Public Affairs: Unison deliberately misleading on public sector pay

Patricia McKeown’s comments at the end of David Elliott’s article in the Belfast Telegraph on the public/private pay gap in Northern Ireland were fundamentally inaccurate, and in need of rebuttal. Campaigners should not fall into the trap of quoting apparently convenient statistics wrongly.
On behalf of Unison, she claims that figures showing public sector workers are paid nearly 45% more than private sector workers here are because the “average is driven up by people like Chief Executives and doctors“. This is factually incorrect and creates fundamentally the wrong impression – and thus takes away from the debate rather than contributing to it.
The figures were in fact the *median*earnings – i.e. the amount earned by someone who has half the workforce above and half below. In other words, whether a doctor or chief executive earns £31,000 or £131,000 would make no difference whatsoever to that figure.
On the contrary, figures consistently show that the reason public sector earnings are higher in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain is because lower level administrative jobs attract a significantly higher salary here. Yet senior civil servants, for example, in fact earn less on average (however determined) than equivalent grades in Great Britain.
The Belfast Telegraph was, therefore, entirely right to highlight the pay levels of some basic administrative posts in the Northern Ireland public sector.  These have been inflated to well beyond a reasonable level. This may be excusable if there were fewer such positions and the burden on the taxpayer were being reduced – but in fact the overall number of such posts has greatly *increased* since 1998 – despite the fact they are not remotely front-line and the fact that IT advances should in fact have reduced the need for them.
Conversely, Unison was entirely wrong to try to deflect attention on to higher pay grades, where in fact wages are comparatively lower than elsewhere in the UK and Ireland.
There is a legitimate debate to be had about how to re-balance wage levels sensibly – rewarding hard work and proven ability, ensuring front-line services are enhanced, and giving the private sector locally reasonable chance at recruiting our best people particularly in exportable industries. That debate must involve business organisations, lawyers and elected representatives. However, it can only succeed if all sides are prepared to engage on the basis of the facts, not misrepresentations designed to place blame where the evidence clearly demonstrates it does not belong
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