to ramp up strikes after 'insulting' 4.5% pay offer

Sub-inflation offer is dubbed “unconscionable” and out of step with awards agreed with other public sector workers
The pay proposals "increase the likelihood of a new wave of sustained strike action", PCS says. Photo: RichardBaker/Alamy Stock Photo

By Jim Dunton

14 Apr 2023

Civil service unions have said they will take fresh strike action over "insulting" proposals to limit average pay rises for most civil servants to 4.5% for the coming year at a time when inflation is running at more than double that level.

Prospect has announced new strike dates in May, while the FDA union will broach industrial action with its members over what it said would be the "worst pay deal in the public sector by far".

The Cabinet Office's highly anticipated pay remit guidance for 2023-24 applies to all officials below senior civil service level. It allows for an extra 0.5% for the lower pay bands, bringing average pay rises for the lowest-paid civil servants to 5%.

The guidance includes no one-off payments to aid officials with the spiralling cost of living. In contrast, NHS staff who have been offered a non-consolidated payment worth £1,600 plus 2% of their earnings as part of a broader package; while education staff have been offered a one-off payment of £1,000.

Civil service unions Prospect and PCS are already striking over the government’s 2022-23 pay offer for rank-and-file staff, which was worth an average of 2-3%. Inflation as measured by the Consumer Prices Index was 10.4% in February, the most recent month for which figures are available.

The FDA union indicated it would discuss balloting members over strike action at an executive committee meeting next week. A government spokesperson claimed the 2023-24 deal tabled would equate to the highest pay increase for civil servants in 20 years. 

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of PCS – the civil service’s biggest union – said today’s pay-remit guidance proposals would pour fuel on the flames of resentment among officials after more than a decade of pay freezes and sub-inflationary rises.  

“This insulting proposal will serve only to anger PCS members, stiffen their resolve ahead of the forthcoming re-ballot and increase the likelihood of a new wave of sustained strike action,” he said.

“Unlike the health and education unions that have had intensive talks leading to improved pay offers, we were given no opportunity to negotiate – it’s the most deplorable way to treat their own staff.

“The government has carried on as if there hasn’t been the biggest industrial action in a decade, as if this has been a normal year.”

Serwotka said that failing to revise last year’s offer despite months of soaring inflation and going on to table another below-inflation offer for the new financial year amounted to treating civil servants with contempt.

Almost six months on from PCS members’ resounding vote to strike over pay and pensions, Serwotka warned ministers to expect the 2023-24 pay offer to act as a rallying cry for the current re-ballot, which is legally necessary for industrial action to continue.

“Once again, the government has treated its own workforce demonstrably worse than anyone else,” Serwotka said.

“We’re currently re-balloting 124,000 members in 186 government departments and, especially after this disparaging announcement, we’re very confident of a ‘yes’ vote.”

Prospect – which represents professionals such as scientists and engineers in the civil service – has announced two further strike dates following the announcement, with staff walking out on 10 May and 7 June. Further dates will follow, general secretary Mike Clancy said.

“We have repeatedly offered to engage in pay talks aimed at resolving this dispute provided they followed a comparable approach to that employed elsewhere in the public service,” he said.

“By publishing the pay control, the government has abandoned its staff to further real terms cuts and to remain at the back of the public service pay queue.”

He said members’ pay had reduced by 26% in real terms since 2010.

“This industrial action was entirely avoidable, but the government’s failure to bring anything to the table has made it inevitable and it leaves hard-working civil servants with no option but to protest over their treatment,” he said.

“Prospect members are the specialists upon whom all aspects of effective government depend. If the government doesn’t change its stance, then it will face a recruitment and retention crisis that degrades the civil service and the public services we all rely on.”

The government’s pay-remit guidance excludes members of the senior civil service, whose pay increases are decided by ministers based on the advice of the Senior Salaries Review Body. However, today’s guidance will serve as a strong indication of the best offer civil service top brass can expect from ministers.

Third civil service union edges towards strike action

Dave Penman, general secretary of civil service leaders’ union the FDA, said the offer showed “utter contempt” for civil servants and indicated that the organisation would now broach balloting its members over industrial action.

“Following months of ministers dragging their feet, the government has decided to shoot itself in the foot over civil service pay,” he said.

“Today’s pay remit guidance of a 4.5% increase, with no consolidated payment, is unconscionable given the current economic climate that civil servants face.

“This guidance will leave the civil service with the worst pay deal in the public sector by far, showing utter contempt for the vital work they do to support the government and deliver public services that the country relies upon.”

Penman said he had pleaded with Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden to open negotiations on the pay-remit guidance to avoid “a prolonged and damaging dispute”.

“We always try to engage constructively and in good faith with the government to reach the best outcome but it’s clear that the government has no intention of offering us that same courtesy,” he said.

“As a result, the FDA’s executive committee will meet on Wednesday 19 April 2023 to consider a national ballot for industrial action in the civil service.”

The latest guidance does not apply to departments that have agreed bespoke multi-year deals with their staff in return for changes to terms-and-conditions or increased working hours flexibilities.

The guidance makes clear that the Cabinet Office and Treasury will consider requests from departments for pay flexibility proposals where they are tied in with efficiency-boosting transformation plans that offset the cost of higher pay rises.

Offer is “best deal for civil servants in 20 years”, ministers say

A government spokesperson said the 2023-24 remit contained the best pay offer for civil servants in two decades. The spokesperson said that the guidance would translate to a pay rise of more than £1,500 for a “hypothetical” civil servant at HEO level who currently earns £34,000 a year.

"This guidance recognises the hard work and vital importance of civil service staff by offering the highest pay increase in 20 years, in line with forecast wage growth across the economy,” they said.

“The deal is also fair to the taxpayer and supports the government’s promise to halve inflation this year, which will help everyone’s incomes go further.”

The spokesperson said the government would continue dialogue with civil service unions to “explore resolution of their wider disputes” and would “continue to approach all pay discussions in good faith”.

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