Editorial: A report that claims to defend taxpayers cost them £650k

Conference season is upon us, and this year all three really matter. With the Liberal Democrats in government, Nick Clegg’s defence of the coalition was occupying the news media last Monday – until a report on public sector salaries suddenly rose up the bulletins and spread through the news websites. Launched ahead of a BBC Panorama programme on the topic, the report won lavish coverage across the right-leaning press.

By Matt.Ross

22 Sep 2010

The report’s main finding – that 9,187 public sector employees earn more than the prime minister – stood above an excitable text. “The findings put an end to the myth that the public sector worker trades high pay for job security and gold plated pensions,” it said.

The most remarkable thing about these findings is their fixation on the PM’s earnings. The idea that public servants shouldn’t draw higher salaries than the PM assumes that his salary has been calculated to act as a benchmark for public pay – yet nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, the PM’s salary – along with those of other ministers and of MPs – has been depressed by successive governments’ reluctance to be seen to be giving politicians a pay hike (a problem that led, indirectly and inexcusably, to the MPs’ expenses scandal). Indeed, MPs’ pay has risen just 36 per cent in ten years – five percentage points behind the growth in average earnings, according to ONS figures. So politicians’ salaries have been set largely by political imperatives, without reference to the jobs market. This is not a sensible way to benchmark salaries, particularly when public employers share a jobs market with private businesses.

What’s more, the research used the figure of £142,500 for the PM’s salary. This is certainly the amount he draws, but only because David Cameron has imposed a five per cent ministerial pay cut and elects – following Gordon Brown’s lead – not to take his Parliamentary salary. Even after the pay cut, the PM is entitled to take £208,288. Given the fact that he’s a millionaire, and benefits from the use of two houses, a catering staff and a ministerial car, it isn’t painful for him to sacrifice the extra cash – but not all public servants have such advantages.

So the report erected a straw man in order to thump high public sector salaries. Whose agenda is this? Well, one clue lies in the report’s introduction, where the only person quoted is Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude: “You don’t need to pay stupendous amounts to get good people,” he argues, suggesting that the “public service ethos” will attract applicants without the need to offer “telephone number salaries”.

The report was produced by the ‘Bureau of Investigative Journalism’: a not-for-profit body lent office space and computers by London’s City University. Much of its funding comes from private trust the Potter Foundation, established by the eponymous family of IT entrepreneurs. But its approach – and its success in placing stories so prominently in the mainstream media – probably owes more to its current staff: the team includes two former BBC reporters and a veteran of the Mail on Sunday, a combination that may help explain its sceptical take on public sector pay and the production of a dedicated Panorama programme.

The Bureau operates using student manpower: according to this newspaper’s own slice of ‘investigative journalism’, the students – many of whom are on City’s well-respected postgraduate course in journalism – do two weeks’ unpaid labour before receiving a wage of £50 a day. While the work is branded as journalism training, much of it comprises data entry and the sending out of Freedom of Information requests.

In fact, the report gathered its data using some 1,400 Freedom of Information requests. According to the government’s 2006 review of FoI, on average these cost government departments £254; in 2008, University College London conducted research that estimated the average cost of a FoI request to local authorities at £288. Taking the middle figure – £271 – the bureau’s research probably cost public bodies around £650,400.

Now this is a story. An organisation led by former BBC and Mail on Sunday staffers, funded by an entrepreneur’s foundation and manned by unpaid students, has blown nearly two thirds of a million quid of UK taxpayers’ money on producing a report closely aligned with the government’s hostility to “telephone number” public salaries. This paper is a big fan of the FoI Act, but the system was not introduced to help journalism training facilities secure avalanches of publicity while softening up the public for a government assault on public sector pay.

To be fair, the Panorama programme took a much more even-handed approach, broadcasting interviews with people in Cleveland who vigorously defended their local police chief’s £200k salary. His success has transformed their lives, they said. And this is the real issue: effective, talented public sector leaders can be worth many millions to this country’s people and economy. In Maude’s view, the “public sector ethos” will compensate for smaller salaries. But if public sector managers’ pay falls behind that of their private sector peers, we’ll end up with public services being run by the most well-intentioned people. This newspaper would much rather that taxpayers’ money was spent by the most able.

Read the most recent articles written by Matt.Ross - Kerslake sets out ‘unfinished business’ in civil service reform


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