‘We are ready to strike if pay is not prioritised,’ Defra staff warn ministers

Defra officials who are PCS members write to new environment secretary, calling for “fair working conditions”
PCS members in Defra strike in 2023. Photo: Mr Standfast/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

09 Jul 2024

Defra officials have told their new ministers that they “stand ready” to strike if the government does not address their pay concerns.

Civil and public servants who work in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and who are members of the PCS union have written to environment secretary Steve Reed, urging him to prioritise “resolving the longstanding degradation of civil servant pay and conditions”.

The letter says that officials do not want to have to resort to industrial action but are “prepared” to do so “to achieve fair working conditions for those delivering the new government’s environmental agenda”.

In a national strike ballot over pay and other demands earlier this year, PCS members in the department voted in favour of strikes, with 85% backing the action on a 60% turnout. This gives Defra and some other departments a six-month mandate to take action. The union has not yet launched any strike action following the ballot and has since changed its national campaign strategy following a vote at its annual conference.

The letter says Defra officials “are dedicated to serving the public and working to protect the environment” but “have a mandate to take industrial action if needed”.

“We stand ready to take this step to ensure we are properly equipped to deliver for your government,” it says.

The letter argues that Defra and its arm's-length bodies are “central to tackling emergencies caused by the climate and a damaged nature” and that, therefore, tackling staff pay and conditions must be an "urgent priority" for the new Labour government.

“After more than a decade of below-inflation pay rises we have suffered a dramatic erosion in our standard of living,” it adds.

The letter also points to research published by PCS in March that found between 2010 and 2023, civil service pay had fallen in real terms by between 15% and 38%, depending on the grade and inflation measure. 

It says civil and public servants in the Defra group “now find themselves nearing the national minimum wage, with one in 12 civil servants working across government being forced to use foodbanks”.

“We hope we can work together so staff are no longer distracted by how they make ends meet and can balance the pressures of modern life alongside delivering the vital work that then whole of Defra Group is charged with,” the letter adds.

PCS's fellow civil service union Prospect warned earlier this year that the department was struggling to fill tech vacancies due to "broken" pay.

A Defra spokesperson said: “We acknowledge the concerns that PCS has raised on behalf of their members on pay. We are committed to working constructively and will hold official discussions with trade unions after the civil service pay guidance has been published.”

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