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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6 ways Brexit is ruining our food

A meat-eating chocolate-lover? You're in trouble.

We were warned. “We’ve got to get our act together”, said Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University London about an impending culinary crisis. He predicted that food would be the second biggest Brexit issue after the future of banking in the City of London. But whereas The City, ominously capitalised, is an ephemeral consideration for those outside the infamous metropolitan liberal elite, food certainly isn’t. Food affects us all – and so far it’s been hit hard by Brexit, after the value of the pound has been savaged, making importing to the UK more expensive. Here are six ways in which Brexit has is ruining our food.

Walnut Whip

The final insult. The sign that Brexit really has gone too far. It was announced yesterday that Walnut Whips would become nothing more than mere Whips. The reason given for this abomination was that the new range would cater for those who didn’t like, or were allergic to, nuts, allowing them to enjoy just the gooey, chocolatey goodness within. Closer inspection reveals that’s not quite the whole story. Walnut importers like Helen Graham, told the Guardian that the pound’s post-Brexit fall in value after last June, combined with “strong global demand” and a poor walnut yield in Chile, have led to Whips shedding the Walnut - not consumer demand. Nestlé say that individual packets and Christmas bumper packs will still be available - but at this rate, getting hold of them might prove harder in practice than in theory.

Marmite

2016’s Marmite shortages was perhaps the first sign that not all was well. Marmite is the ultimate Brexit metaphor: you either love it or hate it, a binary reflected in the 48-52 per cent vote – and the bitter taste it leaves for many. Marmite’s endangered status was confirmed after Tesco entered hostile negotiations with food megacorp Unilever, who wanted to raise trade prices by 10 per cent due to that inconvenient falling pound. Lynx deodorant, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Persil washing powder and PG Tips tea were similarly affected, but none inspired quite the same amount of outrage as the yeast-based spread.

Toblerone

The beauty of Toblerone is the frequency of its triangles. That angularity has been undermined by manufacturer Mondelēz’s decision to space them out, removing 10 per cent of the bar’s total chocolate in the process. Art has truly been tampered with. The scandal led to Colin Beattie MSP calling for the Scottish Parliament to offer condolences to triangle fans, blaming it directly on Brexit. Defending the change, a spokeswoman for Mondelēz said "this change wasn't done as a result of Brexit", suggesting it's part of the sad trend of chocolates getting skimpier. That said, they did admit that the current exchange rate was "not favourable" - and that in itself is directly due to Brexit. They also refused to be drawn on whether they'd be changing their signature chocolate in other EU territories. Hmm. Semantics aside, the dispute is getting legal. Poundland, who are seeking to bring out a "Twin Peaks" alternative to Toblerone echoing the brand's original shape but with two peaks per block instead of one, claim that Toblerone's shape is no longer distinctive enough to warrant a trademark. They claim that their new rival has "a British taste, and with all the spaces in the right places". Shots. Fired.

Cheddar

This one hurts more because it’s closer to home. Our Irish neighbours are reportedly considering turning away from cheddar to mozzarella. This act of dairy-based betrayal is understandable: if export tariffs to the UK go up, Irish cheese producers will have to sell their wares primarily on the continent – for which mozzarella would be a better fit. Tragic.

Chlorinated chicken

Ah, the big one. The subject of not only a transatlantic war of words, but also the source of strife within the cabinet. With the UK forced to look to the US for trade support, it was feared that the country's’ trademark chlorinated chicken would be forced upon these shores as a concession. International Trade Secretary Liam Fox called the media “obsessed” with the topic, dismissing fears over Britain’s meat of the future by saying that there is “no health risk”. Environment Secretary Michael Gove, however, said that there is no way that chlorinated chicken would reach British shelves. The row has faded away somewhat – but this game of chicken between these cabinet heavyweights may yet be renewed when Parliament reconvenes.

Hormone beef

Hormone beef is similarly contentious. US farmers raise cows on growth hormones to fatten them up for markets. As with chlorinated chicken, it’s a practice banned under EU law. It’s a touchy subject for US trade negotiators. Gregg Doud, a senior figure in Trump’s agriculture team, has said that accepting hormone beef is essential to any trade agreement. This debate, too, will presumably rumble on.

All told, it’s a good time to be a vegetarian, but a bad time to have a sweet tooth. Most of the upheaval rests around the weakness of the pound, so maybe the only way forward is to just eat good old homegrown British fruit. At least we'd all be healthier and more in pocket. Oh wait. Apparently British fruit harvests are in jeopardy too, given that most of our fruit is picked by short-term EU migrants. Ah, well, at least we've all got Boris Johnson to make sure that we can have our bananas curved, in packs of more than three.