The public sector: what you pay is what you get

By Alex MacDonald

Headlines scornfully attacking the wages of those in the public (and often private) sector, seem to be a regular occurrence in the world we are living in today. In particular, journalists often draw attention to public sector workers earning over £100,000, suggesting that this is in some way unacceptable. But with a full day walkout planned by criminal lawyers for next month over Legal Aid cuts and growing pressure on many areas of the public sector, it is important to ask ourselves a direct question about this issue: how many in these professions actually earn this much, and are six figure public sector salaries value for money?


There are three principle areas in which groups of individuals earning £100,000 or more seem to have galled the media and the wider public. These are namely: doctors in the NHS; the criminal bar; and the civil service. Individuals within all these groups have been criticised because they are “living it up” on six-figures a year. But should they be reprimanded for this?

The Criminal (or publically funded) Bar has never been the most lucrative sector of the legal profession, and in fact it never will (or should) be. However, state cuts in recent years have seen many top advocates shy away from doing Legal Aid work and attempt to focus on privately paid (not criminal) work.

In addition, with annual income for a newly qualified criminal tenant as low at £10,000 in some places, there is growing concern about the quality of new entrants to the Criminal Bar. Good advocates are not going to work for pittance. This is why when the Criminal Bar Association staged a walkout last month, a lot more was at stake than barristers’ income – it was justice itself.

The Ministry of Justice released figures around this time which showed that 1,276 barristers were earning over £100,000 from Legal Aid a year. In fact these 1,276 make up a mere 25% of those barristers earning from Legal Aid a year. Not only this, but large proportions of what barristers earn from legal aid have to be deducted for chambers fees, travel expenses, VAT and many other expenses. This means that takings of £100,000 are estimated by Bar insiders to translate roughly to a take home salary of £50-60,000. Additionally, the annual cost to the taxpayer of criminal barristers who earn six figures or more is a total of £207.5 million.

Admittedly this is a lot of money, but measly when compared with annual public sector spend of £675.1 billion in the UK in 2013. Is 0.03% of our annual budget too much to ask for a fair and efficient criminal justice system?

What this comes down to is a question of what we want our public services to provide: do we want them to be under funded and full of employees who don’t do a good job? Or do we want them to provide a high quality service?

In a completely different scenario, the annual spend on the NHS is an estimated 18% of our total budget. However, more than once over the Christmas break the media singled out GPs and the cost of primary care to the taxpayer. It is estimated that around 16,000 out of 60,138 registered General Practitioners earn more than £100,000.But this is no salary, GP partners are self employed contractors and the way in which they earn their money is a based on the efficiency of their practice and the various services they offer to their patients.

Regardless of this, most (like some at the Criminal Bar) do earn good money – but not for no reason. Just like Barristers they are highly intelligent individuals who have gone through up to seven years of training and hard graft to get where they are.  Furthermore, primary care, the majority of which is dealt with by GPs, accounts for an estimated 90% of patient care in the NHS. This shows the crucial job they play in our health service, that many of us do appreciate.

In addition research taken from a report by Harvard economist David Cutler shows that the average earning for doctors in the UK ($114,000) is half that in the USA ($240,000) and considerable less than other similar economies such as Australia, Canada and France. So the NHS is already getting us a cheap deal for our healthcare. Why then should we try to make doctors feel guilty? Highly qualified individuals should earn a good living.

The final area where there has been recent controversy over workers earning over £100,000 has been in the civil service. The print media told us the shocking news in January that 819 civil servants are on six figure salaries. Not so shocking when you consider that the number of civil servants currently employed by the UK government – at a post war low – is 453,000.

Clearly these people are at the absolute pinnacle of the civil service and are being paid what they are because that is what the market demands for good managers and executives. In reality if you want to cut money from the civil service, it will be necessary to cut some of the hundreds of thousands of jobs. The limited numbers and expertise of those earning six figures mean that they are crucial to the functioning of government and account for minimal expenditure.

Finally, it is important to consider why earning money in these sectors is considered, by some, distasteful. The basic answer is that these are jobs that many see as ‘good will’ professions whereby individuals sacrifice a degree of earning potential in order to do something a bit more worthwhile. But that does not automatically mean that they should not earn a good living. What this comes down to is a question of what we want our public services to provide: do we want them to be under funded and full of employees who don’t do a good job? Or do we want them to provide a high quality service?

“Banker bashing” is one thing, but let’s not go after those just about earning six figures from the public purse. The majority are honest, hard working public servants who help make this country something we should all be proud of.

Photograph: 401 (K)

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