Union chiefs have given a frosty reception to cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood's remarks to Civil Service World that officials are "realistic" about the need for pay restraint.
Civil service pay was frozen for two years in 2010, with pay rises since 2012 capped at 1%. Chancellor George Osborne announced earlier this year that the 1% cap – which also applies to the wider public sector – would stay in place until at least 2019-20, as the government looks to achieve a budget surplus.
In an interview with CSW, published this week, the head of the civil service praised the results achieved by officials during a time of austerity, and said they understood the balance to be struck between increasing pay and protecting jobs.
Jeremy Heywood interview: the cabinet secretary and head of the civil service on life at the top of Whitehall
George Osborne's cuts call criticised by former cabinet secretary Lord Turnbull
Budget 2015: Four more years of 1% public sector payrises, George Osborne confirms
What does the government's vision for a smarter state mean for public services?
When asked whether officials could expect to see "light at the end of the tunnel" on pay restraint, Heywood said: "I don’t think it’s right to talk in terms of ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, because I think most civil servants really enjoy their work, are proud to call themselves civil servants.
"And, of course, they’re realistic that pay isn’t as much as they would like in some parts of the country. Everyone would like to get paid more. But people understand that the country’s been going through a tough time, we’ve had to get the deficit down and they also know there’s a trade-off, to some extent, between the amount of money that individuals can get paid and the number of staff that are employed.
"So of course people realise it’s been tough, of course they realise that there’s some further austerity ahead and it is going to be tough for the next few years again, but that doesn’t mean to say we’re in a tunnel. We can be very proud of what we’re achieving."
But both the PCS union and the FDA reacted to Heywood's interview by renewing their call for a rethink on officials' pay.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: "Jeremy Heywood is not speaking for civil servants when he delivers what is a nakedly political message about austerity and spending cuts. Austerity is not inevitable, it is a political choice and there is an alternative to the Tories' unnecessary and economically damaging cuts."
Serwotka said "the majority" of civil servants had seen their living standards tumble since 2010 and had "no more notches on their belts to tighten".
He added: "The Cabinet Office has all but admitted too many posts have been cut across the civil service because it is looking to rehire staff who have retired or been made redundant, so talk of the acceptance of further austerity is not only at odds with civil service impartiality but also reality."
The FDA's general secretary Dave Penman meanwhile said his union's members "demonstrate a commitment to public service every day" but had been left "undervalued" in recent years.
"Public servants are being asked to deliver a further £13bn of spending cuts, while many of them are taking home less pay than they did in 2010 and also face a further four years of pay restraint," he said.
"A new deal needs to be struck with civil servants: demonstrating that they are valued, ensuring that they have the right skills, paying them fairly, matching commitments to resources and genuinely engaging with them."
He added: "With the  civil service people survey showing a 9% drop in satisfaction with pay and benefits since 2009, this is the only way to ensure that the government can recruit and retain the talented workers needed to make its policies a reality."
Announcing the extension of the 1% pay rise cap in July, Osborne argued that the move would "ensure we have public services we can afford" and help the public sector to "protect more jobs".
Median earnings for civil servants stood at £24,980 in March 2015, according to the latest Office for National Statistics figures – an average increase of £250 on the previous year.