The Prime Minister has warned he will not shy away from making decisions “people may not like” to control inflation as he again refused to commit to accepting recommendations for public sector pay rises.
Ministers have suggested they could choose to ignore advice by independent review bodies to hike public sector pay as part of UK Government attempts to calm the rate of rising prices — an option the Prime Minister has refused to take off the table.
Rishi Sunak has set halving inflation by the end of the year as his top priority ahead of a likely general election in 2024.
But inflation has stayed stubbornly high, with the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) inflation remaining at 8.7 per cent in May despite experts forecasting it would fall.
Mr Sunak, speaking to broadcasters during a trip to Nottinghamshire on Monday, argued that, with inflation “higher than we’d like”, it was important to “make the right and responsible decisions on things like public sector pay”.
He said further walkouts being planned by junior doctors were “very disappointing” and claimed this would “make it harder” to bring down NHS waiting lists – another of his five key pledges to the electorate.
Junior doctors in England are due to stage a five-day strike next month as their row with the Government over pay and staffing rumbles on.
Mr Sunak, addressing the scheduled junior doctors’ industrial action, said: “It’s just going to make it harder to bring waiting lists down and I think people should recognise the economic context we’re in.
“I’m going to make the decisions that are the right ones for the country.
“That’s not always easy, people may not like that, but those are the right things for everybody that we get a grip of inflation.”
Earlier on Monday, social care minister Helen Whately refused to say whether the Government would accept pay review recommendations, saying only that it would “consider” any advice given.
On Sky News, the senior Conservative MP said she did not recognise a suggestion put to her that ministers had previously committed to abiding by the independent panels’ counsel, replying: “I don’t believe that is what we’ve always said.”
She added: “I can’t say here and now what the outcome of the whole process is going to be.
“We know we have a number one priority of bringing down inflation and actually the job in Government and of the Prime Minister is to make tough decisions.”
Pay review body recommendations are not legally binding on the Government and, although they are typically accepted, ministers can generally choose to reject or partially ignore the advice.
But this would be a controversial move after the Government defended last year’s below-inflation pay rises by saying it had followed the bodies’ advice.
It could further inflame ongoing disputes with unions and lead to more industrial action.
Kate Bell, assistant general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), said any decision to ignore pay review body advice would be “driven by politics, not economics”.
She said public sector wages had fallen “well behind inflation” and that there had been a “15-year wage squeeze where wages haven’t kept up with inflation”.
“We had the Government, back in the winter when they were refusing to negotiate with NHS workers — eventually, of course, they did come to the table — relying very heavily on the pay review bodies, saying we had to take into account this independent process,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“It is a bit rich to hear them now saying, ‘Well, we’re going to overturn those independent recommendations’ when we haven’t even seen them be published yet.”