Civil servants will not automatically receive the 1% pay rise that had been assumed following the Summer Budget.
In July, chancellor George Osborne announced a 1% rise in public sector pay awards for the next four years.
But now, in a letter to public service pay boards, chief secretary to the Treasury Greg Hands said that some – including new joiners – could be given higher rises than others within the overall envelope.
His letter said: “The government expects pay awards to be applied in a targeted manner to support the delivery of public services, and to address recruitment and retention pressures. This may mean that some workers could receive more than 1% while others could receive less.
“There should not be an expectation that every worker will receive a 1% award.”
He said that departments would submit evidence to the pay boards covering the needs of their different workforces.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said that the implication was that hundreds of thousands of public sector staff would now not get any pay rise at all.
He said: “It is clear from this letter that the government’s promise of a 1% pay rise for public sector workers was all smoke and mirrors.
“There was no substance to Osborne’s claim and NHS staff will be bitterly disappointed to hear many of them may not even get an extra penny for five more years.”
Hands’ letter also said that public sector pay reforms also outlined in the Summer Budget could lead to changes around progression pay, where staff get automatic pay rises as they stay within the civil service.
He said that this would involve “considering legislation where necessary to achieve the government’s objectives.”
Naomi Cooke, assistant general secretary of the FDA union, told CSW: “Ministers’ developing habit of reaching for legislative means to manage the public sector workforce instead of engaging and consulting those affected is deeply concerning.
“Arbitrarily removing one part of a pay framework with no consideration of what is left makes no more sense when managing the civil service than it does when playing Jenga.
“Instead of seeking to legislate away civil servants’ contractual rights, ministers should examine why those provisions were introduced in the first place.”