Backlash over chancellor’s ‘cruel’ expected public sector pay freeze
Written by on 20 November 2020
Freezing pay for millions of public sector workers has been described as a “cruel body blow” by unions.
Around four million public sector workers are set to be hit with a pay cap as Rishi Sunak looks to rebuild the public finances, according to reports which the Treasury has not denied.
Unison said the freeze would hurt workers who “remain at the heart of the fight against COVID-19“.
General secretary Dave Prentis said: “Reports of pay restraint for all but frontline NHS staff would be a cruel body blow to other health, care and public service employees working tirelessly to get us through the pandemic. It would also backfire badly with the public.”
The chancellor is expected to use next week’s spending review to limit pay rises in the public sector to at or below inflation.
Teachers, police, firefighters, members of the armed forces, and NHS managers would all be affected but frontline NHS doctors and nurses are expected to be exempt in recognition of their work during the coronavirus pandemic.
Assistant general secretary of Unite trade union, Gail Cartmail, said: “In the spring, the prime minister was praising NHS staff for saving his life.
“Now, in the autumn, he needs to ensure that his chancellor turns those warm words into hard cash for those who ensure the efficient running of the NHS, schools and colleges, and the myriad of services provided on a daily basis by local councils.”
Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said his union’s members had “gone above and beyond to respond to the pandemic”.
He added: “We warned ministers in the summer that clapping key workers would not pay the bills – but it seems in government memories are short, and morals in short supply.
“It won’t be lost on workers that their wages are set to be cut while the government continues to hand out contracts worth billions of pounds to its cronies. If finances really are a worry, the ultra-wealthy and the corporations who have cashed in on this pandemic should shoulder the burden through emergency tax measures.”
He also criticised the government for leaving key workers to rely on news reports for answers about their livelihoods.
The Treasury has not denied the reports but pointed to the words spoken by Chancellor Rishi Sunak in July, when he warned of the need for “restraint” in future public sector pay settlements.
In October, Sunak warned of ‘hard choices’ on debt
Mr Sunak said at the time that awards made would have to take account of the “wider economic context” and stressed that while public sector pay was rising, wages in the private sector had fallen back during the coronavirus pandemic.
That argument was backed by a new report by the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) which said private sector workers had suffered far more from the economic impact of the disease.
It said that a three-year pay freeze across the public sector could save up to GBP23bn, helping to plug the hole in the public finances opened up by the pandemic.
If the NHS was excluded, the CPS said that it could still save GBP15.3bn over the three years.
Director Robert Colvile said: “Healthcare workers aside, it is difficult to justify generous pay rises in the public sector when private sector wages are actually falling.
“At the same time, there is a need to control public spending and reduce the structural deficit which the pandemic is likely to have opened up.”
Earlier on Friday, the Office for National Statistics reported that public sector net debt hit GBP2.076trn at the end of October – or 100.8% of GDP, a level not seen for many decades.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock refused to comment on “speculation” about the pay freeze but told Sky News’ Kay Burley: “The pandemic has had a very serious impact on people’s health but also on the economy.
“We all know that and we can all see it and it’s a very difficult set of circumstances.”
Mr Hancock also declined to be drawn on the subject of MPs’ own pay, despite the independent body that decides their salaries having recommended they get a GBP3,360 salary boost from next April.
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