Last week, the Royal College of Nurses (RCN) announced further strike days, set to be their ‘biggest to date’. Nurses will be joined by ambulance drivers and paramedics, while junior doctors are currently balloting; in education, teachers and support staff in England and Wales are set to be the next group of workers to walk out after National Education Union (NEU) members voted overwhelmingly for industrial action.
Beyond the determination of workers to fight for better pay, what ties these disputes together is the role government Pay Review Bodies have played in bringing them about. In fact, it’s impossible to understand the industrial disputes raging across Britain’s public services, and why they appear so intractable, without understanding the role of the Pay Review Bodies at their heart.
2.5 million workers, roughly half of the public sector, including most NHS staff and most teachers, are covered by Pay Review Bodies. They are government bodies responsible for making pay recommendations, following a process in which evidence is submitted by the government, employers and unions. Though their decisions aren’t legally binding, there is an expectation that their recommendations will be honoured.
In theory, Pay Review Bodies allow panels of experts to consider the evidence and decide fair pay awards to the satisfaction of the government and unions, with the aim of avoiding industrial action. After workers rejected offers of below-inflation pay rises last year, it was this that the government dug its heels in over, insisting that it could not go beyond the Pay Review Bodies’ recommendations. Health Secretary Steve Barclay has insisted his door is open to unions to discuss anything but pay.
In defending their refusal to talk pay, ministers have evoked the ‘independence’ of Pay Review Bodies, which, by virtue of their expertise and political neutrality, they claim, have recommended only what is ‘fair and affordable’. The implication is that by refusing to accept the recommendations of these bodies, unions are showing themselves to be intransigent, and attached to pay demands that are unreasonable and unaffordable.
In practice, as the RCN has said of Pay Review Bodies, there is ‘nothing independent about them.’ The chairs and members of Pay Review Bodies are handpicked by the prime minister and government ministers. The terms of reference are decided by the government. And, crucially, the amount of money available for pay recommendations is decided in advance by ministers, meaning that the entire process essentially starts with the government saying what it will or will not accept.
What’s more, the government regularly sets limits on pay offers, such as imposing a public sector pay freeze. In nine of the last thirteen years, the government has limited pay awards—and in 2014, then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt rejected the NHS Pay Review Body’s recommendation outright, demonstrating that ministers are more than happy to override their supposed ‘independence’ when the objective is to keep pay low.
In the last decade, that objective has been wholly successful. The reason more and more workers are being pushed into industrial action is that ‘independent’ Pay Review Bodies have delivered years of declining real wages. The real pay of teachers and nurses, just two examples, has plummeted by a fifth in real terms since 2010; a third of teachers now struggle to afford food, and two thirds of nurses report skipping meals or using payday loans to make ends meet.
In turn, because pay growth in the public sector has fallen significantly behind that in the private sector, a staffing crisis has been created: six in ten nurses and seven in ten teachers are considering quitting, on top of those who have already left. Those who remain are beyond burnt out.
It’s because of this that in recent weeks, fourteen trade unions representing NHS workers took the unprecedented step of boycotting the NHS Pay Review Board, with British Medical Association chair Phillp Banford describing the process as ‘rigged from the start’. Some others want to do away with them altogether; Sharon Graham, the General Secretary of Unite, has called for the scrapping of the NHS Pay Review Body and a ‘new system of direct national negotiations’. The situation is similar on the railway, where the government has attempted to wash its hands of poor industrial relations by claiming it is a matter for unions and rail companies, ignoring that it is ministers who are responsible for authorising any increased pay offers.
The politicisation of Pay Review Bodies, some of which have existed since the 1960s with the support of unions, can be seen as part of the wider phenomenon of the corruption of so-called independent bodies, from the BBC to equalities regulators. Under the guise of impartiality, they have served as an instrument of Tory policy.
The real function of PRBs is to act as a buffer between public sector workers and the government, affording ministers plausible deniability for their responsibility for the poverty pay driving workers to food banks and spreading crisis through our public services, and providing cover for their refusal to negotiate.
Beyond this, Pay Review Bodies serve a wider ideological purpose: to depoliticise the issue of pay. They represent the notion that a panel of experts can deduce what a fair and reasonable wage should be. Of course, as unions know, and as increasing numbers of the workers they represent are recognising, there is no such thing as an independent and non-political decision on pay. Deciding that the pay of nurses, doctors, paramedics and other healthcare workers should fall year-on-year, seemingly in perpetuity, in an attempt to reduce public spending is an explicitly political decision.
What a worker is paid is a question of power in politics and in the workplace. The government understands this all too well, which is why it has introduced legislation to attack the right to strike to reduce the leverage trade unions have in negotiations with employers.
Pay Review Bodies are now just one example of one of the many institutions in Britain stacked against workers, and evidence that they can’t expect a fair deal from this government. The public sector workers on strike will only get what they deserve if they’re strong enough to win it.