Leading article: Open the books on public sector pay

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At a time when the salaries and bonuses of senior bank staff are almost perpetually in the spotlight – and rightly so, in the case of banks that have been bailed out by the taxpayer – it is perverse that senior public sector salaries are not disclosed as a matter of course. This may be about to change. The Information Commissioner’s Office – the watchdog for confidentiality and disclosure – has issued new guidelines, saying that the salary bands, bonuses and performance-related pay of senior public officials should be publicly available as a matter of routine.

We cannot improve on the rationale given by Gerrard Tracey, Assistant Information Commissioner, who says in defence of the change: “Those who are paid from the public purse should expect information on their salaries to be made public. There is a legitimate public interest in knowing how public money is spent, how public sector salaries compare with those in other areas, and how money is distributed between different levels of staff.” He speaks of a special need for disclosure where senior staff set their own pay. Quite so.

As recently as 15 or 20 years ago, civil service salary scales were widely known, and a particular grade implied a particular salary. Within a generation this has changed, as targets have been set and practices such as performance-related pay and bonuses have been increasingly adopted from the private sector. The proliferation of quangos and other agencies, partly or solely funded by the taxpayer, has only muddied the waters further.

The few details already in the public domain suggest that the result has been an explosion of pay at the top end, justified – not always convincingly – by the need to compete with the private sector for the brightest and the best, even as the rank and file remain poorly remunerated. Public sector salary levels should always have been subject to scrutiny, but it is particularly important that the books should be open now. With the economic crisis widening the gap between the private and public sectors in two key areas – job security and pension provision – taxpayers should be able to judge how their money is being spent. The watchdog has barked just in time.