I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He will know the importance of the role that the civil service has played in Northern Ireland in developing the peace process and helping the Northern Ireland economy. I am sure that, like me, he will pay tribute to civil servants in Northern Ireland for that. I agree with his point, and he will hear later some examples of what the pay freeze has meant for civil servants and the real pressures that they are under. I hope he will intervene again when we come to that.
To add insult to injury, in November 2020 the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a pay freeze for those workers for 2021. In my view, that was totally unacceptable, and it is high time that the Government properly recognised the contribution that their workforce make to society, particularly in an atmosphere of rising inflation and falling living standards. It was therefore welcome to hear the Chancellor’s recent autumn Budget announcement on the lifting of the pause on public sector pay. That announcement was accompanied by a statement that the normal process of independent reviews and recommendations would be resumed.
However, as the Chancellor should know—I am sure the Minister does—the civil service does not have a pay review body. The question therefore arises as to what mechanisms will be used to determine civil service pay, and I am now going to ask the Minister my first question. Assuming that the Chancellor is sincere about the pause being lifted, can he confirm that there will be no fetters on pay bargaining in the civil service this year, and that there will be no arbitrary cap on pay awards contained within any civil service pay remit guidance?
That brings me to the importance of pay coherence and coherent pay policy. Ever since the financial crash in 2008, and more recently during the pandemic, the Government have insisted that we are all in it together and we must be united in our efforts to overcome the difficulties we face. However, they continue to foster a divisive approach to pay arrangements for their own workforce through the delegated pay system. This needs to change if the Government’s words are not to ring hollow.
Against that backdrop, I highlight PCS’s long-standing objective of securing a return to national bargaining on pay and terms and conditions covering all workers in the civil service and related areas. The delegated bargaining system has created a wholly unacceptable situation where workers doing broadly the same job at broadly the same grade suffer huge disparities in pay. Similar inequities exist in relation to annual leave and working hours arrangements. The delegated system is also unnecessarily costly, time-consuming and inefficient as a result of the replication of the same process across every bargaining unit, where one set of negotiations would suffice.
On this issue, again, the Government always change their position. They claim they cannot direct Departments that have delegated authority on pay, yet they persist in centrally mandating things that Departments must do. For example, they instructed all Departments last year to pay £250 to staff earning below £24,000 a year. It is therefore demonstrably the case that the Government are the single source from which all civil service pay arrangements emanate.
Another example is that, under freedom of information, we know the departmental permanent secretaries got together in February 2018 to agree the joint position across all Departments that there would be a pay rise of 1% to 1.5% for public sector workers. I find it extraordinary that there are 200 separate pay negotiations across UK Government Departments but one pay policy.
In recent years PCS has entered a number of pay reform agreements within Departments that have put right some of the structural discrimination and inequities that exist. In the Home Office, the Department for Transport, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Ministry of Justice, agreements have been reached on pay reform that have secured good negotiated outcomes for all concerned. PCS will rightly be continuing to press for an expansion of this approach, and it should be encouraged by the Government.
Last year, alongside its national pay claim to the then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, PCS submitted single sectoral pay claims to chief operating officers of parent Departments at delegated level. As a step change towards national bargaining, PCS indicated that it stood ready to engage and to start discussions on how sectoral claims may bring a greater degree of coherence to current pay arrangements.
These proposals sought to reduce the number of bargaining units at sectoral level from 55 to just 13, with scope for further rationalisation over time. Indeed, PCS indicated it was prepared to discuss business cases in respect of workforce reform that may enable funding to be provided to address the structural inequities. Astoundingly, given the Government’s rhetoric on their commitment to efficiency in the public sector, there has been almost no progress on that concrete proposal that would deliver the efficiency they claim to desire.
PCS rightly intends to repeat this approach in 2022, and I seek an assurance that the Government will grasp the opportunity to improve efficiency in pay bargaining across the civil service. Will the Minister confirm that he agrees with the former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, now the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, when he told the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs on Thursday 10 December 2020 that
“trying to tackle some of the balkanisation of the process of pay, reward, recruitment and so on—creating what has been called in a vogue phrase “one civil service”—is a very good thing”?
Will the Minister also confirm that he will turn those words into action by engaging in a proper way with the civil service trade unions to achieve greater coherence on pay across the civil service, including a full exploration in all delegated areas of the business case processes for pay reform? In addition, will the Cabinet Office proactively assist delegated areas in developing successful business cases? Will steps be taken to involve the trade unions properly in the task and finish group on pay delegation and related matters, which has been established in Whitehall, but about which the unions have so far neither been informed, nor consulted?
That brings me to the impact of the civil service pay policy. At Prime Minister’s questions on Wednesday 17 November, the Prime Minister said:
“I think that actually the Department for Work and Pensions, under the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), has performed outstanding service. It has performed miracles. Among the things that it has achieved is helping to get millions of people effectively back into employment, in spite of all the difficulties that we have faced. We now have unemployment running at virtually record lows, in spite of all the difficulties we have faced in this pandemic and as we come out of furlough. That is largely thanks to the work of the DWP.”—[Official Report, 17 November 2021; Vol. 703, c. 579.]
In response to those words of praise, the PCS trade union received more than 50 emails from individual DWP workers about the toll that more than a decade of real-terms pay cuts have taken on them. Some commented that they felt embarrassed to be a government worker, and that they have had to ask friends and family for handouts, and have even turned to food banks. Many are seriously considering leaving the DWP, not because they do not like the job, but because they cannot afford to stay. The following are just some examples of comments received by these government workers for whom the Prime Minister had such high praise. These describe in devastating terms the impact that continued pay restraint is having on civil servants and their families, and what a real pay increase would mean for them.