The civil service’s biggest union has declared itself “formally in dispute” with the government over its 2022-23 pay proposals for officials and is targeting an “early autumn” ballot on strike action aimed at securing a 10% pay rise.
PCS’s announcement comes one month after the Cabinet Office set out its pay remit guidance for the current financial year, which proposed that most departmental officials would be in line for a 2% annual rise with the potential for an extra 1% in exceptional cases.
The benchmark Consumer Prices Index rose by 7% in the year to March, according to the Office for National Statistics, and last month the Bank of England said it expected inflation to hit 8% later this year.
PCS’s decision to challenge the pay guidance sets the stage for months of wrangling with ministers ahead of a strike ballot seemingly timed to coincide with party-conference season.
The union said it would use its May annual conference to ask delegates to endorse the strategy, which seeks safeguards over redundancy terms and the return of pensions overpayments connected with the goverrnment's flawed 2015 reforms in addition to the double-digit pay rise.
“Our members voted in record numbers in our recent consultative ballot to support our national pay claim of 10% and to get the 2% they have overpaid towards their pension refunded and backdated to April 2019,” it said in a statement.
“Ninety-eight percent of members endorsed the claim and 81% indicated they would be prepared to take industrial action if the government didn’t listen.
“Since then we have been working tirelessly to persuade Cabinet Office and Treasury officials, as well as government ministers, to do the right thing on pay. After all, our members helped to keep this country running during the Covid pandemic, and their reward for that should not be to now take the single biggest drop in living standards since records began in 1956.
“Unfortunately, the government refuses to listen and also intends to make cuts to the civil service redundancy scheme.
“It is not a coincidence that they want to make these cuts at a time when Jacob Rees-Mogg is calling for more than 65,000 jobs to be lost in the civil service.”
PCS and other civil service unions argue that the pay restraint that has been a constant fixture since the coalition government was formed in 2010 has cut the real-terms value of average pay by around 20%.
Last month Institute for Fiscal Studies senior research economist Ben Zaranko warned “below-inflation pay awards seem a certainty” for civil servants and other public sector workers in the wake of chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Spring Statement.
Zaranko noted that while official Treasury policy was for public sector pay to “retain broad parity with the private sector”, it was now falling in real terms after “more or less” tracking the private sector in the two years before the pandemic struck.
Zaranko said the government would need to find an additional £3bn to increase public sector pay in line with the 1.3% increase in private-sector pay that the Office for Budget Responsibility projects for 2022-23.
He added that the OBR projected CPI inflation to be 4.3% for 2022-23, which would “equate to a hit for the average public sector worker of £1,800” with no compensation.
Last week, professionals’ union Prospect said its negotiators would be pushing civil service employers for the maximum increase possible for members under the terms of the remit guidance, and recommending branches ballot members on the resulting offers.
The union leadership said members should also be asked what course of action they were prepared to take if the offer was rejected.