Defra morale ‘through the floor’ as pay-flexibility case delay holds up pay rise

Defra staff lose hope of getting 2023-24 pay rise before Christmas, with Treasury and Cabinet Office yet to sign off on pay-flex case
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Staff at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have yet to receive a pay rise this year as the Treasury and Cabinet Office have not approved a pay-flexibility case submitted this summer, CSW has learned.

Morale at the department is reportedly “through the floor”, with staff doubting that they will see a pay rise before Christmas.

Defra, Natural England and the Environment Agency all submitted pay-flexibility cases in early summer that would enable them to exceed the civil service-wide 4.5% cap set out in April – rising to 5% for the lowest-paid officials.

But staff cannot receive their 2023-24 pay rise until the case has been approved by the Cabinet Office and the Treasury, and voted on by trade unions – at which point staff will get a payment backdated to July.

The Environment Agency's case was green-lit last week, with union negotiations beginning on 6 November. However, Defra and Natural England are still waiting, despite their cases being submitted at the same time.

Defra has said it hopes to have the process wrapped up by the end of the calendar year – but time is running out to get the case approved with enough time to allow for union negotiations before the December payroll deadline.

Discussions with the Treasury and Cabinet Office have been slow going since environment secretary Thérèse Coffey signed off on the case in July, according to internal memos seen by CSW. For pay-flexibility cases to be approved, departments must show they can offset the cost of higher salaries by making savings elsewhere.

In a message to staff in early September, Defra leadership said they were expecting an answer on the case by the end of the month. But in a second update on 5 October, they wrote that they were “still awaiting a response from Cabinet Office and Treasury”.

'Staff are rightly frustrated and worried'

Frustration is growing among Defra staff, whose pay lags behind other departments, particularly amid the cost-of-living crisis.

"Staff morale is through the floor as the pay disparity with other departments is really biting in the cost-of-living crisis," one Defra civil servant told CSW

Median pay for Defra grade 6 and 7 officials is £54,330 – below the civil service average of £58,440 and lower than any other central government department, according to the latest statistics published by the Cabinet Office.

Last summer, the department abandoned a pay-flexibility case it had been working on since mid-2021,  saying it was "extremely unlikely" to be approved in light of soaring inflation.

"Staff across the department are worried how they will afford Christmas for their children, usually we receive our uplift in October, there is still no sign. Despite this we have been repeatedly told that the award will be made this year – staff are rightly frustrated and worried," the Defra official said.

"More and more it feels like the only option open to staff is to leave Defra in search of better wages for equivalent work in other departments; many of my colleagues have already left after becoming totally despondent at our treatment."

'It has taken longer than we had hoped'

In its September update, Defra warned that it would be "difficult to put a timescale" on the pay process, but said "we would hope to be able to implement a successful case by the end of the 2023 calendar year".

But this is looking increasingly unlikely, with the October memo saying it "has taken longer than we had hoped to achieve a decision".

“We have been continuously working with Treasury and Cabinet Office to ensure that the case is the best we can achieve,” the update said, adding that permanent secretary Tamara Finkelstein and second perm sec Nick Joicey were “heavily involved” in the discussions and “working hard to move forward”.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of PCS – the civil service's biggest union, whose members must be consulted on the pay case – said representatives of Defra's executive committee had "continually repeated the promise of paying by December".

"But under the pay business case, this would be impossible due to the need to properlly consult members on any changes to terms and conditions. We have told the employer that this approach is extremely unhelpful and that it has fuelled unnecessary concern among members," he said.

If the case is not approved, Defra will award pay rises “as soon as possible” in line with the 4.5-5% cap set out in the April guidance.

In an update on 6 November, Joicey said the Environment Agency’s pay flexibility case had been approved and Defra was expecting an update on its case – along with one submitted by Natural England – by the end of last week. 

However, no update has so far arrived.

Serwotka said it was "disappointing" that the department had missed its latest deadline for updating staff, which it said "will worsen the issue caused initially by the Treasury".

"These oversights are completely unfair on our members, who deserve to be paid promptly during a cost-of-living crisis having disgracefully not received a real-terms pay rise for over a decade," he said.

"What is happening at Defra has once again shown our members what a farce delegated pay is and why we continue to campaign for a return to national pay bargaining," he added.

A Defra spokesperson said: “We have worked closely with the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury on the pay flex case since our initial submission and are expecting a final response imminently.”

The Cabinet Office had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

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