26 July 2018

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.


Couldn't agree more - pay is only part of the issue. Workloads have been rising as the other consequence of austerity across public services. It is highly doubtful that belatedly lifting the pay cap will have any significant impact on recruitment, retention, morale, engagement figures or staff trust in their public sector leaders (all of which have been taking a hammering as CIPD research highlights).

In fact, the cynical nature of how the Government are going about the reform could even have a negative impact. Critically, the lifting of the pay cap without providing government departments, local authorities, hospitals or schools with the additional matched increase to funding from central Government is merely raising expectation. In most cases the money to meet these Ministerial promises just doesn't exist. Cutting Teaching Assistant posts or access to supply cover to fund an extra £10 a week for a school teacher isn't likely to have much of a sustainable lift to their morale or productivity.

In the MoJ for example, alongside rising workloads for prison and probation staff, a draconian attack on sickness absence rates has, if anything (the employer doesn't have the IT to measure this stuff accurately) increased sickness absence and further damaged morale. Probation pay reform negotiations have been on-hold for over 15 months whilst the Treasury held back the remit to negotiate. Strong rumours abound that negotiations will re-start imminently but as the MoJ will be expected to fund any increases from existing budgets (along with the rest of the public sector) progress is likely to be limited.

Another huge problem not touched by Government is that recruitment and retention problems are not evenly spread. In London and the South East and some of our inner cities the problem is acute where stability remains in many areas. These need more creative solutions.

I've been fortunate to have had two careers since leaving school. These being in the private sector as an engineer and in the public sector working in the prison and probation services. Both sectors in the 80s - early 2000 adopted a career development model based upon retaining and building corporate memory. Employees were encouraged to progress in their chosen field of expertise whilst strengthening the capacity and effectiveness of their organisation to remain at the forefront of their industry or market sector. The enlargement of the EU and the widening of the EEA has increased the movement in trade, skills and the advancement of technologies which some public sector services are struggling to embed or institutionalise. A new public sector HR business and service delivery model is very much needed that is grounded in research and empirical science which take on a global perspective and not one which is trying to use a conventional approach to deal with modern day realities.

The pay cap has not been lifted in say the Forestry Commission. The Forestry Commission staff lost pay progression in 2011, and have been stuck on ZERO to 1% pay increases ever since. Pay is woefully uncompetitive. Private sector pay in the forestry sector is in general far out stripping the Forestry Commission, and I personally know of many FC forest managers who have left to go to the private sector over declining pay. Despite record income and timber values and sales, the Forestry Commission is unable, due to central Westminster govt pay policy, unable to fund pay rises anywhere near the national average for the forest industry or wider jobs market. I accuse the Westminster govt of exploitation of FC staff. The result is a retention and recruitment problem, that is being deliberately hidden by promoting and hiring people without the industry standard qualifications and experience. Any post can filled if it is dumbed down. With the FC Scotland now devolved to the Scottish government, there is going to be a wide separation in public sector pay in the forestry sector, that will likely worsen retention and recruitment problems in Forestry Commission England, still stuck with the Westminster 1% pay cap and ban on progression pay. Meanwhile the Scottish govt is paying higher salaries, progression and around 3% rises. Who would continue to work in FC England rather than Scotland's forest estate? This disparity is now common across the UK public sector, not just in forestry. So the UK govt, doggedly sticking to a pay cap in England's civil service, is living in cloud cuckoo land.