Truss trips up over pay policy, but keep your eyes peeled…

U-Turn by Adam Moss Creative Commons

“Let me be clear.” It’s the politician’s go-to phrase when they’re in a tight spot and an indicator that a swerve, obfuscation or outright lie is incoming.  And there we were again, as our Liz was being clear about her mess of a policy around regional pay. Truss is a serial offender at being “absolutely clear” when in fact she’s doing the very opposite of addressing the issue or question at hand.

So let me be clear. This was a back-of-a-postage-stamp policy that should never have got out of the traps but is typical of the announcement arms race that characterises this Tory leadership contest. In their haste to throw out another tasty morsel of policy red meat to feed the pack of Tory members, both Truss and Sunak are coming unstuck.

Truss has now been clear that regional wage setting will not be pursued, but the policy does bear some scrutiny nonetheless as the sheer idiocy of it is worth exposing.

£8.8bn sounds like an impressive saving. What a big number! It would of course only buy you 20 per cent of the duff ‘Track and Trace’ system, but the real cracker is that the total annual civil service wage bill has been widely quoted as being £9bn, suggesting that the saving is being somewhat exaggerated or, as many feared, would have to take in wider public service jobs such as teachers and police in order to cut anything like this sum from the bill.

So are we levelling up, down or just not bothering? The flagship Tory policy of 2019 has suffered from a total lack of definition, but cutting peoples’ wages because of where they live does not feel like a good fit. It was not going to fly well, particularly when most regular people are terrified by the rising cost of living and the unions are calling strikes because pay rises are once again well below inflation.

The Civil Service is not all Sir Humphreys dining in fancy Westminster restaurants. It’s tough jobs like prison and probation officers; it’s roles monitoring our environment and marine stocks; it’s making sure the computer systems function that run vital information infrastructure.

Despite Truss boasting her Northern credentials, this policy has the whiff of considering the UK to be split into two bits: London and the South East where the people are wealthy and the houses expensive, and T’NorthTM (starting at the south end of the Midlands) where people are poor and houses cheap. Well, hello from the South West! Where do we fit in? Our wages are below average but our house prices certainly aren’t cheap. HMRC data shows  our area consistently pays less than the national average and the South West is only pulled up towards the £2000 mark by the inclusion of Bristol, Bath, Wiltshire and Gloucester.

UK Median monthly payDorset and SomersetCornwall and Isles of ScillyDevonPlymouthTorbaySouth West

In the meantime, the cost and limited availability of housing in our region is well documented and house prices in the South West increased by 14.1 per cent in the last 12 months, higher than any other region. 

Defenders of Truss’s dumped policy argued that if public sector jobs are too well paid it prevents innovative private businesses recruiting, but this seems to fly in the face of the high-skilled, high-wage economy we’re being promised. It also overlooks the South West’s vital but currently understaffed tourism sector. Short of inventing a robot chambermaid and manufacturing them in Torbay, it’s tricky see the potential for innovative business there.

The big problem with public sector jobs is their decent conditions: a better than average pension scheme, access to learning and development opportunities, above-statutory holiday allowances. The latter was specifically targeted by Truss’s policy and public service has long been a target for the Tax Payers’ Alliance and fellow Tufton St residents.

Keep your eyes peeled for the return of this policy. This time it was spewed out early and undeveloped. It’s caused Truss’s campaign some embarrassment, but this wolf will be back after some workshopping and probably in some well-tailored sheep’s clothing. Let me be clear about that.