Government figures showed that senior civil servants earn three times as much as nurses, more than twice as much as teachers and seven times the pay of kitchen porters.
Permanent secretaries and other top staff in Whitehall enjoyed average weekly earnings of pounds 1,117 in the 1997-98 financial year, compared with pounds 370.10 for nurses, pounds 473.30 for teachers and pounds 167 for kitchen porters. The total average earnings of the lowest paid increased by 4 per cent, but the highest paid enjoyed a rise of 4.8 per cent.
Bharti Patel, of the Low Pay Unit, said that the poorest manual workers now earned less, relative to the average, than at any time since 1886 when the figures were first collected.
While the difference in pay between men and women has widened by only 0.25 per cent, women's groups registered their concern that the "minimal" progress towards equality had now come to a halt.
The Office for National Statistics estimated that women are earning about 72 per cent of average male weekly pay, down by 0.25 per cent from the previous year. Men earned an average of pounds 427 a week, up by 4.5 per cent on the previous year, while the figure for women was pounds 310 - a rise of 4.2 per cent. Average earnings for all workers rose by 4.6 per cent to pounds 384 for a 42-hour week.
Data in the New Earnings Survey also confirmed that about two million workers would benefit from the pounds 3.60-an-hour minimum wage to be introduced next year, according to Professor George Bain, the chairman of the Low Pay Commission. He said the official figures showed the recommend- ations of the commission would make a "tremendous difference" to the lives of many low-paid workers, but would have a minimal effect on the economy.
Both the Low Pay Unit and the public service union Unison said the statistics showed that the minimum wage should be pounds 4.79 an hour.
n Leaders of 1.5 million local authority workers defied Government calls for pay restraint and submitted a wage claim pitched at twice the inflation rate. Unison, the GMB general union and the Transport and General Workers' Union called for a rise of 5 per cent or pounds 500.