In my original post I may have unwittingly given the impression that Panorama’s programme about senior pay in the public sector would be a TV tabloid hatchet job. I apologise. I should of course have described it as a lazy TV tabloid hatchet job.
Throughout the programme the Prime Ministerial pay of £142,500 was used as a benchmark. Fair enough. The Government has chosen to do this itself in requiring Treasury approval for pay offers in excess of this figure for posts within the Civil Service and Quangoland. But I didn’t see or hear any sensible analysis of the £142,500 as being the correct figure for the PM’s remuneration.
Three major elements seem to me to be missing. The PM’s pension. The PM’s grace and favour accommodation. The other perks associated with the job. Adding these in clearly move the PM’s salary considerably higher.
In its methodology statement the BBC says its database ignores pensions – except for the BBC salary sacrifice folks – but does include benefits in kind. So even if we set the pension issue to one side it seems to me that the PM’s benefits in kind should be added in. Perhaps the trickiest element in all this is the potential earning power of ex PMs. Estimates of Tony Blair’s earnings since leaving office hover around the £20 million mark.
However you calculate it the PM’s remuneration is clearly more than the £142,500 benchmark used so extensively in Panorama.
What the programme lacked was intellectual depth and rigour from the programme makers. Stephen Taylor from Taylor Haig was not given enough time to develop an argument around why some pay packets were justified. But overall the tone was one of bemused astonishment that anyone in the public sector should breach the arbitrary PM benchmark. And an apparent endless search for opportunities to deploy the rather naff catchphrase, ‘Because you’re worth it?’
To be clear some public sector pay deals have clearly stretched the bounds of reasonableness but the topic deserved a more serious treatment than it got. This was my original concern when I first posted my pre-emptive satire. It was disappointing that the programme lived down to my expectations.
Interestingly an example of how to cover a complex social issue fairly and clearly was John Humphrys’ excellent Unequal Opportunities also shown last night but on BBC2.
See BBC you can do it when you want.
Meantime here’s my original blogpost in all its glory.
A bizarre and highly unlikely set of circumstances means that I can bring you extracts and other snippets from tonight’s much trailed Panorama programme: Because We’re Worth It – the Taxpayers’ Rich List.
The opening scene finds Jeremy Vine looking windswept and interesting (thank you Mr Connolly) in a moody night time urban landscape. Looking into the camera he says:
Jeremy Vine: Tonight we blow the lid on Britain’s public sector fat cats. After the most extensive research ever undertaken since the last time the Daily Mail was short of copy and needed a filler about evil public servants. We can reveal who the public sector fat cats are that have grown large at your expense. We ask: Are they really worth it? … Hold on a minute …
Director [off-camera]: Yes Jeremy?
Jeremy Vine: Erm … this expose doesn’t feature BBC talent like me does it? I know we’re paid for by taxpayers but we’re definitely different to the sorts of swine Vivian is talking about. Those people only run big councils or hospitals or departments of state. There not not like me or Paxo. I mean we are worth it, right? [Getting agitated] It’s not easy looking this smart casual I can tell you. I deserve double for having to listen to the drivel that gets spouted by the brick-faced majors on the ‘phone in. It’s supply and demand in show biz and I’m not getting out of bed for less than a few hundred thousand.
Director: No need to fret Jeremy love. We’ve decided – for absolutely proper editorial reasons – not to include BBC top talent.
Jeremy Vine: Good. Right then. [serious voice] Here’s Vivian White’s report.
Amongst other documents that I have imagined seeing there was a note of a phone call from the BBC DG to a senior Panorama staffer:
Just took call from MT. Just back from No.10. PM rottweilers’ in full cry over ‘cuts’ season. Got to dump scissors from graphics. Given licence talks MT asked if we had some crap we could throw at public sector as cover/distraction? Need to establish BBC neutrality and keep TPA maniacs/Mail off backs? Agreed: could knock up public sector pay special including BBC bosses – horse long since bolted on that so no harm there – looks even handed too!! Can we get this out in the party conferences?
Of course putting together this sort of in depth analysis demands thorough research and analytical skills of the first order. It’s fascinating to see this process in action in the extract of some notes from a production meeting that I have just made up.
BW asked for any ideas for how we crack this. Problem is we’ve got 20 odd minutes to fill with stories of public sector porkers with their snouts in the trough.
PA said she thought we had done this topic last year. Suggested we could update that a bit and re-run?
DD Suggested that we get the intern to trawl the internet and recycle stuff from the papers and look for some tasty stuff on the blogosphere.
All agreed that’s a plan. Intern web search. We retread the stuff we did last year. BW asked for talking heads ideas. PA suggested the Guild of UK Taxpayers’. Thought they’re good at this sort of stuff in an ‘outraged ordinary member of the public’ way. BW doubted that anyone from GUT could even loosely be described as ordinary. But gave greenlight. For balance need to find someone from public sector willing to defend high pay. Agreed to come back to this – another job for intern? Obvious ministerial candidate for government view.
PA queried how we could make this look new? BW asked for ideas. I suggested that we use freedom of information act to claim we had to force information from public bodies we look at. Agreed this was excellent idea. (V. good me – I thought career on up.) Also agreed not to mention that top salaries now routinely disclosed in audited accounts of public sector organisations. Might make things tricky for Jeremy as BBC doesn’t for everyone. General laughter at thought of Jeremy’s salary. Had to shut up at that point as Vivian joined us and wanted to know what the joke was. Best not to mention any of the Jeremys’ pay in front of other BBC journos!
And it’s back to the programme. On the screen are different stock images of hospitals, town halls, judges, BBC HQ and so on. Abba’s Mone, Money, Money provides soundtrack. Cuts to GUT spokesperson looking serious.
[Interviewer] Just how out of control is fat cat public sector pay?
[GUT] It’s beyond a joke. In fact it’s outrageous that ordinary taxpayers are being soaked just so senior bureaucrats can enjoy millionaire lifestyles. It’s outrageous that organisations spending many hundreds of millions of public money often employing thousands of staff should feel the need to pay top management so handsomely. We’re frankly outraged because these people already have gold-plated pensions, job security and a 9-to-5 work ethic that is frankly … er …
[GUT] Yes, yes … exactly right. Outrageous. And we could tell you some other things about senior public servants you know. They’re all members of a secret fraternity. They’re like the masons. They’re listening in to everything we do. They have lists.
[GUT] Lists. They’re preparing for the day when the balloon goes up. Well so are we. We’ll show ‘em. We’ll _____ show ‘em. They won’t be all so _____ high and mighty then. They eat their young. And they torture animals. Commies the lot of them.[Increasingly agitated] WE KNOW THE TRUTH. [Silence] Sorry, what was the question again?
Of course I am sure that tonight’s BBC Panorama programme will bear absolutely no relation to my spoof in which any resemblance to persons and organisations living or dead is purely coincidental. I understand that the programme has been working for months with the Bureau for Investigative Journalism so this is clearly not a piece of party conference season whimsy.
But as I recently blogged I think there is a worrying trend towards denigrating public servants and a programme on public sector fat cats reinforces that ‘narrative’. (Sorry for that but it’s the sort of word that SPADs and spinners love and which seems to describe a process by which any old guff becomes ‘fact’ if you repeat often enough and with ever greater certainty).
It’s guilt by association and I have yet to see a serious attempt by much of the media to expose the very low levels of pay prevalent in our public service that means many families of public sector workers experience real hardship.
But I will mention two things have worried me about some of the pay deals I have bumped into across my time in the public service. Firstly, that organisations increasingly being encouraged to ape the private sector have, through time, imported some of the nonsense there that gives rise to ever more generous remuneration deals. Particularly the way of referring to what others are paying as a reference point. This inevitably turns senior pay into a upward and never-ending cycle. The ‘they’re paying this so we must may that,’ compulsion.
The second thing that has troubled me is the often complete lack of relationship between top pay and results. Too often pay packages get ossified so what was appropriate to secure a particular skill set becomes completely inappropriate when circumstances change. Those responsible for signing off pay deals in public bodies, councillors, trustees, non-executive directors have not always been strong enough to say, ‘no’. But those failings rarely get talked about. Perhaps they will this evening.
You will notice, I hope, that both these failings apply equally to the private sector from where much of the prevailing culture and ethos in the public sector have been imported. But commenting on those failings would need to be in an entirely different blog.
My focus is on the travails of moving – under compulsion – from one job to another (I hope). And my concern about the public sector pay debate is that it makes it harder to assert the case for fair pay and humane terms and conditions.
I know many public servants got more and more uncomfortable about cultural changes in the public sector over many years particularly in the attitude to spending public money. Behaving like the private sector but using public money. But just because people are public servants does not mean we should pay them peanuts and make them work in a coal cellar which is where some commentators clearly believe they belong.