The myth of "unaffordable" public sector pensions

Forcing workers to pay more is a political choice, not an economic necessity.

The biggest strike for a generation has begun, with around 30 unions, including, for the first time in its history, the National Association of Head Teachers, and two million public sector workers walking out in protest at the government's reforms to public sector pensions. According to the Department for Education, around 58 per cent of England's 21,700 state schools will be closed, with a further 13 per cent partially shut.

With most polls showing a small majority against the strike and others showing support evenly split between the strikers and the government, the battle for public opinion has only just begun. Indeed, the most notable poll finding of recent days (courtesy of TNS-BMRB) is that just 4 per cent of private sector workers claim to know a lot about why the strike is happening. Despite the increasingly sharp rhetoric from both sides, the truth is that today's "day of action" may change little.

But there's no doubt that Osborne's new, tougher austerity programme has upped the stakes. As I reported yesterday, the Office for Budget Responsibility predicts that no fewer than 710,000 public sector jobs will be cut by 2017, 310,000 more than previously forecast. In addition, Osborne's plan to cap pay rises at 1 per cent means that some workers will have suffer an average 16 per cent pay cut over the next five years. If public sector workers can't go on strike in these circumstances, when can they?

For now, here are two myths that deserve to be rebutted again. The first is that public sector pensions, in their current form, are "unaffordable". David Cameron, for instance, has frequently claimed that the system is "broke". But as the graph below from the government-commissioned Hutton Report shows, public sector pension payments peaked at 1.9 per cent of GDP in 2010-11 and will gradually fall over the next fifty years to 1.4 per cent in 2059-60. The government's plan to ask employees to work longer and pay more is a political choice, not an economic necessity.


As the Public Accounts Committee observed: "Officials appeared to define affordability on the basis of public perception rather than judgement on the cost in relation to either GDP or total public spending." In other words, the public have been misled and ministers are determined to keep misleading them.

The second is that inadequate pension provision in the private sector is a reason to reduce pension provision in the public sector. The Daily Mail et al repeatedly point out that two-thirds of private sector employees do not have a company pension, compared to just 12 per cent of public sector workers. But this is an argument for improving provision in the private sector, not for driving it down in the public sector. Ministers must not fire the starting gun on a race to the bottom. Indeed, many pensionless private sector workers depend on their partner's public sector pension to ensure a basic standard of living in old age.

We can debate the merits of industrial action as a form of protest. But with public sector workers facing a triple crunch - higher contributions, a tougher inflation index and lower benefits - it's hardly surprising that they feel compelled to defend their rights. Even before any of the Hutton reforms are introduced, George Osborne's decision to uprate benefits in line with CPI, rather than the RPI, has already reduced the value of some pensions by 15 per cent.

Strip away the government's rhetoric ("unaffordable", "untenable") and the truth is that ministers are forcing workers to take another pay cut, forcing them to pick up the tab for a crisis that they did not cause. The public might be on the side of ministers, for now at least, but the facts are on the side of the unions.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.