Belfast Telegraph

Why growing the private sector is a public matter

By Margaret Canning

There is tension over public sector pay in Northern Ireland, an emotion which could be fuelled by new statistics on the exact contents of pay packets in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS).

Yet there are some calling for an entente cordiale, pointing out that workers in the public sector, including the NICS, should not be made to feel bad. Instead, the conciliatory view is that we should all pull together to improve the private sector.

The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency's (NISRA) first civil service pay bulletin shows that 10,000 administrative assistants (AAs) and administrative officers (AOs) - the former the lowest rung of the ladder in Executive departments and the latter the next rung up - earn between £14,981 and £22,180.

Administrative assistants here taking home the maximum amount out-earn their counterparts across the UK, apart from in Scotland. Their immediate superiors at the maximum end of the band out-earn all their peers across the UK.

But the trend is less prevalent in higher grades in our civil service, with top-grade civil servants here out-earned across the UK. The most a top grade civil servant can earn in the province is £62,407 but the UK maximum, at schools scrutiny body Ofsted, is £68,974.

An article in this newspaper two weeks ago pointed out the higher wages between the public and private sectors. Public sector earnings were £558 per week in the year to April 2011 compared to £394.20 in the private sector.

That prompted cries from a recruitment specialist that private firms will not grow when people can be (understandably) seduced by better wages for serving the public.

At a debate on the economy at Queen's University this week, Northern Bank chief economist Angela McGowan said: "There is a general perception that all public sector workers are overpaid and have gold-plated pensions but the reality can be quite different. Many public sector workers are sitting at the bottom end of the pay scale.

"Frontline staff such as nurses and doctors are not overpaid for what they do. Indeed, they are paid the same salaries as their equivalents in the rest of the UK."

The answer, she believes, is to push the private sector to grow while laying off the punches on the public sector.

"Growing the private sector with a particular focus on highly productive and high value-added sectors should, over time, work to erode this large private sector differential and prevent that pull towards public sector employment.

"However, raising our educational outcomes and investing in local skill levels will be crucial to achieving that strategy aim."

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