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18 June 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:18am

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.

By Nigel Stanley

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.

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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.