Expert advice

Workforce: No easy way forward on pay even if cap is scrapped

The Scottish Government says it will scrap the 1% public sector pay cap next year, and there is speculation England may follow suit. But even if a decision is made to remove the cap, questions remain about how that will be achieved, says workforce expert James Buchan.
pay

The Scottish Government says it will scrap the 1% public sector pay cap next year, and there is speculation England may follow suit. But even if a decision is made to remove the cap, questions remain about how that will be achieved, says workforce expert James Buchan

Will England's government end the pay freeze? The RCN has been protesting to scrap the cap, and the Scottish government has already announced it will do just that next year.

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The Scottish Government says it will scrap the 1% public sector pay cap next year, and there is speculation England may follow suit. But even if a decision is made to remove the cap, questions remain about how that will be achieved, says workforce expert James Buchan

pay
A Scrap the Cap the demo in Edinburgh late June. Picture: Greg MacVean

Will England's government end the pay freeze? The RCN has been protesting to ‘scrap the cap’, and the Scottish government has already announced it will do just that next year.  

There is speculation that there may be an announcement at the time of the budget in October. But as we may be some years away from a general election, cynics argue that the English government might regard a pay boost now as a wasted opportunity in electoral terms. 

Even with an early announcement, the other important question is not when, but how. When the public sector pay cap is removed, will there be a return to a fully independent pay review body system? Will the unions succeed in arguing for a backdated catch-up award? Or will the government try to select some groups for preferential treatment, with the twin aim of diluting additional costs and splitting the unions?

Review sidelined

Before the pay review body was set up in 1983, NHS nurses were all too familiar with having to argue for a pay rise. There were four reviews of NHS nurses’ pay in the 1960s, and two further independent reviews in the 1970s. These were essentially catch-up exercises, NHS nurses’ pay having fallen behind that of other workers in between the reviews.

The review body has since provided a moderating influence on pay fluctuations, but in recent years it has been sidelined as the government imposed caps on pay rises across the public sector.

The overall result is that nurses, and other public-sector workers, have seen their pay fall behind that of private-sector workers, and further eroded by inflation. This has resulted in a real-terms pay cut of 14% since 2010, according to the unions. 

Given the continued focus on containing costs in a labour-intensive NHS, don't expect an easy way forward on pay, even without a cap.


James Buchan is professor in the faculty of health and social sciences at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh

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