When you hear the word “pension”, do you bury your head in the sand? If so, I’ve got bad news.
Last year George Osborne dug out most of the sand and this year Lord Hutton finished the job with a dustbuster, sucking up every last grain.
Below I give six reasons why, as an employee and probably as a manager, you now have no choice but to look at hard reality. Then I remind you that your pension is affordable. Finally, I urge you to get behind responsible and robust defenders of pensions.
Here are the six reasons:
First, employee contributions are set to go through the roof. NHS staff pay between 5 and 8.5 per cent, depending on salary. The government wants them to rise by just over 3 per cent on average from April 2012, with higher earners bearing the brunt.
Second, in April the government switched from the retail price index to the consumer prices index for increasing public service pensions. This move alone represents a cut of at least 15 per cent in benefits.
Third, Lord Hutton in his final report recommended ditching final salary schemes and replacing them with career average schemes.
Fourth, it’s the retirement age again. Hutton said NHS pension age should rise in line with the state pension age (65 for men and women from 2018, 66 from 2020, 67 from 2034-2036 and 68 from 2044-46).
Fifth, the government might scrap the Fair Deal, under which staff transferring from the public sector either remain in the NHS scheme or get a broadly comparable pension.
Sixth, proposed changes to state pensions might mean NHS employers and employees paying much higher national insurance contributions from 2014.
However, Hutton recommended that benefits already accrued at the time of any changes should be left alone – although, with his unilateral switch to CPI, Osborne has ensured this important guarantee has a sting in its tail.
You deserve a good pension and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise, but we can’t afford public sector pensions, the cry goes up. Wrong. The economy can easily afford them. Hutton himself showed that the cost of public service pensions is set to decline sharply as a proportion of GDP. Sack-loads more money gets paid into the Treasury in NHS pension contributions than gets paid out in NHS pensions. Also, the “gold-plated” pensions of the public sector are a myth (median women’s NHS pension is about £3,500 a year).
The affordability question is largely political. Many companies have joined the attack because they are desperate to persuade their own employees there’s no alternative to shoddy pension provision. Similarly, the government needs an excuse to hike up contributions to raise cash for deficit reduction over this Parliament. In effect, a tax on public service pensions for a short-term reason. But pensions is a long game. If you don’t think in chunks of 40 years, you’re probably not serious.
The case for public service pensions is strong and legal challenges are being pursued. In July, civil service unions will have a judicial review against the decision to switch to CPI in a case affecting all public sector schemes.
Commentators are writing off the government’s talks with unions as doomed to fail, and, frankly, they probably are. But both parties have much to lose. The government will pay dearly if it imposes change on everyone from Jobcentre workers to High Court judges. Widespread industrial action would be inevitable, with an electoral price to pay in 2015. The unions also face a price if confrontation ensues – and some fear a catastrophic price.
The tactics of those unions – none in health – that have gone for early strikes before talks are beyond me. Industrial action is not a political game. A strike ballot is a measure of last resort.
Therefore, tough, direct negotiation should be the overriding priority. The government’s conduct so far has been unacceptable, not because we refuse to consider the long-term cost of pensions, but because we want everything up for discussion, including CPI. If you want to play your part, don’t bury your head in the sand, don’t accept the argument that good pensions are unaffordable, and get behind the unions.