Pay freeze argument receives frosty reception

When I recently gave my opinion on a proposed public sector pay freeze, I suspected I would get a response – and, judging by comments on industry forums and blogs, I was right.

By way of clarifying my comments, I stated that any pay award for public servants needed to be scaled back, and that remains my view.

I’m disappointed that the recent local government pay arbitration decision seems to miss that point completely. That said, I don’t hold with freezing pay for teachers, social workers, police officers or nurses. Instead, what must be writ large throughout any deals are affordability, sustainability, and flexibility.

Time for change

I’ve advocated a total reward approach to public sector remuneration for some time. Bringing pay, conditions of service and pensions bargaining together to create a full and true cost of any proposed increase is a must.

Certain commentators believe that public sector staff all work flexi-time. Tell me, who exactly was out in the snow gritting your roads during the recent bad weather? As for ‘gold-plated final salary pensions’, then yes, public servants can access a defined benefit scheme, often based upon final salary. Reform of such schemes is ongoing, with changes to improve cost sharing and increase employee contribution rates.

I support these sorts of changes, but I don’t support removing a real benefit that UK public servants can access, from the school cleaner to the permanent secretary. And, while on the subject of pay and pensions, does the private sector really have the right to comment upon public sector practices following the Fred Goodwin fiasco and the banking bonus bonanza?

If public services have to live within their means – and they should – then the number of people they employ will need to reduce across the country. This is already happening in local government, one in seven councils have cut jobs, and more than 20% have a recruitment freeze in operation. I agree on the need to manage headcount, as part of an overall response to the economic challenges we all face. However, if pay is frozen, then there will simply be another round of catch-up awards – fact.

To help further educate those not in the public sector, it’s also perhaps worth restating that the increase in the public sector pay bill in recent years has been as much about equal pay as it has the cost of living. Few others offer the degree of pay equality that the public sector does. Or should equality be ignored because it costs too much?

Set the record straight

Finally – and as someone who is committed to openness, public accountability and is subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act – I thought I’d set the record straight about my personal position.

I never claimed I was paid modestly I said that the majority of public servants were. I’m paid £95,000 per annum, before deductions. I don’t work flexi-time I work the hours that my job demands. I don’t have a guaranteed pay award my pay is wholly dependent upon performance. I don’t have a job for life I have personally faced redundancy twice in the past three-and-a-half years.

What I am, though, is the HR director for an organisation that serves 570,000 people, is the custodian of more than £500m of public funds, and which employs more than 18,000 staff. If that’s not enough bang for your buck, I’m also responsible for corporate strategy, communications, partnerships, shared services, payroll and pensions.

I work hard, as do my fellow public servants – at least as hard as people in any other sector. I’m proud to be a public servant, and I’m passionate about the work that I and my colleagues deliver.

My challenge in response to the feedback my original opinion received? I propose a frank debate about these issues, covered in the pages of Personnel Today. Having been brave enough to voice my opinion and defend public services, I’m throwing down the gauntlet to those whose opinions differ to do so in return. How about having a mature debate to openly address these issues?

Stephen Moir is president of the Public Sector People Managers’ Association, and director of people and policy at Cambridgeshire County Council.

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