Does Rishi Sunak’s appointment as prime minister herald a return to serious government? The bar has been so low of late that not turning the country into an international laughing stock would be judged to be Churchillian.
I’ll pass over some of the more controversial cabinet appointments. I want to concentrate on policy and how it affects the civil service.
The target of returning to 2016 staffing levels in the civil service was always going to disintegrate on contact with reality. That said, it was a policy dreamed up in cabinet and signed off by the then chancellor, one Mr Sunak.
The announcement of its demise in the PM’s first message to civil servants was welcome, as was his decision to “unpause” Fast Stream recruitment. The pause was another of those headache-inducing decisions that was clearly just a totemic nod to headcount reduction. It would make no difference in the grand scheme of things, further tarnish the brand of the civil service and damage it for decades to come. Another policy originally signed off by the chancellor, now reversed as PM.
However, as welcome as that reprieve is, the Fast Stream is far from safe. It is an extraordinary scheme. I have genuine admiration and, I’m not afraid to say, love, for civil servants. They do an incredible job of public service in the most extraordinary circumstances. But there is a little bit of me that loves fast streamers in that special way you reserve for George Clooney or Salma Hayek when you talk about your favourite movie stars.
Fast Stream selection is tough – only 2.3% of candidates are successful. There are still issues with diversity, particularly on socioeconomic background. As a result, it’s an easy hit for some critics, but I do and always will love it. Let me tell you why.
Fast streamers are the embodiment of the public service ethos. They are clever, motivated individuals who have choices. While there are now other routes into the Fast Stream, many are graduates who, by way of educational achievement and ability, get through the rigorous selection process. They could have chosen much better-paid career paths. But they chose public service.
And their enthusiasm for public service, commitment and raw talent oozes out of every pore. All of which is why you have to work really, really hard to piss them off. Bet you can guess what’s coming next.
They are indeed pissed off. These motivated, committed public servants on a career trajectory many, including this writer, could only dream of, are considering striking. This year’s pay offer was rejected by 95% of members, with 86% saying they would consider industrial action.
"The structural problems have been there for years; the cost of living crisis has just brought them into sharp relief. It is a solvable dispute with a group of members who should never be in a position where they are considering strike action"
Low pay blights the Fast Stream. That 2.3% success rate has meant that, quite frankly, the Cabinet Office has sat on its laurels for too long. Why raise pay levels when committed graduates keep applying for the scheme? Why address low pay when fast streamers will get a big pay jump when they move to Grade 7? These issues are not new, we’ve been raising them for years, but the current cost of living crisis has exacerbated these long-term structural problems.
Fast Stream starting pay is lower than that of an HEO, meaning we’ve had members leave the scheme to become HEOs for a pay rise, even though they would be almost guaranteed Grade 7 within two years. Their current quality of life is so low, it outweighs the prospect of future promotion.
Stats are hard to come by, so we have relentlessly surveyed our ever-growing membership. Almost half rely on parental support to get by, and more than a third still live with their family, driving a coach and horses through any aspiration to address socioeconomic issues. Nearly 90% have considered leaving the scheme, and nearly half of those who chose the scheme over a better-paid alternative now regret that decision.
They are skipping meals, avoiding social gatherings, and trying to minimise travel to work. If they are currently placed out of London, they are terrified of how they’ll cope if posted to Whitehall, where the cost of living is even higher.
They are telling us enough is enough, and I believe them. I know that public service pay is a tricky issue for government, I also know that our members across the board are struggling. In many ways, this dispute embodies what we are seeing across our public services, and the country as a whole.
It is, though, also a result of neglect. The structural problems have been there for years; the cost of living crisis has just brought them into sharp relief. It is a solvable dispute with a group of members who should never be in a position where they are considering strike action. Ministers may choose to dig in and fight, but ultimately it will be the country that loses if they do.
Dave Penman is the general secretary of the FDA union