Friday, 14 September 2012

Public Sector - Cash cow for those who won't get proper jobs?

I received an e-mail this week that talked about pay restraint in the public sector. The terminology was hilarious because, with inflation the way it is and despite increases in tax allowances, public sector workers are having their pay cut. A 0% rise when (as of July) CPI stands at 2.6% and RPI is at 3.2% cannot be described as anything but a public sector pay cut.

The premise for cutting public sector pay is, on the face of it, deficit reduction. We as a nation have to live within our means after all, and freezing pay limits the number of jobs being cut. It has also been suggested that public sector pay is higher than that of the private sector, so freezing pay can address that balance too. Furthermore, it is the private sector that funds the public sector through taxation, so restraint is fair to the private sector (again taken from the email I received). So what'd the problem, you might wonder. The problem is that this argument ignores certain facts.

Firstly, this argument ignores the reasons why pay is higher in the public sector. The public sector, according to the ONS, is made up of a higher proportion of higher skilled (and so higher paid) jobs than the private sector. Public sector workers also tend to be more experienced and older, meaning their pay has risen historically. If you have a degree or are in senior position, however, you can expect to be paid less in the public sector. Public sector pay restraint isn't therefore addressing an imbalance, it is actually creating one. I wonder if it will also effect gender pay balances, as women tend to be paid more in the public sector as a higher proportion fulfil skilled roles.

The second problem is that public sector workers don't simply exist because of the largess of the private sector. The public sector exists to support society. It isn't a cash cow for those who don't want to work in the private sector. Without a public sector we would have to personally fund everything from policing our streets to healing our sick. These kinds of jobs are high stress and high risk in some cases. The people that do them choose to help others. These are the last people you'd want to be worrying about low wages when they should be doing their jobs. If they were in a private sector system they'd probably be paid quite a bit more, but their services wouldn't be anywhere near as universal as they are now. I also wonder is they'd be vilified quite so much in the media by politicians.

The final problem is the structure of the public sector. I once read a report that said that, as a percentage, the number of managers in the NHS had gone up faster than the number of doctors and nurses under New Labour. I also know for a fact that 45% of the income at some FE providers is top-sliced to pay for non-teaching staff. When only just over half of your public funds are being used to do the job on the front line, you know there's a problem. The reason for this seems to me to be the endless targets and bureaucracy that Government has been obsessed with over the past 15 years. When I was teaching, between 2008 and 2012, you spent nearly as much time explaining yourself to managers and recording evidence in triplicate for OFSTED, funding bodies and exam boards as you did planning the lessons you were ostensibly there to teach. This represented a massive waste of public funds in my view.

So, is there a point to all this? I guess the point is this. If we have to contract the public sector to cut the deficit then let's not couch it in deceit and misuse of language. Public sector pay is being cut, not restrained. Working in the public sector is going to mean worse pay than working in the private sector as a result. Jobs that involve caring for, nurturing and protecting the public will not pay well in the future. We might be able to keep pay levels a little higher for front line staff in the public sector if we are willing to cut bureaucracy and sack more back room staff like managers. Either way, if you have a degree, you're going to be even better off in the private sector than you are now.

When a senior politician can say that out loud we'll have made some progress as far as I'm concerned.

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