The question of whether or not to freeze public sector pay has had a fair bit of airtime over the past few days. In his interview at the weekend, Alistair Darling seemed to take a hard-line on the issue - and most outlets wrote it up as him not ruling out a freeze. But, via today's Times, "sources close to [Darling]" say that he won't re-open wage deals to introduce a freeze. While, for his part, David Cameron is also claiming that a Tory government wouldn't order a freeze of public sector pay. The politics of the situation is plain: neither side wants to seem especially tough on public sector pay ahead of the "nice cuts vs nasty cuts" battle which lies ahead.
But, as today's FT points out, the scale of the wage bill - and the scale of the debt crisis - makes it very unlikely that the next government won't take action over public sector pay. The Audit Commission's Steve Bundred - who has done more than most to push spending cuts over the few weeks - argues that a freeze is a "pain-free" way to cut public spending, given how the public sector has thrived over the past decade. I'm sure he'll have something like the following tables in his head, which show how the public sector has outstipped the private sector on measures of both pay and personnel:
|Full-time public sector employee median weekly wage, £||Full-time private sector employee median weekly wage, £|
|Percentage change, 1997-2008||+50%
|Full-time public sector employee mean weekly wage, £||Full-time private sector employee mean weekly wage, £|
|Percentage change, 1997-2008||+56%||+54%|
|Number of full-time public sector jobs, thousands||Number of full-time private sector jobs, thousands|
|Percentage change, 1997-2008
These tables don't tell the whole story - for instance, an incoming government may find it politically easier to cut top-end public sector salaries (well chronicled by Ross Clark in the Spectator, here) - but they make a compelling enough, Budred-style case to my eyes. The question remains, though, whether the public sector will see things quite the same way...
P.S. Alex has more on the spending debate here.