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Statistical gaps don't help in a debate about pay comparisons

By John Simpson

The recent recession took a heavy toll on jobs and living standards. The immediate concern is whether and when real earnings will improve for everyone.

There has been interest in the changes in average earnings in private sector firms in contrast to changes in the public sector. Public sector lobbyists have emphasised the severity of the freeze on public sector pay.

The official Northern Ireland earnings and hours findings showed that, in the most recent year, average earnings in the public sector FELL by 0.4%. However, this reduction sits alongside an average reduction in the private sector of 0.9%. Both public and private sector earnings have lagged well behind the cost of living.

Yesterday, Northern Ireland's statisticians added new information to this debate with an authoritative review of public sector earnings. The average Civil Service salary is £24,728, or £475 per week.

In contrast to the details comparing overall earnings in the public and private sectors, the wide-ranging authoritative review reports that 97% of staff received an increase in salary but, unhelpfully, there is no overall average percentage pay increase stated.

Interpreting the results suggests that average increases were probably less than 2%.

The report also does not identify the degree to which increased earnings came as a result of contracted incremental progression or changed pay scales.

The easiest comparative measure of public sector salaries comes where Northern Ireland-based civil servants are compared with those in UK departments.

The most striking comparisons are for the maximum pay in Northern Ireland compared with Great Britain's departments at administrative officer, executive officer and higher executive officer grades.

In each group, Northern Ireland has higher maximum salaries than all GB departments except the Foreign Office. At administrative officer level, the NI maximum is £22,291. One of the highest is in Scotland at £21,412. In the executive officer I and executive officer II grades the Northern Ireland maximum is £27,271. Northern Ireland is higher than all other departments except the Foreign Office.

The comparisons are less favourable for Northern Ireland in the higher grades of the Civil Service. That, of course, opens a debate about whether the local higher grades are really comparing like with like.

This official report is interesting. However, it does not help in a debate about how earnings compare for people with the same qualifications in either the private or public sector. Can the statisticians do more to help?

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