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Britain's Labour calls government's health pay offer "reprehensible", steps up budget criticism

·2-min read

LONDON, March 7 (Reuters) - Britain's opposition Labour Party called the government's pay offer to health workers "reprehensible" on Sunday and pledged to vote against its freeze on income tax thresholds, stepping up criticism of the budget.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government set out its plans to help the economy weather the COVID-19 crisis last week, with finance minister Rishi Sunak promising to do "whatever it takes to support the British people and businesses".

While Johnson enjoys a large majority in the lower house of parliament, his Conservative government's plans have come under fire for what critics say is its targeting of lower- and middle-income earners and not being generous enough to health workers, after a year of great strain battling the coronavirus pandemic.

Johnson, who was the face of Britain's campaign to leave the European Union in a 2016 referendum, promoted what has become a disputed promise that Brexit would free up an extra 350 million pounds a week for the National Health Service.

But in the budget, the government proposed a 1% pay rise for workers in the NHS, an offer one nurses union, the Royal College of Nursing, called "pitiful" and has threatened to strike over.

Labour, which is flagging in opinion polls despite criticism of Johnson's uneven handling of the pandemic, has called on the government to stand by what it said was an earlier commitment to hand NHS workers a 2.1% pay increase.

"The government is not planning a pay rise...That is a real terms pay cut because it doesn't keep pace with inflation, which is just reprehensible in our view," Nandy told Sky News.

"In the NHS long-term plan the government budgeted for a 2.1 percent pay rise, that is what nurses were promised."

She also said the party would vote against a freeze on income tax levels because "we think that now is absolutely the wrong time to be targeting low- and middle-income earning families for tax hikes and squeezing their incomes".

Sunak has said the freeze is part of an approach to start fixing the public finances as he looks for ways to raise funds following unprecedented measures to support jobs and the economy during the pandemic.

Government ministers have also said that the pay proposal for NHS workers is what is affordable.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told the BBC's Andrew Marr show that the government was investing large amounts of money into the NHS, showing "we recognise the vitally important role the NHS plays".

But on pay, he said the government's proposal was part of a process in which rates are set: "We put forward a proposal, we put forward what we believe we can afford and is part of a process and that will be looked at." (Reporting by Elizabeth Piper Editing by Mark Heinrich)