Public sector pay

Public sector pay

Public sector pay, image of money and the Palace of Westminster. Image John New

Money and the Palace of Westminster. Image John New

Has the government got a clue when it comes to fundamental issues around public sector pay?  I admit I am biased, I am a retired local government officer and have relatives and friends still currently employed in the NHS and local government.  Recent news coverage however makes you wonder about the competence of politicians when it comes to managing their expenses and setting both their own pay and public sector pay generally.

Expenses scandal follow up

The expenses scandal was a story created by the dedication of journalists chasing a perceived scandal.  The Daily Telegraph broke the story and, as this summary of recent output shows, continues to report many aspects surrounding the issue. There was a suggestion raised in December that MPs need an independent regulator to end their regime of self-regulation. I believe most citizens would support that initiative.  Given the reported response to the eminently sensible suggestion that some form of up-market hostel should be provided for those MPs living outside convenient commuting distance, such a watchdog is long overdue.

The worst aspect to come out of that hostel report was the apparent acceptance by our MPs that (1) student accommodation is often sub-standard bordering on slums and (2) that slum housing is acceptable for them, i.e., students, but not for us, we are superior with a right to a better deal!  Where was the journalistic follow up to that?

That a watchdog is not being pressed for regularly as a prominent item in the current political debate perhaps suggests that the national press are actually too lenient with regard to politicians. Loren Ghiglione (then president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors) was suggesting as far back as 1990 that journalists were becoming too much a part of the establishment status-quo.  Twenty six years on, and despite the Leveson Inquiry report, perhaps that relationship remains too cosy for editors to address the inevitable “us and them” issues that would arise from in-depth analysis of what is acceptable in pay and status for politicians.

MPs’ pay versus public sector rises

This issue continues decade on decade, with the MPs never appreciating the impact of their actions on public sector morale.  I recall driving home from work one evening and hearing a radio bulletin giving the value of Quintin Hogg’s pay rise and thinking that as I would be happy earning his pay rise what must his full salary be!  As it was going back to my current house, and he retired in 1987, that would probably have been 30 years ago now, back in 1986. There will always be a distinction between levels of employee pay, the issue is the gap and how one side perceives the other.  When MPs decide economic conditions will restrict their own employees to zero or 1% pay rises, not long after awarding themselves 10%, they appear to fail to see the impact it has further down the line.

Recruitment crisis and strikes

Trade Unionists marching Image: John New

Trade Unionists marching Image: John New

Unsurprisingly, given the long period of declining public sector pay levels, there is a recruitment problem.  Adding in the reduction in public investment over the long-term including the policies of privatization and the recent austerity drive, this crisis was inevitable, and surely the politicians should have foreseen it. Alternatively, they did and didn’t care, regarding it as acceptable collateral damage in pursuit of other objectives.  That collateral damage of threatened strikes (doctors), actual strikes (train drivers), nursing shortages, workplace stress, low morale etc., etc., could fill pages with an almost endless list.

Journalists ignoring obvious links!

The links are there, of course, but always seem to be overlooked.  When most journalists cover the consequences, as with this recent Dorset Echo article on the cost of workplace stress, almost every reason bar the impact of government economic policies is quoted. Articles stating the case against austerity do emerge from time to time, as with this one in the Guardian during 2010, however, generally the consensus appears to either contain support for the government line, or like the Echo piece, fail to objectively review and challenge it.

If there is a shortage of school places with parents not getting their local choice, and at the same time the government is forcing more public spending cutbacks, might that just perhaps be a link worth reporting as a major issue?  We see and read of real people suffering real day to day problems but the nation can spend umpteen billions on warheads which, hopefully, we will never fire, but no cause and effect link is ever reported.

Somewhere the priorities have got lost, with the big picture swamped in a morass of short-term reporting. I may be a left wing pacifist, my views may be a minority, but I do expect the journalists working nationally to stand back occasionally and take a look at the stories their own media outlets are running concurrently, and just perhaps notice and report objectively on these causes and effects.

There is a big issue about how much our public sector staff should be paid, irrespective of whether they are government direct labour employees or working for contractors like G4S, CAPITA or BIFFA. This debate is entirely separate from the ongoing left/right issue over the ethics of privatisation versus public operation; whatever the organisation running the service it will have to hire staff.

The discourse rarely, if ever, debates either the true worth of employees in these services relative to other jobs, or why they should be treated differently to those in more esteemed roles. The issue always seems  to revolve around why they should be paid less and expected to do more in a more flexible manner, never about why the economy is so badly structured we can’t pay them fairly.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the journalistic debate about how much these valuable employees who sweep streets, empty bins, drive trains, guard prisoners, staff hospitals etc., should be paid always seems to miss the point – they need to be treated fairly and not as stigmatised, political pawns.


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