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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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.