The government has been accused of ‘double standards of rank’ after giving nearly £30m in discount vouchers to civil servants amid a pay freeze sparked by the cost-of-living crisis.
Sixteen Whitehall departments in 2021-22 paid a grand total of £29.57m to staff in the form of ‘reward and recognition’ vouchers, a third more than in 2020-21 and two thirds more than in 2018- 19, according to department data provided to Labour.
The increase in the use of vouchers coincided with then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak imposing a one-year post-Covid pay freeze for most civil servants, while food inflation in the UK soared dizzyingly.
Shadow Cabinet Minister Florence Eshalomi said: “No one would dispute that hard working civil servants deserve recognition for their efforts, particularly those who have gone the extra mile during the pandemic, but again, what we see in these figures is a Conservative government guilty of double standards.
“At the same time that ministers refuse to even discuss the subject of pay with our nation’s nurses, we now find that they circumvented a pay freeze last year by handing out a record number of non-cash vouchers to staff at Whitehall”.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he was “sad” and “disappointed” at widespread strike action over pay, including by nurses, but insisted that refusing to negotiate was the “right thing” in the long run.
Most Whitehall staff received their rewards in the form of Edenred vouchers and gift vouchers, which can be spent at a variety of retail outlets and restaurants, including Argos, Asda, Greggs, Iceland, John Lewis, M&S , Nando’s, Pizza Hut , Primark, TK Maxx, WH Smith and Wilko.
The biggest spender was the Foreign Office with £9.9m, an increase of 16.6% over the past four years.
Next up was the Home Office with vouchers worth £6.6m, up from £2.8m in 2020-21 and £1.2m in 2018-19.
The Department for Work and Pensions came in third with £5.9m, up 15% from 2018-19, while the Justice Department came in fourth after more than doubling its £2.1m compared to four years ago at 4.9 million.
The Ministry of Defence, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Ministry of Health have refused to give figures for their voucher schemes.
It comes after food inflation hit a 45-year high last month of 16.4%.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said the price of cheap household staples such as pasta, tea and bread had risen sharply over the past year.
This has led to cost pressures for many British households ahead of the typically lenient holiday season, with the most vulnerable people being hit hardest by inflation this year, the ONS said.
A separate analysis, meanwhile, suggests that four out of 10 households will be unable to afford what people believe is a decent standard of living by the next general election.
According to estimates by the New Economics Foundation, around 30.6 million people – 12.5 million households and 43% of households across the UK – will be unable to afford basic necessities, such as putting food in table, by December 2024.