Since the election just over a month ago much of the focus has been on public sector pay and how the wages of those working in the NHS and public service generally have been effectively frozen since 2010. Labour have been pushing the government hard to break their self-imposed cap on wages, gaining much public support, however this focus on wages is the entirely wrong argument made for political point scoring only.
It is impossible to deny that a wage increase would be bad news for public sector workers, it wouldn’t be, however it is the wrong use of public finances when the services those workers are employed in are so under resourced and poorly funded. As with Labour's case with the free school meals for all policy, the end to the public sector wage cap is the cherry before the cake has been baked. The NHS, education system, police, prison and fire services all need to be better funded and have all suffered cuts since 2010, it is these foundations which need to be rebuilt first.
Addressing the real issue
The argument for the end of public sector wage cap has been focused mainly on workers deserving a raise for their public service, evidenced by the response to Grenfell Tower disaster and recent terror attacks. It is also argued that the wages are not attracting new employees and even forcing existing staff to leave the sector. While the first point is undeniably true, the second point is far more nuanced and has been hijacked to make a political point.
Recruitment has been much more difficult but arguably pay is one of the smaller contributing factors. It could be argued that working conditions rather than pay is the main point forcing people to leave the public sector. NHS staff having to manage an increasing workload with fewer beds and working longer shifts. Teachers having to work up to 60 hours per week with an ever growing workload and more responsibilities. Prison officers working amidst a crisis in funding and ballooning criminal numbers.
It is these issues that are causing morale to fall. It is having to bear the brunt of almost a decade of cuts that is forcing workers to take time off due to stress. These issues are only solved by an end to public sector cuts and an increase in funding. This would ease stress, raise morale and make working conditions better, forcing fewer workers to leave and may just make recruiting new staff that bit easier. Public sector wages can follow this but it is these basic, foundation issues that need resolving first before the cherry of higher wages should be introduced.
The NHS budget in 2010 was £111bn and it is projected to be around £125bn in 2020. On the surface this increase of almost £15bn looks impressive but accounting for inflation and the increase in those using the NHS, the health service has suffered a large real term cut in funding. It is projected that the budget will have grown by 1.1% per year in the decade since 2010, far below the average health spending increase of 4% since the NHS was established. In October last year NHS chief executive, Simon Stevens, told the Commons Health Committee that; “Given we’ve got an ageing and growing population…2018/19 will be the most pressurised year for us – where we actually will have negative per person NHS funding growth.”
Schools are under a similar amount of funding pressure as once again pupil numbers rise at a higher level than the funding does. As an example of how desperate teachers have become for resources for their school and classroom, a survey last year found that 60% of teachers spend up to and over £120 on resources during the following academic year, 30% anticipated spending more than £200. Higher wages would still leave classrooms unprepared and unhelpful to children, working conditions and morale remaining low as a result.
A recent survey by the charity Mind found that 48% of public sector workers had taken time off for their own well-being, compared to just 32% in the private sector. It also found public sector workers had higher levels of anxiety at work and a higher percentage said their mental health was poor. The effect of having a well-funded and government supported work environment would be dramatic, not only for the service these public sectors could provide but for the well-being, morale and working conditions of the staff within them.
It is time to move on from the point scoring and distracting issue of public sector pay and focus on the vital, heart of the matter which is the funding for these services in general. The NHS, schools, prisons and more are under severe pressure, if Labour wants to use their new found confidence then they should focus on the real issue affecting the health and well-being of public sector workers which is the state of their workplace.
While some may argue that the money is there for a funding increase and a wage rise, the national budget remains very tight considering the slowdown in growth, productivity and a large Brexit bill on the horizon. The country still needs to prioritise and the impact of a funding increase to the well-being and morale of staff would be greater than an extra 1 or 2% in wages, not to mention the ability to provide better services for the whole country. A wage rise would be welcome and much deserved but the greater need and the greater impact would come from better public sector funding, it’s time the debate moved on to the real issues facing the country.