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Mark Serwotka

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We Want to Negotiate on Pensions, but the Government Doesn't

Posted: 12/07/11 18:42

With colleagues from the other public sector unions I will be back in talks tomorrow with the government over its plans to force public sector workers to pay more for their pensions and work longer for much less in retirement.

We last met on Wednesday 6 July and, in a way, it was quite reassuring to see the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude again. He had done a disappearing act after getting what was generally accepted to have been a bit of a mauling on Radio 4's Today programme on the morning of the strike on 30 June by half a million civil servants, teachers and lecturers.

The Guardian said Mr Maude had been "kebabbed". Ouch. And later in the evening when he pulled out of a debate with me on Channel 4 News with less than half an hour to go, presenter Jon Snow told viewers he had "gone to ground". Oh dear, minister.

But, despite proving he was alive and well, the man responsible for leading the talks for the government still seemed to be struggling with the detail. Namely, that the costs of public sector pensions are falling and that they are, therefore, both "sustainable" and "tenable" - or whatever word government ministers are now being briefed to use - and that they are, therefore, not in urgent need of further reform.

We have patiently explained the detail to ministers, but we will make no progress until they agree to proper negotiations on the key issues: forcing public servants to pay more each month; increasing the pension age; and cutting the pension they will get in retirement. But the government continues to rule these crucial areas out of the talks.

There were those who decried our strike as premature while negotiations are ongoing, or dismissed it as incapable of achieving anything. But not only was our action necessary - we have been talking, but not negotiating - it successfully opened up a national debate on pensions, both public and private.

This is a debate the government does not really want. It would rather try to artificially divide public servants from their colleagues, friends and family in the private sector.

So, as well as exposing the truth about the affordability of public sector pensions, our action provided an opportunity to focus on what is one of the biggest scandals in living memory - the entirely avoidable collapse of private sector pensions.

Public sector workers and other taxpayers did not force private employers to rob their staff of a decent pension. But the long term costs are being borne by the taxpayer through increased eligibility for means-tested benefits, and higher health and social care costs.

And, while the 'fairness' argument is now replacing the discredited 'affordability' claim, some private sector workers are still doing very nicely. TUC research shows the average FTSE 100 director's pension is worth £3.4 million, while chief executives average £5.6 million. These schemes suck up most of the £37.6 billion in tax relief that private sector pensions get every year from you and I. Fair?

The public sector workers I represent are, on average, looking forward to an occupational pension of around £80 a week. Added to the basic state pension of £102, this gives them a 'gold-plated' income in retirement that is just £4 above the official weekly pensioner poverty line of £178.

This is the real pensions timebomb. Too many private sector workers denied a decent pension by their bosses, and the slide of more public sector workers into poverty if these cuts are allowed to go through.

So we will continue to meet the government in the hope that negotiations will improve, but we will prepare for the worst and talk to other unions about co-ordinating further industrial action later in the year.

This is not a fight we picked. But the government has been rumbled and its central argument destroyed, so it is a fight we are prepared to have if ministers continue to ignore the facts and threaten everything for which public servants have ever worked.

We will take more action if necessary but I am happy to meet, and debate with, Francis Maude any time. Just hope he turns up.

 

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