Top civil servant says £10,000 bonus is not 'big bucks'
The top civil servant at the Home Office has said she does not regard a bonus of £10,000 as "big bucks".
Helen Ghosh was quizzed about public sector pay and bonuses by MPs in relation to the appointment of a new head of the UK Border Agency.
She defended performance-related bonuses at her department, saying they would be far lower this year and small compared to the private sector.
But one Labour MP said this would be "totally incomprehensible" to people.
The coalition has sought to curb what it says is excessive pay in the public sector, with Chancellor George Osborne having to explicitly approve any salary for any new public sector appointment that is higher than the £142,000 earned by Prime Minister David Cameron.
The Home Office is currently recruiting a successor to Lin Homer, who left UKBA earlier this year to become the top civil servant at the Department of Transport on a salary of £170,000.
Asked by MPs to justify this, Mrs Ghosh - permanent secretary at the Home Office - said it was lower than the amount paid to Ms Homer but the job had to be made "attractive" to people in the top echelons of the public and private sector as well as those already working in government.
"We need to make sure for this vital job we get the best possible pool of people," she told MPs.
"We have tried to pitch the salary at something which is reasonable, fits with government policy on salaries but is likely to attract somebody."
The salary had been "cleared" by the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, she added, as necessary to "get an appropriate person for this level of job".
Mrs Ghosh said the successful applicant would also be eligible for a bonus of up to £17,000 if meeting certain performance targets, stressing this was in line with government policy that could see the best-performing 25% of senior civil servants in each department rewarded this year.
But she said the maximum possible bonus pool at the Home Office this year was likely to be about £300,000, compared to the £773,000 paid out last year when more than 60% of departmental staff received similar rewards.
The figures, she added, needed to be seen in the context of the fact that the pay of most civil servants was frozen, that top mandarins had waived their bonuses in each of the past two years and the bonuses paid were small compared to those in the private sector.
"Everyone had a fundamental pay freeze and the average (bonus) wasn't exactly big bucks - the average was, I think, the very maximum for the highest earners was £10,000."
When told by Labour MP Keith Vaz, chair of the committee, that many people would regard this as a lot of money, she replied: "I was drawing the analogy with the private sector."
Mr Vaz said he was "concerned" by the prospect of the new UKBA boss getting a bonus as it seemed to conflict with comments made by Home Secretary Theresa May to the committee earlier this year that no bonuses would be paid at the Home Office.
"When ministers came before us they said no bonuses would be paid," he said.
"The committee made it very clear, that in the current climate, we do not believe that bonuses should be paid."
And his Labour colleague, David Winnick, said it would be "totally incomprehensible" to the public that civil servants were receiving bonuses at all.