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Is the Chancellor right to relax pay regulation in the public sector?

December 5, 2011 1 comment

Carol Propper

In a recent surprise announcement to the House of Commons the Chancellor announced that he wants to scrap national pay deals for public sector workers. Labour unions across the land are hitting back, arguing that this will damage public services. In fact, the evidence we have on the effect of national pay regulation suggests exactly the opposite.

National pay awards tend to overpay public sector workers in low cost areas of the country and underpay those in high cost areas. Recent research shows the size of these differentials. For example, the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that women working in the public sector in the West Midlands are paid upto 14  percent more than their private sector counterparts. What has received much less attention is that these pay differentials may have an important impact on the quality of public services provided in different parts of the country.

National pay arrangements effective impose a pay ceiling for workers in high cost areas. Simple economics suggests this should impact on the ability of the public sector to deliver services in these areas. The lower wages offered to public sector workers relative to their private sector counterparts in high cost areas will mean, all other things equal, that the public sector will struggle to recruit and retain the best quality workers. This in turn will mean problems in producing services.

Recent work undertaken at the CMPO and the London School of Economics confirms this intuition in a very stark setting. Analysis of the impact of national pay regulation of the wages of over half a million nurses in the NHS showed that hospitals in high wage areas had higher death rates for patients who were admitted following a heart attack.  Furthermore, the output of hospitals in low cost areas such as the North East did not appear to compensate for the lower quality output of their counterparts in the high cost South East. Our research suggested that deregulating pay to reduce the gap between nurses pay and that of their counterparts in the private sector would both save lives and cut costs. So in this case both economic intuition and the Chancellor’s instincts are right: deregulating public sector wages will improve the quality of public services.

Further details of the research can be found at: Propper, C and Van Reenen J (2010). Can Pay Regulation Kill? Panel Data Evidence on the Effects of Labour Markets on Hospital Performance. Journal of Political Economy 118 (2): 222-273.

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