Policy Exchange is wrong on public-sector pay

It is misleading to compare private- with public-sector pay -- it’s not a like-for-like comparison.

Policy Exchange has a new report out today on the public sector, and while it has tidied up its stats a little -- given the hammering that dodgy stats on the public sector have got in the past -- what the report says is still pretty misleading.

For Policy Exchange and the shrink-the-state right, every nurse, every doctor, every teacher is a drag on the economy. The rest of us know that they all play a vital role -- as do countless other public servants. Far from holding back the private sector, the public sector educates and trains its workforce, buys many of its goods and services, keeps its staff healthy and provides the infrastructure without which the UK would travel back to the 19th century.

Policy Exchange wants people to believe that public-sector wages have overtaken those in the private sector. This is simply not the case. In every year since 1984 -- the earliest year for which official statistics are available -- average hourly pay in the public sector has been higher than in the private sector. But this is because the public sector has a much greater proportion of skilled and professional workers such as teachers and doctors than the private sector.

In recent years this trend has intensified. Lower-paid jobs such as cleaners and care assistants have been privatised, while the big growth in public-sector employment under the last government was among professionals such as teachers and doctors.

To compare pay properly, you have to look at people doing similar jobs, but this is impossible, as jobs differ too much. However, you can compare the pay of people with similar qualifications. This shows that graduates earn somewhat less in the public sector while those with no qualifications earn a bit more. This is because the gap between those at the bottom and those at the top in the public sector is smaller than in the private sector. Most people would think this is a good thing.

Of course, they cannot resist citing higher levels of absence in the public sector, even though public-sector staff are more likely to work when they are ill.

And it takes chutzpah to report accurately the collapse in private-sector pension provision for most private-sector workers -- despite the retention of diamond-encrusted, platinum-plated pensions in Britain's top boardrooms -- as a reason for attacking public-sector pensions.

It would be equally logical to say that if public-sector workplaces were more dangerous than those in the private sector, this should be evened up until as many people were killed at work each year in the public sector.

Under the guise of all-round fairness, Policy Exchange seems to want to bring the worst kind of vulnerable, low-paid, no-rights employment into the public sector. We think that is a very strange notion of fairness.

Nigel Stanley is the TUC's head of campaigns and communications.

This blog is cross-posted from Touchstone.

Nigel Stanley is the head of communications at the TUC. He blogs at ToUChstone.

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.