Public sector special: pay

Public sector workers are so unhappy with pay deals that strike action is more likely than ever. What does this mean for staff morale and retention, asks Ross Bentley?

While the call to have more police on the streets is a common demand from the public, no-one could have been heartened by the sight of an estimated 22,000 officers rallying in London in a protest over pay.

The action in January was in response to the government’s refusal to fully backdate a recent 2.5% pay award for UK officers, except for those in Scotland.

But it isn’t just the police who are angry about recent pay awards. All across the public sector, dissenting voices are being raised over the government’s insistence on keeping public sector pay awards as close to 2% as possible in a bid to keep down inflation.

And the government’s strategy of imposing three-year pay deals across the public sector has many worried that, if the cost of living continues to rise, pay awards in real terms will become increasingly larger pay cuts over time.

It is clear that in many areas of the public sector a battle is developing over pay – and this is having a debilitating effect on morale and staff retention.

According to PC Steve Edwards, chairman of the Lancashire Police Federation, the current police dispute, now under judicial review, has caused a number of his colleagues to consider if they can afford to stay in their jobs.

“With pay falling in real terms the job has certainly become less attractive,” he says.

Where the impact could be felt most acutely is in a loss of older, experienced officers, invaluable to the force, many of whom continue to work in the police force after they have completed 30 years of service and are eligible to collect their pension.

“There is less and less incentive for these officers to stay as they can pick up better-paid work in the private sector, resulting in a loss of knowledge and valuable mentors for younger officers,” says Edwards.

Eroding good will

And while he is adamant police officers on the beat remain dedicated to their work and are motivated by a desire to make a difference to society rather than money, Edwards fears the current dispute has eroded much of the goodwill within the organisation.

This could result in some police officers starting to work to rule – being less willing to work unpaid overtime and to perform many of the unofficial duties they have traditionally carried out.

“I have heard mutterings that officers may be less flexible in accommodating the needs of the organisation if this pay issue is not resolved,” says Edwards.

Similar issues around pay have affected the NHS in the past year following the announcement last March that nurses had been offered a below-inflation pay rise. The 2.5% increase for health staff was paid in two stages in April and November, which meant it was effectively worth less than 2 % a year.

A matter of priorities

But while the director of operations and NHS Employers, Alastair Henderson, admits a pay offer of this kind affects morale, he says there are other issues in the service that are a higher priority for the majority of staff.

He points to the findings of the NHS national staff survey published in March 2007, which takes in the viewpoints of more than 128,000 employees across 326 trusts in England and is thought to be the largest employee satisfaction study in the world.

Anderson says the reports show that, contrary to many press reports, morale is pretty good in the NHS.

“You don’t want to believe all you read in the Daily Mail,” he says. “NHS workers have an extremely good revised pension and good training opportunities.

“For them the main issues are protection from violent members of the public and fair appraisals,” Anderson adds.

Private sector input

Anderson also points to the expertise brought to the sector by ex-Tesco HR director Claire Chapman, the director general of workforce in the NHS.

“She has been doing a lot of work around what really matters to staff, such as having the right resources to do the job, a respectful and helpful manager, an idea of how your role fits into the bigger picture and a supportive and friendly working environment,” he explains.

But at Cumbria County Council, corporate director of HR, Jim Savege, believes the low pay awards being handed out by government are causing anger in many areas of the public sector.

Savege, who is also the lead officer on pay and reward at the Public Sector People Managers’ Association, says: “Teachers have taken on more managerial responsibilities the fire service has modernised and local government has become more efficient, so it sticks in the throat of many when they are offered such small pay rises.”

He says that a lot of public sector workers feel aggrieved by the Treasury’s insistence on three-year pay deals. “It’s so prescriptive. There’s a feeling they are using the public sector as a tool to control inflation,” he says.

“Perhaps, because it can control salaries in the public sector, the government is restricting pay as a message to the private sector to follow suit.”

Competitive pay

Public sector union representatives are, not surprisingly, the most vociferous on the downturn in morale. Barry Fawcett, head of pay at the UK’s largest teachers union, the National Union of Teachers (NUT), says the union is starting to ballot its members over possible industrial action in response to a current pay offer of 2.45%, a figure that he says is the fourth year in a row the profession has faced a below-inflation pay award.

“Nobody going into teaching expects the same salary as a City firm, but if you want quality public services, you must pay competitive salaries. If the government doesn’t change its policies, in the not-too-distant future there may be severe staff shortages.”

At Unison, which represents around 800,000 NHS workers and 400,000 employees from local government, a recent survey found morale was ‘low’ or ‘very low’ among 63% of its members. According to a spokesman, pay is a big contributing factor underlying these depressing statistics.

The union says low pay is also contributing to staff shortages, and says the fact that 70% of local authorities cannot recruit enough social workers and 57% have a shortage of environmental health officers is directly related to poor remuneration.

Along with the GMB, Unison has started a fair pay campaign calling for a 6% increase in pay awards and rallying against the government’s attempt to limit public sector pay over the next three years to just 2% – described by general secretary Dave Prentis as: “the most unjust pay policy I have ever seen”.

Demographic timebomb

At Nottinghamshire County Council, service director for HR Jack Markiewicz says he’s worried that the pay issue is laying the foundations for a demographic timebomb.

“Not only are there problems with recruiting people in some areas, we also have an ageing population with many employees aged between 45 and 55 years,” he explains.

“If we don’t recruit new blood in the right numbers or get people to stay on longer, we are going to face some drastic shortages in the next 10 years or so,” he adds.

But, at the moment, it’s the immediate future that’s concerning Markiewicz.

“The next year promises to be very interesting, with the unions wanting a 6% pay rise and the government wanting to keep awards around 2%. They seem willing to take the government on.”

If morale is as bad as our public sector experts claim, it won’t just be the trade unions who are up for a fight.



  • After training, police officers start earning £23,454 a year. London Weighting, for those working in the capital, is just over £2,000.
  • Experience is recognised by the pay system. An officer with 10 years’ experience would be earning almost £33,000.
  • Promotion also brings financial rewards. An inspector’s starting salary is £42,000. The select few who gain the maximum rank of chief constable can expect a minimum of £115,000.


  • Qualified firefighters all receive £27,185. Unlike police constables, there is no extra money for experience. Salaries only rise with promotion.
  • A firefighter leading a crew earns just over £30,000, while a station officer can earn more than £38,000.
  • In July 2007 staff received a pay rise of 2.4% which was paid outright.


  • In 2007 nurses were unhappy with their pay rise but ultimately agreed to accept it.
  • Nurses were recommended a rise of 2.5%.
  • Despite threatening strike action, nurses in England accepted 1.5% and a further 1% six months later. This was an effective pay rise of 1.9%.
  • Nurses average pay is almost £25,000.
  • A clinical support worker would start on £12,500. A hospital nurse would expect about £7,000 more. A nurse consultant could earn £90,000.


  • Teachers starting off in classrooms in England and Wales will earn £20,133. There is an extra £4,000 for those working in inner London.
  • The most experienced teachers in England and Wales can reach £34,281 outside London.
  • Headteachers’ salaries start at £39,525 and can reach just under £100,000.
  • Teachers’ pay is negotiated in three-year deals. They will receive a 2.45% pay increase in September 2008 and a 2.3% increase in 2009 and 2010. An independent pay review body advises the government.

Source: BBC News 

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