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Tuesday 03 May 2022

Hair shirt public service

By Dave Penman

Dave Penman on the stark message for civil servants from this year’s pay remit guidance.

No-one comes into the civil service expecting to be richly rewarded. If you did, you clearly haven’t been paying attention. Governments of all colours have treated it as the hair shirt public service, able to directly demonstrate whatever their current philosophy is on pay through the direct levers they control.

Over a quarter of a century of delegated pay bargaining has morphed from bespoke reward arrangements tailored to the specific needs of employers, to a brutal and simplistic cost control mechanism from the Treasury. Departments that can extricate themselves from this to try to link reward to their organisational objectives do so with one hand tied behind their back and for many, the number of hoops and how high they’re held up make the daunting prospect of a business case to the Treasury feel like a waste of valuable time.

That the system is broken is almost beyond challenge, but there’s little political appetite for change and any officials who may look strategically at the whole process and think imaginatively about reform will soon have their ambition knocked out of them.

Even the senior civil service, which has the notional benefit of an independent pay review body, has been emasculated by the approach of government which is constantly battling meaningful reform and curtailing the levels of reward.

However. 2022 is a year like no other. The Governor of the Bank of England said that Britons will see a historic shock to incomes, unprecedented since the 1970s and the Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that real household incomes will contract at the sharpest rate since the 1950s.

The government, the Chancellor, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Minister for the Cabinet Office all know this. They know this is a year like no other and they understand, or at least they should, the impact that inflation touching 10% will have on the value of earnings.

Faced with all of these facts, they have chosen to ignore them and essentially abandon their civil servants to the ravages of this year’s record inflation.

Most civil servants I think would have recognised the challenges that the government is facing. Any government faced with these figures would struggle, never mind one that is emerging from the health and economic emergencies due to COVID and particularly one that now faces a new cold war. Government is difficult and finances are tight - FDA members know this more than most.

What is unacceptable though is that no attempt has been made to try to soften the blow of this record inflation on the very people that the government rely on to deliver vital public services. Civil servants will be left taking the full impact of the cost-of-living crisis without any meaningful response from their employer.

The pay remit guidance for the civil service includes this sentence: ‘This Government wants to ensure that it is attracting the best and brightest to work for the civil service and rewarding hard working staff fairly.’ Not content with abandoning their staff to the ravages of inflation, they’re also treating them like idiots.

Salary levels are already significantly behind not only the private sector, but also the rest of the public sector, so much so that the government now refuses to share its own analysis. Perhaps the next time ministers scratch their heads at why there aren’t more external recruits into senior roles, they might just want to dust off that top secret analysis.

2022 will see these disparities grow as employers elsewhere react to the unprecedented circumstances their employees face. The government have just ensured that not only will it be harder to attract ‘the best and brightest’, they’re also sending a very stark message to the talented, dedicated public servants that are already here.

Dave Penman is the FDA’s General Secretary

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