I was rather perplexed by the Minister’s response. My impression is that if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. The Minister, however, says he is in favour of national pay negotiations, but wants to change how it is delivered regionally. As I say, I am confused about whether this is a U-turn, or is it two U-turns so that the Minister is facing in the same direction? It seems as if that is exactly what has happened.
Any decision to allow regional pay differences for low-paid workers in the public sector would only exacerbate the economic and social north/south divide. In fact, we recently had a Westminster Hall debate in which some of the relevant statistics and factors were put on the record. The announcement in the autumn statement that this was on the Government’s agenda came without any prior evidence base for such a move. When Ministers talk about how public sector pay might better reflect local markets, they mean only one thing—pay less to people in poorer areas such as ours.
Rebalancing our economy for the future and addressing the north/south divide should be a Government priority. However, these proposals for regional or local pay differentials—whatever the terminology—would simply entrench that divide. The north-east is facing a double-dip jobs crisis. Government policies of slash and burn in the public sector are hitting the north-east hardest, and the promised private sector-led recovery was always a Tory mirage. [Interruption.] Let me remind Conservative Members who are heckling from a sedentary position that the figures for the north-east show unemployment now standing at 145,000—up 8,000, providing a regional figure of 11.3%, which is an absolute disgrace. Regional pay in the public sector would only make things worse, turning the north-east, and indeed other peripheral regions, into low-pay ghettos.