Labour claim that SNP voted down public sector pay cap end is Mostly True 5

Labour claim that SNP voted down public sector pay cap end is Mostly True

The First Minister has announced the Scottish Government’s plans for the next parliamentary session, known as the programme for government.

Among the pledges contained in the document was a move to scrap the public sector pay cap from 2018, which has been in place across the UK since 2013.

Ferret Fact Service | Scotlands impartial fact check project

While this was received positively by trade unions and political parties alike, for Scottish Labour this amounted to a u-turn by the SNP government.

On the party’s website, it was claimed that an end to the public sector cap had been ‘inspired’ by the Labour manifesto and that the SNP had previously voted against it.

Anas Sarwar, who proposed the motion in question, also took to Twitter to say SNP MSPs voted against his proposal.

Ferret Fact Service assessed this claim and found it to be Mostly True.


The cap on public sector pay was first brought in by then-chancellor George Osborne in 2013, replacing a previous two-year pay freeze with a one per cent cap on pay increases. This did not include those on the lowest salaries, who received a marginally higher increase.

The current Conservative government policy was for pay scales in the public sector to rise on average by one per cent each year up to 2020. The one per cent does not necessarily reflect those workers who move through pay bands, and therefore will have a larger than one per cent increase despite the salary for each band being capped.

The policy has been attacked by unions and rival politicians as inflation led to higher living costs across the UK.

The latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show 543,000 people employed in Scotland’s public sector, with 486,800 (89.6 per cent) under the devolved control of the Scottish Government.

This means that the Scottish Government has the power to set the pay of nearly 90 per cent of Scotland’s public sector workers. Until Tuesday’s confirmation of the plan, Nicola Sturgeon’s government had broadly stayed in line with the UK-wide pay cap of one per cent.

Scottish Labour’s claim that the end of the public sector cap was inspired by its policy is primarily based on the party’s 2017 general election manifesto. In it, the party pledges to “end the public sector pay cap, because public sector workers deserve a pay rise after years of falling wages.”

The SNP’s 2017 manifesto made no such promise, but instead argued against the UK government’s pay cap. It stated: “We recognise that at a time of rising inflation, public sector pay caps become increasingly unsustainable.”

However, Scottish Labour were not the only party to advocate such a position. The Scottish Greens have consistently opposed the Scottish Government’s pay cap, although they have not made it a manifesto pledge.

Scrapping the cap has been Scottish Liberal Democrats policy since 2015, but it was not featured in their manifesto until 2017.

Current Labour leadership candidate Anas Sarwar was behind a members bill motion on May 10, 2017 to end the pay cap for NHS workers in Scotland and give staff a real terms rise above inflation. It was raised during a debate on NHS pay, and suggested that “the parliament believes that the NHS pay cap should be scrapped and that NHS staff should be given a real terms pay rise.”

However, an amendment from the SNP’s Shona Robison removing the commitment to scrap the cap was instead passed by 62 to 55, effectively ending the proposal from Anas Sarwar. This was a motion relating to only the one per cent cap on NHS pay rather than the wider public sector.

The motion as amended by health secretary Robison was passed, so SNP MSPs technically did not vote against the motion, but instead for the motion, significantly changed by the amendment. However, this is a standard way to stop unwanted legislation passing through the Scottish Parliament, so it is accurate to say the SNP members voted against scrapping the NHS cap.

The SNP has been in opposition to the UK-wide continuation of the policy, and has argued that the imposition of a cap on devolved NHS staff has been a result of continued cuts to the the Scottish Government’s budget. However this claim is dependent on how the budget is classified, with disagreement on whether Scotland’s powers to raise tax should be taken into account when assessing budget cuts.

When the plan to scrap the cap was first revealed in July 2017, Scottish Government finance minister Derek Mackay wrote to the Chancellor Phillip Hammond to urge him to “lift the one per cent pay cap for public sector workers in public bodies reserved to the UK Government and to urge the independent pay review for NHS staff to do the same.”

The Scottish Government has also mitigated the impact of the one per cent cap on pay for the lowest earners, with those earning up to £22,000 receiving an additional sum of around £400. Ministers also point to starting salaries for the lowest paid in the NHS in Scotland being higher than the other nations of the UK.

Furthermore, it should be noted that the SNP’s imposition of a pay cap in line with the UK government policy is similar to the approach taken by the ruling Labour Party in Wales, which has so far refused to end the cap.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly True

The Scottish Labour manifesto did indeed suggest that the public sector pay cap be ended, but while the SNP did not go as far as to explicitly call for it, they acknowledged the policy was “increasingly unsustainable”. However, the party did vote down Anas Sarwar’s bill calling for an end to the cap specifically for NHS staff in May 2017, instead passing an amended version which made no commitment to end the cap itself.

Mostly True

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, working to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Any questions or want to get involved? Email us at or join our community forum.

In response to a Ferret Fact Service evidence request, Scottish Labour provided links to the relevant section of the party’s 2017 manifesto and to Anas Sarwar’s members bill.

Photo thanks to Roger Blackwell, CC BY-SA 2.0

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