Rishi Sunak has been accused of playing “divide and rule” after he justified freezing public sector pay by arguing that wages in the private sector had collapsed.
The chancellor told parliament on Wednesday afternoon that firefighters, teachers, police, members of the armed forces, civil servants, and council and government agency staff would have pay rises “paused” to reduce expenditure.
The shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, said the freeze would deliver a “sledgehammer” blow to consumer confidence and that the private sector would now suffer even more as demand is taken out of the economy.
Trade unions also reacted with anger at the spending review announcement. Dave Prentis, general secretary of Britain’s largest union Unison, described the move as “austerity, plain and simple”.
“Reviving the economy will take a gargantuan effort from everyone,” said Mr Prentis. “That means investing in the entire economy, not seeking to divide and rule between the sectors. Key workers mustn’t be taken for granted.”
The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union’s general secretary, Mick Cash, warned of strike action over the freeze. “It is shameful that the government is employing a policy of divide and rule of private and public key workers, all of who have risked their lives during the pandemic,” he said.
Rehana Azam, national officer of GMB, said her union would fight against the freeze. “This attempt to divide and rule will put him on a direct collision course with public service workers, and he should know that we fought the public sector pay cap before and we busted it,” she said.
The Police Federation called the pay freeze a “kick in the teeth” for officers who have been in the front line in the battle against Covid. Its national chairman, John Apter, called the move “a disgrace” that did nothing to show appreciation for workers who had kept the country going.
Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, was among the opposition MPs to criticise the move, calling it an “attack on working class people”, while her shadow cabinet colleague David Lammy called it “an insult to the hidden heroes” of the pandemic.
A pay freeze for teachers, police officers, firefighters and millions of other public sector workers.
A cut in Universal Credit next spring when unemployment will reach 2.5 million.
Let's call this Spending Review what it is: an attack on working class people.
— 🌈 Angela Rayner 🌈 (@AngelaRayner) November 25, 2020
The chancellor told the Commons that the state of public finances meant he could not “justify a significant, across-the-board” pay increase for all public sector workers.
Over a million nurses, doctors and others working in the politically sensitive NHS would get a rise, he said – but pay rises for the rest of the public sector will be “paused”.
One small exception earmarked by the chancellor are the 2.1 million workers earning below the median wage of £24,000, who will receive an increase of at least £250.
Mr Sunak claimed the latter policy of protecting people on lower wages would help to safeguard economic demand. “Anyone in the public sector earning less than the UK median salary of £24,000 will receive a pay rise of £250 or more,” he said.
“Taken with all the other things we’ve done, including giving a pay rise for those who work in the NHS, this will mean that the majority of public sector workers next year will see an increase in their pay.”
However, the Unite union described the £250 increase for the lowest paid as a “sop” and “insulting”. Assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said Mr Sunak had delivered “a body blow to the public sector workers” by imposing the wider freeze.
Labour backbencher Yvette Cooper noted that it was actually a pay cut in real terms, and said it was “shocking” that the chancellor had attempted to claim it amounted to a pay rise for the lowest paid.
Earlier at PMQs, Sir Keir Starmer accused Boris Johnson of failing to support key workers during the pandemic. “If you’ve got a hotline to ministers, you get a blank cheque, but if you’re on the front line tackling Covid, you’re picking up the bill.”