LONDON — BRITAIN'S top civil servants are being challenged in their long-stated claim that they are poorly paid.
The reality is that they come second only to their Japanese counterparts in the size of the salaries they draw, according to a survey by the European Policy Forum (EPF), a London-based think tank. Their earnings are also well ahead of the salaries of senior civil servants elsewhere in Europe and North America, the survey shows.
For example, the annual salary of a head of department in Britain in 1990 was 81,000 ($126,360), British pounds compared with 82,000 in British pounds Japan. Top German officials earned 64,000 and British pounds those in the US took home 57,000. Senior British pounds French civil servants had to get by on 44,000. The British pounds current rate for the permanent head of a British government department is 95,000 a British pounds year, plus a car, expenses, and pension rights.
Graham Mather, EPF president and a member of the European Parliament, has asked Prime Minister John Major to cancel a civil-service pay raise scheduled for this April.
Mr. Mather wants Mr. Major to order that the performance of all top civil servants, known locally as mandarins, should be monitored, and their pay determined accordingly. He would also like top civil servants to work on fixed-term contracts - a system already in effect in New Zealand and, according to Mather, ``working well.''
His proposals, in a formal memorandum to the government, have been greeted with outrage by the First Division Association, the top civil servants' trade union. Elizabeth Symons, its general-secretary, says the survey ``does not compare like with like,'' and she says a fairer comparison could be made between the salaries of British mandarins and senior managers in industry.
On this basis, she argues, British mandarins are poorly paid.
The EPF report says that salaries of British mandarins in the 1980s rose faster than growth in national output.
Mather says British civil servants enjoyed ``a great leap forward'' in their earnings under Margaret Thatcher. The former prime minister wanted to make the civil service more efficient, but she ``failed to ensure that pay was measured against performance.''
``I don't think our civil servants go to sleep at night worrying that if they get a policy wrong they will be blamed,'' Mather says. ``We have seen many disastrous official policies in recent years, and it is time to get the risk-reward ratio right.''
But Sir Bernard Ingham, Mrs. Thatcher's press spokesman throughout her premiership, strongly disagrees. ``The civil service has to compete with private industry if it is to get the best kind of people,'' he argues, ``and the only way to do that is to make pay rates comparable.''
To some extent, that has already begun to happen. In the past five or six years, it has been official policy to transfer some government functions to executive agencies whose directors earn higher salaries than many senior career civil servants. For example, the prison service is run as an agency under a director who is on a fixed-term contract at 130,000 a year.
Sir Peter Kemp, a former mandarin who advised the Thatcher government on civil-service reform and helped to launch the agency system, believes the system is the ``way of the future,'' but he says agency heads still have civil servants working for them.
``This means that the directors of the agencies take the risks and are exposed to criticism,'' he says, ``but the people immediately below them earn a lot of money, have secure jobs, and are not publicly accountable.''