Factometer: unrated
The claim
“The reality about pay is the civil service is up to 7 per cent behind comparable jobs in the public sector and even more in the private sector.”
Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, Radio 4 Today, 5 July 2010

The background
In the age of austerity, the gloves are coming off. After weekend reports that government departments were being asked to draw up worst-case plans for 40 per cent cuts, today the government announced plans to crack down on civil servants’ redundancy packages.

This prompted outrage from the biggest civil service union, which said industrial action would be an “inevitability” if pay-offs were slashed. Some might think that smacks of 70s-style union militancy. But Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, said that civil service pay levels were lagging behind not just those of private companies, but also other state employees. So how tight are Whitehall pay cheques?

The analysis
Headline official stats do show that civil service salaries lag behind the rest of the workforce. See the graph on page 26 of this Cabinet Office presentation, which shows civil servants earning less than workers in the private or the public sector workforce. The gap has also widened over the past couple of years.

But these headline figures aren’t a particularly meaningful way to compare pay. An average figure doesn’t take into account the type of jobs people are doing. Public sector pay as a whole looks higher than private sector pay, but that’s not necessarily surprising when you take into account that the state tends to employ more highly skilled workers than the private sector (think of all those teachers, doctors and nurses).

The PCS also pointed us to some research they commissioned last year, which had a stab at comparing like and like.

This found admin officers dealing with things like tax credits, passports and people looking for work earned 21 per cent less than private workers doing comparable jobs, and 19 per cent less than other public sector workers. However, the gap was much narrower (6.5 per cent and 3.6 per cent respectively) for admin assistants doing clerical work such as processing benefit claims. For managers, it was somewhere in-between: 13 per cent less than the private and 6 per cent less than the public sector.

Those figures suggest there’s a pretty big disparity between salaries within the civil service. The PCS agrees, telling FactCheck that in the absence of a government-wide payscale, wages for the same job can vary by thousands of pounds a year depending on which department or quango the employee works for.

But salary is only one part of someone’s overall remuneration package. What about if you take pensions and other benefits into account?

Here’s where it gets even trickier. One Labour market expert FactCheck spoke to said disparities in civil service and private sector pay tended to level out over a working life, once civil service pensions, promotion prospects and job security were taken into account.

Public sector earnings in general have also held up pretty well over the past few years, while the private sector has been hit by recession-era pay cuts and freezes.

The verdict
Average figures show wages in the civil service are lower than elsewhere than in the public sector, or in the private sector. But these averages aren’t particularly helpful, as they tell us little about the skill, experience or qualifications required to do a particular job.

Research commissioned by the PCS on comparable jobs also suggests civil service wages lag behind the rest, even suggesting that the gap in some cases goes into the double digits. This doesn’t take into account other civil service benefits, such as pensions and generous redundancy terms – although if the government gets its way, these won’t be so generous in future.

There are also considerable pay variations within the different branches of the civil service. Put all this uncertainty together, and though we’re not saying Serwotka’s claim is fiction, we’re not quite rating it as fact, either. For some civil servants, the pay gap could be even bigger than he suggests.