Experts hit out at plans to publish salaries of high-paid civil servants

3 Jun 10
A government drive to make public sector salaries more transparent has come under fire from pay experts and unions
By Lucy Phillips

3 June 2010

A government drive to make public sector salaries more transparent has come under fire from pay experts and unions.

This week, a list with the name, job title, grade and salary bracket of 172 civil servants earning more than £150,000 was made public on the Cabinet Office website. In September, the same information will be published for all those earning more than £58,000.

A new public sector transparency board has also been set up, chaired by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude. Maude said transparency was ‘key’ to the government’s efficiency drive, helping to provide better value for money in public spending. ‘Openness will not be comfortable for us in government, but it will enable the public to hold our feet to the fire,’ he added.

Jonathan Baume, general secretary of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, told Public Finance that, while they accepted the publication of the top civil service salaries, there were concerns about its extension to lower levels.

‘Before this goes further, we need to have a serious discussion about what it is ministers are seeking to achieve. How do we get the balance between the public feeling confident about people’s salaries and personal right to privacy?’ he said.

He called for further details about the extension. If applied just to the civil service, it would include about 7,000 people, he claimed. But it would cover many more if spread to other areas of the public sector. 

Duncan Brown, director of HR business development at the Institute for Employment Studies, warned that publishing the salaries of lower earners might not have any value. ‘There is a question on whether disclosing a whole range of people will help transparency,’ he said. 

He added that pay transparency in the private sector had not slowed pay growth down – and in some areas had a ‘ratcheting’ effect. ‘It does not necessarily mean pay levels are going to get lower,’ he said.

Steve Tatton, head of executive compensation at Incomes Data Services, warned that pressure to keep salaries down and comparisons with much higher packages in the private sector would create public sector recruitment and retention problems in the long run, particularly in specialist roles.

‘Public sector pay often goes round in cycles where there is a clampdown – and recruitment, retention and morale problems start building up and then you get a catch up,’ he added.

Alan Downey, head of public sector at KPMG, said the move ‘will certainly make it easier to keep a lid on the top salaries’ but pay restraint would have little impact on the overall £156bn public deficit – which needed to be addressed through a ‘major’ improvement in public sector productivity. ‘This is a small step in the right direction in terms of improving transparency and control but not at the heart of what the government needs to do to tackle the deficit,’ he told Public Finance.

But Steve Bundred, chair of Monitor and former chief executive of the Audit Commission, fully backed the government’s efforts. 'For all the years I was chief executive, my salary was a matter for public record and I'm absolutely in favour of transparency. I believe transparency around the spending of public money can only be a good thing,' he said.

Meanwhile a report by IDS found that in the three months to the end of April, 35% of public sector pay awards resulted in pay freezes.  These included those covered by the senior salary review body and the NHS doctors and dentists review body.

Report author Ken Mulkearn said further pay freezes were ‘highly likely’ and the government’s latest move with senior pay helped ‘create an environment in which spending can be curtailed’.
‘The transparency is about a signal and statement of intent,’ he said, although added that he did not think pay cuts were on the cards.

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