[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of proposed strike action in response to public sector pay announcements.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. We are deep in a cost of living emergency 12 years in the making, which is about to be made even worse by this Tory Government. I sought this debate because of the perilous situation resulting from the cost of living crisis. Poverty is already increasing, and current and future decisions by the Government will make it even worse. The number of trade unionists in public sector work being balloted for industrial action over pay now exceeds 1 million. That is because the Tories are holding down their pay and driving industrial action, and would rather suppress industrial action than end the conflicts through a fair pay award.
I want to make three fundamental points. First, public sector pay has been eroded in real terms for 12 years through this Conservative Government’s austerity measures, which have destroyed morale and damaged recruitment and retention. Secondly, the proposed public sector pay settlement in this cost of living crisis is the worst so far and will reduce living standards significantly. Inflation is at over 10%, and the cost of energy, food and fuel is higher. Reports in today’s The Times and The Daily Telegraph suggest that a real pay settlement will be even worse next year and will anger public servants more—rightly so. Finally, there is an alternative to more austerity and the suppression of industrial action, which is to fund a fair, inflation-proofed pay rise through a fairer taxation system.
This summer has been described as the summer of solidarity. There has been major strike action in the postal and telecoms sectors and on the railways, with a great degree of public support despite the impact. We are now seeing a huge escalation of that, with widespread balloting for industrial action in response to meagre public sector pay offers across universities, Departments, hospitals, schools and fire stations.
Last week, 60,000 University and College Union members in higher education met the Trade Union Act 2016 threshold and confirmed that they were ready to defend their pay. Some 150,000 Public and Commercial Services Union members will conclude their ballot at the end of this week. In health, the Royal College of Nursing is now at the end of a historic first UK ballot of 300,000 nurses, and we have seen the start of pay ballots of another 400,000-plus members of Unison, GMB and Unite, which all conclude at the end of this month.
My hon. Friend is making such a powerful speech. Does she agree that, regardless of whether they are railway workers, health workers, BT and Openreach workers, education workers, teachers or support assistants, it is our fight? It is about a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work: genuinely levelling up.
Such a low pay offer will inevitably lead to disillusion. We are already seeing the detrimental impact of low pay on the NHS workforce. Essential public sector services will struggle to recruit and retain staff, and workers will be drawn to the private sector in the hope of higher wages. Does the hon. Lady agree that Ministers must urgently undertake a full impact assessment before finalising any decisions on a full pay offer?
I thank the hon. Lady, and I will come to that later.
Let me return to my speech. In education there is an unprecedented situation: two major education unions, the National Education Union and NASUWT, voting together alongside the National Association of Head Teachers. In the fire service, over 30,000 members of the Fire Brigades Union are doing the same.
Why is that? The latest statistics show average regular pay growth of 6.2% for the private sector and 2.2% for the public sector—both below inflation, but one much further below it than the other. We are now talking about a potential 1.5 million public sector workers being balloted on the Tories’ low pay agenda.
I apologise: I will not be able to stay for the entire debate as I have another commitment in the House. My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for why, in all justice, public sector workers should not be the the most penalised, and they will obviously agree with her. Another consequence is that, as the TUC recently highlighted, there will be labour shortages in vast parts of the public sector, as workers decide they can get more pay in the private sector. Who can blame them? However, in terms of public policy, that will be a real problem.
Yes, and we all welcome the TUC coming to Parliament tomorrow for the day of action.
Early in the new year, there could be significant co-ordinated strike action, and the TUC is planning for such action. It is absolutely right to do so, because the Government are creating public sector poverty to balance their own books. We must understand why people are being forced to strike. Because of the burden of low pay in the context of the worst cost of living crisis in living memory, trade unionists in the public sector have no option but to consider industrial action. They are being forced to take action to survive. The Tories’ plan to suppress industrial action does not ease the financial burden on households.
I will briefly go through my three key points. First, the background to the current situation is the erosion of public sector pay over 12 years. When David Cameron came to power in 2010, his first speech in Downing Street referred to “difficult decisions”, and we heard the Prime Minister use the same line last week. The TUC has called the 10 subsequent years a “decade of lost pay”. Nurses and paramedics will see their pay shrink by £1,100 and £1,500 respectively this year.
It is worth reflecting on the human cost for workers on the ground, because behind all the figures are real people. One PCS member has said:
“To try and survive the cost of living crisis, I keep my lights off at home, live the vast majority of time in just one room and don’t use my central heating. I’ve already taken every conceivable cost-cutting measure I can.”
It is absolutely appalling that, in this day and age, somebody is forced to do that through no fault of their own. It is a damning indictment of the impact of 12 years of austerity that imposed pay freezes on our hard-working public sector staff. Those who sacrificed so much during the covid pandemic to keep our sectors running have been left badly exposed in the cost of living emergency.
Secondly, in this year’s pay review body consultations, unions were unequivocal in demanding an inflation-proof pay rise and stating that the Government’s offer was a significant real-terms pay cut for key workers. On teachers’ pay, the NEU was clear that Government evidence to the pay review body failed to explore the impact of pay cuts on
“teacher recruitment, retention and morale”.
On NHS pay, the RCN said that the pay announcement
“makes it harder, not easier, for them to cope with the rising cost of living.”
Unison’s Christina McAnea said:
“If there is to be a dispute in the NHS, ministers will have no one to blame but themselves.”
In a violation of the pay review body process, the civil service did not consult unions until it met the PCS union a few days before publication. The union said:
“this process was farcical and could not under any circumstances be considered a serious consultation.”
There are lots of questions to be answered.
Finally, local government workers have lost an average of 27.5% from the value of their pay when measured against the retail price index. It is unsurprising, then, that 78% of councils experience recruitment and retention difficulties. I am really pleased that we are joined today by Unison members from Barnet, who have been striking for 12 continuous days in support of a colleague regarding non-payment of sick pay. I know other Members will speak more about that in their contributions. I welcome the Unison members and thank them for joining us today.
I want to address the situation in Wales. Trade unions are balloting for strike action in Wales against the pay awards set by the Welsh pay review bodies, who have offered the same as in England. The offers are insufficient—just as much a pay cut—and need to be revised upwards. There is one significant difference: in Wales we are completely reliant on a funding settlement from the Treasury. When Conservative Ministers inflict pay cuts here, they offer little or no space for Wales to do differently.
I will quote our First Minister, Mark Drakeford, who said at the Labour party conference:
“As a point of principle I absolutely believe public sector workers should be fairly rewarded and that they shouldn’t see take-home pay eroded by inflation…they should at least match inflation.”
Rebecca Evans, the Finance Minister, said:
“we absolutely need the UK Government to undertake to provide a decent pay uplift.”
That fair funding demand has been echoed in my constituency. I undertook a cost of living survey and I delivered a petition to Parliament a couple of weeks ago for fair funding and an inflation-proofed income.
My third and final point is that there is absolutely no justification for public sector pay cuts when an inflation-proofed rise is affordable. When the human cost of more cuts is so great, we must surely explore alternatives to further cuts. If we are to give workers the inflation-proofed pay rise that they deserve and need, we have to fund a pay settlement that can match the 10.1%. That is not an unreasonable expectation. People are saying they do not wish to be poorer this year because they are key workers. We have to identify what that would cost.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies green budget from earlier this month, which the Library directed me to, makes it clear that departmental budgets were predicated on pay awards in the region of 3%. That is far below the current rate of inflation and below the pay awards of roughly 5% announced over the summer. The IFS estimates that offering an inflation-matching pay award to all public sector employees would add more like £17.8 billion. I am under no illusions—that is a significant amount of money—but we are talking about livelihoods, people’s lives, households and families, and the difference between existing and living. We therefore have to look at new ways of raising revenue to pay for it.
I thank my hon. Friend for this critical debate; I notice there are more civil servants in attendance than there are Government Members, which is shameful.
I want to pick up on the human cost that my hon. Friend mentioned. In 2011, on my first day in the job as a young parliamentary candidate, I stood on a picket line with Unison members in the mental health services. They were not just striking for pay, but because they were warning the public about the cuts coming to mental health. We have now had a decade of failure. I look now at GMB ambulance workers who have said that a third of the deaths that they see are because of delays caused by bottlenecks in the NHS—caused by the cuts. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that we cannot let the Government blame strikers, public servants or even climate activists for the deaths that occur because of what they are doing on their watch?
I thank my hon. Friend for that powerful comment. I fully agree.
How will we pay for pay awards? The time has come for the Government to seriously look at establishing the infrastructure and valuation systems to levy taxation on wealth. There has been increasing interest in wealth taxation in recent months and years. The Wealth Tax Commission has given a rigorous academic base to understand how we could levy either a one-off or annual wealth tax. Tax Justice UK argued last week that the Government could raise up to £37 billion a year through a number of taxes on wealth, including equalising capital gains with income tax rates to raise £14 billion a year.
The Institute for Public Policy Research and Common Wealth think-tanks’ latest research on taxing share buyback profit transfers found we could raise £11 billion. The Wealth Tax Commission simulator suggests that around £18 billion could be raised through an annual wealth tax of 2% on wealth over £5 million. It is clear that the resources are there; the Government must examine and use them.
To conclude, this pay settlement is an attack on living standards, on top of a decade-long attack on people. There is an alternative that means we have to look at new revenue streams that tax wealth to increase public key worker pay. If the Government do not act to ensure a proper settlement on public sector pay and a progressive, fair taxation system to pay for it, living standards and livelihoods are going to get worse for the people that we all represent.
We have arrived at this crisis, and are experiencing it acutely and in an unequal way, due to policy choices—choices driven by political decisions and priorities. Society cannot thrive if we do not get our priorities right. My priority is the living standards of my constituents in Cynon Valley and every single person throughout the United Kingdom. I will continue to support all actions to make that happen, and stand shoulder to shoulder proudly with workers. Diolch yn fawr.
Thank you, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) on securing the debate. I want to talk specifically about the industrial action taking place in north-west London.
Industrial action across the country is about weekly and daily pay. In my constituency and elsewhere, there are real issues in north-west London around the payment of sick pay. I also welcome the Barnet Unison members to the Gallery today. They are now on their 11th day of all-out strike action. This is the only dispute of all-out action that Unison has endorsed and supported in the union’s recent history. The workers—the Unison members—are employed by Barnet Homes group, an organisation completely owned and managed by Barnet Council. By the way, it is managed by a CEO on an annual wage of £202,000, with bonuses on top.
The dispute is about a low-paid worker who was injured at work, but Barnet Homes refused to pay the first week of sick pay. That was an outrage. People were furious about the treatment of this worker, so his colleagues decided to seek negotiations to respond, to see whether they could get an appropriate response from the management. Management refused and made offers that were completely unacceptable, some of them nonsensical. The workers consulted, discussed, balloted and came out for industrial action, not just for one day but for all-out action.
Hon. Members here who have been on industrial action will know the consequences of that for individual incomes, particularly for low-paid workers. It is an act of courage. I want to pay tribute to the Unison members here today for the courage they have shown in taking action to protect a vulnerable colleague.
I will say this: the message from here today and across the House is that the council and Barnet Homes need to get back round the negotiating table, with a serious settlement to this dispute. I also want to say to Barnet Homes, “Start respecting your workers. Start respecting what they do.” I express my solidarity with the Unison strikers today. If this debate does nothing else, I hope it shames Barnet Homes and the council, if necessary, into settling this dispute.
The disputes taking place at the moment are about not just pay on a daily basis, but terms and conditions of employment, and issues such as the payment of sick pay. So many working people are on the edge, hit by 10% inflation—or 14%, on foodstuffs. In our area of north-west London, house prices and rents are unaffordable for ordinary working people on an average wage. On that basis, I place my solidarity—the solidarity of the whole Chamber, I hope—on the record in support of the Barnet strikers.
It is a pleasure to follow on from the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). I congratulate the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) on securing the debate and bringing this issue to the Chamber. I should also declare my membership of Unite.
In having this debate, we need to think about how we ended up in this mess. When the Minister gets to her feet later and talks about the difficult choices the Government must make, she must do so reflecting on the fact that they have been in power for 12 years. They have been in control of the economy, and the economic chaos that has been unleashed in the UK recently is a result of the Thatcherite economic experiment undertaken by the former Prime Minister and Chancellor. Working people will now have to pay as a result of the botched mini-Budget, which had to be abandoned, with a new fiscal statement coming on 17 November. As we watch the new Chancellor of the Exchequer start to unpick the mini-Budget, it still astonishes me that, through all the turmoil, one thing that has still not been unpicked is the lifting of the cap on bankers’ bonuses. The idea that the Minister will stand up in this Chamber at quarter to 4 and say, “We need to make difficult choices but, by the way, bankers can continue to have excessive bonuses to encourage them to incentivise risk,” should give the Government food for thought.
When approaching this debate, we should always remember that the right to withdraw labour is a fundamental human right, and it is enshrined in section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996—it appears that plenty of Conservative Back Benchers are exercising their right to withdraw their labour by not turning up to this debate, and we extend our solidarity to them in that regard. With this Government, we are beginning to see—we will see this with the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill—that there will be a continued attack on working people and trade unions. This will not necessarily be popular with Labour colleagues here, but the challenge for the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) is not to play these games with the Government, no to get as close as possible to them and not to go for that middle-ground vote. He should be brave, stand up for workers and not just try to be a pale imitation of the Tories. We know that the Government are determined to attack workers’ rights. We heard only recently that the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has talked about ways in which the Government can try to water down rights for those on maternity allowance.
The situation on industrial action in Scotland—this is not to say that we do not have our own problems with industrial action—is that over 70% of Unite’s members voted in a consultative ballot to accept the revised offer made by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. The revised offer will fully consolidate £2,000 for those earning up to £20,500; it is the equivalent of an increase of about 10% to 11% for the lowest paid. It is estimated that the revised offer resulted in a £600 million package being brought forward by COSLA and the SNP Scottish Government.
However, there is an uncomfortable reality for someone such as myself and for my party. Given the fixed fiscal framework—the hon. Member for Cynon Valley talked about some of this in a Welsh context—yes, we have limited tax-varying powers in Scotland, and there is a much broader debate to be had about that. However, the reality is that we cannot have Scandinavian public services with Singapore tax rates, and that is something that people in all parts of the UK will have to confront. The Government cannot talk about their desire to level up while simultaneously saying they want to slash tax for people, and that includes things such as a race to the bottom on corporation tax. Yes, there are challenges, and unfortunately the Scottish Government, as a result of rightly pushing ahead with that increased pay offer, will now have a challenge trying to find savings elsewhere. I happen to have a solution to that: Scotland should take all its own economic decisions, rather than having Tory Ministers in London make those decisions for us, but that is a point for another day.
I will finish by mentioning the comments from the general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, Roz Foyer, who recently spoke at the SNP conference. She said that the Scottish TUC has robust discussions with the Scottish Government, but that one of the biggest differences is that the Scottish Government will actually listen and work with it, unlike the Government in Westminster, who introduce appalling bits of legislation, such as the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill. When that Bill comes before the House, it can be assured of SNP opposition, and I hope it can also be assured of opposition from Labour and from many people in this Chamber who want to stand up for working people.
It is always a delight to see you in the Chair, Sir Edward.
I should declare that I am a member of the GMB. When I was a priest in the Church of England, no union would take us, because if we did go on strike, it would not be very obvious what had not happened. MSF took us on for a while, and then we became members of Unite, but when Burberry was trying to close its factory in Treorchy, Rhondda, a few years ago, I worked so closely with the GMB that I thought it was right to join. I am a very proud member.
I start with the principle that it is a fundamental human right for people to be able to withdraw their labour, and any attempt to undermine that right is a contradiction of all our human rights. There may be many different reasons why someone needs to withdraw their labour, but it is worth reminding people that no trade unionist, trade union leader or member of a trade union ever takes the decision to go on strike lightly, for the very simple reason that, apart from anything else, it costs them and their family money—goodness gracious, the miners of the Rhondda knew that in spades back in the 1980s. Individual members of trade unions are proud of the work they do, so they do not want to not be in work—they want to be in work.
Many of the people we are talking about have been described as “key workers”. That phrase came into existence during the covid pandemic, when people suddenly discovered that bus drivers, train drivers, bus conductors and people who work in supermarkets or for a local council—many of whom suffered more than anybody during covid, because they were at daily risk—are all key workers because the whole of the rest of the economy simply cannot function without them. Those people know that they are essential to society, and they do not want to let down their customers, clients, passengers and patients or the people with whom they work. They are proud of their work, and they want to be in work, so it takes a lot to get a trade union or an individual member to vote for strike action.
My constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter)—not “Sinon Valley”, as Tony Blair always used to call it—is absolutely right about the cost of living crisis. Energy costs in our constituencies are often even higher because many homes are difficult to insulate and to keep warm and dry, as they are basically made out of stone and rubble. If someone is on very low wages, seeing their energy costs double in a year makes a dramatic difference, whatever the Government may have done this year, and people are anxious about what will happen after April. Inflation for the poorest is even higher than the 10.1% that has been mentioned, not least because poorer people spend more of their money on the essentials in life—food, energy and housing costs—and the cost of cheaper brands has risen the most. The cost of things that fill kids’ bellies more readily, such as pasta, have risen by 45%, 47% or 48%, while bread has gone up by 34%, so inflation is even worse for the poorest.
My constituency may be different from other poorer constituencies, because more than 70% of people in the Rhondda own their homes. Many have small mortgages, but some have substantial ones. They may not have taken a long fixed-rate mortgage, because they were not sure how things would work out and did not want to be in a difficult situation in five years’ time. If someone sees their monthly rate going from £300 to £500, they will be thinking about losing their home. The problems that many pensioners are having are intensified by the fact that, if they had a small pension pot of, say, £35,000 in July, it may now be worth only £25,000 after the mini-Budget, so the annuity they might get if they retire now will be lower.
Then, on top of all that, there is wage suppression, which we have seen for 12 years for nearly every key worker. Apart from anything else, that has been counterproductive. One reason we are not getting people back into work is that there is an enormous backlog in the NHS. I am not making a partisan point here, because we have the same problem in Wales—there is an NHS backlog across the whole UK. If wages are suppressed in the NHS, fewer and fewer people will choose to work in it, more and more people will retire, and more and more people will leave it entirely, which will exacerbate the problem.
I completely support the CWU’s strike at the Royal Mail. It seems utterly preposterous to make such a small offer to the workers when significant amounts have been awarded to senior managers and shareholders. That is completely wrong. In my patch, people are worried about Royal Mail deliveries, but I am not blaming the staff; I am blaming the managers, because quite often they simply have not employed enough people to get the work done. I should add that I also support the CWU in its dispute with Openreach, which suffers from exactly the same problems as the Royal Mail.
My final points are about the Government’s role. First, it is to ensure that the laws in this land are fair to the employer and the employee. I do not think we have laws that are fair to the employee at the moment—I think the law is unbalanced. The former Prime Minister—the one we have just lost—would not have been able to become Prime Minister if the rules that presently exist for a strike ballot had been exercised for her. That is an utter hypocrisy in the Government’s line.
Secondly, where the Government have a direct, indirect or even just tangential interest or role in a dispute, they should do everything in their power to keep both sides at the table. In my experience, trade union members and trade union officials are the best deal makers in the land. The Government should learn from them and not the other way round.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I, too, congratulate my good and hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) on securing this important and timely debate.
It is only right and proper that I refer to my entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a proud trade unionist. I am a member of Unite and chair of the Unite parliamentary group, I am co-chair of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group and I am a member of several other trade union groups, including the justice unions, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, the Public and Commercial Services Union and the Bakers Food & Allied Workers Union.
I have discovered that the UK has the most restrictive trade union laws in the developed world. Indeed, the Conservative Government’s pernicious Trade Union Act 2016 introduced very onerous, rigorous ballot thresholds. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) pointed out, few if any right hon. or hon. Members here today would have been elected if those same conditions had been applied to our parliamentary elections. However, trade unions are meeting those thresholds, with unions reporting record turnouts and record “yes” votes.
In the limited time I have, I want to illustrate the situation facing trade union members in just a few of the public sector unions. After 12 years of Conservative cuts, pay freezes, and attacks on pensions and terms and conditions, workers have been left with no choice. The civil service has rarely faced such a huge number of challenges in such a short period. Indeed, the PCS has launched a national ballot for industrial action, which I think closed yesterday, because its members face an unprecedented cost of living crisis. The Government plan to cut 91,000 civil service jobs; in response the PCS is calling for an end to those cuts, a 10% pay rise, a living wage of at least £15 an hour and an immediate 2% cut in contributions that PCS members have overpaid to pensions since 2018. That seems completely reasonable.
If we look at the railways, far from rewarding rail workers for their Trojan efforts during the pandemic, the Government have exploited the economic disruption that it caused and the restructuring that has been brought about on the privatised railways. Workers employed by Network Rail have been told that there will be an open-ended pay freeze from 2021. RMT members in most train operating companies received no pay rise in 2020, and from January 2021 the Government informed them that there was no budget to increase wages. Cleaners are in an even worse position, along with outsourced staff, who have been pushed to the brink of poverty. The RMT has calculated that rail cleaners on the national minimum wage have seen their annual earnings fall by £844 in real terms in the last year, even allowing for the April uplift.
Prison officers, who do an incredibly difficult job, often in hostile environments, are not allowed to take industrial action. It is important to welcome the fact that, after two years, the Government have finally accepted —the Minister is nodding because she was the Minister who did this—the recommendation of a £3,000 pay rise to staff on a fair and sustainable contract. However, that is not enough to make up for 21 years of cuts, as evidenced by the proliferation of food banks in prisons and the number of prison officers leaving the service.
A similar situation is reported by the National Association of Probation Officers. The Fire Brigades Union is in a similar predicament—staff were initially offered 2%, which has been upped to 5%, but with the caveat that the Government will not fund the additional 3%. The industrial action that we have seen across the public sector is a consequence of failed Government policy.
I must stress the vital importance of protecting the fundamental right to withdraw labour. The Government are threatening to introduce legislation to further undermine basic employment law. The right to strike must be protected at all costs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) on securing this important debate. She is a powerful advocate for her Welsh constituents.
It is important that we recognise that the below-inflation pay rises announced by the Government over the summer, which have prompted a series of strike ballots, have come on top of a brutal decade of pay cuts for key workers in the public sector. Under successive Conservative Governments, nurses, teachers, refuse workers and millions of other public servants have seen their living standards decimated.
Research by the Trades Union Congress released in August 2022 showed that one in five key worker households has children living in poverty and that the number of children growing up in poverty in key worker households has increased by 65,000 over the past two years, to nearly 1 million this year. How can that be right? What a shameful indictment of any Government.
Despite now facing the biggest squeeze on household finances since comparable records began, the Government continue to knowingly drive families, children, pensioners and the most vulnerable in our society into desperate poverty, with real-terms cuts in social security payments made earlier this year. Austerity is and always has been a political choice. The challenges we now face do not come out of the blue. There is a reason why a key component of Labour’s 2019 manifesto was its green new deal, driven by public ownership of the energy sector, and making sure that taxpayers got real value for money.
It is important to be clear that any failure to deliver pay awards in line with inflation means that this Government are choosing—deliberately and knowingly—to allow key workers in the public sectors to face even more hardship, after a brutal decade of pay freezes and cuts. Not only that, but given that our public services are already at breaking point, it would be an act of national vandalism to slash vital services to fund tax cuts for the super-rich.
Since being elected to this House, I have listened to tributes to the tireless work of our public sector workers, who go above and beyond the call of duty. However, they need more than warm words; they need action, so there is extra poignancy to this debate. It is particularly important to have in the forefront of our minds the enormous contributions that workers have made during the pandemic, despite the failures at all levels that contributed to thousands of staff dying all across various workforces.
If there is large-scale public sector strike action in the months ahead, the Government have only themselves to blame. They have chosen to hold down public servants’ pay while giving bankers unlimited bonuses. They have chosen to foster inequality and injustice while serving the super-rich. Public sector pay restraint disproportionately affects women and ethnic minority communities, so I ask the Minister whether a detailed and comprehensive equalities impact assessment of the Government’s plan is available.
I will always stand in solidarity with the trade union movement in Parliament and on the picket lines. It is amazing to see courageous Barnet Unison members in the Public Gallery. I will always oppose the Government’s cynical attacks on working people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) for securing this very timely debate. Like others, I am fully supportive of the strike action, and I think the Government’s proposed actions, especially the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, are entirely unacceptable and counterproductive.
As others have said, no one chooses to go on strike. The tales of strikes on a whim and fancy, whether in the motor industry in the midlands or the shipyards on the Clyde in the 1970s, are simply apocryphal. It is even harder to go on strike now, and the consequences are probably greater, given the cost of living crisis. People do not choose to go on strike on a whim and fancy. The loss of income is significant, and they worry about the danger and damage they do to those in whose interests they serve. There is also the practical fact that returning to work is difficult because they have to catch up on work that has piled up.
I accept that it is difficult for a Government to deal with public sector strikes. They are often responsible and answerable for agencies without having direct control over various departments—I have been there myself—but, as others have said, the right to strike is fundamental.
In a democracy, people cannot simply have the dubious privilege of being able to vote once every four or five years—although that will become even harder if they have to produce identification, which many do not have. They must also have control over the terms and conditions of their work and over their life. That is why the ability to withhold rent is significant, and why those on direct benefits often face difficulties in dealing with landlords. The right to strike is fundamental. It is not simply about pay; it is also about terms and conditions of employment.
Not everybody in our democracy has the right to strike. As a former Justice Secretary, I recall that the police do not have the right to strike. Nobody challenges that, but we probably have to go further to ensure that things such as the Police Negotiating Board are able to enforce positions on the Government and other agencies. There has to be a quid pro quo for the right to strike being taken away.
The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) referred to the POA, which is unable to go on strike. In Scotland, it does have the right to strike; I was offered that dubious denial in Scotland by Jack Straw, but I declined it, and I have to say that the POA has always retained that trust. It came out on strike during my period of office, but it gave us notice. It was out for a limited period, and it conducted itself in a dignified manner, for which I am extremely grateful.
The attempt to withhold the ability for people to come out on strike is fundamentally wrong. The Bill being introduced by the Government also strikes at the heart of devolution. In Scotland, we have CalMac, which is basically the Government carrier, and ScotRail, which is provided and owned by the Scottish Government, yet the powers are being taken here by a Transport Secretary and a Government that are not representative of Scotland.
I have been critical of the Scottish Government on ScotRail, and especially on CalMac Ferries, but at the end of the day the solution is to democratise them so that we get a people’s CalMac that represents not just the Government but those who are served by it and the communities, and so that those who work in it are provided for. What we should not be doing is taking away the right to strike. That fundamentally undermines the position of the Scottish Government and it should not be taking place. It should be possible to replicate the relationship that I built up with the POA between the Scottish Government and the RMT. I think they are in a better place than they are south of the border. The solution is always, and must always be, dialogue and discussion, not an attempt to dragoon people back into work and to take steps to undermine that fundamental democratic right. That is the wrong direction. At the present moment, my sympathies and support go to those on strike, because they need it in this cost of living crisis.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Edward. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and to my membership of Unite and the GMB.
The right to join a trade union is a basic democratic right, as is someone’s right to withdraw their labour. Trade unions play an invaluable role in ensuring justice is served, defending workplace rights, pay, and terms and conditions for their members. Far too many people experience insecurity, uncertainty and exploitation at work. In-work poverty is on the rise, and years of wage restraint have created the circumstances that we now find ourselves in, where the ever growing gap between wages and the cost of living has become a chasm. The result is that millions of people are now actively considering taking part in the act of last resort: industrial action. What is the Government’s response? To spout anti-trade union rhetoric, to denounce those wishing to take up their rights to withdraw their labour and to introduce yet more anti-trade union laws, which will do nothing to address the underlying issues that those taking action face.
Already this year, we have seen agency worker regulations as the latest attempt to undermine those taking industrial action. So far, it looks like they have not worked, because we know that agency staff are unlikely to choose a role that requires them to cross a picket line against one that does not. We know that inserting third-party agency workers into a dispute is likely to inflame tensions and elongate strikes in the impacted sector. We know that it places agencies supplying those workers in an invidious position, risking their business reputation and financial situation. We also know that many roles that may be on strike require technical skills or training and training agency workers to do those jobs is expensive and time-consuming. Allowing agency workers in during a strike will shift a negative focus on to those workers and it will not address the underlying issues.
It is little wonder, given those factors, that on the face of it the regulations have done nothing to reduce industrial action. They create a nice headline for the Tory supporters in the media and provide useful soundbites for the next set of leadership candidates, but achieve nothing useful. Yet the Government want to go further. It has been suggested that tailored minimum thresholds, including staffing levels, will be determined in each industry in an attempt to delegitimise industrial action and effectively remove the right to strike. That is as impractical as it is immoral. For example, how can a railway be run safely on a skeleton staff? Twenty per cent of signal boxes cannot be operated, and it is far from clear what the consequences will be if unions do not comply with agreements on that. Will their action become unlawful? What is the minimum service? Is it different in different sectors? Who decides? Where is the liability if workers refuse to comply? Are we looking, with these proposals, at fundamentally changing the nature of the employment relationship so that a third party, the trade union, can compel an individual to attend work? So many questions, so little connection with reality.
Then there are the double standards we have seen in recent times, whereby the last Prime Minister but one was elected by an electronic ballot, but trade unions, despite there being a review five years ago, are still not allowed to use electronic voting for industrial action. Such embarrassing double standards cannot be defended.
There are, as we know, about 6.5 million trade union members in the UK. Every one of us present today will have constituents who are members of trade unions—ordinary men and women who want to organise themselves collectively to strive for better working conditions. We should be supporting them and not attempting to thwart them in their efforts to improve those working conditions. A happy workforce is a productive workforce. It is good for employers and it is good for the economy. We should therefore be saddened to hear that research by the TUC has found that one in three workers do not feel comfortable approaching their managers about a problem at work. More than a third of workers do not feel they or their colleagues are treated fairly, and half of all workers say their line manager did not explain their rights at work properly. Trying to attack trade unions and limit the right to strike will address none of those underlying issues.
It is time the Government ditched their ridiculous, outdated and prejudiced view that trade unions are the enemy within. It is time the Government respected the views and rights of those who choose to take strike action. It is time the Government addressed the chronic underfunding of public services, which has led us to the current situation.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Edward. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) on securing this important debate.
We are seeing an assault on living standards, and their biggest decline in the 70 years since records began. From energy costs to food, and from mortgages to rents, everything is going up—everything except pay. In fact, over the past year, wages have fallen dramatically by almost 3% in real terms. That does not happen in a vacuum, of course; it comes after a decade of austerity slashing public services and the tightest squeeze on wages in 200 years.
Average wages are still below 2008 levels and falling. We are now likely to have had two decades of lost wage growth. One jaw-dropping statistic is that average wages would now be around £10,000 higher if they had carried on rising at pre-financial crisis levels. It is no wonder, then, that workers have had enough. Things have been bad so far but, with real-terms pay set to plummet over coming years, they will get whole lot worse.
That is the context in which so many workers are balloting for strike action and saying, “Enough is enough.” Before I was elected to Parliament, I was a trade union lawyer in Leeds for 10 years, so I know from experience that it is complete rubbish when the right-wing Tories and newspapers say that workers go on strike at the drop of a hat. Workers go on strike as a last resort, when they feel that they have no other option, especially when their pay and terms and conditions are being attacked, and they feel that they are being disrespected by their bosses and by the Government. As we have heard, the term “key workers” quite rightly became popular during the worst of the pandemic, but that term is used less and less by Ministers these days, and we should reflect upon the reasons why.
Inflation of 10% means a real-terms pay cut of 8% for nurses, teachers and many others. Pay cuts will be justified by talk of a need to cut back our services to fill spending holes. We will hear the language of “tough choices” and “difficult decisions”, but any time I hear those phrases being used by Conservative Ministers, I know that the easy choice—sticking the boot into those who can least afford to take it—is on the way. Those real-terms pay cuts, piled on top of a decade of lost pay, mean that we need to consider alternatives. What is the alternative to cuts? What is the alternative to tax hikes on the many? I would argue that there are alternatives.
We do not need cuts or tax hikes on ordinary people. We could tax the very richest instead. Why not end non-domiciled status, which would raise £3 billion? Why not have an annual 1% tax on wealth above £5 million, which would raise £10 billion? Why not have a 45p income tax rate on earnings above £80,000 and a 50p tax rate on earnings above £125,000, which would raise £6 billion? Why not equalise dividend and capital gains tax with income tax rates, which would raise £21 billion? Those four measures would raise a total of £40 billion, which is the so-called gap that needs filling according to Treasury briefings.
Pay cuts are a political choice and the Tories are choosing to push people into poverty. They plan to make working people pay for the cost of the pandemic, just as they made working people pay—through austerity —for the bankers’ crisis. At a time of pay cuts for the many, the wealthy few are having a bonanza. Britain’s billionaires have increased their wealth by £55 billion in the last year alone, City bankers’ bonuses are up 28%, and the average pay of bosses at Britain’s 100 top firms is now £3.6 million a year. It does not have to be this way; there is a better way forward. Let us support our trade unions and working. We call upon the Government to choose the real alternative that is necessary: wealth taxes, rather than further cuts to people’s pay in real terms, and further cuts to our vital public services.
Let me add to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon). Why not make people like me pay national insurance contributions once we have passed the statutory age for retirement? Why not lift the cap on national insurance contributions, which would raise real money for our national health service? That would be a credible way forward. I hope that the Minister has listened intently. It is perhaps unfair that she is nearly on her own, apart from the hon. Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew).
It is true that the internationally recognised right to strike is circumscribed quite badly in this country. However, the real question that Conservative Ministers should address is this: why are so many people, across so many occupations, so angry that they are prepared to take industrial action? We have seen it with Royal Mail, Openreach, the Fire Brigades Union and PCS, and I could go on.
I want to concentrate on a couple of issues. In the end, when people take the opportunity to go on strike, it points to a fundamental malaise in the workplace. They have very few alternatives. One is to look for work elsewhere. That is a real issue when there are around 132,000 vacancies in our national health service, and when a third of teachers are leaving teaching after five years, when they have seen their salaries go down by around 20% since austerity began in 2010. The issue of retention should worry the Government just as much as the summer of solidarity and the woeful winter that we are heading into.
The Government have to get real about this situation. Looking at the national health service, it has been said so many times that it is almost tedious to repeat that we applauded health workers during the pandemic, but now we are saying to health workers across the piece that we do not value their work. It is astonishing that the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives are balloting for industrial action. It is almost beyond belief, and certainly beyond any kind of precedent. The Government should worry about that, because they have broken something that was precious: the commitment of people to their workplace and to those whom they serve, because they now have to look at defending their own families.
It is not that midwives and nurses do not want to be there for the people whom they serve. I have had great experiences with the national health service; I know the dedication that people are prepared to give on a daily basis. We have to ask: what has gone so badly wrong that the Government have forced people into this situation? It is similar with teaching. Healthcare and teaching are two professions that are so fundamental to the quality of our way of life. We can talk about the private sector generating resources, but when someone is ill, they want a nurse, and a child wants a teacher. Those things are so important.
Now that we are in this crisis, the Government have got to look in the mirror and ask themselves what has gone wrong. Of course we can find alternative sources of funding, and we must, because that is the political choice. My challenge to the Minister is not to condemn strikers; I will support those who feel they have to take industrial action. I want them not to strike, but that depends on the Government coming forward and agreeing to make the political choice to not go back into austerity for those people in the public sector. They need to make the political choice to reward them in a way that is adequate. The Minister on her own today may not be able to give us an answer, but I urge her to go back and tell the Prime Minister and the Chancellor that this is what we demand.
You are very kind, Sir Edward; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) for securing this important debate.
Another winter of discontent looms over hard-working public sector workers. We are talking about loyal, hard-working workers who put society above their own needs to see us through the worst of the pandemic. They are dedicated, industrious workers whose pay has declined in real terms, whose benefits have been eroded, whose hours have increased and whose food and energy bills have become unaffordable while they suffer in-work poverty.
Public sector workers are in two or sometimes three jobs, relying on food banks with their heating off. These people are down, yes, but not out. Workers are organising up and down the country. They are balloting and co-ordinating mass strikes to make this Government listen. It is a shame that hospitals in Leicestershire, including the general hospital in my own constituency of Leicester East, have opened food banks to feed dedicated NHS staff. Nurses’ pay is no longer enough to pay for food. They carried us through the pandemic and, in response, this Government sent them to food banks.
Covid-19 proved that the Government can act when they announced billions of pounds of new spending to fight coronavirus, support businesses and protect livelihoods during the crisis. The Bank of England created £200 billion of new money via quantitative easing to buy Government and corporate bonds. It then designed a new covid corporate financing facility to lend directly to big business and started funding the Treasury directly via the ways and means facility, which, in essence, is the Government’s overdraft at the Bank. The Government can spend without borrowing from private markets.
A month ago, the bankers’ Budget presented by the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), caused a financial market crisis that led the Bank of England to bail out the Government to the tune of £65 billion. Any excuse that the Government might use for not raising the pay of public sector workers, who need it the most, has been well and truly shattered. When the Government set a Budget, it does not function like a household budget. The Government cannot run out of money, but they seem reluctant to use it—or refuse to do so—for public sector workers. In-work poverty, like austerity and the cost of living crisis that is heaping misery on families, is a political choice made here. Where have the hundreds of billions of pounds of fresh cash created by the Bank of England gone? They have gone into the pockets of the rich. Total wealth in the UK, skewed heavily at the top, is now an earth-shattering £15 trillion—five times our GDP. The wealth of those in the top 20% has doubled from £5 trillion in 2008 to nearly £10 trillion in 2020.
As we have heard, there are myriad options available to raise funds from the wealthiest. Wealth taxes, taxes on trades in financial markets, inheritance and unearned income taxes are just a few of the ways we could raise billions from wealth. We could fund public sector pay by redistributing the idle wealth from that £15 trillion. We must fund the NHS and bring our essential services back under public ownership. That is how we reduce inequality and how we should go about levelling up, if we really mean to do it.
When public sector workers call for wages to be increased in real terms and the Government respond by saying that they need to balance the budget, they are, to be frank, being disingenuous. The ideology of the free market and of deregulation results in profits and power for the few and misery for the masses. Industrial action is completely justified, and it will always remain a human right to withdraw one’s labour—
I will wind up now. That is despite the Government wanting a return to feudal Britain. Austerity, which has been debunked by many progressive scholars as economically illiterate, needlessly pushed working people into another level of destitution, and contributed to more than 140,000 deaths in the UK. Put simply, whether it is austerity or the cost of living crisis, crisis after crisis has made the UK worker pay with their lives while inequality widens and the wealth trickles up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I thank everyone who has contributed to this debate. Like others, I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, particularly the fact that I chair the PCS parliamentary group and am a member of Glasgow City Unison. I wish my Unison comrades from Barnet all the best, and I am sure that my successor as treasurer of Glasgow City Unison will make a substantial contribution to them.
I will make a few points about why I think it is important that Members of Parliament provide solidarity and support to those taking industrial action, whether they be members of the Communication Workers Union or the RMT or local government workers in Scotland. If our constituents decide to withdraw their labour, that gives us, their elected representatives, an opportunity to meet them and to find out how they feel both about the dispute and about other more general issues. This is about showing that support and listening and engaging.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), I want to voice my solidarity and support for the Government Back Benchers who have taken industrial action by not turning up today. There is a serious point to that. If any public sector workers watching this debate are represented by a Conservative politician—which only adds to the trials and tribulations of life—they will be asking, “Where were they to represent me and speak about my issues?” It is a real shame that there are no Government Back Benchers present.
I will refer in my speech to the excellent PCS briefing and TUC research. First, it has to be acknowledged that wage restraint in the public sector has been a complete and utter failure. It is not wages that have driven inflation—it is prices, particularly energy prices. There is a lack of regulation in the energy market and a real feeling out there that the energy regulators act on behalf of energy companies, not consumers. The Government’s position seems to be, “Well, we clapped the nurses on a Thursday night, but we aren’t going to pay them.” Imagine if the public took that view on energy companies and told them, “Every Thursday night we are going to clap you, but we aren’t going to pay you.” Perhaps they would start to listen then.
The cost of food is also an issue. The PCS briefing gives a litany of evidence of workers in UK Government Departments utilising food banks to help them get through life—including those who work for the Department for Work and Pensions. People who work in the Department that is the so-called safety net for the general public are having to use food banks and other affordable food projects and food aid programmes in order to get by. What is the cost of the benefit payments being made to those working in Government Departments? At one time, 40% of DWP workers were getting tax credits. Could the Minister write to us with the percentage of workers in each Government Department who are being paid benefits by the state to top up their wages?
That is the political choice, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East and others have pointed out. Giving bankers unlimited bonuses while at the same time holding down public servants’ pay is completely the wrong priority, particular for those public sector workers who kept the economic wheels turning during the pandemic. It is an absolutely ludicrous sense of political priorities. It is a disgrace that the UK Government’s response to industrial action is to try to roll back workers’ protections, and to threaten the right to strike.
We have the most aggressive anti-trade union laws in the world and, ludicrously, trade unions are prohibited from being able to ask for their members’ opinion either online or in the workplace. Is it not ironic that it is the Conservative party, which had workplace balloting in here to decide its leader, that decided not to allow trade unions to ballot online to take industrial action? Before anybody says that such action has economic consequences, I say that the leader of the Conservative party certainly had economic consequences and caused more damage than trade unions have for many years.
As the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) pointed out, the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill will impact the settlements with the devolved nations. It suggests that the Secretary of State for Transport will be able to tell the Transport Minister in Scotland what the minimum service levels will be. That is not the Secretary of State’s job. Quite frankly, it is a disgrace.
It has been a long debate, and I have limited time, but I want to touch on the clear economic case for giving public sector workers the money that they deserve. Some 70p in every £1 of public money, whether from grants, public sector contracts or, yes, public sector wages, ends up in the private sector economy. Public sector workers spend their wages; they do not put them in a shoebox and hide them under the bed. They spend that money in the private sector. That is why urgent action is needed to end in-work poverty. In the UK, we see an explosion of affordable food projects to help people get by week to week. That should not be taking place.
I hope that the Government talk about their dialogue and discussion strategy. Trade unions have driven social and political change across these islands. Trade unions exist because the chances of bosses being visited by three ghosts at night are unreasonably slim. That is why the trade union movement—I am a proud trade unionist—seek changes in this country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) on securing such an important debate. It is wonderful to see that so many people, at least on this side of the House, have attended.
It would be helpful if the Minister, whom I welcome to her new position, would answer three questions that were raised in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) talked about the fundamental right to withdraw one’s labour. It would be helpful to hear that the Government absolutely support that right, and to establish that that remains Government policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) asked why the Minister thinks there are so many people in our country who are considering going on strike, which is, as we have heard, an absolute last resort for people. Why does she think we are in that position?
My hon. Friends the Members for Easington (Grahame Morris) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) referred to reports that the Government are looking to restrict the right to strike in certain circumstances. It would be reassuring for hon. Members to hear from the Minister that that is no longer the case. There have been some reports that those plans have been dumped, but some that they have not. Will the Minister tell us?
Many people have raised the dire situation that we find ourselves in after a disastrous mini-Budget and a disastrous 12 years of low wage growth and low economic growth. Communities are fragile, people are fearful, and public services are very vulnerable. As pay stagnates and inflation rises, more and more trade unions are having to come to the difficult decision to ballot on pay deals. The Times reports today that the Treasury is looking at pay rises of 2% across the board. Will the Minister comment on the accuracy of those reports, and on whether the Treasury is considering such a significant real-terms pay cut?
We have talked about public sector workers’ conditions and pay, which are now forcing them out of their jobs. Forgive me for raising this issue, but I was in my constituency this morning. We are supposed to have eight speech and language therapists in Croydon, but we have only two. They cannot recruit to that role, because people find it too hard to do that job on the pay levels they are offered. Labour wants to see a Britain that is fairer, greener and more dynamic, with strong public services that provide security and opportunity. One thing we know for certain is that what does not grow the economy is the fantasy of trickle-down economics. Building the strength of our people is the way to build our economy.
Frances O’Grady at the TUC said recently that the biggest act of solidarity that the Labour party can do for working people is to deliver a Labour Government, and I agree. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said some most peculiar things about my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). It might be helpful to reassure him of the policies that we would introduce in government. We believe in decent pay and conditions, and the new deal of the deputy leader of the Labour party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), will be written into law within the first 100 days of a new Labour Government.
We are here to debate what public sector workers need in terms of pay, not to make slightly cheap points.
Within the first 100 days of a Labour Government, we will outlaw fire and rehire; ban zero-hours contracts; secure rights at work from day one; reform statutory sick pay; reform and strengthen paternity and maternity rights; oversee the roll-out of fair pay agreements to drive up pay and conditions for workers; and introduce an economic policy that will deliver high skilled, well-paid jobs, such as those with Great British energy, which will be a publicly owned energy company to invest in clean UK power.
In this economic climate, and after a decade of stagnating pay, it is understandable that our trade unions have come to the point where they have to strike and ballot their workers. Nobody wants to see a strike. Let us be clear: nobody wants people to be forced into that situation. It is a failure of management and Government that these strikes are now proposed. It is up to the Government to get around the table and avert any strikes.
If they play politics, people will remember. In the case of National Rail, the then Transport Secretary, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), refused, for no good reason, to meet the trade unions to try to secure a deal. I have met my constituency members of the CWU. The Government could intervene in the Royal Mail dispute, because the issues are not just about pay—they are about all of the conditions that go with that work, as well as the universal service obligation. The Government could help in that sector, but they choose not to. We will update trade union legislation to make it fit for a modern economy, and empower working people collectively to secure fair pay, terms and conditions.
I would, if I had time, talk about my brief. The police do not have the right to strike, but they have turned away from the Police Remuneration Review Body because they felt that the process has been so unfair. I do not have time to talk about our fire service, with which I also work. I met the Cornwall branch of the Fire Brigades Union yesterday. The Government have failed to introduce the emergency services network, which has been promised for years and the overspend amounts to millions of pounds. That means that cuts are being sought simply to fund this Government’s mistakes.
In conclusion, I want to leave the Minister with some more questions. I have asked a few already, but it would be helpful to hear her say that she will not use these situations to provoke rather than to solve. It is the Government’s role to get in the mix with these problems and to try to solve them, not to stoke division. We have seen a lot of that from this Government, and it is not helpful. It would also be helpful to hear whether the Minister is committed not just to protecting public sector pay, but to doing all she can to enhance it, so that people can deliver the services they love so much, and on pay that means they can afford to feed their families.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) on securing the debate. I will try to do her the courtesy of sitting down a couple of minutes before the end of the debate so that she can sum up.
I thank all Members for their contributions. I agree with every single contribution that has emphasised how important and valued our public sector workers, such as nurses, police officers, prison officers and teachers, are to our country. They are a source of great pride to us all, as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) so eloquently said. I also agree that they deserve to be paid fairly, especially at a time when the cost of living has been rising. We understand the importance of recruiting and retaining the very best people in our public services, but we have to take care to ensure that we are responsible with the finite resource of taxpayers’ money—our money, which we and tens of millions of other people throughout the country pay—and consider the consequences of decisions that are taken in Whitehall.
In his statement in Downing Street, the Prime Minister was clear that economic stability and confidence are at the heart of this Government’s agenda. That is why he is so focused on tackling inflation. We have already heard about the difficult impact that inflation has had on day-to-day essentials, such as the cost of food, heating our homes and getting to and from school and work. They have all become more expensive, which means our wages and our salaries do not go as far as they used to. Sadly, wage inflation, particularly in the tight labour market that we have here in the United Kingdom—by the way, we should be proud that we have such a high employment rate—adds to the cycle of rising prices. That is the conundrum that we face.
On help with the cost of living, I must emphasise, not least because our constituents are listening, that a great deal of help has already been announced, including the energy price guarantee and the energy bill relief scheme. Our most vulnerable households will receive £1,200 of support this year through those measures, the council tax rebate and a one-off payment of £650 in cash for those on means-tested benefits. There are also other measures, but I am conscious of the time and I want to get to the meat of the topic.
In his speech, the hon. Gentleman spoke about the rising cost of food. The pressures of international events, such as the war in Ukraine and its impact on grain supplies, which we know about from the coverage on our televisions, and on pesticides and agricultural tools, including those that farmers in my constituency need to help to feed our country, all play a part in that. The help we have provided, including the measures regarding wages, which I hope to get to in a moment, is vital and we need to keep the situation under constant review.
The hon. Member for Cynon Valley raised many questions about tax. I reassure her that the top 5% of earners are projected to pay half of all income tax in the next financial year. Income tax provides the largest form of income that the Government have. The top 1% of earners are projected to pay more than 28% of that amount, which is right because those with the broadest shoulders should bear the most.
I will make a little progress, if I may.
Pay settlements need to be affordable for our economy and avoid driving the wage-price spiral I have referred to. We know that parts of the private sector are unable to match current rates of consumer price inflation, so there would be an impact if we went down that route with the public sector. We have to protect the economy over the long term by not leaving the next generation—our children and grandchildren—with spiralling debt. We are a country that funds our promises and pays our debt.
I am going to make some progress. I will allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene in a moment.
Members will know that there are different processes for different parts of the public sector. Indeed, the devolved Administrations play a vital role in relation to some of the critical professions that we have just spoken about. In Wales, decisions on pay for teachers, doctors, nurses and other NHS staff are made by the Welsh Government, so I trust that the hon. Member for Cynon Valley will have discussions with the Welsh Administration in relation to those sectors.
In Scotland, decisions on teachers, police, prison officers, local government workers and workers for the devolved Administration are not made by the UK Government. Although health is devolved to Scotland, doctors, dentists and NHS “Agenda for Change” staff are nonetheless covered by the pay review bodies that report in England, which I will deal with in a moment.
We keep all taxes under review. The hon. Gentleman will know that there is a statement coming in two weeks’ time. I am not going to comment on any decisions in relation to taxes, as it would be improper to do so, but I hope that he and the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) will speak to their SNP counterparts in their own Administration to ensure that they do as they have encouraged in this debate in relation to matters that are devolved.
I am going to move on to the independent pay review bodies, because they play a really important role for some sectors and the pay that they receive.
Pay for many local government workers is agreed between the Local Government Association and trade unions, without direct involvement from the Treasury. Departments determine pay awards for many civil servants within the parameters set by the Government, but pay for most frontline public sector workforces, including nurses, teachers, police officers and armed forces, is set through the relevant independent pay review body. It will take evidence from the Government but also, importantly, from trade unions and wider independent research.
When I was prisons Minister, I had a gruelling session in which I was cross-examined by the prisons pay review body. I was delighted to accept the overwhelming majority of its recommendations when they came forth, with the only exception being the recommendation about the most senior prison officers, working on the principle that those with the broadest shoulders will be able to play their part in this endeavour.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), working conditions for the public sector must focus on pay but also, importantly, on how people feel treated and how they feel in their workplace. That was something I tried to engender as prisons Minister, and I hope we will be able to build a real narrative about how our people are valued.
I am conscious of the time, so I shall address one or two of the pay increases that the independent pay review bodies have been able to deal with. Nurses at all NHS pay bands will receive at least a £1,400 increase, and all teachers will receive a minimum 5% increase to their pay, which will help early-career teachers to reach the Government’s commitment on starting salaries of £30,000. There are many other statistics that I could mention.
My final point is that we are disappointed that some public sector unions are considering strike action over pay. We want unions to engage not just with the Government, but with the pay review bodies and the devolved Administrations, in the processes that will run this year. We all know about—indeed, Members have been good enough to talk about it—the impact that strikes have on hard-working families, but I very much hope that we all understand just how vital these workers are. I will finish there to give the hon. Member for Cynon Valley time to sum up.
I thank all Members for their contributions. As others have said, it is woefully inadequate that nobody from the Government Back Benches is present.
In summing up, there are three key points for me. First, it is time for the Government to listen. Given the Minister’s comments just now, I really despair, because it seems she is not listening to the reality for so many people in this country—