Hamish McRae: Just how much does your neighbour earn?

Click to follow

Pay is going up of course - on average by about 4.5 per cent a year - and for the most highly paid it is going up faster than for everyone else.

So the detailed analysis of the Office of National Statistics figures on employees' pay last year and in 2004, to a large extent, confirms the popular perception that pay inequality is rising. But the story is more complex and more interesting than that.

You might have guessed that doctors have shot almost to the top of the pay tree, for a huge amount of additional money has been spent by the NHS on their salaries. But did you know that dancers were paid more than quantity surveyors, or secondary school teachers more than journalists?

Start at the top. It is hardly surprising, whatever view you take of their work, that directors and chief executives of major companies should be at the top of the tree, earning last year an average of more than £171,000. That is more than double as much as the next group, doctors, who get an average of more than £81,000. But the surprise with pay at the top is not so much the level but the numbers of people doing those jobs. There are now 91,000 doctors, up 7,000, but the rise in their numbers is dwarfed by the rise in company directors, up 18,000 to 66,000.

So not only is pay at the top rising swiftly. There are a lot of people getting these high incomes and the number is shooting up further.

Looking at the ranks of the relatively highly paid, another feature springs out: that there are many public sector groups towards the top of the scale. They include senior civil servants of course but also the top police officers, senior officers in the fire, prison and ambulance services and in local authorities.

This is not City bonus stuff - I saw a story last week that the average bonus for people working in financial services this year was £25,000 - just as it is not top footballers or entertainment stars. But if you set aside the quite small numbers of people who earn these mega-salaries, the public sector clearly compares quite well with the private sector. And these figures do not make any allowance for the indexed pensions of the former.

Further down the pay scale a number of other features stand out. One is the huge differences in the numbers of people doing familiar jobs. For example there is now only a small number of dockers, only 5,000, the same number that actually marched in the 1966 dock strike. There are only 23,000 farm workers, a tiny proportion of the workforce and one that is still falling. On the other hand there are 149,000 van drivers. There are 226,000 carers. And it is sad that we don't have figures for the booming number of fitness instructors, though we do know that their pay is towards the bottom of the range.

Some caveats as necessary. Figures are crude averages and these can be very misleading. These are national figures and conceal vast regional variations, at least in the private sector. There is no allowance for hours actually worked, for though these are full-time jobs, in practice some jobs call for much longer hours than others.

As a general rule the more people are paid, the longer hours they work, the reverse of the situation a generation ago. The figures do not take into account part-timers or the millions of people who are self-employed. But all in all it is a fascinating picture of the way a country deploys its human capital - and what it pays its people to keep the show on the road.