Leading Article: This healthy rise is not enough to cure our public services

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YESTERDAY'S PAY awards for nurses and teachers should be a sure- fire vote-winner for any government, a fact that certainly will not have been lost on New Labour. With the public accounts in the black and inflation low, even Whitehall civil servants, less visible and less popular, could yesterday have been promised pay awards at more than the rate of inflation. Any government would welcome the chance of such relatively painless electoral gain.

This package is particularly important to the Government as it will remove some specific obstacles to its election pledges on improving public services. Nurses just entering the service will be given a substantial rise of 11 per cent, bringing their starting pay near the level of newly qualified teachers. The difficulties the NHS experienced this winter were partly due to a chronic shortage of nurses; this rise, along with advertising to encourage people into the profession, will go some way towards rectifying the situation. There is a shortage of suitable prospective headteachers, too; the 9 per cent increase in heads' pay may encourage more teachers to apply for that difficult job of running a school.

But headline rises for some, ameliorating the difficulties of particular sectors, serve only to disguise the reality of the situation overall. Whatever the Downing Street briefing, nurses and teachers will not make up the lost wages that years of phased pay awards have involved. The nurses receiving that attention-grabbing 11 per cent represent only 7 per cent of the profession; this year's rises do not solve at a stroke the problem that nurses and teachers remain comparatively poorly paid. The Government will have to follow this up, year after year, just to keep wages at their present relative worth.

Modern governments are tight-fisted; tax resistance and implicit pay policies mean that those they pay direct will always bear the brunt of their parsimonious rectitude. But this need not mean that public sector pay should fall as far behind as it has. The brightest graduates can earn up to double what teachers start on; no amount of youthful idealism or government advertising will attract them or their peers into schools. Only pay rises will do that, by increasing the attraction of public service.

But as the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, wages are not everything. Many public sector workers have advantages those in the private sector do not: long holidays, security of tenure, good pensions. Equally, the physical conditions in wards and classroooms continue to be unacceptable, one reason why many young people prefer private sector jobs. New Labour has admitted as much, earmarking funds to modernise and upgrade buildings.

Although government can and must pay more for public service, it may never be able to match private-sector wages, as the Cabinet "enforcer" Jack Cunningham has made clear. The Government must therefore be imaginative enough to introduce more selective benefits. Its attempts to introduce incentives for the best and the brightest - more training and promotion opportunities and performance-related pay - are particularly welcome. Such initiatives could go some way to make up for the remaining gap between public and private pay.

The management of schools and hospitals should be given the discretion in recruitment that the private sector takes for granted; for one thing, this could rectify teacher shortages in areas such as London, and in certain skills and subjects. If headteachers and hospital managers wish to pay more to employees particularly deserving of promotion, then they should be able to, as a government Green Paper on education has recognised. After years of restraint, most public servants deserve higher wages. But only more flexibility will ensure that what extra money is available is not squandered.