No 10 faces backlash from Labour and unions over public sector pay cap lift

Jeremy Corbyn says Tories are trying to divide and rule workers as prison officers and police dismiss pay rises as insufficient

Theresa May’s government faces months of strife over public sector pay after a decision to lift the 1% annual cap on increases was met with derision from Labour and renewed threats of strikes by trade unions.

Following months of pressure over the issue, Downing Street simultaneously announced above 1% pay rises for police and prison officers in the last of the 2017-18 deals, and a wider commitment to “flexibility” for all public sector workers from next year.

But Jeremy Corbyn accused the Conservatives of trying to divide and rule workers, while unions representing prison officers and police dismissed their pay rises as insufficient, with the former threatening industrial action.

May’s spokesman said a cabinet meeting on Tuesday had approved a recommendation from the independent pay review body for prison officers that they receive an average 1.7% increase, backdated to April.


Ministers agreed a recommendation for police to get the standard 1% pay rise with an extra, one-off 1% sum added for the next 12 months, beginning immediately.

The spokesman also announced the end of the wider 1% cap for all public sector staff in the next round of pay deals, for 2018-19, saying this would “recognise the vital contribution they make and ensures they can deliver world class public services”.

The Prison Officers Association said the offered increase would amount to a real-terms pay cut, with the announcement the same day that inflation jumped to 2.9% in August.

The POA has rejected the rise and is planning to co-ordinate an indicative ballot of members alongside the civil servants union the PCS to see if members will support a strike.

Steve White, the chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said many of his members would be “angry and deflated” at their pay award following a requested 2.8% rise in basic pay.

“We were not greedy in what we asked for,” he said. “Officers have been taking home about 15% less than they were seven years ago.”

The police and prison officer pay rises will be financed by their departments, prompting a warning that for the police this could threaten services because of the extra strain on resources.

The National Police Chiefs Council said the extra 1%, expected to cost an additional £50m, was not part of a police budget based around the expectation of a 1% maximum rise.

Chief constable Francis Habgood, who leads for the council on pay, said: “Without better real terms funding protection from government, an award above 1% will inevitably impact on our ability to deliver policing services and maintain staffing levels.”

Speaking at the TUC congress in Brighton, Corbyn said the government must extend the pay rise for civil servants, teachers, health workers and others.

“Today, as inflation rises to nearly 3%, they are trying to divide people on the cheap,” he said. “The POA is right, a pay cut is a pay cut. We must be united in breaking the pay cap for all workers.

Corbyn speaking at the TUC conference on Tuesday.
Corbyn speaking at the TUC conference on Tuesday. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

“Let me be clear today. The Labour party totally rejects the Tories’ attempt to divide and rule, to play one sector off against another. A Labour government will end the public sector pay cap and give all workers the pay rise they deserve and so desperately need,” he said.

However, Corbyn later sidestepped the question of whether he would back illegal strikes over pay, following claims from some union leaders they might break the law if a significant proportion of their members backed action. This was, the Labour leader said, a “matter for the unions”.

The pay announcement is also unlikely to quell discontent in many parts of the public sector, including the NHS, with the Royal College of Nursing threatening strike action without a significant rise.

Announcing the changes in a notable softening of language on the issue, May’s spokesman told reporters that the cabinet meeting “agreed that our public sector workers are among the most talented and hard-working people in our society”.

He continued: “They, like everyone else, deserve to have fulfilling jobs that are fairly rewarded. The government takes a balanced approach to public spending, dealing with our debts to keep our economy strong, while also making sure we invest in our public services.

“The government recognises that in some parts of the public sector, particularly in areas of skill shortage, more flexibility may be required to deliver world class public services, including in return for improvements to public sector productivity.”

The spokesman said the specific remit for the various pay review bodies on how high they could go for rises in 2018-19 would be “agreed as part of the budget process and set out in due course”.

There was, he added, a need for pay discipline over the coming years to balance the needs of public sector workers “while also being affordable within the public finances and fair to taxpayers as a whole”.

Doubts about whether this will actually mean higher pay rises were increased by a media briefing document for ministers on the issue, seen by the Guardian.

While largely using the same language as May’s spokesman, one passage was more explicit, saying that for 2018-19 “there will no longer be an across-the-board policy of basic pay awards”. However, this section was crossed out by hand, indicating it should not be used.

A written statement from Liz Truss, the chief secretary to the Treasury, gave further details on the pay awards. It showed the extent of the rise for individual prison officers would vary, depending on factors including the recipients’ pay band and performance rating.

For police, the statement showed that while the 1% rise would apply to all officers, the extra 1% was only for federated ranks – constables, sergeants and inspectors – and above.


Peter Walker and Rajeev Syal

The GuardianTramp

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