Ministers blasted for ‘hollow’ pay negotiations offer

Civil service unions say attempts to curb public-sector strikes show government is in denial
Photo: Russell Hart/Alamy Live News

By Jim Dunton

06 Jan 2023

One of the civil service’s main unions has reacted with anger to the government’s offer of new pay negotiations aimed at suspending the current wave of public-sector strikes because the proposals exclude the vast majority of departmental staff.

Proposals tabled by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy yesterday urged striking public-sector unions to suspend planned industrial action in return for talks about “fair and affordable” settlements for 2023-24.

However, the offer specifically relates to discussions that feed into the evidence submitted by departments to independent pay-review bodies, which make recommendations on pay for workers such as health-service staff and teachers.

Rank-and-file civil servants do not have an independent pay-review body to advise on annual increases. Their pay-remit guidance is agreed between the Cabinet Office and the Treasury, and in recent years has been subjected to more restraint than other parts of the public sector.

Members of the senior civil service are covered by the Senior Salaries Review Body. Out of a workforce of more than 470,000 full-time equivalent staff, only around 1.5% of the civil service are members of the SCS, according to the Institute for Government.

Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect, said ministers had failed to mention their pay negotiations offer did not apply to around half of the public-sector workforce and almost all civil servants.

“This hollow invitation ignores the fact that a majority of public sector workers are not covered by a pay review body, including nearly all civil servants,” he said. “We have been calling for years for this to be rectified, something which the government has consistently ignored.

“These workers have been some of the most harshly treated over the past decade of real-terms pay cuts, and now the government is signalling its intent to leave them out once again.

“Our members have already indicated their willingness to take industrial action and there is nothing in this announcement that will persuade us not to proceed to a formal ballot as planned.”

Last night, CSW asked the Cabinet Office and BEIS whether they accepted that the talks offer set out by transport secretary Grant Shapps effectively excluded civil servants. Both departments were also asked whether a separate offer was being made to departmental staff. 

The Cabinet Office acknowledged that within the civil service only the SCS has a pay-review body process. However it said that “in the spirit of positive relations” minister for the Cabinet Office Jeremy Quin had written to trade union representatives to discuss their priorities for the 2023-2024 pay round, “recognising that individual departments set their own pay awards”.

Nevertheless, the pay remit guidance handed down to departments for 2022-23 by the Cabinet Office in March instructs them to keep pay awards to 2%-3% on average.

BEIS did not provide responses to any of Civil Service World’s questions.

New curbs on public-sector strike action

As part of its talks offer yesterday, BEIS also set out further details of the government’s plans to legislate for new minimum-service agreements when strikes affect some public services – with the potential for unions to be sued if agreed service levels are not met.

BEIS said safety levels would be set for fire, ambulance and rail services and voluntary agreements would be sought for health services, education, nuclear decommissioning, other transport services and border security.

Members of PCS who work for Border Force staged eight days of strike action at six airports over the Christmas period, in one of the union’s highest-profile pieces of industrial action following the autumn’s strike ballot. Some 600 army personnel were trained to conduct passport checks as part of contingency measures for the strike.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of PCS – the civil service’s biggest union – warned ministers to expect concerted opposition to the legislation, expected to be introduced to parliament in the coming weeks.

"Just when you thought the government could go no lower, ministers say they're looking to deal with strikes by making them illegal, rather than negotiate with unions,” he said. “PCS members are on strike because they cannot afford the cost of living. We view any attempt to outlaw strikes as an attack on the trade union movement and we will resist that at every stage.”

Dave Penman, general secretary of public-sector leaders’ union the FDA, dismissed the strike-busting proposals as a smokescreen.

“Ministers are continuing to ignore the fundamental reasons why so many public-sector workers are resorting to strike action,” he said.

“Any new laws will have a minimal impact and are simply a means to distract from the government’s repeated failure to meaningfully engage on issues around pay.

“We are always willing to talk to ministers, but those conversations have to be based in reality. If the government continues to fail to address pay issues – many of which pre-date the current cost of living crisis by many years – the winter of discontent will continue to run well into the summer.”

“Talks need to be about pay itself”

While almost all civil servants are excluded from the government’s offer of talks on public-sector pay for 2023-24, questions remain about what is on offer for those public-sector employees who are covered.

According to BEIS, the offer of negotiations with unions representing public-sector workers covered by independent pay review bodies is contingent on the recognition of “the particular economic challenges the country faces this year”.

BEIS said unions must also “play their part in finding an agreement that balances giving workers a fair and reasonable settlement with continuing to take steps to bring down inflation and protect households’ budgets”.

“The inflation-matching pay awards that many of the unions are demanding will make the fight against inflation more challenging, and risks interest rates, mortgage payments and bills rising for people as a result,” it said. “This would erode the value of any pay increase for public sector workers and hurt households across the country.”

Unions who accept the offer will be able to take part in talks about “pay evidence, workload and conditions in the public sector” with departments over the coming weeks to feed into submissions made to independent pay-review bodies for 2023-24 awards.

“These discussions will help ensure the evidence submitted to the pay review bodies is as considered and informed as possible, including reflecting areas of common ground,” BEIS said.

Unison, the UK’s biggest union, has thousands of members working for the health service who are covered by an independent pay-review body and thousands working in local government who, like civil servants, are not.

Its assistant general secretary, Jon Richards, said public-sector workers were looking for action on pay from government, rather than process tweaks and the threat of new legislation.

“Talks must be about pay itself, not how the pay-review body process works,” he said.

“Unison will be examining these proposals and considering how to respond, including any appropriate legal challenge.”

Last month, the Institute for Government accused ministers of attempting to hide behind the pay-review body process as a way to distance themselves from decisions about pay rises for public sector workers.

IfG chief economist Gemma Tetlow emphasised the extent to which ministers set constraints within which pay review bodies are required to work – such as last year’s request for them to “pay heed to the government’s inflation target” and consider departments’ fixed budgets.

“The pay review body model – of an annual round of evidence gathering, evaluation and recommendations – works well in stable economic conditions. But it risks falling behind the curve when unexpected things happen,” she said.

This story was updated at 16:40 on 6 January 2023 to include a Cabinet Office response

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