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Its time to end the public sector pay cap


You probably had more people helping you today than you realised.

If your bins were collected, or your child went to school; if the pavement you walked down was flat and clean (that’s not the default setting for a pavement when nature gets involved), then you were helped by a public sector worker. It’s their job to do it, of course, and it’s labour that you pay for, but consider for a second how important they are.

Teachers, nurses, police officers, firefighters, prison officers, judges, social workers: the men and women who do the invisible things that we notice when they go wrong, and those who run towards danger and not away from it, have been singled out by the government. They have been told in no uncertain terms that they are not valued. Since coming to power in 2010, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats (and let’s not forget their joint role in the coalition) have stuck dogmatically to the 1% pay cap. In real terms, vital public sector workers, often on low to middle income salaries, have seen their wages decline as utility, food and other bills have risen. And this is despite in many cases these workers being asked to work longer hours. 

Yesterday, Lambeth council passed a motion calling on the government to end its seven year long policy of imposing a stringent 1% pay cap on the annual wage increases of public sector workers across the UK.  This one policy change could have a profound impact on thousands of people. When the government defends the pay cap they signal, with rare clarity, how they feel about the work that you and I rely on every day.

There are no luxuries left in local government. If you need a social worker you probably wish you didn’t, and the people who empty your bins don’t do it for the glory.

The pay cap is not a clever accounting position. It’s what happens when a failed economic policy is pushed through at a real cost to millions of people who have families to support and lives to get on with.

But can this really be done? Can government afford to lift the cap? Putting aside for a moment the argument that they can’t afford not to (£1.1bn this year on locums who choose to work for agencies should have alarm bells ringing across Whitehall), reversing the cuts to Corporation Tax rates would raise enough money to meet their responsibility.

And aren’t some public sector workers getting a pay rise? Well, actually no, not really. This week inflation hit 3%. This means that an increase of 2% for police and 1.7% for prison officers is a real terms cut. Not as much of a cut as some of the men and women they work alongside, admittedly, but that’s a pretty low bar that they’ve set.

It’s not only an increasingly untenable position, but an increasingly unpopular one too. A leading polling company found that 75% of all voters support above-inflation increases in public sector pay. That includes, incidentally, 69% of Conservative voters.

And yet, in Lambeth, the Conservatives will not support Labour’s call for the cap to be lifted. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised - Lambeth Tories are a right wing variety who support a Hard Brexit, attack parents for opposing cuts to local schools and are in favour of increasing business rates by as much as 45% for local firms.  But still, it’s puzzling: it’s one thing to be out of step with economists and the workforce but they are at odds with their constituents too, not least as thousands of public sector workers live and are employed in our borough. After all, Conservative voters use doctors too.

There is no economic, social or political argument to keep the cap and it should be lifted now.

Let’s think about a world without public sector workers. And then let’s think about whether they deserve a decent wage.


Imogen Walker

Deputy Leader of the Council (Finance & Resources)

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