Sunak risks public ‘uproar’ with tax cuts before election, TUC leader warns

Paul Nowak says prime minister faces general condemnation if he does not prioritise resolving public sector disputes

Rishi Sunak will provoke a public uproar should he prioritise pre-election tax cuts over better pay for nurses, ambulance workers and teachers, Britain’s most senior union figure has warned.

With the prime minister already under pressure from Tory MPs to sanction tax cuts in the spring budget, Paul Nowak, the general secretary of the TUC, warned that the public would condemn any such move while a series of public sector pay disputes remained unresolved.

“Politics is always about choices,” said Nowak. “I fear there’s a real danger that, under the pressure from his backbenchers, the prime minister might be tempted into things like tax cuts. Delivering tax cuts at a time when he’s got these huge crises in our NHS and elsewhere would be a real mistake.

“I think there would be an uproar. To be honest, I think he needs to learn the lessons from his party’s very recent history that tax giveaways, at a time when it already feels that the gap between shop floor pay and boardroom pay is growing, would be a big mistake.”

The intervention from Nowak comes at the end of a bruising week for Sunak in which he angered some in his party by rejecting calls for tax cuts, was fined by police for failing to wear a seatbelt and was rebuked by West Midlands mayor Andy Street, the most senior Tory outside London, over the allocation of levelling up funding.

Supporters of previous prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss are among those concerned about Sunak’s caution on tax, despite the economic damage inflicted by Truss’s botched attempts to push through huge tax cuts for the wealthy last year. There are also concerns in government that Johnson may soon surface to oppose any compromise over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Meanwhile, Brexit-supporting billionaire Sir James Dyson last week called for the government to rethink “ever higher tax bills” for the private sector. While Sunak and his chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, are resisting the calls for pre-election tax cuts next year, Tory MPs expect them.

Instead of slashing taxes, Nowak said it was within the government’s gift to make the political choices that would enable the long-running dispute with nurses, ambulance staff, teachers and other public sector workers to be resolved.

“You could choose, if you wanted to, to tax the oil and gas giants more heavily,” he said. “You could choose to bump up capital gains tax. This government has chosen not to. Generally, people are baffled by this government’s choices. He [Sunak] still lifted the cap on bankers’ bonuses at a time when we had record bonuses in the City of London last year. If you are a paramedic, or you’re a physiotherapist, or you’re a teacher, or indeed a railway worker or a postie, you’re looking at that and you’re thinking: this government’s got its priorities all wrong.”

Nowak accused Sunak and Hunt of ignoring his calls for a meeting to unlock pay talks, amid signs that even government departments are pointing to the Treasury as the block to any progress. He also criticised a social media video from Hunt, in which the chancellor explained the threat of inflation by showing how coffee had become more expensive, as being “patronising”.

“The big question for me would be: why are Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt hiding?” said Nowak. “Why aren’t they at the table? Jeremy Hunt made a commitment to a parliamentary select committee at the end of November that he’d sit down with the head of the TUC. There’s been no progress yet. We haven’t had that meeting. Rishi Sunak still hasn’t responded to my request for a meeting, or indeed a number of requests.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s in health, in education, in the civil service. At the heart of it all is working people not getting a fair deal. The key to unlocking these disputes does lie at the door of No 10 and No 11 and I just don’t think that you can avoid that. The chancellor and the prime minister have to step up, stop hiding and come to the table.”

Unison’s head of health, Sara Gorton, said: “Jeremy Hunt knows the NHS better than anyone in the cabinet. As health secretary, his negotiations with unions led to the wage deal ending the 2015 strike. As [health and social care] select committee chair, he called for fair pay and recognised the damage done when the bursary for NHS trainees was scrapped.

“But as chancellor he’s chosen to forget. Despite what he says, Jeremy Hunt knows improved pay is critical to solving the NHS staffing emergency.”

A government spokesperson said: “The government is doing all it can to mitigate the impact of strikes, but union bosses should be reasonable, stay around the negotiating table and call off damaging strikes. Pay must be affordable and fair, which is why we accepted the recommendations from the independent pay review bodies to pay our valued public servants more.

“Inflation-matching pay increases for all public sector workers would cost everyone more long-term – worsening debt, fuelling inflation, and costing every household an extra £1,000.”


Michael Savage Policy Editor

The GuardianTramp

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