Leading article: Public servants – at a price

Once upon a time there was an unspoken compact: workers in the public sector accepted generally lower pay than their private sector counterparts in return for greater job security and reliable, final-salary pensions. In at least one respect, that compact has now broken down.

As we report today, more than 1,000 town-hall staff now earn six-figure salaries, and more than a dozen are better paid than the Prime Minister. Plus they receive gold-plated pensions, protected against the vagaries of the stock market. Almost 20 per cent of authorities refused to divulge the information, so the figure could be higher. No wonder, you might say, MPs are unhappy with their lot, and are tempted to make up some of the difference with their expenses.

These figures raise some serious questions. And the first would be this: why does such information have to be solicited through the Freedom of Information Act by an organisation such as (in this case) the Taxpayers' Alliance? Why is it not available, as a matter of course, to everyone who pays council tax? The second would be: who sets these salaries, and who, if anyone, judges whether they are appropriate?

When similarly elevated pay levels are revealed in other parts of the public sector – in NHS management, for instance, or, most recently, university vice-chancellors – the argument is often heard, as it used to be in banking, that such rates had to be paid to attract the best people. Well, we saw what happened with those supposedly "best" people in charge of the banks. And with the local councils that invested municipal money in Iceland. And with Stafford General Hospital.

Elevated pay for poor, or undistinguished, performance gives the whole of the public sector a bad name. But, as trade unions justifiably emphasise, the majority of rank-and-file staff earn low salaries. Their pensions may be protected, but a fixed proportion of not very much is still not lavish. The top echelons are not representative of the service as a whole. But the ever wider disparity between top and bottom at some point becomes corrosive; it lowers morale inside the public sector and fires resentment outside. That point, we suggest, has been reached.