Last week’s vote on public sector pay

On Saturday at my first surgery in Danesmoor, I met with a local firefighter who came to discuss last week’s vote on public sector pay. He told me he was disappointed that the Conservatives had not voted to remove the cap and we had a long discussion on the reasons for that vote and the pressures on public sector workers today. Others have also separately contacted me on this issue and I wanted to set out what happened last week in detail given the level of interest in this vote.

There are three primary reasons for my vote – (1) because of what the Queen’s Speech means for the government as a whole, (2) because a review of public sector pay is due to report in a few months’ time and (3) because of my disappointment that the Labour Party played games on this important issue.

The importance of the Queen’s Speech
I arrived in Parliament three weeks ago and I’m certainly no expert in parliamentary procedure (although I am learning fast!) but it was our view that the Queen’s Speech was not the right place to debate this important issue.

For this to make sense, I first need to set out the critical nature of the Queen’s Speech in parliamentary terms. At the beginning of every parliamentary session, the government, through this Speech, puts forward what it wants to do over the coming months – a laundry list, if you like, of proposed laws that it will bring forward to make the country better. In this Queen’s Speech, we have outlined proposals to get on with Brexit, on domestic abuse, on mental health and addressing the challenges of housing amongst other things – all hugely important laws which will make a substantial difference to the future direction of our country.

Given that the Queen’s Speech tells the country which laws will be debated in the future it is seen, in parliamentary language, as a “confidence” vote – i.e. that the government needs Parliament to vote in agreement with the Speech to prove that it will be able to get its legislative programme through in the coming months. If MPs don’t give the thumbs up to the Queen’s Speech, then effectively the government has just proven it can’t govern. And what comes after that? Another general election. Now, some of your reading this might be very keen on a new election but I must say I haven’t found many people yet who want one in North East Derbyshire! Instead, most people want us to get on with solving the problems that our country faces.

It was therefore of the utmost importance last week that the Queen’s Speech passed. The Labour Party obviously, as is their right, would quite like the government to fail and for a new election to be called and so they therefore proposed a series of amendments, including one on public sector pay. On surface, this sounds very reasonable and which many people, all other things equal, could support. Yet what these amendments were in fact designed to do, underneath, was something completely different to the words in them. These amendments were an attempt to force another general election. I do not think that the country wants another election and that is therefore why I voted against the amendments.

A public sector pay review is underway
The second reason I voted against the amendment was a matter of timing. Separately to all this political ding-dong there is already a process underway at the moment to review public sector pay through a series of independent experts and bodies. This happens every year and these reviews usually report in the Summer and then the government decides whether to accept or reject the proposals. Usually, as part of the budget process, the government announces how public sector pay will change. This allows independent advice to be taken on public sector pay – people who have properly looked into it and can therefore give an expert opinion on what needs to be done, factoring in everyone’s views.

Rather than voting for a hastily put down amendment in the middle of these independent reviews, I believe we should let the reviews conclude before the government then decides what action to take on public sector pay, and the cap, in a few months’ time. Otherwise, we should ask ourselves: what is the point of the independent panels who are reviewing pay in the first place? We should instead let them make pay recommendations and then a decision can be come to on this.

The Labour Party is playing games on the issue
Thirdly, I voted against the amendment because it was very clear that a game was being played by the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn has been an MP for almost as long as I have been alive – so he knows how the place works and the tricks of parliamentary procedure to try to embarrass his opponents and make political capital out of issues.

Labour knew that the Queen’s Speech needed to be passed un-amended in order to avoid a confidence issue which could have resulted in another general election.

They knew that there was already a review on public sector pay already underway.

They knew that they if they worded an amendment in such a way like this one that they grab lots of headlines and do the usual “all-Tories-are-terrible” mantra which they think wins them votes.

They knew all of this and yet they still did it.

Of course, politics is politics and Labour are perfectly entitled to engage in this kind of game playing if they want (and, as an aside, no party is wholly perfect on this). But, at the same time, it’s important that we call out the vote on Wednesday for what it was – an attempt to grab headlines, not a serious attempt to legislate. It is for voters to decide whether this kind of playing to the gallery is really a programme for good government or not. I do not think it is.

My own view on public sector pay
So, after all that technical and dry explanation, what are my actual views on public sector pay?

I understand the real difficulties that the cap is causing for those who have been affected by it in the last few years. I understand the challenges of rising prices and wages not going up by as much as would be liked. The truth is that all Conservatives, including myself, would like to increase the pay of those working hard in our public services day after day. Some of my new Conservative colleagues used to be teachers, nurses and doctors too. One of my colleagues who has just joined Parliament with me was a firefighter for twenty-five years. We therefore all know how important the issue of this cap is.

The challenge we have as a party of government is that we have to weigh up the desire to increase public sector pay with the health of the nation’s finances and the need to do all we can to keep taxes as low as possible. I know lots of people are probably sick of hearing about the deficit but that was the reason why the cap was in place and although lots of progress has been made on reducing it there is still a lot of work to be done to get rid of it altogether (and that’s before we even start on trying to reduce the debt we have built up as a nation).

This year, our country is expected to over-spend (again) by around £50 billion pounds. In one way that’s much better than in 2010 when it was more than triple that amount – but it is still a huge amount that we are adding on to the nation’s credit card every year which our children and grandchildren will have to pay off. One of the reasons I went into politics – and one of the things you are going to hear me banging on about for as long as I am North East Derbyshire’s MP – is to ensure that we were not the first generation to hand our country over in a worse state than we found it. That means making difficult decisions on the public finances, for the health of our country. If we do not take these steps now, then whoever the MP for North East Derbyshire is in 40 or 50 years time won’t be talking about public sector pay caps, they’ll be talking about the hospitals that can’t be built or the teachers that can’t be employed or the social care that can’t be provided because the country is spending an ever-increasing proportion of the taxes it raises on servicing debts which we incurred a generation before and which our kids are left to pay for.

So, ultimately the question is one of balance. I do think we should review public sector pay this year, particularly as inflation starts to creep up. I think it will be a finely-balanced decision in the end but it’s important we listen to the real concerns of people on this.

For those of you who have read down this far, I’m sure some of you will still be unconvinced by my position. Some of you will probably never believe what a Conservative MP says. Others will bring up things we are doing with other parts of the budget or other spending commitments made as evidence that money can always be found. Ultimately, it is all a balance and there are no easy answers. Yet, one thing I can say is this: whatever the answer is on public sector pay, it isn’t going to be found in a political stunt like the one we saw on Wednesday. Instead, it’s going to be part of a longer, more deliberative and considered process like the one we have committed to and which we can discuss more in the coming weeks and months.

Ultimately, I know this is a long and complicated explanation and one that can’t be easily boiled down into a tweet or a pithy soundbite. Sometimes that is what government is about and is something which I will try to explain to constituents who raise this with me in the coming weeks and months. I’m very grateful to the firefighter for coming to see me and I hope this (long) explanation goes some way to understand what happened on Wednesday.

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Welcome to my new blog.  This is the place where I’ll be writing in more detail about issues of importance to both North East Derbyshire and the country as a whole, particularly those that need a longer discussion and more thinking than can fit elsewhere.  Please feel free to email me at anytime to discuss any of the posts at lee.rowley.mp@parliament.uk.