Evening Standard comment: Who will pay for lifting public sector pay cap?

EVENING STANDARD COMMENT

When a government is without a majority, we must get used to seeing defeats presented as victories.

This Government did not intend to remove the one per cent cap on overall pay rises in the public sector. The Chancellor did not even mention public sector pay in his Budget in March; nor did the Conservative Manifesto in May.

So the decision four months later to abandon the cap is not part of some longer term economic plan, but instead is driven by the need to avoid short-term defeat in the Commons.

That is clear from the Treasury’s insistence that half of the new two per cent annual pay rise for the police comes in the form of a one-off bonus that won’t be baked into next year’s baseline — a clever accounting manoeuvre to flatter the numbers, but one that political realities will sweep away.

For the Northern Irish MPs who hold the Government’s daily fate in their hands are, it turns out, reliable allies when it comes to spending money but less reliable when it comes to saving it.

Meanwhile too many Tory MPs for the whips’ comfort are getting nervous in the face of the trades unions’ campaign for higher pay. The confused messaging from No 10 on fiscal policy isn’t helping. Is austerity over or isn’t it?

Conservative MPs don’t know the answer, and that leaves them exposed. In politics as in war, if the trumpet gives an uncertain sound who shall prepare themselves to the battle?

The Government’s approach to public spending may be in flux but the hard fiscal realities endure.

If you increase public sector pay then the extra billions of pounds have to be found from one of three sources: you can either cut spending elsewhere by, for example, reducing the number of people working in the public sector; you can increase revenue by raising taxes, taking from public servants with one hand what you gave with your pay rise in the other; or you can borrow more and leave it to someone else to sort out the mess when the money runs out.

The Conservatives told the electorate just 13 weeks ago that they believed “in balancing the books and paying down debts — because it’s wrong to pass to future generations a bill you cannot and will not pay yourself”.

However short weeks are in politics, that principle is right and should endure.

Learning from Grenfell

The inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire begins tomorrow. But already we are learning the lessons. Across the country, local authorities and private landlords are looking at fire safety measures and finding them wanting.

It turns out, for instance, that only two in every 100 council and housing association tower blocks have full sprinkler systems.

Back in 2007 it became obligatory to install them in every new high-rise building but not in blocks already built. The head of the London Fire Brigade, Dany Cotton, says this must be one of the recommendations of the inquiry.

Yet it is concerning to reflect that at the inquest in to the Lakanal House fire in Southwark in 2009, the coroner recommended the Government should “encourage” housing providers to fit sprinkler systems in high rise flats that were built earlier — it didn’t happen across the board.

The development of health and safety regulations has happened as a result of successive tragedies. What is unforgiveable is when these happen and the authorities do not take the lessons to heart.

As Cotton says, every tower block, old and new, must be fitted with sprinklers.

Thank you, Sir Peter

London theatre owes much to Sir Peter Hall, who died this week.

His achievements were many, from championing Pinter and Beckett to the transfer of the National Theatre to the South Bank.

His legacy isn’t just institutions, but productions that have left their mark on the nation’s culture.

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