Pay’s not going away


BERNARD HARBOR says the new Public Service Pay Commission could put pay back at the centre of political debate.

coins3The Programme for Government’s silence over what exactly its proposed Public Service Pay Commission would do left plenty of scope for interpretation. We were simply told it would “examine pay levels across the public service, including entry levels of pay.”

At first glance, this looked like a nod to political concerns about a ‘two tier’ system, created by Government, which still sees new entrants to some public service professions denied allowances that their more experienced colleagues have retained.

Next there was some concern that Brexit would prevent the body ever seeing the light of day.

But today’s announcement that the Commission will be established following a short consultation period suggests that the Government (or the minister, at least) have made up their minds about what they want the Commission to contribute.

Assurances that pay will continue to be set through direct negotiations between unions and public service management mean that the body’s role will essentially be an advisory one. But the ability of advisory bodies to determine public policy varies a lot, and the degree of PSPC influence over pay will rest largely on whether it’s perceived to be both expert and fair.

In what amounts to a broad welcome for the idea, trade unions reacted by saying the credibility of the proposed Commission will depend on it being chaired by “a highly qualified and fully independent expert with a deep understanding of public service pay determination and related issues, including from an employee perspective.”

Its membership also needs to be balanced. It’s bound to involve academics, including economists. But, please, not too many. And not with the predilection for parsimony now so common to the dismal science.

Let’s also hope that the Public Appointments Service (which will make recommendations about who should be on the Commission) understands that people with a union background have a contribution to make, and attracts some genuine experts who support quality public services and fair pay. Because a body packed with the usual suspects will quickly become debased in the eyes of public employees and others.

I can think of a few commentators who will rush to link this initiative to benchmarking, even though we’ve been though peak boom, deep bust, two changes of Government, and a massive downward adjustment of public service pay and pensions since that unloved process was put to the sword.

It’s believed that the minister wants the Commission’s evidence to be published along with its findings. This is the right approach, which should help avoid some of the criticism that benchmarking attracted (although the job of getting private sector employers and consultants to share their data with all comers – including their competitors here and abroad – should not be underestimated).

In any case, the establishment of the Commission will likely mean that public service pay – and all the many and various views and obsessions the subject sustains – will be at the centre of public and political debate for a good while yet.

Bernard Harbor is IMPACT trade union’s head of communications.

Read IMPACT’s FAQ on the Public Service Pay Commission HERE.