17 November 2021

Crisis facing PCS members

Our members are facing multiple attacks this winter, including on pay and pensions, cut in Universal Credit and a hike in National Insurance.

Pay: this destruction of living standards cannot go on

Our members have made a huge contribution during the pandemic and the government acknowledges that they are key workers.

We are seeking a cost-of-living rise of 10% for our members in the civil service and related areas.

This would recognise their vital contribution during the pandemic and provide a degree of restitution for the impact that years of pay restraint has had on living standards.

Pay rises for UK government workers would help with the economic recovery. Yet most of our members have been hit with another pay freeze until 2022. Many are already struggling to stay afloat, as they also try to find money for price rises and a hike in NI rates.

Civil service pension members are also overpaying on their contributions. Some members have been further hit by the axing of the Universal Credit uplift.

This cannot go on.

As well as a rise, PCS is also calling for immediate moves to simplify the way civil service pay is negotiated. The way the government has designed it means there are 200 separate sets of talks for different areas, which is a nonsense.

This has led to a deeply unfair, unequal and discriminatory situation. Staff doing broadly the same job at broadly the same grade earn wildly different pay rates across different departments.

First, we are attempting to secure single sets of talks for all staff under each parent department. Secondly, we are talking to our lawyers about potential equal pay and discrimination cases that could help force the employer’s hand.

Ultimately, we need to level up the poorly-paying departments and set up a more efficient system of negotiations.

When asked about this “farcical” situation at a parliamentary committee last year, then Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove agreed that tackling the “Balkanisation” of pay, reward and recruitment processes would be a “very good thing”.

Pensions: legal action to defend members’ rights and benefits

The government is still withholding money that is owed to civil service pension scheme members. A cut in employee contributions that’s now worth more than £1,000 for many should have been brought in nearly three years ago. With every passing day members are losing badly-needed cash.

Meanwhile the government wants to rip up the rules so it would never be obliged to pass benefits on to scheme members in this way again (known as ‘cost-sharing’ provisions).

It is also being slow on the application of the remedy process brought about by the McCloud judgment on age discrimination, which could be detrimental to some of our members.

These pensions are not ‘gold-plated’ as some suggest – they have been paid for. Here is the latest on PCS action to defend your pension rights:

Legal challenge to ripping up of cost-sharing deal

PCS and other unions have launched legal action to challenge the government’s attempt to ensure scheme members can no longer benefit from favourable valuations of the pension scheme. We are pursuing a judicial review along with the FBU, POA, GMB and Unite.

The government is doing this to try to ensure members bear the cost of a legal case that they lost in 2018, called the McCloud judgment.

In that case, the Court of Appeal ruled that there was unlawful age discrimination in the way changes to public sector pensions were made in 2015. There is now a remedy plan for the members affected.

When it made those pensions changes, the government added ‘cost-sharing’ provisions which were supposed to be in place for 25 years. It meant four-yearly valuations would inform any need to vary the relative costs for employers and scheme members.

The 2018 valuation showed the costs of the scheme were lower than predicted, and employees’ contributions were therefore to be reduced by 2% and some benefits improved. But the McCloud case was used as an excuse to block this process, and the whole cost-sharing mechanism has now effectively been ripped up at the whim of the Treasury.

It is a fundamental principle that our members should not bear the cost of the legal remedy, when the fault for the discrimination lies solely with the government.

McCloud: concerns over remedy plan gap

Civil Service Pensions is writing to scheme members affected by the McCloud judgment remedy plan. If you joined the pension scheme after 31 March 2012, you are not affected.

The 2015 pensions changes meant most members moved into the new Alpha scheme. But the transition plan allowed some older workers to remain in their original scheme, depending on their age. The court found this to be discriminatory. As a result, those members who were in the 2015 full protection group will have their pension switched to Alpha on 1 April 2022.

Alpha has the best rate of accrual but a later Normal Pension Age. It means that for some members the potential increase in benefits could be outweighed by the partial reduction made if you retire early.

After the McCloud case it was decided that scheme members in the ‘remedy group’ will be able to choose – at the point of retirement – whether to have their service between 1 April 2015 and 31 March 2022 calculated under Alpha rules or the rules of their legacy pension.

Members should not need to take any action for the remedy to be applied – but we have learned that plans to provide detailed information to support this choice will not be available until late 2023.

PCS is concerned that in cases where our members are already receiving pension benefits that come wholly or partly from Alpha, this delay forces them to wait too long for their pensions to be rectified. This might be members who have retired, or were/are seeking to retire, for ill health or other reasons.

If you think that could be you, PCS would like to talk to you. We will seek to protect members who have retired before the default remedy process is fully in place.

Members who believe their pension may be incorrect due to the McCloud judgement should first talk to their local PCS rep. Find them on PCS Digital.

National Insurance: Tax the wealthy, not the workers

Workers’ NI contributions will go up by 1.25 percentage points from April 2022, as part of a government ‘health and social care levy’ plan.

That means someone on a £20,000 salary, who now pays around £1,200 a year, will pay an extra £130. This is an increase of more than 10% on their current NI bill.

PCS and other unions opposed the plans. We said those who extract wealth from shareholdings, dividends and renting properties, should have been targeted in a wealth tax, rather than a tax on income for millions of workers.

CSCS: members still protected by favourable terms

Cuts to the civil service compensation scheme (CSCS) were imposed by the government in 2016 but our campaigning and legal action defended the better 2010 terms, which were restored in 2017 after a court case. As a result, many millions of pounds was available to workers covered by the scheme.

PCS and other unions have been in negotiations with the government as it tries to reinstate those cuts. We expected talks to resume in recent months but no approach has yet been made. In the meantime, the favourable 2010 terms stay in place.

No change to the current scheme is necessary, and PCS remains ready to resist by all possible means.

Universal Credit: ‘It’s a choice between heating or eating’

Many PCS members need to claim Universal Credit (UC) because of low pay, compounded by years of pay cuts and the current freeze.

Millions of claimants – 40% of whom are in work – have been affected by the government’s decision to cut off the £20-per-week UC uplift that was brought in during the pandemic.

A partial U-turn announced by the government in its recent spending review – which will reduce the taper rate – is small compensation for the loss they have already inflicted on claimants.

Outsourcing: call for action over institutional inequalities

PCS is also focused on organising and supporting members who work in facilities management (FM) jobs such as cleaning, catering, security and porterage, as they push against an unfair and unequal two-tier system to win better pay and conditions.

Outsourced private contracts put them on worse wages and terms and conditions than their directly-employed counterparts, often because departments award contracts based on the lowest cost.

General secretary Mark Serwotka has written to Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm to call for action to improve conditions “and address the institutional racism that currently exists within the system of outsourcing”.

In major urban areas FM staff are predominately black, and most cleaners in the UK are women, yet the employers’ duty to consider equality implications is ignored when contracts are awarded.

The prime minister has called cleaners and security guards the heroes of the Covid crisis, and the civil service has stated that ‘Black Lives Matter’ – PCS agrees. The government can take concrete steps to treat these key workers as heroes.

“The civil service does not have to award contracts where only the minimum wage is paid, statutory sick pay is given and trade union recognition is not a right. It could choose to make the payment of the real Living Wage, full sick pay from day one and trade union recognition a condition of the contract... It could choose not to outsource at all,” said the letter.

FM members in areas such as BEIS, HMRC and the FCO have won some improvements both through strike action and negotiation. Members working in the Royal Parks were on strike throughout October and talks are ongoing.

PCS branches are encouraged to submit model pay claims for FM members and raise the demand for services to be brought in-house when contracts are due to expire.

Shorter working week: a better future is possible

Many areas of the Scottish Government could move to a shorter working week without having to employ new staff.

That was one of the key conclusions of a study carried out among Scottish Government workers by the think-tank Autonomy earlier this year.

Commissioned by PCS Scotland, the researchers held a series of workshops and interviews, and surveyed more than 2,000 staff.

Such a move would be popular with workers, with 87% agreeing that the employer should pilot a four day week across all areas of the Scottish Government.

PCS has welcomed the intention of Scottish ministers to fund the piloting of a four-day week, without loss of pay, although it has not said if this would apply to its own staff.

Individuals, employers, society and the environment can all benefit from a shorter working week. Such an overdue change would also encourage more investment in technology, driving productivity.

National officer Cat Boyd said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that we are able to work in ways many employers told us weren’t possible before.”

PCS has had a long-standing commitment to trying to reduce the working week. The pursuit of talks on the issue was agreed in a motion at the union’s 2021 national conference, which backed our campaign for a post-pandemic settlement that shapes a better future for workers and society.

Our national pay claim also seeks a significant reduction in the working week with no loss of pay.

Read the report. 

This article is taken from PCS People issue 3, 2021.