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Conservatives feel heat after DUP backs Labour on NHS pay

  • Thu, 14 Sep 2017 02:30

Protesters against the government pay cap last week in Parliament Square © Getty

The government is set to come under increased financial pressure after the Democratic Unionist party supported Labour’s calls for higher NHS pay and no rises to student tuition fees.

Philip Hammond, the chancellor, is already facing calls from Conservative MPs chastened by the party’s poor performance at the June general election to make a decisive break with austerity by finding billions of pounds for pay rises for public sector workers.

On Tuesday, the government partially lifted a 1 per cent cap on annual pay rises for these workers by announcing increases above that level for police and prison officers.

Northern Ireland’s DUP, which formed an alliance with the Tories after the election and whose 10 MPs are crucial to the government’s parliamentary majority, on Wednesday supported a Labour motion in the Commons calling for NHS staff to receive “a fair pay rise”.

The DUP MPs also backed a second Labour motion opposing a rise in university tuition fees to £9,250 a year. Faced with near-certain defeat in the votes on Labour’s motions, the Conservatives decided not to whip their own MPs.

Labour’s motions are not binding on the government, and the DUP remains committed to supporting the government’s budget and any finance bills as part of its confidence-and-supply deal with the Conservatives struck after the election.

As part of that deal, the DUP secured £1bn in additional public spending for Northern Ireland. “Their chief interest lies in the budget adding up so their cheque doesn’t bounce,” said one person close to the party.

“Given the heavy legislative schedule, we’re not asking people necessarily to vote on things that have no legislative effect,” said one Tory official. The party was “relaxed” about the DUP’s stance, he added.

Trade unions said the DUP’s stance had limited the Treasury’s room for manoeuvre. “Ministers must know they’re in the wrong when even their quasi-coalition partners in the DUP have turned against them, and backed pay rises for NHS workers,” said Dave Prentis, head of Unison, Britain’s second largest union.

Labour said it was “unthinkable” for the government not to act on the will of the Commons.

Its NHS pay motion also attracted support from Sarah Wollaston, a Tory MP and chair of the Commons health select committee.

Earlier on Wednesday, prime minister Theresa May argued for salary restraint — arguing that some police officers had seen their take-home pay rise by a third in real terms since 2010, largely because of income tax cuts and progressions payments.

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