UK: Public sector pay


In its June 2010 ’emergency’ budget the newly-formed Coalition Government announced a 2-year public sector pay freeze, applied to all public sector workers earning an annual salary of £21,000 or more, which it anticipated would save £3.3b by 2014-15 (Bach and Stroleny, 2013: 345). Low-paid public sector workers were exempt from the pay freeze (they received a £250 annual pay increase for both years). In making this proposal the Government engaged in no prior consultation with trade unions, representing a decline in trade union influence within the pay bargaining process (Bach and Stroleny, 2013: 350).

This pay freeze was subsequently extended to a pay cap of 1% p.a. for 2013-16 (and again, up until 2020, in the 2015 budget of the newly-elected Conservative Government).

The proposal for a public sector pay freeze in 2010 therefore sought to impose considerable pay restraint across a large section of the UK workforce. However, in removing the lowest paid from the freeze the government did attempt to mitigate the regressive effect of the proposal, and possibly sought to avoid more militant forms of opposition.

In terms of the severity of the proposal, we consider the move to be moderate, in that it was broad in scope and sought a considerable reduction in public sector wages over a lengthy period of time.

severity: moderate

Target: In terms of the targeting of the austerity measure, which was to hit public sector employees earning moderate salaries and above. Public sector employees have traditionally been subjected to considerable attacks on their pay and conditions in the UK, especially since the onset of global economic crisis in 2008. Nevertheless, the move therefore represents an attempt to reduce the degree (further still) that public sector employees benefit from ‘insider’ status. We therefore categorise the measure as ‘sectoral: public sector employees’, without commenting on whether these are an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ group (which is difficult to discern).

target: sectoral: public sector employees


Public opposition

The proposals came under considerable vocal attack from public sector workers’ trade unions – with trade union leaders portraying the move as an attack upon public sector workers and seeking to build support for trade union opposition. For instance, Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, talked of ‘the government declaring war’, describing public sector employees as ‘innocent victims of job cuts and pay freezes’, and noting that, ‘Freezing public sector pay when inflation is running at 5.1% and VAT is going up will mean a real cut in living standards for millions of ordinary workers and their families already struggling to pay rising bills.’

However, there was little in the way of an actual industrial dispute or more militant attempts to use the capacity for refusal to force the Government to change course. This largely reflected a lack of enthusiasm amongst the trade union membership to engage in industrial disputes that it was unclear could be won, due to the low level of union density and mobilisation and the acceptance within much of public opinion that a reduction in public spending was ‘necessary’ (Bach and Stroleny, 2013: 352). In addition, we might note that the exemption of low-paid public sector workers from the pay freeze (they received a £250 annual pay increase for both years) might have had the effect of mitigating opposition – especially as this had the effect of ensuring that the real pay of public sector workers fell less than for low-paid private sector employees. The government’s plans to reduce the size of the public sector workforce (1.1 million job cuts planned for the period between 2010–11 and 2018–19 – Cribb et al. 2014) might also have contributed to a sense of limited bargaining strength.

It was not until March 2013 that we saw the first pay-related major strike amongst public sector workers in the UK – with the launching of a pay dispute by PCS members in the civil service on Budget Day 2013.

public opposition (non-disruptive): limited

public opposition (disruptive – i.e. strike action): limited

Imperceptible dissent

In the absence of clear signs of public opposition by the trade union rank-and-file (vocal damning statements and ‘grandstanding’ by trade union leaders notwithstanding), we might expect more imperceptible forms of refusal to occur. Indeed, as Cribb et al. (2014) show, the pay policies of the Coalition Government have created a shift back to the level of private sector-public sector pay differentials that were witnessed in the 1990s – which at that time created significant recruitment and retention problems.

Indeed, the pay freeze and reduction in pay differentials with the private sector did appear to be feeding through into problems in terms of recruitment, retention, motivation and morale of staff. For instance, in 2013 the Civil Service Commission (CSC) warned that it was having problems recruiting into key posts because civil service pay levels were too low. Similarly, OFSTED’s 2014 Annual Report noted concern over teacher supply. The Report stated, “the problem is not one of the quality of new entrants to the profession, but of quantity and distribution. Overall, the number of entrants into teacher training has fallen by 17% since 2009/10 and was 7% below the number of places needed in 2014/15. … secondary trainees have seen the largest falls (8,000 fewer trainee teachers this year compared with 2009/10)”. This is a problem that particularly affects schools in more disadvantaged areas – but also extends across the board.  As a result, “even headteachers of good and outstanding schools find it difficult to attract a decent field of applicants for teaching posts, especially for middle management positions”. Similar findings were identified in a survey conducted by the Association of School and College Leaders, which found that  44 per cent of respondents had vacancies in English; 52 per cent in maths; and 50 per cent in science. 65% of the respondents thought recruitment was more difficult than in previous years. One assistant headteacher responded to the survey: “There is no doubt though that for us as a local authority school, recruitment, especially in the core subjects, has got harder”. 

The scale of the teacher recruitment and retention problem was such that it prompted a Parliamentary Debate in 2015, witnessing Louise Haigh MP state,

“The Government have provided figures on the failings of the Teach First programme, which have revealed that we are losing more recruits from Teach First than we are gaining every year. The Government’s management of the Teach First programme has produced very poor results. Even among Teach First ambassadors, over a third left teaching after two years and nearly half after five years. We are now losing more Teach First graduates from secondary education every year than are joining. The Government’s intention to expand recruitment makes little sense if it leads to an ever-higher turnover.”

The problem continued into 2016, with OFSTED and the Government clashing over whether a recruitment crisis was occurring or not – with the Government being accused of covering up shortages by changing targets and how numbers were recorded.

Similar problems are faced in the employment of social care workers – for instance witnessing the employers’ body (Skills for Care) drafting a recruitment and retention strategy; in which the CEO recognised that “turnover and vacancy rate are too high’, and that there was a need to design a strategy, “that will help tackle serious recruitment and retention problems that impact on all employers big or small”. Reports have also surfaced of an unusually high level of vacancies in social work posts – with over 25% vacancies for some councils found in a 2014 investigation. This was also a problem associated with high profile failures in care – for instance, in the case of the death of two-year-old Keanu Williams in 2011 in Birmingham (where a fifth of frontline social worker posts remained unfilled in 2013)

imperceptible dissent (manifested in recruitment problemes): moderate


As noted above, the main obstacles created for the government were related to recruitment problems in a context of declining relative pay levels for the public sector – i.e. a problem in terms of government institutional capacity. However, the decision not to participate as a particular employee does not necessarily constitute a strong form of resistance, and we therefore consider this to be a moderate form of non-compliance. It also brings with it, however, indirect problems in that it is associated with a reduction in the degree of institutional capacity available to the government and thereby prevents the achievement of policy objectives (governing problems, minor).

obstacles: non-compliance, indirect damage to institutional capacity


consent seeking – The Government used the language of necessity in seeking to legitimate its proposal, with Osborne claiming that, ‘The truth is that the country was living beyond its means when the recession came. And if we don’t tackle pay and pensions, more jobs will be lost. That is why the government is asking the public sector to accept a two-year pay freeze’.

An additional response focused on the positive implications of the pay policy – in particular its ability to ensure against job losses. For instance, in announcing a four year extension of the pay cap in 2015, Osborned announced in the Budget Statement that, “There is a simple trade-off between pay and jobs in many public services”.

There was no visible sign, therefore, of the government moving to adopt concessions in response to the different forms of refusal outlined above.

concessions: none


Went ahead?



Retention and recruitment problems across a range of public sector occupations (see above). These were, however, limited in scope and oftentimes denied by the government.


sum: obstacles (moderate) (1), consequences (limited) (0.5), concessions (none) – patchy (in that it prompted recruitment problems) and slightly problematic, but full adoption (1+0.5=1.5)


1 Response to UK: Public sector pay

  1. Pingback: History of the Trade Union Movement in Britain Part 6 – Building a Revolutionary Movement

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