The great pay review swindle

By N Bryce, WPB TU Group

“The Royal Commission was clear in setting out how an independent pay review process should function. It stated that the pay review body should ensure that pay was kept in line with ‘cost of living, the movement of earnings in other professions and the quality and quantity of recruitment in all professions.’ …”and that the formation of such a body would ‘give the profession a valuable safeguard’ as ‘their remuneration will be determined, in practice, by a group of independent persons of standing and authority not committed to the government’s point of view’.
2023 Report into the Failings of the Pay Review Process for Doctors and Dentists

PRB DOA

Pay Review Bodies (PRBs) are delivering pay awards that are dead on arrival to furious NHS workers and many of the 2.5 million public service workers they cover. According to a Unison pay bargaining report, since 2009, the average public servants’ pay has been eroded by 24%. Whilst “the average worker would have accumulated over £62,000 more had their wage kept pace with inflation…. the average public sector worker would have accumulated almost £65,000.” Public service workers have had enough. 

Towards the end of December 2022 and throughout 2023, hundreds of thousands NHS workers took industrial action across England, Wales and Northern Ireland with more strikes planned. In 2022, teachers were awarded a 5% pay rise when inflation was at 11%. In an NEU ballot in April 2023 on a 66% turnout, 98% rejected the pay offer with tens of thousands taking strike action in England and Wales.

Behind the curtain

1963 Royal Commission Report intended PRBs to be “independent” and “not committed to the government’s point of view”, however they have morphed into a delivery mechanism for governments’ successive, derisory pay awards, a toothless, unelected, secretive and unaccountable body to the workers and trade unions, upon whose pay they advise and to which the government is under no obligation to accept. In December 2022 the Guardian noted : “… Members of the pay review boards are not allowed to discuss their work and their voting records are kept under wraps. Their conclusions are agreed “collectively”, and there is little interrogation by parliament.”

There are eight PRBs presiding over approximately a £100bn worth of pay a year. They cover sectors such as the armed forces, senior public servants, NHS workers, prison service, teachers and police. Under cover of PRBs, the government has slashed public servants’ pay by a fifth to a quarter in real terms since 2009/2010, whilst engulfing the NHS in a pay and staff retention crisis.

Pull the other one

Government publicly excoriates public sector workers for taking strike action, rejecting below inflation pay awards as advised by “independent” pay bodies. In reality PRB panels are unilaterally chosen by the relevant Secretary of State, the PRB chair is picked by the Prime Minister.  Unions and workers feel the whole pay review process has been rigged against them from the start. The submissions process of trade unions’ ‘letters of evidence’ and the ministers’ ‘remit letter’ to the PRBs for their consideration has become nothing more than artifice and like Groundhog Day, workers are repeatedly given government compliant pay awards, suppressing and eroding the value of public sector workers’ pay in line with the government’s fiscal plan as a means to reduce the deficit.

Loads of money… for some

Panel members earn a cool £300 per day whilst the chair earns £350 for fifteen days work per year or more. The outgoing chair of the NHSPRB Philippa Hird, also an interim member of the Senior Salaries Review Body from November 2022 to July 2023, has a stellar CV: beginning her career in marketing with ICI; an MA in PPE from Oxford University; Group Human Resources Director of ITV Plc until 2009, led the consolidation of the regional ITV companies etc, etc. However apart from her outgoing NHSPRB role she had no experience working within the NHS.

A bit of background 

Arising out of a bitter pay dispute with doctors and dentists, the Royal Commission Report of 1963 recommendations gave rise to the first PRB. Further PRBs were rolled out to the wider NHS in the 70s, 80s. PRBs, to quote the Institute For Government: “Most – certainly the NHS ones – were born out of conflict, with the aim of preventing future conflict…” Once seen as part of the solution to public sector pay, they are now viewed as part of the problem. 

Unions’ trust in PRBs are in many cases broken. They are no longer fit for purpose as an independent pay body between public servants and government.

First in first out

The BMA has reported an erosion in pay of 34.9% in real terms for consultants since 2008/09 and a decline in junior doctors’ pay by 26% in the same period. Founded in 1963 the DDRB was the first PRB to cover pay awards for doctors and dentists. As of 2021 the BMA suspended its participation in the PRB process following a conference decision.

The GMB which is the main union representing ambulance workers, branded their PRB as ‘farcical’ and withdrew from the process in December 2022, stating in a stinging indictment: “The Pay Review Body process has failed to safeguard NHS workers from the sharpest and most enduring real-terms pay cuts in living memory, which has led to nearly half (46%) of NHS trusts setting up foodbanks for their own staff. Every PRB recommendation since 2010 has been below the RPI rate of inflation, and just one recommendation was above the CPI rate. The NHSPRB has been insufficiently independent to challenge central government pay policy, in breach of past assurances, which has contributed to current unsustainable vacancy rates across the NHS.”

F for failure

School Teachers’ Pay Review Body (STRB) was founded in 1991. Reporting on a snap poll, TES magazine, formally the Times Educational Supplement, headlined in April 2023 that, “Just 1 in 10 school leaders trust pay review body” reporting that, “Headteachers’ union says that the STRB ‘has lost the confidence of the profession…’” 

The union Community following their PRBs pay award for teachers of 3% in September 2023 believe PRBs have, “not protected teachers and school leaders from devastating pay cuts, or protected the education service from the huge recruitment and retention problems to which pay cuts have contributed…”

Teachers’ unions are preparing to give Gillian Keegan Education Minister, a big fat F for failure in this year’s 2024/25 remit letter where Keegan advises the STRB: “In 2024/25, the government is continuing to increase investment in schools, but it remains important that the STRB carefully considers the DfE’s evidence on the impact of pay rises on schools’ budgets.” Against a backdrop of an RPI of 4.4% in 2024, teachers are now bracing themselves for a September STRB pay award of 1% or 2%.

Following 14 years of real-terms pay cuts, like the NHS, schools are facing a recruitment and retention crisis. SecEd reported in January this year: “… only 50% of the secondary recruitment target has been met, with 13,102 teachers recruited against a target of 26,360.” 

Teachers’ Union NASUWT reported education spending has fallen by 10% in the last decade whilst teachers’ pay has, “been slashed by 19% since 2010.” The Union conducted a survey which found, “two-thirds of teachers are seriously considering quitting the profession – citing workload, wellbeing and pay as key reasons.”

Whilst some in the trade union movement are calling for PRBs to live up to their independent status or significantly reform, Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham has not minced her words stating: “The PRB process has become so corrupted that they are worse than useless. If they can’t be reformed to become genuinely independent of government they must be scrapped and replaced with genuine pay negotiations.”

In contrast to the rest of the UK, in Scotland the government makes its own pay offer. Directly negotiating with the unions and the NHS employers, the offer is then put to a ballot of their members. 

Whilst former trade union officials may apply to sit on PRB panels, trade unions themselves are excluded from having active representatives on these pay bodies. PRBs make pay awards not pay offers, so the affected group of workers will not be asked if they accept it or not, it is the government that makes the final decision. 

Pat Cullen RCN General Secretary, who along with Unison, are the main unions representing nurses, as reported by the Huffington Post, succinctly describes the NHSPRB as: “set up by government, paid by the government, appointed by government, and the parameters of the review are set by government.”

Disengaging from PRBs and bringing wage negotiations back to collective bargaining between government departments and unions brings with it a whole set of issues for some unions steeped in the PRB process.

The BMA announced in August 2023 that they would be coordinating strike action with consultants and junior doctors. In a situation where the house always wins, and with the odds as they currently stand, heavily stacked against public service workers, a more co-ordinated approach to strike action between health unions is needed to bring, as Andy Prendergast, GMB national secretary, described to Sky News, the “’public school boys who run the government and simply don’t care’ about their pay demands’” to the negotiating table. A seismic shift in the way pay is negotiated for our highly qualified, chronically underpaid public service workers is urgently needed. The nation’s weekly doorstep claps for our public sector workers during Covid can no longer, and will no longer, be replaced by an annual slap across the face.