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Breaking the public service pay cap will not solve recruitment and retention problems

Lifting the public sector pay cap was a necessary step towards solving the Government’s workforce woes – but other issues still need to be addressed.

Tuesday’s pay announcements will be welcomed by the millions of public sector workers who have seen their incomes squeezed over the last eight years. But deeper problems remain, says Dr Emily Andrews.

After five years of 1% increases – and two prior years of no increases at all – the Government has decisively smashed the pay cap for many (though not all) public sector workers. That includes a 3.5% increase for lower-band teachers (with smaller increases for their more senior colleagues), 3% for junior doctors, and 2.75% for prison officers. This was a necessary step towards solving the Government’s workforce woes – but other issues still need to be addressed.

Government is finding it harder to attract and retain staff in public services...

There are problems both recruiting and retaining enough teachers. Last year, the Government missed its target for recruiting new trainee teachers for the fifth year in a row – and by a record 3,881 teachers – and a growing number of teachers are leaving the profession to go elsewhere. In 2017/18, 35,800 teachers left teaching, compared with 24,750 in 2011/12.

In prisons, recruitment does not seem to be a problem, but retention is. The Ministry of Justice hit its target of increasing prison officer numbers by 2,500, and ahead of the ‘late 2018’ schedule. But to do so, it had to recruit nearly 5,000 prison officers, as over 2,000 left in 2017/18 alone. The Prison Service Pay Review Body has raised concerns about the high levels of inexperience in the prison service, which place the extra burden of mentoring new staff on long-standing officers.

The number of GPs has actually fallen since 2015, despite a government plan to increase their numbers by 5,000 by 2020. The number of hospital job adverts (which may each advertise multiple vacant positions) rose by 12% between 2015 and 2017 and there are over 5,800 vacancies for children’s social workers, a 60% increase since 2013/14. These are just a few examples – our Performance Tracker, produced in partnership with CIPFA, outlines key workforce pressures across nine different public services.

… and it can’t keep pushing staff to work harder

The end of the public sector pay cap was necessary. A common reason for staff leaving public service roles was the feeling they were seriously underpaid. Last year, just 18% of prison officers felt that their pay was reasonable (down from 22% the year before). The figure for the NHS was 31%, down from 37% the previous year.

This week’s pay announcements will ease those concerns. But other issues need to be addressed. Alongside the pay cap, government’s other key strategy to control spending over the last eight years has been to improve the productivity of the workforce – getting more out of each worker. Technological innovation has not achieved the gains that were hoped, so the burden has fallen on individual staff members to do more.

Higher pay may persuade some staff to accept higher workloads, but it probably will not be enough, given the dissatisfaction that already exists with current demands. On average social workers in children’s services are now dealing with 17.8 cases at a time – well above the 10 to 14 found in local authorities deemed ‘good’ by Ofsted. Research from the National Foundation for Education has shown that teachers are not leaving for more money, but for a better work-life balance. Similarly, the number of people resigning from the NHS, and citing work-life balance as the reason, more than doubled between 2011/12 and 2017/18.

Dissatisfaction with the pressures created by demands for greater productivity represents a clear risk for the future. The Government could mitigate that risk by deploying new strategies to hold down spending in the coming years. It could embark on energetic reforms to reshape the way services operate – and make sure that they deliver. That path is also likely to involve some upfront investment before any savings are realised. Alternatively, ministers could explicitly lower their expectations for public services, but they would have to take the public with them.

By lifting the pay cap, the Government has given up one of the few tools it has used to successfully control spending in recent years. If it does not start using others, and relies on simply working staff harder, there is a real risk that these recruitment and retention issues will get worse, not better.

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