Public servants are wrong to strike over pay because significantly increasing their pay packets would worsen the UK’s inflation woes and “undercut the very poorest” staff, Dominic Raab has said.
Strike action is not the “right thing to do now”, the justice secretary said yesterday – shortly after the PCS union announced the first three departments that will be hit by civil service walkouts over pay and working conditions next month.
Appearing before parliament’s Justice Committee yesterday, Raab said he understood the “pressure” on pay and legal fees – which are an ongoing source of contention for the Ministry of Justice as solicitors consider strikes.
“Look, I think strike action – and this is talked about in various sectors, including the public sector and across Whitehall – I don't think it's the right thing to do now,” he said.
“But of course there’s two points: there’s a systemic point, which is that if we agreed to unsustainable, beyond-inflation pay increases, that will make inflation last for longer, that will undercut the very poorest in whatever the sector is because inflation will stay higher for longer, plus the impact on interest rates,” he added.
Most civil servants have been offered pay rises of between 2% and 3% this year. PCS is calling for a 10% pay rise across the board – which is still lower than the current rate of inflation, which stood at 11.1% last week.
Two unions, Prospect and Unison, announced strikes at the Environment Agency this week over pay, while FDA members in the civil service Fast Stream are considering industrial action for the same reason.
Raab’s comments were in response to a grilling by the MPs on how he had handled disputes over legal-aid cuts.
Members of the Criminal Law Association began industrial action in April over the MoJ’s refusal to increase legal fees to what it considered acceptable levels, which escalated to walkouts in September. Soon after that point, Raab was sacked and his successor as justice secretary, Brandon Lewis, struck a deal that ended the strikes.
Raab could soon be facing a similar situation, as the Criminal Law Solicitors Association has announced it is commissioning advice regarding the formation of a trade union for legal aid lawyers.
Committee chair Sir Robert Neill said it was “terribly troubling” that the two organisations had concluded “that the only way to get you to act or indeed the government to act is to take strike action”.
“I'm not sure you can throw that in my direction,” Raab said.
And he accused the committee of presenting “a critique without a credible alternative”, adding: “Respectfully, I've got to deal with the financial envelope I've got, and the choices that in the real world I have to make.”
Years of legal-aid cuts have eroded the fees barristers and solicitors receive for providing government-funded legal advice, mediation or representation in court.
In 2020, the MoJ commissioned a former judge, Sir Christopher Bellamy QC, to carry out an independent Criminal Legal Aid Independent Review.
However, professional organisations have said the government did not go far enough in implementing Bellamy’s recommendations. Among other changes, the MoJ responded to a call in CLAIR to increase criminal legal-aid fees by 15% by increasing them instead by 9%.
Raab said the MoJ had accepted “by and large the lion’s share” of Bellamy’s recommendations, which were published last year.
But he repeatedly argued that any further changes to legal fees, which come out of the MoJ budget, would damage other services.
“I don't think the financial situation’s got easier since CLAIR was published, it's got more challenging, but I think we need to do right by the profession… but putting more money into these areas now, compared to what’s happening elsewhere now in the public sector and the private sector, I'm just not convinced it's the right thing to do,” he said.
He later added: “If you want to make the case for more money than we're committed to, tell me where it comes from. Does it come from the support that we're providing for the victims of violent crime, or the victims of rape? Does it come from the drug rehabilitation money that we're putting in and I'm trying to protect? Does it come from the money that we're putting into ending or reducing reoffending by dealing with homelessness for prisons? It's got to come from somewhere.”
He said this year’s action by the Criminal Bar Association had caused “significant damage” as the deal the MoJ had reached to increase fees by 15% had cost the MoJ £50m.
When Raab returned to the MoJ last month, after Rishi Sunak was appointed prime minister, he said he would uphold deal Lewis had made with the CBA – although he made it clear to the committee that he did not agree with it.
“But don't pretend for a moment – I certainly don't believe for a moment – that was a warranted strike,” he said.
“I think the CBA didn't behave in a responsible way. And I think that the £50m pressure that that's put on budgets, on top of the financial savings [we have to make], is something I've got to then find.”
He added: “That money doesn't just come out of thin air. So that was the challenge… I don't believe in unpicking deals other people have done, that's not good faith. And so I'll have to absorb that pressure. But don't pretend that money doesn't come from somewhere. It does.”
Asked if he had told the chancellor that the MoJ “might need a few extra quid” to fund a larger increase in fees, Raab said he had argued the case “very powerfully” for more funding at the 2021 Spending Review.
Raab: 'I wasn't wrong to refuse striking lawyers' demands'
Neill challenged Raab on why he had been unable to resolve this year’s dispute with the CBA, given that Lewis “came in and sorted it all out in a matter of a few weeks”. The Conservative MP asked: “Are you up to it?”
Criminal barristers began their programme of escalating industrial action in April, backed by 94% of Criminal Bar Association members who voted in a March ballot. The action escalated to strike action in September, overwhelmingly backed by CBA members in a second ballot.
Shortly afterwards, Liz Truss became prime minister and replaced Raab as justice secretary with Lewis – who struck a deal with the association for a 15% pay rise and an end to the strikes.
Raab denied Neill’s assertion that there had been “months refusing to meet and speak to” the Criminal Bar Association, saying he had met CBA chair Joe Sidhu “before Christmas” last year and that the timing of CLAIR’s publication last December was partly on Sidhu’s suggestion.
“But look, I thought that the strike action was entirely – I'm sympathetic to the pressures on the criminal bar – I didn't think it was warranted,” he said.
“So whilst I'm not going to backtrack on a deal that was previously done, the idea that a magic wand could be thrown at this or it was just a question of diplomatic fix or niceties is not the case.”
Asked if the CBA would still be on strike had Raab not been sacked in September, he said: “I don’t know what they would have ultimately done.”
But he said he did not regret refusing to give more ground on legal fees when the dispute arose.
"I made my position clear, I don't look back on it and think that I was wrong," he said.
“Because I think otherwise, you've got to explain where the £50m is going to come from. On the other hand, it hasn't been settled."