Labour would freeze top salaries

Shadow Chancellor says ministers would forgo pounds 16,000 increase
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The Independent Online
Big pay increases for ministers, civil servants, judges and senior officers in the armed forces would be vetoed by an incoming Labour government, Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, announced last night.

If Labour gain power, a freeze on top public salaries would mean Tony Blair's Cabinet ministers having to forgo increases of pounds 16,000 a year to a total of pounds 103,000 which is due to be paid after the general election. "We will not be taking that," Mr Brown said. "We do not think it is right to go ahead with pay rises at the very top."

His decision to freeze the salaries of top people was seen as a move to defuse the row over pay increases for 1.3 million workers which are due to pegged to 2 per cent tomorrow by the Cabinet. Mr Brown has caused consternation among public sector union leaders by signalling that he would not alter the decision by the Government to pay the rises recommended by the pay review bodies in two stages. Senior Labour colleagues are sceptical about Mr Brown's strategy and fear there will be a backlash among Labour's core support.

Cabinet sources said the Government would approve a pay increase of 2 per cent for doctors, nurses, teachers and the lower ranks of the armed forces from 1 April, with a second stage increase of 1.2 per cent to 1.4 per cent from 1 December.

Only about 5,000 people are covered by the Senior Salaries Review Body, but Mr Brown's prudent gesture was intended to drive a stake into the heart of the Tory campaign against Labour's alleged hidden tax-and-spend agenda. He said he was determined to "redistribute public spending from low- to high-priority areas".

Mr Brown also used the announcement to deflect criticism from the public sector unions that there was one law for the low-paid and another for Labour ministers. The pegging of public sector pay rises to below the 2.5 per cent inflation rate tomorrow by the Cabinet will enrage thousands of nurses who have been recommended a rise of 3.4 per cent, and who could be a potent weapon for Labour in the election.

Adding salt to their wounds, The Independent has learned that family doctors will be awarded more than nurses. They will be given a 0.7 per cent increase for "catching up" with other groups on their pensions, paid in two stages, with 0.35 per cent from 1 April and 0.35 per cent from 1 April, 1998.

In spite of the increases, family doctors are furious that their pay rises are being held down to below the inflation rate. Some GPs have said their leaders should be discussing strike action. Nurses are also aggrieved. Department of Health officials fear that many hospital trusts, who have yet to pay last year's rises of about 3 per cent, will run deeper into the red. Their anger will be increased by the disclosure that the Senior Salaries Review Body has proposed rises of 6 per cent for some judges and senior military officers.

The refusal of the shadow Treasury team to sanction higher rises for public sector workers threatens to cause tension with Labour trade union supporters during the election campaign. It is believed that in order to head off that pressure, Mr Brown told the Financial Times that he would not pay the higher rises for the top people, including Cabinet ministers

Mr Brown said he did not "want pay to become a political football" but under a Labour government it would not "be a high priority to raise top salaries in the situation in which we find ourselves." He confirmed his warning earlier this week that there would be no blank cheques for the lower paid groups. "We are not ruling out phasing" of the pay increases, he said.

Ministers privately said last night that Mr Brown had stolen a march on the Government. "It's a role reversal. We have got Gordon Brown being more prudent than the Tories. It's very clever," said one minister with an economic brief.

Labour's positive attitude towards Europe, which will be highlighted today by Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary, has also unsettled senior pro-European ministers. "Major's attack on the social chapter in Brussels is irrelevant," said another ministerial source. "The Tory MPs who will be campaigning to stay out of a single currency are not fighting the general election. They are campaigning to go into opposition."

Last year, the senior salaries review body recommended rises of 3.9 per cent for the judiciary, which increased the salary of High Court judges to pounds 104,361 and the Lord Chancellor as head of the judiciary to pounds 135,406.

Senior military officers were recom-mended to receive increases ranging from 3.9 per cent to 5.6 per cent. Doctors were awarded 3.8 per cent and teachers 3.75 per cent The Cabinet paid one per centage point less than the recommendations from 1 April, with the remainder paid on 1 December last year.