We need to sort out public sector pay — but it’s not all about the money

The time is now to take action on public sector pay and working conditions

We are facing a crisis in public sector pay. Since 2010, the cost of living has increased by over 17%: food prices are soaring, energy bills are shooting up and our broken housing market is increasingly pricing out all but the highest earners. Despite these crippling costs, public sector pay increases have been capped at 1% over this period. In 2010, a nurse’s starting salary was £21,176, and today it stands at just £22,128 – an increase which falls far short of rising living costs. Effectively, new nurses are now earning 13% less than they would have done seven years ago. Reports of public service staff resorting to foodbanks or losing their homes demonstrate unequivocally that wages are not sufficient to provide them with the dignity of a basic standard of living.

Last month, nurses voted to strike over their pay and conditions. Last week, domestics, porters and cleaners in inner London voted to do the same. The message is clear: people feel that their working lives are spiralling out of their control.

Our vital public services are already struggling to recruit and retain staff. Almost a quarter of new teachers qualified since 2011 have left the profession, whilst more nurses and midwives are now leaving the profession than joining it.: in 2016/​17, 45% more UK registrants left the register than joined it. Unions say there is a shortage of 40,000 nurses and 3,500 midwives in England alone.

If we do not take action now, it will be too late.


But it’s not just about the money. A recent Nursing and Midwifery Council survey of over 4,500 nurses and midwives who left the register over the previous year found that, excluding retirement, the top reason for leaving was working conditions. Ill health, disillusionment with the quality of care provided to patients and poor pay and benefits all ranked in the top five reasons cited for leaving. The increasingly heavy workloads expected to be taken on by the lowest paid public sector staff are taking their toll as low pay and high stress wear away at employee wellbeing – impacting on the quality of care staff are able to provide.

If we do not take action now, it will be too late.

NEF’s research into wellbeing at work has revealed that better working conditions, including realistic job expectations, fair pay and a real sense of control, are essential for staff. Crucially, when employees are able to organise their own work and influence decisions around them, their performance substantively improves. Happier, less stressed staff are more productive.

NEF’s current work with low paid staff in an NHS hospital is demonstrating the consequences of staff having no control over their working conditions. Staff are too stressed to make the time for wellbeing sessions, and few are able to attend the events and meetups organised as so many are working two jobs to supplement their income. We have heard of impossible conditions, such as having to work without enough wheelchairs to move people between wards, and having no knowledge of who to report issues to. We have heard stories of burgeoning workloads making health workers hours late for meetings, preventing patients from being able to adhere to their scheduled medication. Staff are unable to spend time to talk to those they care for due to impossible constraints on their time.


The time is now to take action, both on public sector pay and on working conditions. Workers are already organising to take back control through strike action and there is cross-party support for lifting the pay cap.

Ending the cap doesn’t have to cost the earth. The focus should be on keeping those at the lowest ends of the pay spectrum on a decent living wage. All estimates must bear in mind that a large proportion of the cost to the taxpayer will ultimately return to the public purse in the form of taxes, or through stimulating the economy through the greater spending power afforded to lower paid workers.

But this is not just about the cap. This should also be an opportunity to address staff working conditions. Fair pay is crucial in lifting hardworking staff above the poverty line, but giving a 1.5% increase instead of a 1% increase to those in working poverty is not going to address the wider concerns of staff control and service quality. We must take action to develop a new public sector workers’ settlement – one in which jobs expectations are realistic and staff are given the tools to provide services to the best quality they possibly can.

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