Claim that Conservatives voted against a nurse pay rise needs some context

14 April 2020
What was claimed

In June 2017 Conservative MPs voted against a pay rise for nurses.

Our verdict

In June 2017 Conservative MPs voted against a Queen’s speech amendment calling on them to lift a cap on public sector pay rises, but later that year went on to lift the cap anyway. In 2018/19 nurse pay rose by more than the previous cap of 1%, but in some cases will still only have stayed at the same level in real terms.

We’ve seen a post on Facebook claiming that Conservative MPs voted against giving a pay rise to nurses and claiming that they cheered when winning that vote.

This needs some context.

In June 2017, after the general election, Conservative and DUP MPs voted against an amendment to a vote on the Queen’s speech, which among other things called on the government to lift the public sector pay cap, which limited pay rises for public sector staff to 1% per year.

The amendment would not, by itself, have lifted the public sector pay cap, although it would have increased political pressure on the government to do so.

Despite voting against the amendment, the government announced the end of the pay cap later that year, and nurses received a pay rise in cash terms above 1% in the following financial year.

Other public sector staff also received pay rises at various levels, though in some cases pay rises were below or at the level of inflation, meaning that they amounted to pay falls or pay freezes in real terms.   

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What was the vote?             

The posts refer to a vote on the Queens’ Speech in 2017 after the general election.

After a general election, when parliament reassembles, the Queen gives a speech to parliament which outlines what laws and policies the government wants to bring forward. The speech is written by the government. 

After the speech, parliament debates its contents and then votes on issuing a ‘humble address’. This address essentially thanks the Queen for her speech.

To influence the government’s policy agenda MPs can do a few things. They can vote against delivering the humble address, which is essentially a symbolic vote of no confidence in the government.  

They can also place amendments on the address, to try and change the government’s policy agenda. For example, in 2017 the government announced funding for Northern Irish women to have abortions in England, after an amendment from Labour MP Stella Creasy on that issue looked likely to pass. 

The vote referred to in these Facebook posts was a vote brought forward by the Labour party to amend the humble address by adding that parliament:

“…respectfully regret that the Gracious Speech fails to end cuts to the police and the fire service; commend the response of the emergency services to the recent terrorist attacks and to the Grenfell Tower fire; call on the Government to recruit more police officers and fire-fighters; and further call on the Government to end the public sector pay cap and give the emergency and public services a fair pay rise.”

Parliament voted against this amendment by 323 votes to 309. Of the 317 Conservative MPs313 voted against and four did not vote. All ten DUP MPs voted against as well.

So, it’s worth noting here, that the Conservatives didn’t vote directly against giving nurses a pay rise, as has been suggested by some, but on an amendment which mentioned lifting the cap on pay rises, among other issues.

What would have happened had the vote passed?

The vote itself wouldn’t have had any direct effect on the pay cap, but had it passed there would have been considerable pressure on the government to end it.

And, even though the Conservatives voted against the amendment, the government did go on to lift the pay cap anyway.

At the 2017 Autumn budget, five months after the vote in parliament, the government confirmed it was ending the public sector pay cap and in March 2018 it announced a pay rise for most NHS staff equivalent to at least 6.5% in cash terms over three years.

The Office for Budget Responsibility expects that prices will rise by around 6.5% over this three-year period, meaning that this lowest pay rise actually represents a pay freeze in real terms. 

Pay rises for other public sector employees were announced at different points, and we looked into some of them here.

At the time the Conservatives voted against Labour’s amendment to lift the cap, the nurse pay deal for 2017/18 (in other words, until April the following year) had already been set.

So nurse salaries were raised by more than 1% in the first financial year after Labour’s amendment, despite the amendment failing. 

It’s not certain what would have happened had Labour’s amendment passed. It’s possible, for instance, that it might have resulted in a pay rise coming in sooner or being larger.

Correction 22 April 2020

We have added more context about what the pay rises for health workers equated to once inflation was factored in.

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