“When you look at basic pay, together with progression pay, actually for around half of NHS staff they have an annual increase of, on average, 3 per cent – rather than just the 1 per cent basic pay.” – Theresa May, April 30 2017
In March, the government came under fire for offering a “derisory” 1 per cent pay rise for NHS staff. But Theresa May has now defended her record on the issue, dismissing concerns that nurses are being pushed into poverty.
Speaking on BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, the prime minister claimed that around half of NHS employees had seen their salaries increase by 3 per cent on average.
She was not technically incorrect. But was the Conservative leader misleading voters about the government’s record on NHS staff pay?
A recent report by the NHS Pay Review Body (NHSPRB) confirms May’s claim about pay increases. “Slightly more than half (54 per cent) of NHS staff in England were due to receive pay increments of around 3 to 4 per cent on average in 2016/17,” it said. “In addition to the 1 per cent pay award.”
But the devil is in the detail. Using this statistic to dismiss concerns about NHS pay throws up two main problems.
First, the prime minister’s figures rest on the inclusion of so-called “progression pay”. This doesn’t refer to any universal pay rises handed out by the government – it simply means that some individuals have secured more money.
That includes natural career progression and people moving into new jobs. Nurses can also often increase their earnings if they agree to work unsocial hours.
The NHS has fixed pay bands for each role, with most nursing jobs paying between £22,128 and £28,746. Built-in increments mean they can gradually move up the scale if they demonstrate the required skills and competencies. But if you’re already at the top of the pay band – or can’t demonstrate the required skills – your annual pay rise is frozen at 1 per cent by the government. And the data shows there are huge variations between staff.
The NHSPRB’s report points out that individual career progression is hardly surprising. “Pay tends to increase with age, experience and job tenure,” it said. Indeed, figures from the ONS last year confirm that people in their 30s and 40s enjoy far higher gross weekly earnings than those in their twenties. But that’s chiefly thanks to personal development, not government policy.
FactCheck spoke to David Ulph, an economics professor who is one of the members of the NHSPRB which produced the report. He told us that Theresa May’s argument “shouldn’t be relying on pay progression”.
He said: “If 50 per cent are getting a 3 per cent pay rise, then there’s 50 percent who are not. They’re just limited to 1 per cent through the government pay policy.
“If she’s trying to pretend that, for half the staff in the NHS, the government is being quite generous and paying them well, I don’t think that’s the case. People are getting pay increases because they’re taking on extra responsibilities, and they should be compensated for that.
But there’s an even bigger problem with May’s claim: the figures don’t take the rising cost of living into account. Without this context, the numbers are meaningless for determining whether or not NHS staff are being pushed into poverty.
There are debates about how best to measure inflation, CPI or RPI. But whichever way you look at it, NHS staff have been losing out.
The NHSPRB says nurses are among many NHS staff whose real pay has “decreased significantly”. It has fallen by around 8 per cent (using CPI) to 12 per cent (using RPI) since 2010/11. Ulph says using RPI “might be closer to the true picture”.
He told us: “RPI is running ahead of 3 per cent, so even if you were looking at those staff who are getting 3 per cent pay increases, they’re still not keeping pace with inflation. If you look at it over quite a long period of time, there’s been quite significant hits to pay in the NHS.
“You cannot argue that the 3 per cent tells you what’s been happening to people in the NHS. It’s a rather misleading way of putting it.”
Surrounding research also backs up concerns that nurses are having to tighten their belts. In 2015, a survey for the Royal College of Nursing found that around half of respondents felt financially worse off than they did five years previously.
30 per cent said they struggled to pay their gas and electricity bills, while 14 per cent said they had missed meals to save money.
The statistics Theresa May cites are technically correct: just over half of NHS staff have received pay increments of around 3-4 per cent.
But using this to defend the Conservative’s record on NHS pay is highly misleading. In a debate about whether nurses are being pushed into poverty, the numbers she used are meaningless.
Evidence suggests that nurses and other NHS staff have become financially worse off. Even if we accept May’s pay rise figures, the rise in living costs effectively wipes out out any benefits.