Senior civil servants should be given a "one-off" boost to their pay in order to combat widespread morale, recruitment and retention problems, unions have said.
Public sector pay was frozen for two years in 2010 as part of the Treasury's programme of austerity, with annual rises since 2012 capped at an average of 1%. Chancellor George Osborne announced last summer that the 1% cap would remain in place for at least another four years, while all departments have also now moved to end automatic time-served progression rises.
But, in a joint submission to the Senior Salaries Review Body (SSRB) – which provides independent advice to government on the pay levels needed to recruit and retain senior public sector staff – the FDA and Prospect trade unions warn of the toll that the government's approach is taking on the senior civil service (SCS).
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An online survey of SCS members from both unions found that 92% of respondents were dissatisfied with overall pay arrangements in the senior ranks, with 56% saying they were "very dissatisfied". Concerns about pay also appeared to be more widespread among those recruited from outside the civil service, with two-thirds of external recruits saying they were "very dissatisfied" with overall SCS pay arrangements.
Meanwhile, more than half (56%) of those asked said they were aware of recruitment difficulties in their organisation, with 59% saying retaining staff was a problem. More than two-thirds (70%) of respondents said they had seriously considered leaving the civil service in the last year.
While plans are being drawn up to introduce new pay bands for commercial and digital specialists, and while the Treasury currently grants some flexibility to departments to address recruitment and retention problems by re-allocating funds within their overall paybill, both unions express concern about ad-hoc exceptions to wider pay policy.
They say that small-scale interventions are proving "divisive", and are coming at the expense of an "holistic" and "transparent" approach to pay reform.
"Last year's government evidence [to the SSRB] acknowledged that there is an issue with the ability of the civil service to 'recruit key staff of the right calibre'," the submission says.
"The only solution government seems to have developed in the intervening period is to bypass the conventional pay framework and start again, as it has in the attempt to recruit 25 senior commercial specialists."
The unions add: "The decision to give special treatment to one particular area of recruitment when many others: tax experts, specialist laywers and scientific specialists, for example, are also facing chronic issues in recruiting and retaining the right skills and experience, has caused suspicion and frustration in those areas. Where alternative remuneration arrangements are developed in isolation, we believe there is a genuine reason to be concerned."
The survey also found that almost a third of SCS respondents (30.9%) were earning less than some staff that they were line-managing, a situation the unions warn is "now a fixture of the pay system".
According to the civil service's own annual people survey, published in November, there has been a slight year-on-year rise in the proportion of officials expressing satisfaction with their pay and benefits, shifting from 28% to 30%.
But pay remains by far the area where civil service staff engagement scores are lowest, with just a quarter of officials in the organisation's own survey saying they believe their pay is "reasonable" when compared to people doing a similar job in outside organisations.
The FDA and Prospect urge the SSRB – whose recommendations the Treasury is not required to accept – to back a "one-off realignment award" for civil servants, which they say could be done within the existing framework of pay restraint.
"Given the decision to maintain the current pay bill cap for four years, we suggest that this is managed through a multi-year pay award enabling the civil service to mitigate some of the problems in the system. The continued economic climate of negligible inflation lends itself to this approach where the 4% over four years could be deployed at the start of the four years rather than being equally divided across each year.
"While government may wish to retain a non-consolidated pot for performance awards made on an annual basis, the consolidated pot could be merged allowing a higher up-front payment to address some of the issues members and commentators routinely highlight."
Publishing the unions' submission, FDA general secretary Dave Penman said it was time for a "fundamental review of the SCS pay system".
He added: "When MPs’ pay was realigned last year, the prime minister himself said: ‘Personally I think the right thing to do is to be paid the rate for the job.’ If that applies to MPs then it has to apply to civil servants.”
The SSRB's latest recommendations are expected to be published in the spring.