How Osborne's public sector pay cuts could harm services

The IFS warns that further cuts to pay could make it "increasingly difficult" for public sector employers to "retain and recruit high quality workers".

While average wages are forecast to finally rise faster than inflation next year, there'll be no end to the squeeze for public sector workers, who have had their pay increases capped at 1% until at least 2015-16 (a real-terms cut). The average worker is already £2,000 a year worse off compared with 2010 after the two-year pay freeze. (In the most recent quarter, their pay fell in nominal terms by 0.4%.) 

Based on current trends, the OBR forecasts that public sector will fall by 8% relative to private sector pay between 2012-13 and 2018-19. In a new analysis today, the IFS warns that, as a result, "some public sector employers may well find it increasingly difficult to retain and recruit high quality workers". it adds: "both the government and pay-review bodies need to pay great attention to indicators of whether the public sector is facing any difficulties in recruiting and retaining high-quality staff, and decide on settlements in light of any such evidence." 

Alternative, it says, the government could increase the level of public sector job cuts beyond the (remarkable) 1.1 million planned by 2018-19. But this, too, would risk harming services. The longer austerity continues, the clearer the consequences for public services (and those most reliant on them) will become. The IFS has forecast that merely to maintain the current level of cuts, taxes or welfare cuts will need to increase by £12bn. If Labour and the Lib Dems intend to avoid sticking to Osborne's plans, the urgent question is how they will fill this fiscal gap. 

For Osborne, public sector pay restraint is an essential component of his deficit reduction programme (which, even after recent improvements, remains £51bn offtrack) but if the Tories want to expand their support, they would be wise to offer some relief. As Renewal, the Conservative group aimed at broadening the party's appeal among working class, northern and ethnic minority voters, has noted, the majority of Tory target seats have a higher than average share of public sector workers, including 60% of Labour-held targets and half of the top 20 Lib Dem-held targets. While the Tories are likely to pledge to cut taxes for all workers, in the form of a £12,500 personal allowance, they should also consider easing the squeeze on the public sector.

George Osborne and Danny Alexander leave the Treasury for the House of Commons on December 5, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May's magic money tree is growing in Northern Ireland

Her £1bn deal with the DUP could make it even harder to push through cuts in the rest of the UK.

Going, going, gone...sold to the dark-haired woman from Enniskillen! Theresa May has signed a two-year deal with Arlene Foster, the DUP's leader, to keep her in office. The price? A cool £1bn and the extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland.

The deal will have reverberations both across the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland specifically. To take the latter first – the amount spent in Northern Ireland in 2016/17 was just under £10bn. A five point increase in spending on health, education and roads is a fairly large feather in anyone's cap.

It transforms the picture as far as the fraught negotiations over restoring power-sharing goes. It increases the pressure on Sinn Féin to restore power-sharing so they can help decide exactly where the money goes. And if there's another election, it means that Arlene Foster goes into it not as the woman who oversaw the wasteful RHI scheme (a renewable energy programme that because of its poor drafting saw farmers paid to heat empty rooms) but as the negotiator who bagged an extra £1bn for Northern Ireland. 

Across the United Kingdom, the optics are less good for the (nominal) senior partner to the deal.

"May buys DUP support with £1 billion 'bung" is the Times"£1bn for DUP is 'just the start" is the Telegraph's splash, and their Scottish edition is worse: "Fury at 'grubby' deal with DUP". With friends like this, who needs the Guardian? (They've gone for "May hands £1bn bonanza to DUP to cling on at No 10" as their splash, FYI.) 

Not to be outdone, the Mirror opts for "May's £1bn bribe to crackpots" while the Scotsman goes for "£100 million per vote: The price of power".  Rounding off the set, the Evening Standard has mocked Foster up as Dr Evil and Theresa May as Mini-Me on its front page. The headline? "I demand the sum of....one billion pounds!"   

Of course, in terms of what the government spends, £1bn is much ado about nothing. (To put it in perspective, the total budget across the UK is £770bn or thereabouts, debt interest around £40bn, the deficit close to £76bn).

But only a few weeks ago Theresa May was telling a nurse that the reason she couldn't get a pay rise is that there is "no magic money tree". Now that magic money tree is growing freely in Northern Ireland. The Conservatives have been struggling to get further cuts through as it is – just look at the row over tax credits, or the anger at school cuts in the election – but now any further cuts in England, Scotland and Wales will rub up against the inevitable comeback not only from the opposition parties but the voters: "But you've got money to spend in Northern Ireland!"

(That £1bn is relatively small probably makes matters worse – an outlay per DUP MP that you might expect a world-class football club to spend on a quality player. It's tangible, rather like that £350m for the NHS. £30bn? That's just money.)

For Labour, who have spent the last seven years arguing, with varying degrees of effectiveness that austerity is a choice, it's as close to an open goal as you can imagine. Theresa May's new government is now stable – but it's an open question as to how long it will take her party to feel strong again.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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