OPINION: Living with dignity: the great pension debate
“Always be nice to bankers. Always be nice to pension fund managers. Always be nice to the media in that order.” John Gotti – ‘The Teflon Don’.
And so, next Wednesday, we are to be treated to a one-day strike of public sector workers which, depending on your optimism-pessimism quotient will either bring the country to its knees in shades reminiscent of the ‘Winter of Discontent’ or will be a bit of a damp squib with a bit of chanting here and there and a few schools and public swimming pools being closed.
The strike, as I understand it is not the usual clamour for higher wages or a shorter working week but over whether or not public sector workers should be able to retain their current pension schemes; something that the government and private sector employers seem none too keen on.
I have worked for a variety of employers throughout my life; some in the public sector and some in the private. As a rule of thumb, I found pension arrangements in the public sector to be generally superior. In the private sector they ranged from no provision at all through to employers being able to take ‘pension holidays’ or to iniquitous and illegal practices exemplified by the late Sir Robert Maxwell, publishing magnate, luxury yachtsman, cheat, liar and pension-thief.
Private sector pensions are not all bad of course and they attract tax-relief in the same way that public sector ones do. In the case of bankers and ‘captains of industry’ they can be amazingly generous and are often paid as some sort of ‘poor performance bonus’ when the time has come to jump ship. They are however inconsistent in both provision and performance.
Surely it is the interest of a civilised country that ALL workers in both sectors are able to retire in a way that enables them to live with some sort of dignity? Not opulence mind you, - dignity.
For me, the thinnest part of the pro and con arguments being mooted are that public sector arrangements are more favourable than private ones and that ergo, they must be bad in some way.
Well, excuse me here; for the last couple of decades we seem to have been hearing about some sort of demographic pensions time-bomb ticking away which could mean that millions more pensioners are forced to eke out the remainder of their lives in poverty relying on benefits and other state-handouts to keep the wolf from the door. So what have various governments actually done to progress this?
Nobody in the public sector seems to be wanting to retain more favourable arrangements at the cost of private sector workers yet they seem to stand accused of being greedy, selfish or at best, according to David Cameron, ‘unreasonable’ in their case to keep their current arrangements that have been carefully negotiated over several decades and seem to have suited their purpose on the whole.
I have even heard the argument bandied about by those who really should know better that public sector pensions, although contributory are somehow free because they derive from salaries paid through public funds.
This is to subscribe to some sort of Daily Mail-mentality that the public sector is a total consumer and non-producer.
Teachers, doctors, nurses, the police, firemen may not produce profits for shareholders but to describe them as some sort of parasites living off the backs of the state is insulting, incorrect and intellectually unsustainable as a cogent argument.
The public sector workers that I have spoken to think that ALL employers should be compelled to provide their staff with the ability to join a contributory scheme. The reality is that so few of them actually do.
Public sector workers are in the middle of a government-imposed three-year ‘pay freeze’. Virtually none of them get performance-related pay, company cars, bonuses, golden handshakes, fringe benefits and private health insurance yet they alone are being demonised here.
There is nothing new under the sun Horatio. The government and organs like the Daily Mail thrive on creating demons whether it be students, the disabled or the public sector. The only ones ‘getting out of here alive’ it seems are the rich bankers who have contributed more than any other group to bring the country close to economic collapse.
I suppose there is some sort of spurious argument to be made for the strike being ill-timed as the government is still in consultation but when has it ever been a good time to strike? Should people just put up with some sort of sham-consultation and then meekly accept what is handed down to them by those holding the reins of power?
The people of Rochdale did that with their acute NHS services consultations and look what they got out of it.
Perhaps when the dust has settled after next Wednesday’s strike, the government might want to sit down with both private and public sector employers, trade unions and other interested parties and look at promoting legislation for a cross-sector contributory scheme based on a national standard?
Perhaps they might consider using the MPs’ own pension arrangements as a template?
But then again...