What the coalition should remember about public-sector pay

It was soaraway pay in the private sector that allowed civil service salaries to grow.

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The coalition should be praised for its decision to publish today's "public-sector rich list". In these straitened times, the public deserves transparency on Whitehall pay.

Most news groups are inevitably running with the line that 172 civil servants earn more than the Prime Minister, though this is far from an ideal comparison. Let's not forget that, in addition to his prime ministerial salary (£142,500), David Cameron earns £64,766 a year as the MP for Witney. And let's remember that if you're a prime minister, the really big paydays come once you've left No 10.

The proper headline, therefore, is that 172 civil servants now earn more than £150,000. Few doubt that that is too high; there is, or should be, a culture where the ethic of public service matters more than earning a top salary.

But what should not be forgotten, and what the coalition shows little awareness of, is that such excessive salaries did not originate from within the public sector: they were imported from the private sector.

Had public-sector pay not risen in response to soaraway private-sector pay rates, such positions would have become, as Polly Toynbee has written elsewhere, "disrespected jobs for disrespected people, second-class, depressed and despised".

Cameron's desire to tame public-sector pay is legitimate and understandable, and his decision to apppoint Will Hutton to lead a pay review for the coalition shows that he is sincere.

But until the government gets serious about private-sector pay, by establishing a High Pay Commission, its approach will remain distinctly unbalanced.

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George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.