The Government’s public sector pay policy can best be described by the Glasgow word “guddle”. Translation: a tangled mess. The Government, seeking to deflect criticism, and no doubt as a direct result of tricky doorstep conversations in the election, yesterday announced a policy that was spun as ending the public sector pay cap. It was no such thing, however, and instantly attracted criticism from the very set of workers they were hoping to silence. The Prison Officers Association correctly pointed out that the so-called increase on offer would amount to a real-terms pay cut since inflation had just hit 2.9 %.
The title of this Opposition day debate is “NHS Pay”, and it is right that today there is a focus on a vital set of workers providing life-saving services, but I feel that the whole subject of public sector pay cannot be debated in a silo and in the context of one particular set of workers without reference to others. This week at the TUC conference, all the public sector unions came together in a collective call for parity and fairness in pay awards, not selective cherry picking.
I come from a public sector background and a trade union, Unison, that has always recognised that not rewarding and supporting public service workers properly is a political choice. It is a choice that the Government are trying to avoid being called out on, as from time to time token efforts are made to imply they understand and value public service. The Prime Minister told the Tory party conference last year:
“Our economy should work for everyone, but if your pay has stagnated for several years in a row and fixed items of spending keep going up, it doesn’t feel like it’s working for you.”
That sounds good, but it is at odds with the very heart of Conservatism and the shareholder mentality that puts pounds and profits before a public sector ethos. The privatisation of public services is a case in point. Turning public assets into private shareholdings, rather than investing in quality, and targeting public sector pay for quick savings is a hallmark of every Tory Government. I was a public sector worker under John Major’s Government when they, too, had a public sector pay cap.
We would not be having this debate if the Government really valued public service workers and recognised that although many could earn more in the private sector, they have chosen to contribute their skills to helping others. The systematic punishment inflicted on them year on year by a Government who have chosen to make public sector workers pay the price for the failings of the private sector when the economy crashed in 2008 is morally unjust and unfair and has tested their patience to the limit.
I strongly believe that cuts to public sector pay is an issue that affects everyone—not just the workers, their families and service users but the wider community and local businesses. Local economies suffer when wages are held down and jobs are lost, and given the scale of the money involved, this is also a national economic issue. The TUC has produced an excellent report, “Lift the Cap”, that outlines in detail the knock-on economic impact on local economies through wages being systematically depressed.
How can the national economic picture be anything other than bleak if hundreds of thousands of people are on a low-pay subsistence existence and struggling to afford the basics, never mind boost consumer spending, without plunging even further into debt? All the time the cost of living is rising and hitting low-paid workers hardest, especially on energy and transport costs. The question is not: can we afford it? I advocate turning that miserable ideological argument on its head to say that we cannot not afford it. Paying public sector workers properly works for everyone: it generates tax revenues, reduces social security spending and creates jobs in the private and voluntary sectors.
I am concerned about the Government’s direction of travel in making announcements on police and prison officer pay over that of other public sector jobs. There is a danger that they are targeting professions dominated by men and not dealing with those public services where employment is dominated by women. I would like to hear from the Minister how they plan to tackle that issue. There is a risk of the gender pay gap increasing if the Government do not get their public sector pay policy correct.