One of the drivers of the huge number of strikes the UK is currently in the midst of is that many employers are not offering annual pay rises that allow for a wage it’s possible to live a decent life on, let alone keep up spending parity with last year. Pay is not the only reason for the strikes by a long stretch, but it is a key one for many strikes.

One argument the government often respond to the public service sector strikers' pay demands with is “Hey, we don’t set the wages, we just do what the independent Pay Review boards tell us to do. Blame them!”.

The role of Pay Review Boards is to give advice to the government on pay for certain public sector workers. They cover about 45% of all public sector staff. The boards include:

  • Armed forces’ pay review body (AFPRB) 
  • National Crime Agency remuneration review body (NCARRB)
  • NHS pay review body (NHSPRB)
  • Police remuneration review body (PRRB) 
  • Prison service pay review body (PSPRB)
  • Review body on doctors’ and dentists’ remuneration (DDRB)
  • Review body on senior salaries (SSRB)
  • School teachers’ review body (STRB) 

One immediate critique of the government’s claim that any disagreement is all the Pay Review Board’s fault is that governments don’t actually have to implement the board’s recommendations. Their output is advice that in theory the government can do what it likes with.

Whilst the norm is to follow the advice, it’s easy to find examples of where they haven’t. For instance the latest advice from the Prison Service Pay Review Body and Senior Salaries Review Body were only partially accepted. The Government has the final say so could alter the parameters if it wanted to.

But perhaps more problematic is that the government can exert a lot of influence over what the advice is going to be in the first place, to a level I wasn’t really aware of until recently.

For a start it’s the government who appoints each of the board members in the first place, with the Prime Minister being responsible for appointing the chair. But we don’t need to get into the realms of the personal to see how constrained the boards are.

Each year the relevant government minister sends a remit to the board concerned, alongside their the pay changes the government already decided it wants to make. The remit tells the board which factors they should focus on when making their decisions alongside any constraints that the government has already decided to enforce that they must bear in mind.

Sometimes the constraints are such that they exclude many of decisions the board in theory could make.

For instance, between 2013 and 2017 the public sector pay growth was limited to an average of 1%. The constraint was imposed by the government, not the pay review board. In situations like these the boards can only give advice on how to distribute that 1%.

Likewise during 2021-2022 there was a general public sector pay freeze ordered by the government for most public sector employees. The pay review boards could then only give advice on how to implement rises for types of workers the government had decided were eligible.

This year the NHS remit letter tells the board that:

…the NHS budget has already been set until 2024 to 2025. Pay awards must strike a careful balance – recognising the vital importance of public sector workers while delivering value for the taxpayer, considering private sector pay levels, not increasing the country’s debt further, and being careful not to drive prices even higher in the future.

In the current economic context, it is particularly important that you also have regard to the government’s inflation target when forming recommendations.

Thus the board is constrained to giving advice that if enacted wouldn’t increase the amount of budget the NHS would need to fulfill it. They’d also probably want to avoid using up enough of the pre-decided budget such that another aspect of the investment-starved service would suffer even more than it already is. The latter is something that can easily happen - there are many reports of, for example, the pressure schools are under to give their staff pay rises the government agreed to, but with the government failing to actually providing the extra budget needed to enact the raise. Thus some other critical part of the educational experience in this case must suffer.

The NHS remit letter this year also tells the board to ensure that their advice somehow focuses on the inflation target that the government set, rather than, say, what’s necessary for a happy, efficient, effective workforce.

This feels entirely backwards to me, and sometimes potentially impossible. How does one take the government’s inflation target into consideration at the same time as considering private sector pay levels, when the private sector is not constrained to take any note at all of the government’s inflation target in making its pay awards?

Naively, I had expected that the pay review board created its recommendations based on the need to recruit, retain and engage employees in the domain that they’re responsible for. They’d ensure that the employees have enough income to live a reasonable life, and ideally have pay roughly comparable to other similar job opportunities out there. Except of course if we’re particularly desperate to recruit and retain some roles (which we are - we’re desperate for nurses and teachers amongst others), in which case perhaps the pay or conditions would have to be improved to reflect that.

In this fantasy world, the board’s recommendations would then give input to the government to help them to figure out what budget they need to provide in order to fulfill the pay recommendations, in addition to any other investments or costs the service in question needs outside of the domain of the Pay Review Board. But in reality it looks to be more the other way around. The government can pre-set the budget and enforce constraints of its own choosing. The boards seem to be more advising on how to implement the government’s existing plans rather than enabled to provide an independent opinion as to what those plans should be in the first place.