No 10 hints at U-turn on regional public pay
The Government has signalled it is backing away from plans to introduce "local" public sector pay that have been fiercely opposed in the Westcountry.
Downing Street said yesterday that ministers would need "strong evidence" before pressing ahead with proposals, which critics warn will mean lower salaries for teachers, nurses and prison officers among civil servants outside London and the South East.
But a Cornwall Liberal Democrat MP leading the campaign against the end of standardised national pay rates cautioned the idea was "not completely off the table".
The hint of a back-track from No 10 came as the Unison trade union warned MPs with small majorities could lose their seat at the next election if they supported the reform.
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Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said: "At last the Government seems to be listening to our arguments against local pay bargaining.
"Unison has all the 'strong evidence' it needs to show the Government it will cause a massive increase in costly bureaucracy, lead to key staff shortages and hit local economies and families hard.
"The reason the Government wanted it in the first place is to drive down wages in the public sector further. It is a vote loser and the Government knows it."
Chancellor George Osborne raised the prospect of local agreements in the public sector to reflect differing pay rates across the country in the Budget last March. Labour previously introduced local pay in the courts service.
But a Downing Street spokesman said yesterday: "Unless there is strong evidence and a good case for it, things won't change."
The public sector pay review bodies are looking at the scope for local agreements on the grounds that the present system of national pay bargaining means the private sector struggles to compete for the best workers.
The plan, however, has run into opposition from the Liberal Democrats, with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said to be ready to veto the scheme amid fears of a backlash in its South West heartlands and northern England.
The move could lead to millions of workers in the region facing years of wage freezes until there is parity with the private sector.
Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, told the GMB union's annual conference last week that the idea was not to cut pay or scrap national agreements.
Lib Dems in the far South West, where jobs in the public sector are among the best paid, have warned of an exodus of key workers and spending being stripped from the economy.
Stephen Gilbert, Lib Dem MP for St Austell and Newquay, last week launched his campaign "Fair Pay for Cornwall".
Mr Gilbert said: "I am pleased to see that the Government is beginning to listen to opposition to the disastrous proposal for regional pay, but I won't stop my campaign against it until the idea is off the table completely.
"Regional pay would see a race to the bottom for the thousands of hard-working public sector workers in the South West and is an idea which I will never support."
Unison yesterday announced plans to target coalition politicians as part of its campaign of opposition to local pay deals.
It argued that George Eustice, Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth, had a majority of just 66 votes, but had 8,900 public sector workers in his constituency.
On the other side of the Tamar, Anne-Marie Morris, Conservative MP for Newton Abbot, has 8,100 public sector workers but a majority of just 523.
Local pay deals could hit the Westcountry hard as the region has low wages – which is what salaries could be pegged to – but high living costs, such as house prices and water rates.
Councillor Jude Robinson, Labour's only member on Cornwall Council, said: "Wages are already too low in Cornwall. Paying teachers and nurses less will not help that – it will only give bad private sector employers an excuse to reduce pay as well.
"Working people in Cornwall already face a double whammy of high costs and low wages. If low pay was good for the economy, ours would be booming – but we are still one of the poorest regions in Europe."