'Be realistic’ about pay, Cabinet Office minister tells striking civil servants

Jeremy Quin says an 11% cross-public sector rise would cost each UK household £1,000 a year
“I really regret that the unions have felt it necessary" to strike, Quin said. Photo: Thomas Krych/ZUMA Press Wire

By Jim Dunton

09 Dec 2022

Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin has insisted civil servants need to be “realistic” about their pay demands ahead of the strikes that are set to sweep the nation from next week.

Quin said it was a “sad” fact that the ask being made of government was“not affordable”. But he went on to quote a pay-demand figure that is higher than the 10% being sought by members of PCS, the civil service’s biggest union, and extrapolated the cost across the entire public-sector workforce.

The minister’s comments came in answer to a parliamentary question yesterday. He was asked for his own assessment of the state of industrial relations within the civil service following the government’s refusal to improve on its 2%-3% pay offer at a time when inflation is four times higher. 

“Providing an 11% increase across the public sector would equate to about £28bn – just under £1,000 per household,” Quin said in parliament.

“So I really regret that the unions have felt it necessary to take this action. Our door remains open; we would like to speak to them. We would rather that this was not taking place, but we have to be realistic about the constraints on public expenditure at present.”

According to the Office for National Statistics, inflation as measured by the Consumer Prices Index was 11.1% in the year to October. Civil service unions argue that pay freezes and sub-infaltionary pay rises imposed on departmental officials since 2010 equated to a real-terms pay cut of around 20% even before the current cost-of-living crisis took hold.

PCS members at the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency and the Rural Payments Agency are set to kick off strikes over pay next week, with colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions, National Highways and Border Force due to follow suit in the coming weeks.

The union’s strike ballot, which ran from late September to early November, achieved a legal mandate for industrial action in 124 of 214 departments and agencies. PCS members in HM Revenue and Customs, the Welsh Government and other branches that failed to achieve the 50% turnout required for strike ballots to be legal are due to be re-balloted in the coming weeks.

Quin told MPs yesterday he hoped that the scheduled strikes would not take place and encouraged civil servants campaigning for better to pay to “continue to work in the public interest”.

“We really value the work and the services they do, but there has to be a recognition that the scale of demands being made on us is not affordable for the taxpayer at this time,” he said. “That is sad, but it is a fact.”

Quin also sought to play down the Cabinet Office’s overarching role in determining civil service pay.

“The Cabinet Office is not the employer of all civil servants, and departments are responsible for engaging with recognised trade unions at departmental and local level,” he said.

“The Public and Commercial Services Union is currently in dispute with a number of civil service employers and has called for strike action in several departments. We remain open to continued dialogue to bring about a resolution.”

Nevertheless, the cross-departmental pay-remit guidance published in March was set by the Cabinet Office. Departments’ only flexibilities are in the way they distribute the average rise mandated by the Cabinet Office – or in whether they seek approval from the department and the Treasury for bespoke deals that offer higher increases in pay in return for wider reform of working arrangments.

This week, civil service professionals’ union Prospect said it would ballot members on strike action from next month if the government does not reopen negotiations on its 2%-3% pay remit guidance for 2022-23.

The move follows an indicative ballot of members that closed on Monday which found four in five civil service members support strike action over pay.

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