Raising public sector wages promotes good PR, but there is no long-term plan

During Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign last summer, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, told us Johnson would “show some love” to public sector workers by giving them a proper pay rise.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Johnson’s love turns out to be more style than substance – something showy that expects adoring headlines in return for delivering the bare minimum.

After all, the big reward for some of the coronavirus “heroes” is not really that much of a doozy, even in the short term. All the government announced on Tuesday is that it would listen to the independent “pay review” bodies that decide what a reasonable pay rise is, for some public sector workers in England. There’s no new bonus or special reward for the teachers, hospital consultants and police officers who put their lives on the line to keep the country running.

It’s a bit like someone “showing you love” by doing the dishes occasionally and staying vaguely faithful. Good start, but you might hope for a little more. Especially after you’ve just saved their life. And especially after you’ve been treated miserably for nearly a decade, with public sector workers’ wages frozen for two years up to 2013, then capped at 1% “rises” (well below inflation) for five more. The combined effect of these real-terms cuts meant that by 2018 a worker on the average public sector wage had nearly £7,000 less buying power a year than they had in 2009, according to the public sector union Unison. The new blueprint won’t restore real public sector wages to pre-crash levels, economists agree. And it offers nothing at all to many key workers, including local government workers and job centre staff. Then there are the social care workers, adrift in the private sector, who will remain reliant on nothing more than national minimum wage protection, the minister for crime and policing, Kit Malthouse, has made clear.

Nor is there any post-Covid-19 pay rise on offer for GPs, junior doctors, nurses, hospital support staff or many other NHS professionals. These groups are excluded because most NHS staff are already tied into a deal giving them a 6.5% increase over three years (doctors are subject to different arrangements). The government talks this up, telling us that under the existing NHS deal, “nurses who are still moving up their pay structures will get an average raise of 4.4%”. But many experienced nurses aren’t in this situation and have instead been stuck at the top of their pay band for years, seeing their real-terms pay decline. Indeed, the NHS deal being used to justify the latest exclusions was itself missold in a similar fashion back in 2018. There was an outcry from nurses when, after firm promises that every single nurse would get at least a 3% raise in year one, an openDemocracy investigation revealed that many, particularly the more experienced, were getting nothing of the sort. As Nurses United UK point out, the reality is that nurses, like other public sector workers, are in effect 20% behind where they were 10 years ago.

While boosting pay for new teachers and nurses does help younger workers and meet government manifesto promises on recruitment, it does little to retain experienced and highly trained professionals. Shockingly high numbers of teachers and nurses are already quitting the professions early, as they realise their dedication is being taken for granted.

A small measure of pay increases did prompt relief in some quarters, of course, given that in May Rishi Sunak’s Treasury team trailed the prospect of yet another public sector pay freeze to pay the costs of coronavirus. Even here, to signal misery ahead for long-suffering public sector workers, regardless of whether it has materialised, seemed unduly callous.

Alarmingly, there’s also not enough new money to pay for all the headline raises. The money needs to come from within existing budgets, the Treasury has confirmed. There is some new money. Some of these raises – such as those for teachers – have actually been known about for months, and some budget has been allocated already. But not enough – for example, one in four schools are getting less than half the additional funding that they’ll need to pay for the salary increases, the Times Educational Supplement reported in January, with many warning they were going to have to cut teaching assistants or even school hours as a result.

But the most serious red flag is that it’s all very short term. The announcement ended with the following warning: “The coronavirus is having a very significant impact on the economy, labour market and the fiscal position, and the government will need to continue to take this into account in agreeing future public sector pay awards.”

Shortly after all the glowing headlines on public sector pay, the Treasury launched the autumn comprehensive spending review. Here it warned that “we must exercise restraint in future public sector pay awards” to ensure “fairness” and “parity” with the private sector, where, the Treasury helpfully points out, wages have fallen 1.2% in the year to May 2020.

Amid all these apparent displays of love, the wedding celebrations and applause are somewhat overshadowed by the lawyers hovering at the back of the reception, waving their pre-nups. But what did you expect from Johnson, a long-term commitment?