Financial Reward for Government Workers and Key Workers Debate

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Department: HM Treasury

Financial Reward for Government Workers and Key Workers

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Monday 14th December 2020

(3 years, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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I remind right hon. and hon. Members that there have been some changes to the procedure in Westminster Hall, and that even if Members have attended a Westminster Hall debate before under the new rules, there have been changes to the changed rules. In order to respect social distancing, I ask Members to sit at the seats with ticks against them. There are more people on the call list than seats on the horseshoe, so I will call Members to speak only if they were here at the start of the debate. If Members who have spoken wish to leave, or move to the seats at the back, they can; that is the only way to ensure that other Members can speak, because Members are not allowed to speak from the Public Gallery.

I also ask Members to respect the one-way system by coming in through the one door, and going out through the other, and to sanitise the microphones that are in front of them.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petitions 306845 and 328754, relating to financial rewards for government workers and keyworkers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer, and an honour to lead for the Petitions Committee on this debate.

As we come to the end of any year, we all start to reflect on the events of the past 12 months, but 2020 has been such an unprecedented year for everyone. Throughout the year, the extraordinary contributions made by so many, particularly our key workers, have made our lives so much better throughout the pandemic. I put on record again my sincere thanks to all those who have worked hard and have given what was most needed, when we needed it most. Those people have been invaluable. However, it seems that despite warm words, the Government do not appreciate the work that so many have done for us. We clapped for them on our doorsteps, but it turns out that they are not worth paying properly in recognition of their dedication. As we can see from the number of signatures on these two petitions, and indeed the sheer number of petitions on this issue, there is strong feeling across the country on how we should reward people on the frontline.

During the summer, I had a phone call from my friend Mel’s brother, a local refuse collector and union rep. He wanted to tell me at first hand that his team had turned up throughout the pandemic, and continued to not miss a round. I am so proud of them, and so proud of the efforts that people have made to keep our country going. Swansea Council and local authorities across the United Kingdom can be very proud of their workforce and how they have adapted to the challenges they have faced. Although Rob Stewart, the leader of Swansea Council, is looking at different ways to reward staff, his hands are tied financially.

Former colleagues of mine in the teaching profession, in both England and Wales, who have kept schools open for key workers’ children, described to me their immense fatigue, and the pressure they are under. They are moving classrooms, carrying resources, and increasing their planning and preparation, in a job in which they feel deeply responsible for the learning and progression of our future generations. They are also on their knees. When the Welsh Labour Government tried to reward workers in care homes with a £500 bonus earlier in the year, the Chancellor of the Exchequer taxed them on it, with those claiming universal credit suffering a double whammy. These are the poorest paid people in the public sector, and they took those hits again and again—and it looks like the same will happen if the Scottish Government try to give a thank-you payment to their NHS staff.

In response to my friend the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), who I am pleased to see in this debate, the Prime Minister said that he was

“lost in admiration for the efforts of our civil servants, whether in DWP, HMRC or the Treasury. If we think about the furloughing scheme, everybody said it was impossible and far too complicated, and that we would never get that cash into people’s pockets, but they did it within four weeks. That is a fantastic tribute to the work of our civil service, and I thank them from the bottom of my heart.”—[Official Report, 11 May 2020; Vol. 676, c. 38.]

Following the Chancellor’s spending review announcement that there will be a pay freeze for all public sector workers, I suspect that civil servants will not be feeling the Prime Minister’s “admiration” so much as the “lost” bit. This further pay freeze comes after public sector workers have already been punished by a decade of pay freezes and increased workload. I know; I was one of them.

I am sure that we will hear from the Minister about the difference between public and private sector pay, but we know that once workforce characteristics such as experience and educational attainment are taken into account, there is close to 0% difference in pay. Undoubtedly, we will hear about the need for fairness for those working in the private sector, and I wholeheartedly agree that they should be treated with fairness, but this is not, and should not be, a race to the bottom. We should be bringing pay in the private sector up to a standard that makes all “work pay”, as the Conservatives are wont to say.

The Minister will probably talk about value for money for taxpayers, but guess what? Public sector workers pay their taxes, too. If the Government do not think that the work that has been done by civil servants—nurses, the police, the fire service, work coaches, Border Force, refuse collectors, workers in the justice system, our armed forces, teachers and, indeed, all those who have faced the biggest challenge and have put themselves on the frontline in fighting this pandemic—is worthy of a pay rise, they should say so. And I will wait for the Government line to be trotted out about the poorest paid being rewarded. If they were being rewarded in any meaningful way, I would welcome that announcement, but as with all these things, the devil is in the detail. A pay rise of £250 for those earning under £24,000 a year is equivalent to just £4.80 a week, and that is before tax, so in terms of take-home pay, it is about enough for some mince pies, 2 pints of milk and some teabags—what a Christmas bonus for them!

Just one look at the civil service campaign “Here For You” shows what a resilient and adaptive workforce we have in our civil servants, including the defence equipment workers who have been overseeing the staffing of the Nightingale hospitals; the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, which has worked to get other key workers their driving test quickly; and those in the Foreign Office who repatriated thousands of British citizens from abroad. We cannot forget this. I personally thank them all, especially the workers in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs who got the furlough scheme up and running, and the Department for Work and Pensions staff—friends of mine—who processed thousands of universal credit claims. Some of them are already on low wages.

Public sector workers are not asking a lot; they just want their contribution to be recognised. They were undoubtedly grateful for our applause earlier this year, but that will not put food on the table, buy new school uniforms, keep the car on the road or enable them to get to work on public transport. Claps do not pay the bills. At the end of the day, we are here to represent them, and just from looking round Westminster Hall today, people can see who really cares about this.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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I intend to start calling the Front-Bench spokespeople in approximately 40 minutes. I think I have 11 speakers, so I will start with a time limit of four minutes. If some people speak for less, that should just about do it, but if there are many interventions, I will have to reduce the time. I call John McDonnell.

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Grahame Morris Portrait Grahame Morris (Easington) (Lab)
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I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I thank my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), for opening this important debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee.

In the time I have, I will talk about two particular groups of key public sector workers: prison officers and firefighters. Both are key Government workers. Prison officers in particular deserve our praise, recognition and respect for their bravery—as, indeed, do firefighters—not only during the pandemic but year in, year out. As hon. Members may well know, prison officers are banned from taking industrial action; it is a criminal offence even to suggest that they should, for example, start working to rule. In return for the loss of that most basic human right, the independent Prison Service Pay Review Body was established in 2001 to make recommendations on pay, which the Government agreed to follow in all but the most exceptional circumstances. To encourage people to join and stay in the Prison Service, the independent Prison Service Pay Review Body recommended a significant pay rise for band 3 offices on fair and sustainable contracts, with new, modernised terms, ending the effectively two-tier workforce.

Five months ago, the Government promised to consider that recommendation and to consult the recognised trade union, the Prison Officers Association, on its implementation. However, on Thursday last, the Government rejected the recommendation, claiming it was unaffordable, without having had any discussion with the Prison Officers Association. Prison officers are understandably angry and have accused the Government of nothing less than pay betrayal. I understand that the Prison Officers Association intends to launch legal action against this decision, and I hope it will receive the full backing of all hon. Members in this place today.

The Prison Service is clearly experiencing a crisis in recruitment and retention, especially of band 3 officers, the main operational entry grade into the service. The review body calculates the cost of new recruits leaving after less than two years’ service at around £30 million per annum, a wasteful and inefficient use of public money. That is why the pay review body recommended an immediate £3,000 uplift in pensionable pay, to try to stem the rising tide of resignations. The Government claim that is unaffordable. However, no exceptional circumstances have been cited to justify their decision, as is required. The Government have earmarked around £4 billion for a new generation of private prisons yet claim to have no money to pay prison officers. This is an abuse of power and an insult to people’s intelligence.

The situation is unfair and unsustainable, and our prisons suffer as officers vote with their feet and leave the service, taking with them valuable skills, knowledge and experience at a time when we need it most. The Government must think again, treat our prison officers with the respect they deserve, get round the negotiating table with the POA, and make a fair and sustainable offer.

I also want to mention firefighters. I chaired a meeting of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group this afternoon. Firefighters had a pay freeze in 2010 and 2011, followed by a 1% public sector pay cap imposed for six years from 2012 to 2017—

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Order. I call Lilian Greenwood.

Lilian Greenwood Portrait Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on her powerful and eloquent opening speech. I am not sure that I will add anything unique to the debate, but some points bear repetition.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the people who have been delivering our public services during the coronavirus pandemic. Some of them are in public-facing roles that simply cannot be done from home, including social care workers, refuse collectors, firefighters and border control staff. They have been working hard, day in, day out. They have exposed themselves and their families to additional risks to help to keep us safe, secure and well.

Others who have been working just as hard are often invisible. They are among the unsung heroes of the crisis. I am thinking of the staff working at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to administer the job retention scheme, or those in the Department for Work and Pensions coping with a huge influx of new universal credit claims. Their work has been just as essential in helping to protect jobs and livelihoods. They were often unprepared and under-resourced to deal with that new sudden demand, but they stepped up. Of course, there are many others. Their reward for that work is to be handed a real-terms pay cut. The Chancellor might try to use softer language, with talk of a pay pause rather than a freeze, but soft language does not pay the bills. Prices are set to rise by 1.4% next year, and many people will be even more shocked when they realise that their council tax bill will go up by 5%. Thousands of public sector workers will be worse off, including every single police officer, every single teacher and 90% of armed forces personnel based in England. As many hon. Members have said, for many of those workers, that is just the latest kick in the teeth, because public sector staff have already endured a decade of cuts in the value of their wages, with many seeing their buying power cut by almost a fifth between 2010 and 2020.

Government Ministers want to pit public sector workers against private sector workers, but it is all smoke and mirrors. Private sector wage growth has fallen behind this year primarily as a result of furlough, having previously run ahead. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, once we adjust for the different profile of public sector workers in terms of experience, education and other factors, there is no difference in hourly pay rates compared with the private sector. The truth is that such divisive language helps no one. We all lose as a result of the proposals. It is noticeable that not a single Back-Bench Conservative MP has dared to turn up and defend them.

In Nottingham, 23% of all employees work in the public sector, which is significantly higher than the average for the east midlands or Britain, although of course there are parts of the country where it is far higher still. When the pay of those workers is cut, they have less to spend in local shops and with local businesses. Freezing their pay harms the local economy and risks the jobs of the private sector workers employed in those shops and businesses. At a time when our local high streets are suffering real damage and small businesses do not know whether they will survive the pandemic, this pay policy delivers a further blow to confidence and risks further weakening a weak recovery.

The Minister should think again. We need action to save jobs, rebuild businesses and get the economy back on its feet. Instead of cutting real wages, the Government should be boosting them, particularly for the lowest paid. That is the right thing to do ethically and economically.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Unusually, there have been no interventions and some Members have not turned up, so I will increase the time limit for Back-Bench speakers to five minutes.

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Sam Tarry Portrait Sam Tarry (Ilford South) (Lab)
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Will my hon. Friend give way?

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Order. If the hon. Gentleman had been here at the beginning of the debate, he would have heard me explain that hon. Members can take part only if they are present at the beginning, regardless of whether it is to make an intervention or give a speech.

Abena Oppong-Asare Portrait Abena Oppong-Asare
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Young people in my constituency of Erith and Thamesmead have been submitting portraits of key workers as part of my Christmas card competition. I asked them to write why the key worker they have drawn means so much to them, and one young person said to me:

“I have chosen to draw many different key workers…They have been pushing themselves every day so they can help us. They have put us first and we should be indebted to them.”

Does the Minister agree that we are indebted to key workers, given their hard work and sacrifice during this pandemic?

Freezing pay for public sector workers is not only insulting, but irresponsible. I am curious to know whether the Minister has given due regard to the impacts that the pay freeze will have. Has the Minister read the report by the TUC, which found that public sector pay increases could boost GDP significantly? That has been echoed by a number of Members in the debate. Does the Minister recognise that imposing a real-terms pay cut, when 1.8 million key workers already earn less than the real living wage, risks driving thousands into poverty? Can the Minister explain how she plans to tackle the shortage of over 80,000 NHS and care sector jobs at the same time as freezing public sector pay?

Over 1 million key workers face a real-terms pay cut next year. That includes 125,000 police officers, 500,000 teachers, 300,000 civil service staff and 125,000 armed forces personnel. By failing to reaffirm the Government’s manifesto commitment to ensure that teachers’ starting salaries reach £30,000 by 2022, the Chancellor has made it clear that he has no intention to back our public sector workers. Cutting universal credit, and giving the go-ahead for council tax rises in the middle of a pandemic, is pushing more people into poverty. The Government are making poor spending decisions that threaten to push our economy and public services to breaking point.

I want to conclude by quoting my hon. Friend the Member for Gower. Public sector workers are not asking for a lot. They just want their contributions to be recognised, and claps do not pay the bills.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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I ask the Minister to leave enough time at the end—we have plenty of time—for the proposer of the debate to wind up.

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Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I am not giving way. I have already said I am not; please stop asking.

As the Chancellor pointed out in his statement on the spending review, in the six months to September, private sector wages fell by nearly 1% compared with last year. Over the same period, public sector wages rose by nearly 4%. Workers in the private sector have lost jobs, been furloughed, and seen their wages cut and their hours reduced, while those in the public sector have not. [Interruption.]

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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Thank you, Mr Stringer. For that reason, the Chancellor announced a temporary pause to pay awards for some public sector workers for the year 2021-22. Disappointing though I know this will be, this approach allows us to protect public sector jobs at this time of crisis and ensure fairness between the private and public sectors. Crucially, as I have said, we are targeting our resources at those who need them most. First, taking account of the NHS Pay Review Body’s advice, we are providing a pay rise to over 1 million nurses, doctors and others working in the NHS. Secondly, we are protecting those on lower incomes. The 2.1 million public sector workers who earn below the median wage of £24,000 will be guaranteed a pay rise of at least—and I emphasise “at least”—£250.

In the spending review, we also accepted in full the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission—to increase the national living wage by 2.2% to £8.91 an hour, to extend that rate to those aged 23 and over, and to increase the national minimum wage. According to the commission, those rates will give low-paid workers a real-terms pay rise and protect their standards of living without significant risks to their job prospects. A full-time worker on the national living wage will also see their annual earnings increase by £345 next year. That is a pay rise of over £4,000 compared with 2016, the year in which the policy was first introduced. Taken together, these minimum wage increases will likely benefit around 2 million people and help make real progress towards ending low pay in the UK.

The risk with broader-brush measures, including income tax or national insurance policies—this particular point was not made today, but it is an important one to reiterate—is that it is difficult to define and limit who should benefit. The result could merely be to reward the better paid, at a time when the Government have already been forecast to be borrowing at record peacetime levels.

As a Government, we are committed to keeping taxes low in order that working people, including key workers, are able to keep more of what they earn. In April 2019, the Government increased the personal tax allowance to £12,500, meaning that the personal allowance is up by more than 90% in less than a decade, ensuring that more of the lowest earners do not pay any income tax at all. In April this year, we also increased the national insurance contributions primary threshold and lower profits limit to £9,500—a move that will benefit 31 million people. Add all that together, and changes to income tax and national insurance contributions between 2010-11 and 2020-21 mean that a typical basic rate employee in England, Wales or Northern Ireland is more than £1,600 better off a year.

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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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On a point of order, Mr Stringer. If I heard the Minister correctly, it was suggested that there were to be no job losses in the public sector, yet a number of us in the debate mentioned that there were 2,000 redundancies in HMRC. Mr Stringer, can you tell me how the record can be corrected—or has the Minister just cancelled the redundancy notices of 2,000 workers in HMRC?

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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That is not a point of order; it is a matter of fact and for debate.