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.

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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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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