Theresa May has refused to say whether police and prison officers face job losses as a result of the pay rises announced by the government this week.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn raised fears that "service cuts" could be used to pay for the end of the longstanding cap on public pay, as he went head-to-head with May at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday.
Police will get a 1% pay rise plus a 1% bonus for 2017-18, while prison officers will get a 1.7% rise – but this is still effectively a pay cut, because the rises are less than the rate of inflation, which hit 2.9% in August.
Police chiefs have warned that because there is no new money to fund the pay hike in this financial year, some police officers could lose their jobs to pay for it.
"Can the prime minister guarantee no more police or prison officers will be lost as a result of the decisions she has made this week?" Corbyn asked.
May ducked the chance to respond directly to his question, pointing out instead that the government had simply taken the advice of independent pay review bodies.
She claimed that a new police officer had seen a pay rise of over £9,000 since 2010 – a real-terms increase of 32% – thanks to "progression pay and basic annual salary increases and the increase in personal allowance that is a tax cut for people".
But Corbyn said there were now 20,000 fewer police officers and 7,000 fewer prison officers than in 2010. Some 43% of police stations have closed in last two years alone while police budgets had been cut by £300 million, he said.
Corbyn added: "Does she understand that inflation is now 2.9% – anything less means that dedicated public servants are worse off again and they’ve been made worse off every year for the last seven years?"
May said the government needed to balance several things: "Protecting jobs in the public sector, being fair to public sector workers, and being fair to taxpayers who pay for it, many of whom are public sector workers.
"There is a need for greater flexibility as we look at these issues of public sector pay in the future. We’ll be working on this in the lead-up to the budget."
The 1% cap on public sector pay was brought in in 2013; before that, public sector pay had been frozen since 2010. May has been under pressure from many of her own MPs – not just opposition parties – to give public sector workers a break.
Last week thousands of nurses gathered outside parliament to protest their pay. Many said they were struggling to pay basic living costs, and there have been reports of some nurses having to use food banks.
Labour are holding an opposition day debate later on Wednesday to pile more pressure on the government over NHS pay.
Emily Ashton is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Emily Ashton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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