The Times reported this morning that the pay freeze is beginning to blow into the public sector:
"... nurses, midwives and other NHS staff face losing a
promised pay rise in the first sign of a salary squeeze for public sector
"Pay freezes, or at best minimal rises, are also expected for thousands of
senior civil servants, and government ministers, as Britain prepares for its
first period of deflation for 50 years."
"Alistair Darling is under pressure to set an example by
restraining Whitehall and ministerial pay. A pay freeze from the top would
set the tone for the imminent round of pay negotiations for other public
servants, including one million local government workers, 450,000
middle-ranking and junior civil servants, and prison officers."
To paraphrase 'NHS Employers', current economic conditions make it very difficult for Government and the state to sustain the recent growth in public sector pay. Realistic public servants will be aware of this, and while no doubt be disappointed, they will appreciate that in times such as these, a good, decently paid job is better than no job at all.
Which makes the news that senior civil service mandarins have been pushing for their 3% pay rise to be implemented (see Times article) all the more dispiriting. As the Times correctly noted this morning, pay restraint must begin at the top. When negotiating the pay freeze of nurses it would be ridiculous if Department of Health officials were in receipt of pay rises.
Ridiculous, but all too likely. For there are really two public sectors in this country; a fact perhaps all too often forgotten in relevant debates. Lumping the 5.7 million public sector workers together is unhelpful, in that it obscures the fact that much of the sector's flab (of which there is plenty)is hidden in the offices away from the front-line.
Take for instance the NHS. In 2007 there were 1.3 million people employed by the Health Service, a number likely to be a closer to 1.4 today (see NHS Staff Data). Just over 50% (nearly 680,700) of these are professional clinical staff (doctors and nurses). These are supported by around 441,000 staff in the Trusts (the actual healthcare delivery agents) and GP practices. The remaining 207,000 staff are involved in "NHS Infrastructure Support", with over 100,000 of these in 'central functions' (i.e Department of Health). These 207,000 staff are neither the doctor or nurse that treats you, the pharmacist who apportions your medication or the receptionist who kindly greeted you at the hospital front desk. They are not the cleaners, janitors or even human resources managers (of which any doctor or nurse will tell you, there are too many as well). These 207,000 are bureaucrats, some of them essential to the continued working of the NHS, many others less so. Reforms over the past ten years have delivered more nurses, but also more tiers of costly bureaucratic organisation. It is in these back room offices, where no-one can be fired, where mid-level meetings stretch over several days, that public sector wage restraint must begin. Of course, as the paymasters, these back room faceless officials will look to squeeze the pay of nurses and doctors first. A similar picture exists with schools and police forces.
Ministers can not let that happen though. If 'NHS Employers' are considering wage restraint, which is sensible in these times, it must be presaged by the Department of Health - the ultimate NHS employer - imposing a pay freeze on its central staff. The Permanant Secretary and other senior departmental civil servants should voulunteer to take a small but symbolic pay cut. Getting a handle on the public sector pay issue requires leadership, and that often involves sacrifice. The pain of this recession should not fall hardest on the frontline; it is only the taxpayer who suffers then. It is in those back room offices that savings can be made first. The only problem is that it is just those people in the back room who will be asked to find the savings.