Four questions Osborne must answer before introducing regional pay

Why has the Chancellor jumped the gun of an independent review?

Why has the Chancellor jumped the gun of an independent review?

The budget leak about introducing more localised pay-setting for civil servants in a number of government departments is not a great surprise. The Treasury has been toying with regional pay issues since the IFS reported that earnings are 10 per cent higher for men and 15 per cent for women in the public sector in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

What is surprising is that such an announcement should pre-empt the findings of the Independent Pay Review Bodies' review, commissioned by Mr Osborne, which is due in July. If the Chancellor is to jump the gun in this way then he needs to address four big questions.

1) Is there evidence that public sector pay rates have a direct effect on private sector wages and job creation in regional economies?

While few dispute evidence of a pay gap, changing the current system would appear to be based upon the principal assertion that high public sector pay rates in weaker local economies are making it difficult for private sector companies to recruit staff. It is not difficult to find disgruntled employers who are prepared to endorse this line of thinking but policy by anecdote is a dangerous business and there is no substantive evidence that this is the case.

What limited evidence there is on the impact of public-private pay gaps - an LSE report on the impact of pay differentials on hospital performance - highlights pay effects on depressing performance in high wage areas, but this is an altogether different argument.

2) Will the pay gap will close without further government intervention?

In his first budget as Chancellor, George Osborne announced a public sector pay freeze which he has subsequently extended to last over three years. In preliminary analysis carried out by IPPR North, this in itself would appear to be sufficient to close the gap by 2015. If the government needs to embolden its approach then it must provide evidence that additional measures are needed above and beyond the pay freeze already announced.

3) Has the Chancellor screened out a raft of unintended consequences?

Perhaps the greatest concern about reducing public sector pay is the risk of depressing weaker economies still further. The government's argument that public sector jobs were crowding out the private sector is looking increasingly flawed as Northern economies experience a double dip jobs recession and unemployment touches 10 per cent across the North.

In fact, public sector cuts have hit the public and the private economy hard and what is needed is stimulus not further constraint. Furthermore, squeezing pay risks a race to the bottom which ultimately undermines productivity and reduces the competitivity of Northern economies exacerbating the North-South divide.

4) If localising pay is such a good idea, then why are private companies doing the reverse?

In one of the more interesting interventions on this debate, the Incomes Data Services have produced a report looking at the use of regional and local pay by the private sector. They find that the only real regional pay variations that exist are between London and the South East and the rest of the country.

Furthermore, aside from housing costs in the Greater South East, the cost of living across the country is converging. For this reason, most large national and multi-national private sector companies are moving away from complex regional, zonal and local pay structures which breed resentment and reduce productivity, in favour of simpler systems which top-up London pay.

If the Chancellor is serious about stimulating growth in less prosperous places then perhaps he should look to grow investment and productivity outside London rather than precipitate a race to the bottom in places that are poor enough already.

Ed Cox is Director of IPPR North

Ed Cox is Director at IPPR North. He tweets @edcox_ippr.

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Tim Shipman's Diary

The Sunday Times political editor on poker, pasta – and being called fat by Andrew Marr.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was having dinner with my wife at Padella (which serves the best pasta in London) when the phone rang. It was an irate David Davis. “You’re reporting that a friend of mine has said Philip May wants Theresa to quit. It’s not true. I don’t even know Philip May.” I calmly explained that I wasn’t accusing him and I had his friend on tape. “Who was it?” he asked me. I wasn’t saying. “Well, it’s not bloody helpful,” the Brexit Secretary said before hanging up.

The following day, I woke up to watch Philip Hammond explain to the BBC’s Andrew Marr why his cabinet colleagues had leaked me details of how the Chancellor had branded public-sector workers as “overpaid”. “I don’t know who [Tim Shipman’s] sources are,” he said, after inaccurately suggesting that I was being fed information as part of some Brexiteer conspiracy to discredit the cabinet’s leading Remainer.

On Monday, I did an interview with Eddie Mair in the back of a beer garden in Ireland, where I’m playing cricket. In reality, the leaks had much more to do with colleagues irritated at Hammond’s sometimes grating behaviour. Word reaches me that he regards it all as very unhelpful. It seems odd after 16 years in political journalism to have to say this, but we’re not here to be helpful. It might make sense if our politicians gave us less to write about. Over the past three years, they have delighted us enough.

Back for seconds

Voter fatigue is a recognised problem. No one talks about journalist fatigue. We all hope that Theresa May rejuvenates on her Swiss walk (perhaps regenerating into Jodie Whittaker). Thanks to the decision she took when she last went walking, I’m facing the obliteration of another summer holiday writing a second political tome covering the period since my Brexit book, All Out War, up to the general election. What looked at one stage like the boring second album is now a rip-roaring tale of hubris and nemesis. When I asked for title suggestions on Twitter, there were plenty of votes for “Mayhem” and “Mayday”. The most imaginative was: “The Snarling Duds of May”. Sadly, it’s too long for my publisher.

Catching the big fish

The new-found attention from writing books is a double-edged sword. To my delight, then embarrassment, Andrew Marr referred to me twice as “the doyen” of the print lobby. “We keep trying to stop him,” Marr’s editor, the redoubtable Rob Burley, confided at a rival magazine’s summer party. The following week, Marr said: “The biggest fish in the pool, if only physically, is Tim Shipman…” I got a text from a special adviser friend asking: “Are you paying him?” I pointed out that Britain’s best-known political interviewer had just called me a fat bastard live on national television.

New blood

I make my debut on BBC2’s Newsnight alongside Ash Sarkar of Novara Media, one of the new websites that cheerlead for Jeremy Corbyn. She is nerveless and fluent in her mid-twenties, when I was a tongue-tied naif. People who get the Corbyn phenomenon are rightly getting more airtime. Off the air, she tells me that she’s a “libertarian anarchist” and then asks me where I live. “Are you going to smash it up?” I ask nervously. She smiles. Ash’s main concern is to paint the town red in the Saturday-night sense. A Labour MP draws attention to her Twitter biog, which concludes: “Walks like a supermodel. Fucks like a champion. Luxury communism now!” Bravo. I think…

Brexit gamble

I was greatly cheered by the induction in the Poker Hall of Fame of the late Dave “Devil­fish” Ulliott, the player who did the most to create the TV and online poker boom in Britain. Westminster has a few useful card sharps – Paul Stephenson, formerly of Vote Leave, among them – but I don’t know any politicians who play. By contrast, the US presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were all accomplished poker players.

When I worked in the US, I interviewed a member of Barack Obama’s poker circle when he was a state senator in Chicago. The cautious, composed and occasionally bold player he described was the mirror image of the politician we came to know. His Republican rival in 2008, John McCain, preferred the chaotic gambling of the craps table and his erratic campaign reflected that. Too many of the current cabinet seem to be dice men. What we wouldn’t give for Devilfish running the Brexit negotiations.

Blundering through

Anyone who has ever dealt with McCain would have been saddened by the news that he is suffering from brain cancer, but his resilience almost makes you feel sorry for the tumour. McCain is undoubtedly the most media-friendly politician I have ever met. When I travelled on his plane in 2008, he took every question from the foreign press pack and made us feel welcome. Through him, I also met Steve Duprey, the former boss of the New Hampshire Republicans. He was fond of explaining Duprey’s first law: “In politics, before considering malevolence, always assume incompetence.” I have had much cause to remind myself of that over the past three years.

Paranoid android

If you are looking for a summer read, I recommend Jonathan Allen’s and Amie Parnes’s Shattered, a great insider account of Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 presidential election effort. It shows how a flawed candidate with little ability to connect with the public presided over a paranoid regime of advisers engaged in Shakespearean bloodletting that led to them coming a cropper when fighting a charismatic populist. On second thoughts, you could always wait to read my second book this autumn. 

Tim Shipman is the political editor of the Sunday Times. “All Out War” is now available in paperback (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue