Over the summer, thousands of workers, from tax inspectors to firefighters, have held protests about the pay freeze which has seen them, as public sector workers, suffer a huge pay cut in real terms. I stress in real terms, because those are the only terms that matter outside of the walls of Westminster. Taking into account inflation (as all those who have mouths to feed, rent to find and electricity bills to pay have to), public sector workers have lost 14% of their pay in real terms since the Conservative Party came to power in 2010. The reality for them is watching how quickly their money runs out, and how slowly pay day is in arriving. In return, the Conservative Party offer only platitudes. Instead, maybe they should reflect on what forces these good people to take to the streets, to protest and to strike.
These are people who look after our parents when they get old & frail, our children when they are sick, teach and care for our young people and who save lives on a daily basis, whether in A&E departments, patrolling our coastline or dragging people from burning buildings. The Government has endeavoured over many years (and been successful to an extent) to embed the notion that year-on-year public sector cuts are just the price that has to be paid. That myth is beginning to be busted, but it was a pernicious lie, designed to deflect blame away from the failures of our economic system and the austerity that followed the crash.
'Oh', people say: 'but private sector workers don't have these protections, look how badly workers in the fiercely competitive private sector have it'. The Conservatives, via their publicity machine, have tried to sow divisions between the public and the private sector. We hear it again and again, like a broken record. But it's a smokescreen for the fact that all low paid workers have been hit by the political choice that is austerity, while the richest in society have been left untouched to carry on regardless. McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook's total pay nearly doubled to $15.4million last year, while in Crayford & Cambridge, junior McDonald's staff, some on £4.75 an hour, were forced to go on strike last week to highlight their plight, which included sofa-surfing just to get by.
Whether in the private sector or the public sector, in-work poverty is real. Earlier this year, Cardiff University carried out a study which showed that 60% of British people in poverty live in a household where someone is in work. That is a shocking statistic which brings shame on a government whose mantra is that work is the best route out of poverty. It may be true that some work lifts people out of poverty, but only if it's good quality, well paid jobs, not the outsourced, zero-hours, casualised race-to-the bottom jobs that have been the hallmark of this Government. Low pay entrenches poverty, especially so when so many of those in the most insecure, poorly paid jobs are reliant on the private rented sector for a roof over their heads. So, there is no chance that I will be heralding their job creation announcements, when there is literally no critical analysis of the nature of that work.
Another recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Trust on in-work poverty makes damning reading. 7.4million people, including 2.6million children are now classified as being in poverty despite residing in a working family. These are the plain facts, but behind every statistic is a real, heart wrenching story of despair. And make no mistake, the Government's public sector pay cap is contributing to this poverty. We've heard about nurses being forced to visit food banks, but across the public sector, it's a recurring theme. During the recent Opposition Day debate on NHS pay, we witnessed many Tory MPs stand up and praise public sector workers, and cite family connections to the NHS. As if that makes it any better. If anything, it makes it worse: that they would maintain pay cuts that keep those workers in poverty, carrying out the very services which they praise.
For many of the public-sector workers I've spent hours listening to, there is a weariness about their work. It isn't because they are not deeply passionate about their professions, or that they ever entered it purely for pay, but years of wage suppression, whilst dealing with the cumulative effects of the cuts, have taken their toll. It's no wonder that demoralisation sets in. The solutions offered by the Conservative Party MPs who sit opposite me aren't even a sticking plaster.
In the House, we have seen much faux outrage by MPs opposite us in recent sessions: they said that the Labour Party were "talking down the NHS" and the country. This is laughable hypocrisy. If you starve the public sector of funds, underpay its workers and erode their terms and conditions, then the responsibility for "doing down" our great public institutions lies firmly and squarely with you. If you are, as a threadbare Government, intent on keeping the rate of pay behind the rate of inflation, then you are accepting that you are, ultimately, comfortable with the idea of making people poorer. It's time to lift the pay cap across the board, stop deflecting blame and give these workers what is rightfully theirs.
Laura Pidcock is the Labour MP for North West Durham