Four myths about ‘gold-plated’ public sector pensions


8:55 am - July 1st 2011

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contribution by Alice Hood

It seems like a good time to debunk some public service pension myths.

Myth 1: Public service pensions are gold-plated

Half of public sector pensions in payment are less than £5,600 a year. In local government half of pensioners get less than £3,000.

A YouGov poll of 2,500 people in February 2011 asked what the average public sector pension should be. The average across all responses was £17,088. Forty-four per cent said it should be more than £15,000. Almost half (49%) of respondents believed the average public sector pension is more than £10,000, and only 23% believe it is less than £10,000.

The Commission firmly rejected the claim that current public service pensions are ‘gold plated.’

Final Hutton Report (p26).

To see some solid gold pensions, take a look at some of the top private sector boardroom pensions. The TUC’s annual PensionsWatch survey found that top directors had pension pots paying out an average of almost £300,000 per year.

Myth 2: Public service pensions are unreformed

Two major changes have been made to public sector pensions – one by negotiation and one imposed by the Government. Together they reduced the value of public service pensions by around 25% even before the current negotiations started.

Negotiations with the previous Labour government led to changes to the public service pension schemes that reduced the value of pensions to members by around 10 per cent, according to the interim Hutton report (page 9), and the future costs by around 14% according to the National Audit Office (p.5).

In June 2010 the Chancellor announced without warning that public service pensions would be uprated according to the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) rather than the Retail Prices Index (RPI). The switch to linking the indexation of pensions in payment to the CPI measure reduces the value of pensions by a further 15%. A number of unions are currently taking legal action to challenge the decision to cut the value of pensions in this way.

Myth 3: Public sector pensions are unsustainable

How best to measure the costs of commitments that go a long way into the future is controversial. Those who want to claim public sector pensions are unsustainable try to express all these future commitments as if they were a bill that had to be paid today. This produces some scary numbers but is a completely inappropriate measure given the long term nature of pensions.

The NAO and the Hutton Commission both rejected this approach and said that the test of the long term affordability of public sector pensions is what proportion of GDP future payments will require.

The NAO found that even before the switch to CPI indexation the cost was sustainable:

Government projections suggest that the 2007-08 changes are likely to reduce costs to taxpayers of the pension schemes by £67 billion over 50 years, with costs stabilising at around 1% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or 2% of public expenditure. This would be a significant achievement.

Public Accounts Committee, The impact of the 2007-8 changes to public service pensions

Once CPI indexation is taken into account the proportion falls clearly. The Hutton report (chart 1.B) shows that the central projection of future costs (before any further changes) falls from 1.9% of GDP to 1.4% by 2060.

Myth 4: The government is protecting the low-paid

The Government argues that according to their proposals only those earning over £18,000 will bear the full brunt of the increase and those earning under £15,000 won’t pay any of the increase. But in the briefing issued ahead of the the speech is was clear that these figures were based on ‘full time equivalent’ salaries.

The ‘full time equivalent’ point is important because many low-paid staff in the public sector would earn over the £15,000 threshold if they worked full time, but they have low take home pay because they work part-time. So someone who works in a job which if full-time meant they would earn £16,000 a year, but actually works half-time and thus earns £8,000 will not be protected from the increase.

We estimate that this could affect over a million part time workers, the vast majority of them women. Nicola and Channel 4’s Fact Check both have more on this.


Alice Hood is a TUC senior policy officer working on public services. A longer version of this post is here.

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Reader comments


“Half of public sector pensions in payment are less than £5,600 a year. In local government half of pensioners get less than £3,000.”

What you fail to mention is that these stats include all those who’ve only worked in a sector for a few years. The Hutton report identified typcial terms of service, many of which were around 10-15 years. Trying to portray a pension of around £5,000 as the result of 30-40 years service is shamefully missleading. The actual rate of accrual for public sectors workers is much, much higher than private – often by a factor of four or five.

Comparing average public sector pensions with ‘some of the top private sector boardroom pensions’ is pathetic. If you’re trying to debunk myths, then don’t throw spurious nonsense like that around.

If you want to compare the average public sector pension to something in the private sector, why not compare it to the average private sector pension?

Then, why not put the average public sector pension of £5,600 in some context.. what is the average length of service in the public sector? What has been the level of contribution towards that pension? Also, consdier that someone wanting to buy a comparable private sector pension would need almost £200,000 at current annuity rates to do so.

The reason public sector pensions are seen as ‘gold plated’ is that they are guaranteed and free of the market risk.. it’s not that they all pay out huge sums of money. I’m glad that people are busting the myth that public servants do all retire on huge incomes, but that doesn’t change anything with regards to the infinitely better provision they have than comparable workers outside of the state sector. Let’s have a spot of honesty here and lay out the real problem so we can figure out how to deal with it.

Don’t misunderstand my motives… I don’t want to bash public sector pensions, I want a fair system that ensures that everyone is given the opportunity to secure a decent retirement income. However, the whole debate is constantly held back by the myths, spin and minsinformation… and whilst purporting to try and counteract that, you’re actually perpetuating it.

Discussing this yesterday with friends – some public sector workers, other like me not, a couple of interesting points about the savings were made
1. If the very low paid get effectively priced out of their pension (We could see that an opt out may be offered) then these people who are at the bottom end of the scale with pensions of up to £5000pa will simply move from pension to means tested benefits. I don’t know the figures but it isn’t unreasonable to assume that it will actually cost more to process these claims, there will be no contributions to set payments against and it will end up costing the tax payer.
2. Moving the retirement age sounds easy if you treat people like a population not indivuduals. Currently Public sector pensions can pay out at a range of ages, and people will take them when it suits them, based on their own health, family commitments etc. While there will be an ever increasing number of workers who can breeze through to 68, there are some who retire early (on less pension) on health grounds. These workers will now remain in the office, possibly not up to the job, possibly with long periods of sickness (accruing pension contributions) not exactly cost effective. And then what about the (mainly) women who want to retire earlier to be with older partners, increasingly to act as carers for very old parents, or provide childcare for grandchildren. All of these will move costs to other areas.

The moment Alice Hood tells us how much her TUC/taxpyer sponsored pension is, we might start to take a word she says seriously.

Till then, i’ll keep paying 1300 a year into public sector workers pensions before I begin to start paying in to my own.

5. the a&e charge nurse

God, here we go again, setting one group of workers against t’other – it’s the oldest trick in the book, yet still so effective (and of course produces winners and losers as we saw during the miners strike when the cops raked in the overtime while mining families barely had enough food to eat).

Meanwhile …………
http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2010/sep/09/company-directors-amass-huge-pension-pots

Apparently the TUC PensionsWatch survey, examined the pension arrangements of 329 directors from 102 of Britain’s biggest companies – the value of director’s pension pots jumped £400,000 to £3.8m, providing an average annual retirement income of £227,726.

I’m sure some of these guys must mouth into the mirror (rather like a model in a latter day shampoo advert) “because I’m worth it”?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3FgTySsjAw

6. Merrymaker

The Hutton report figure of costs falling from 1.9% of GDP to 1.4% of GDP has been much used to show long term affordability. However, this gross cost ignores the changing demographics. Even if the estimate is accurate, is it not the case that the proportion of taxpayers will decline relative to the proportion of pensioners? Surely it is this increasing burden on individual taxpayers that raises questions of long term sustainability. My reading of the relevant paragraphs of Hutton seem to support that view.

7. Chaise Guevara

“Half of public sector pensions in payment are less than £5,600 a year. In local government half of pensioners get less than £3,000.

A YouGov poll of 2,500 people in February 2011 asked what the average public sector pension should be. The average across all responses was £17,088. Forty-four per cent said it should be more than £15,000. Almost half (49%) of respondents believed the average public sector pension is more than £10,000, and only 23% believe it is less than £10,000.”

…So what is the average public sector pension?

8. Henry Crun

Publci sector pensions may not be “gold-plated” but trade union leaders’ salaries and pensions certainly seem to be in the gold-plated class!

9. Paul Newman

It is wilfully misleading to talk about average Public Sector Pensions. What you need is the full career equivalent so you can compare it with other pensions. A teacher on £30k gets a pot of £500,000. Start there.
It is also misleading in that these are index linked which is not something others can purchase also guaranteed. In previous TUC propaganda the average £10,000 has been quoted. Well at the sort of rates of inflation we might expect that would be worth about £15k in 10 years and lets say £20k in 20 years .
To compare the 8,000,000 on the State payroll to about 500 of the Nation`s most successful people is childish and absurd. Do stop that crap
It is no surprise,that the Labour`s Hutton was kindly disposed to State expenditure but his conclusions are exactly the ones the coalition is trying to enact. As for GDP, I think the rest of us would early love to negotiate with our employers to stump up such goodies on the basis of GDP in twenty years. Idiotic .

Personally i think they should all be given back their contributions and told to buy a pension in the market. Then they should be asked if they still want the job without any pension at all ,or wish to try their luck in the competitive job environment .95% will stay put , more I `d say.
These perks are additional to what is required to retain the staff and the tax payer should not be ripped off a day longer.

10. Luis enrique

I think most of us can agree the gulf between top pensions and what the vast majority receive is unjustifiable – it is another manifestation of the outrageous degree of inequality I this economy.

Separately, it seems to me support for these strikes has more to do with comparable public and private sector pensions. PT #1 makes a very important point – if these figures relate to an average duration of service, they are not really the right figures. We need to see something like annualised pension accruals, or how much you’d get after spending your entire career in either the private or the public sector. Id like to know whether it is a myth that public sector pensions are very generous compared against those of similarly waged private devote workers ( I don’t know this information)

Of course if it did turn out that public sector pensions do look generous alongside their private equivalents, that doesn’t settle anything. We don’t know what the “right” level is, nag whatever it

11. Luis Enrique

oops hit submit too soon

I was going to say … even if we did know the right level of public sector pensions, and decided they were too high, there’s still the question of whether the government has handled things properly, reneged on previous agreements etc. I thought Chris Dillow’s latest post on this topic was v good.

imho, this is a terribly difficult question. If you regard wages and pensions and total compensation, then perhaps it is right that total compensation is different between public and private sector jobs for the same reasons that different jobs pay different wages. On the other hand, we know that it does make sense to say that public sector wage are too low or too high – imagine if the government either halved or doubled every public sector wage: then we’d have no trouble saying they were too low / too high.

Additionally, it doesn’t make much sense just to look at one component of total compensation. Perhaps if private sector pensions were higher, private sector wages would be lower. Perhaps if public sector pensions were lower, public sector wages would have to rise. So saying pensions are too high or too low, in isolation, is pretty meaningless.

I haven’t read the Hutton report. I strikes me that one response to this issue is to say that it isn’t public sector pensions that are too high, it’s private sector pensions that are too low. But would it be feasible to push private sector pensions up to public levels? If not, what does that imply for what’s “fair”?

12. Mr S. Pill

@11

“But would it be feasible to push private sector pensions up to public levels? If not, what does that imply for what’s “fair”?”

That capitalism doesn’t work.

13. Luis Enrique

Mr S. Pill

well, here’s where you and I probably differ. I don’t think any non-capitalist system will do any better. For example, under a socialist system [1] I believe the real value of workers pensions would be lower. So I think the thing to do is try to improve capitalism. But maybe there is a better alternative out there, who knows – the only way we have of finding out is to conduct long-term experiments with whole countries. So far the results of such experiments haven’t been encouraging. On the other hand, I hope that with changes in technology and society, capitalism may evolve into something quite different from what has gone before.

[1] I’m thinking of non-capitalist socialism, so much less private ownership of capital, much less use of market mechanisms etc.

14. Liberal Neil

I’ll start by agreeing that describing most public sector pesnions as ‘gold-plated’ is unfair and unhelpful. Some public sector workers get very good pensions, typically those on high salaries in final salary schemes, but most public sector pensions would be better described as ‘very generous compared to most’ rather than ‘gold-plated’.

On your Myth 1 – as others have pointed out your figures are meaningless unless you say how many years the avregae worker works to get the average pension, apart from the fact that even that average figure is good compared to many workers. A median of £5,600 a year doesn’t sound huge, but if it is in return for 10 oir 15 years worked, rather than for a whole acreer, it is actually very good.

On your Myth 3 – it depends what you mean by ‘sustainable’. Can it be afforded? Yes. is it sustainable given what is happening to the other 80% of people’s pensions? No.

On your Myth 4 – what you state is factually correct but it is also inevtiable and applies equally well to the 80% of people in the private sector. pension entitlement, holiday entitlement etc. is always worked out on a pro rata basis, it would be very unfair to full time workers to do otherwise.

15. James Alexander

Anyone looking for light rather than heat on average pensioner income separated out by sources of pension and % breakdown of sources will find this Parliamentary answer informative. It doesn’t answer all the issues in this discussion by any means, but it gives authoritative national average income from all pension sources including Occupational, and is particularly interesting in suggesting the total national proportional dependency on occupational pensions as a percentage of total pension income. Useful to anyone whose focus is the national pension question, but doesn’t help on private v public.

http://www.theyworkforyou.com/wrans/?id=2011-02-10b.39510.h&s=section%3Awrans+speaker%3A24851#g39510.q0

Anyone interested in authoritative information on which to base opinion and comment on pensioner income should start here

http://statistics.dwp.gov.uk/asd/index.php?page=pensioners_income

16. Liberal Neil

@ Luis “We need to see something like annualised pension accruals, or how much you’d get after spending your entire career in either the private or the public sector. Id like to know whether it is a myth that public sector pensions are very generous compared against those of similarly waged private devote workers ( I don’t know this information)”

Yes – this is a fairer way to compare.

The answer is that the public sector scheme is a lot more generous, when you compare like for like, than nearly all private sector schemes. This is because a) public sector schemes recieve a very high employer contribution on top of their personal contribution, and b) because public sector pensions are linked to salary, either final or career average, while private sector schemes relate to the size of the eventual pot.

Looked at in terms of return for your money, for every £100 a public sector employee pays in to their pension they will end up getting about £33 per annum back in pension. For every £100 a private sector employee puts in to their pension they will get between £7 and £15 per annum back in pension, depending on whether they get any employer contribution or not, with most towards the bottom end of that range.

17. Paul Newman

I think you have to look at the overall package , not just the pension
Long long holidays
Job for life
Short hours
No pressure
Child friendly
Pretty well Paid

If we removed Public sector Pensions completely doesanyone think that we could not still fill teaching positions ? You might need some freedom to negotiate locally and on hard subjects but overall the cost the the taxpayer is far more than need be paid
So far so obvious .The only thing left to decide then is do we run the system to educate our children or to pay off a left wing constituency ? I thought it was the former

18. Luis Enrique

Thanks LiberalNeil,

I am surprised by that – £33 per year post-retirement (for what on average – about 15 years, post retirement?) for the price of £100 is a very nice looking deal. (although I guess I should ask what you based those figures on).

But while this debate is surely better with such information than without it, I still don’t know on which side to jump off my fence, (see that Chris Dillow post I linked to).

Perhaps one of out resident right-wingers can explain this to me.

Here’s how you think the world works: a state monopoly on the provision of any service stifles innovation and holds down standards. By encouraging competition between a variety of state and private providers, you drive a process of ‘levelling up’: standards rise across the board because market forces dictate that providers who provide a relatively poor service can’t attract clients.

But in the case of pensions, what the evidence seems to suggest is the following: at least in cases where the state is the provider setting the benchmark for excellence in the provision of a given service, market forces can in fact drive a process of ‘levelling down’: rather than demanding a better service for themselves, a high proportion of service users will simply demand a *worse* service for other people.

So suppose I were to make the following cynical suggestion: all this business about ‘driving up standards for everyone’ is so much hot air. If we were to wake up tomorrow in a right-wing paradise where there was much-increased competition between (say) public and private providers of healthcare or education, we wouldn’t find any process of ‘levelling up’ going on – we’d hear from the Tories, from the right-wing press, and from the users of private services, a chorus of voices calling for an end to the unfairness of certain people receiving ‘gold-plated’ public services funded by the taxpayer, while others had to rely on poorer services funded out of their own pockets. There would be an ongoing process of ‘levelling down’ as public services were brought in line with private services. Meanwhile, the only people doing quite nicely out of the whole sorry mess would be those very wealthy individuals who had a financial interest in the companies providing the private services and/or whose tax bills had been cut subsantially, so that they were more than able to cover the cost of genuinely excellent private services for themselves.

What would you say to convince me otherwise?

20. Paul Newman

But in the case of pensions, what the evidence seems to suggest is the following: at least in cases where the state is the provider setting the benchmark for excellence in the provision of a given service…

When the service in question is”Giving away money” there is no doubt the state provides a benchmark of excellence 🙂
I think the rest of what you say makes more sense but I am not convinced that the NHS and the educational system need the same answer. Our beloved NHS is notably out of line with other OECD countries having no private component at all .It is, in my view, surprisingly good, but the sheer scale of it is impossible to manage.It needs to be broken up and competition introduced where possible

With schools the state being the main provider should continue. It is not the State that is the problem it is the NUT teaching Unions, Councils and monopolistic structures . This gives employees ananachronistic power over the use of a system we have all created and paid for.The real agenda behind Academies and free schools is to break this grid lock
Strike powers should be limited across the Public Sector as a quid pro quo for the lack of commercial pressure.The current system of behaving like the miners by withholding services the tax payer has already over paid for and has no choice but to go on doing so is not fair. It has lead to an inefficient allocation of resources and justifiable resentment
In a modern job market the right to withdraw your Labour is always there . you get another job

That might sound harsh but actually the vast majority of teaching posts would still be filled easily and with no pension on the current package . Why shouyld we get over charged . No-one else gets away with it

21. Charlieman

@9 Paul Newman: “Personally i think they should all be given back their contributions and told to buy a pension in the market.”

What a fascinating idea. In order to pay back employees’ contributions, government would have to borrow billions of pounds. Fortunately, billions of pounds would be entering private pension funds at this time, assuming that 100% of the pay back is re-invested. This means that government could borrow the money invested in private pension funds to give to workers to invest in private pension funds. I can’t see anything wrong with that.

@ G.O.

For clarity, I am not a resident right wing type.

I see the point, and don’t necessarily disagree with it, but the market for pensions is a different market to that which one expects the private enterprise to excel in, and the problem is that excellence in one can be to the detriment of the other.

So I am a state telecoms provider who goes private. I want to excel in the market of providing telecoms, so I decide to try and reduce my costs to make my products cheaper for everyone and I close down my final salary pension scheme. In the race to enhance the market for telecoms by lowering costs, I damage my pensioners. They suffer because people wan’t lower prices and I, in a competitive environment, have to deliver them. Note, this is distinct from the state, which is a monopoly provider of ‘being the state’.. we can’t go online and buy our state services from China.

A right-winger out of touch with real life (of which there are plenty, they’re EXACTLY as bad as left-wingers in that regard) would say that the employee who suffers should demand better benefits, and exercise their right to go and work for someone else… meaning that the pensions market is also competitive and so standards are raised. But, of course, it doesn’t work like that because we don’t have full employment. The employers see no likelihood of upside in the pensions market because they are not in a position of power, conversely.. they benefit from the changes in the telecomms market because they still have a job that they wouldn’t have if their employer didn’t compete. Also, they get cheap phones.

So is this evidence that the idealised right-wing world doesn’t work… yes, it clearly is. But I’m not sure it’s for the reasons you seem to suggest. The market can still drive up standards in the way that most people want… cheaper phones, cheaper food, more choice, investment in innovation, blah blah blah.. but there are negative implications of these great things that we ALL apparently want. Consumers don’t take any interest in the pension provision of the companies they buy from. Hell, most peopole couldn’t even give a toss about buying clothes made by abused children in sweatshops. If I opened a supermarket which gave all employees a final salary pension, and sold everything for 25% more than Tesco in order to fund it, I doubt do very well… and I doubt that many of the people who were striking yesterday would frequent my store.

Someone tell Paul Newman that we are not “over charged” because we pay into teachers pensions.

Given the quality of output, teachers pensions are a snip. There are also sustainable.

The idea of “taxpayer” is nebulous. Money as currency is issued by the government, it circulates and at some point comes back to the government as taxes. The idea of a “taxpayer” being overcharged for anything is utter nonsense.

The private sector would not exist without the public sector and vice versa.

Many commenters want more information about private sector pensions to help make a better comparison.

The problem is that the private sector is very diverse. Any average will mislead as much as it informs. Public sector pension schemes are not all the same, but have many characteristics in common.

Two out of three private sector workers get no employer backed pension help at all. So if you want to make public and private sectors “fair” by making provision the same, you would have to take all pension help away a similar proportion of those in the public sector.

At the other end solid-gold boardroom pensions for top directors are mind-bogglingly generous. Unlike the public sector, not all staff of the same employer are in the same scheme. (Indeed in some public sector schemes, the better paid pay higher percentage contributions than the lower paid.)

Defined benefit schemes have declined in the private sector, but those that exist are not that different from those in the public sector, though there is some evidence that member contributions are higher in some public sector schemes.

Defined contribution pensions have grown in the private sector, though not as quickly as DB pensions have declined. These almost always have far less generous employer contributions, even though DC pensions are a more expensive and more risky way of delivering retirement benefits.

I’ve not got time to add all the references, but search for ASHE pensions statistics, and Pensions Trends for official statistics, Pensions Policy Institute for independent and well-regarded research and if you want to learn why DC pensions offer poor value look at the RSA’s Tomorrow’s Investor project and for a thorough defence of DB pensions in the private sector (and not from a union perspective) http://www.futureofpensions.org/resources/Long+Finance_FutureofPensions.pdf

25. Charlieman

@22 Lee: “If I opened a supermarket which gave all employees a final salary pension, and sold everything for 25% more than Tesco in order to fund it, I doubt do very well…”

Err, that’s how Waitrose operates. And their prices are sufficiently competitive.

I’m not arguing that the Waitrose/John Lewis is the only model for running a company, but it is clearly a viable one.

Either righty blowhards are confused or I am. When public sector pensions are reduced to the same sad rump as private sector ones, then how will those in such schemes facing retirement in the next decade or so be supported? Is the righty idea that they should shuffle off and die like good spartans? Could it be that their blessed taxpayer has to step in and pay through the benefits system? Cui bono, hey?

If I recall correctly, public sector pay was found to be generally worse that private sector pay by the ONS. The big difference was in pensions, where those in the private sector were very poor. I don’t see any argument that it would be fairer to increase public sector pay to bring it in line with the private sector, which might be reasonable under equivalence arguments.

@ Charlieman

That’s not quite how Waitrose operate, but I do completely take the point. The John Lewis Partnership, from what I know of it, is a cracking company which treats it’s people as a good employer should. Of course, it operates in the premium sphere.. so it’s not a model that would work if everyone was doing it.

28. gastro george

The elephant in the room here – which directly relates to the government’s new strategy of focussing on “fairness”, and to some of the posters above comparing public and private pensions – is the scandalous situation of private pensions.

Both the finance industry and senior private company managers have been quite happy to see the demise of well-structured collective pension schemes. The former – with the introduction of personal private pensions – have been happy to reap the increased opportunity to salami slice many small pots. The latter have been happy to use the opportunity when schemes were being transferred to reduce employer contributions.

When people say that public employees should be exposed to “market risk” like most private employees, then maybe we should be thinking that private employees are being exposed to far too much market risk, and are being short-changed by their employers.

Hold on, if the public sector pays so bloody well, why don’t all these moaning minnies go and work there?

So much for ‘rational self interest’…

@ Neil

You know when righty-types bemoan those on benefits and say ‘why don’t they just go and get a job’, yeah?

And you know how that’s an astoundingly crass, simplistic, and ignorant thing to say, yeah?

Well what you just said is just as bad.

Lee, meet joke.

32. the a&e charge nurse

You have to remember that the much quoted Hutton Report was set terms of reference for his report. He was not given a blank canvas and told to review public sector pensions, his brief was to review public sector pensions and find a way of taking £2b from the pay bill. Hutton himself states quite clearly that he was given terms of refernece and he did not stray! And where is this £2b going? to pay down the defecit of course so the arguement about affordability and sustainability are complete red herrings.

But to compare public and private sector pensions ia aslo a misnomer, there are good and bad in both. In the public sector the majority of high pensions come from people who have been educated to at least dergree level, Dr’s, Teachers, Civil servants, Chief Police Officers, so they skew the the figures. Also one must bear in mind that anyone enetering those proffessions now will have to pay at least £45K for the privelage before thay even consider getting a position, a personal investement into a career that has standard benefits?

Top private sector pensions are skewed by the company directors and shareholders who would rather not share their wealth with thier workers. But there are still some very good pensions out there for workers who have never invested in their own training such as Fords and Vauxhall motors who believe in investing in people. Banks and other finacial intitutions have have very good pensions, so while polorised views will always be present in this debate one should look a little bit broader than your own circumstances.

34. Charlieman

@26. Cherub: “When public sector pensions are reduced to the same sad rump as private sector ones, then how will those in such schemes facing retirement in the next decade or so be supported?”

I don’t have an answer either. Thanks to the excellent link provided by @24 Nigel Stanley, I had a look at a mortality graph. For those contributing to the state pension pot around 1908 when UK state pensions were introduced, ~25% did not live to 65 years of age to collect their contribution. Today, ~5% of 20 year olds pop their clogs before the age of 65. And the trends don’t suggest sci-fi changes beyond current longevity (ie you’ll die at pretty much the same age if you were born in 1971 or 2001).

Regarding the consequences and costs of longevity, pensions are just one factor. Bigger money is spent on health and domestic care for the aged.

Pensions matter because they enable the fit or alert to explore things that they couldn’t do when working. For retired people, a pension should provide a window of opportunity before infirmity arrives. Deliver some post-retirement fun and focus on other costs of a long life.

35. Richard W

” 1.9% of GDP to 1.4% by 2060. ” Which will obviously be wrong if the public sector respond to the current fiscal consolidation and reduction in headcount by increasing early retirement.

We definitely need more honesty about the issue. However, lost in dry averages about provision is the question of whether it is equitable. Some make the point about higher employer contribution in the public sector. Completely ignoring that the higher contributions are taxpayer funds. Anyone can be generous with other peoples money especially when you are the recipient of the largesse.

Affordability is not just about how much each recipient gets per annum. How many years will they get the pension is the pertinent point. My anecdotal impression is the public sector now has a female and middle class bias in their workforce. They live longer and that raises questions about how equitable it is to ask taxpayers with shorter life expectancies to fund the retirement of those who live longer than they will. Therefore, even if a private sector pension was paying exactly the same as a public sector pension at retirement. If one pays out for fifteen years and the other twenty, the former is the more valuable even though the payments are the same. Maybe you think it is equitable that those on modest incomes should be taxed to fund the retirement of those who out earned them and will out live them, I don’t.

Think about a young guy in his twenties in a minimum wage job. He went to a shit school for twelve years and learned nothing that will do him any good beyond reading, writing and basic arithmetic. It will probably be the worst twelve years of his life. He will be paying tax to fund the retirement of those who gave him nothing. His door is kicked in by some paramilitary police for possession of some drugs. More pensions to fund for the pleasure of having his door kicked in. Dragged through the courts and more pensions to fund. A month in prison with the added benefit of having to pay for the retirement of those who held him captive. Back to his job on a building site to work all his days and pay tax to fund the retirement of the middle class elite who lord it over him. Dies around seventy while they live happily into their eighties.

An interesting and for once polite debate of the issues.

It seems clear that any direct comparison of what’s on offer in the private and public sectors falls down because there is a lack of information. There are plenty of figures being thrown around here, and elsewhere, suggesting the difference might not be that great. But might the figures overlook some basic arithmetic?

Most people seem to agree that 80% of private sector workers do not benefit from an employer’s pension scheme, and importantly don’t get any contribution to their scheme if personal from their employer. Most people seem to agree that 90% of public sector workers are on final salary schemes to which they contribute and their employer contributes more.

The average public sector pension looks like it’s around £6,000 per annum index-linked. Several commenters point out that this includes many people who have only worked a few year and some who have spent an entire career in the public sector. An average is the best of the worst and the worst of the best.

I’ve seen similar quotes for private sector employees averaging £6,000 per annum index-linked.

The simple arithmetic begs the question: ‘Are these averages across all employees in each sector including those who don’t get pensions?’ I wouldn’t mind betting the averages are for those who get pensions. If so, including those with no pension, the average could be said to be £5,400 for public and £1,200 for private. (e.g. £6,000 x 90% + £0 x 10% divided by 100%)

Whatever way you look at it, public sector workers get a pretty good deal. ONS data suggest that pay in the public sector is considerably better – ‘on average’ (not like for like) – than the private sector. On an hourly rate basis the differential is even larger. Public sector workers work fewer hours and have longer holidays – especially over a lifetime of work because they retire earlier. They also pull more ‘sickies’. And their pensions are extremely generous from the point of view of contributions and index-linking.

The real question here should proably be about raising the standards for private sector workers rather than watering down the public sector. But we all know that this cannot be afforded in the real world. So putting aside the undoubtedly jealous grumblings of private sector workers, we have to ask ourselves whether public sector pensions are affordable in the world we now face. We also have to ask whether, in 20 or 30 years time, we can afford the societal schism which will appear between retired, relatively well off public sector workers and poor private sector workers. And here we might be talking about 8 million public and 22 million private some time in the distant future.

Despite the comments here about affordability of public sector pension, I can’t help feeling that 8 million workers will cost rather a lot in today’s money. Even at £6000 each that’s £50 billion or about seven per cent of our current budget, which is so overspent we are borrowing loads of money to subsidise it.

As for the schism, ‘fairness’ is something the British get very upset about. Call it envy if you want, but is it fair that private sector employees work to 68 and public sector employees finish at 60? I’m just glad I won’t be around to see what might happen.

That’s my tuppence worth. How all of this will be resolved we shall have to wait and see. U-Turn Cameron seems to be waiting for the opinion polls before he decides whether to U-Turn again or stand. Interpreting these will be difficult because the public sector is so large now and even larger when you consider the wives, husbands, girl friends, etc, which in any poll must account for at least 30% of adults in a random sample.

@Paul Newman:
“I think you have to look at the overall package , not just the pension
Long long holidays
Job for life
Short hours
No pressure
Child friendly
Pretty well Paid”

You really think teaching is this?

You should tell my partner, retired a year early as head of year and head of subject because she didn’t think she would be alive otherwise.

One year she calculated her hours against the snarky neighbour who had a 37.5 hours a week job – she’d done his year’s work by August.

Some people think that all teaching is what you do in front of the class. Most people couldn’t even do that.

38. the a&e charge nurse

[37] indeed – teachers are the only group to put in MORE unpaid hours than junior doctors (and that’s saying something).

Should this monumental amount of unpaid work be factored into the pensions equation?
I suppose the odd ‘thank you’ would be a nice start – after all the cost of hidden labour has been put at £29 billion.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/25/unpaid-overtime-free-labour-flexible

39. Charlieman

@35. Richard W: “We definitely need more honesty about the issue. However, lost in dry averages about provision is the question of whether it is equitable.”

Yes on the first point, but I don’t know what equitability means to you. I believe in a mixed economy, a blend of doing stuff. Within that blend, employee pensions will be delivered in different ways. To make pensions “equal” is unrealistic unless we deny choices to employees, employers, contractors, co-op members etc. So in the fashion that we have mixed ownership of companies, we have a variety of pension schemes. Should we try to “fix it” or acknowledge differences?

“My anecdotal impression is the public sector now has a female and middle class bias in their workforce.” You are correct to observe your own bias, and I accept that my argument may reflect my own.

If I go down to the council to complain about refuse collection, I will probably speak to a woman. The person who deals with grumpy customers is most often a woman. But I don’t know who else works in the refuse collection office.

If it is true that public sector staff who are paid more than, say, £30,000 per year are more likely to be women then finacial predictions have to reflect this. That is a worrying point

The top jobs, of course, are filled by men. The rule applies to the public and private sector, so top pensions go to men. What is the longevity of male senior managers versus female middle managers? Have the men burned themselves out before they get to spend the pot?

Two major changes have been made to public sector pensions – one by negotiation and one imposed by the Government. Together they reduced the value of public service pensions by around 25% even before the current negotiations started.

This is true, but not the whole picture. Those who were members of the original PCSPS scheme were offered the chance to switch – hardly anyone did. Those who came in after that had to join its replacement. The same happened with Nuvos (the current scheme).

The sheer complexity of pension schemes does not encourage people to change streams, and the unions did not do much to educate people either (PCS had two advisers to cover 200000+ staff).

41. Charlieman

@36. Chris: “An interesting and for once polite debate of the issues.” You wait until I have had a beer, matey.

“We also have to ask whether, in 20 or 30 years time, we can afford the societal schism which will appear between retired, relatively well off public sector workers and poor private sector workers.”

I’m not a historian or economist (so I am happy to be contradicted by experts), but different pensions have been paid for decades. I’d appreciate a sensible narrative that describes what you get on state pension (plus subsidiary benefits), what you get on a “company pension” (switching between companies over the years) and the “public sector pension” (acknowledging public/private switches).

Charlieman @ 41

I agree, it’s all very confusing with all sorts of figures flying about. Where are the experts when you need them.

I’m off for a beer! Cheers.

43. Richard W

@ 39. Charlieman

I would favour something like the retirement element of the Singapore fund. It would act something like a sovereign wealth fund to make up for the one we did not set up when we pissed the oil revenues away.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Provident_Fund

Every worker would pay a fixed contribution from their salary with no opt-outs. . The building site labourer would be contributing the same fixed percentage from every wage as the senior police officer. At retirement you get a pension pro rata to what you have contributed. Earn more and you get a higher pension. Live longer and you get a pension for longer. Every worker would have a pension and it helps to eliminate the sense of unfairness inherent in the current system. Private sector employers would be perfectly free to offer additional pension benefits without being able to opt-out of the retirement fund.

44. Charlieman

@43. Richard W: “I would favour something like the retirement element of the Singapore fund.”

How different is the 1908 settlement from that?

“Every worker would pay a fixed contribution from their salary with no opt-outs.”

This is a statement delivered by a person who thinks that way. Others may think differently.

@43. Richard W

I like it. We could call it the ‘State Earnings-Related Pension Scheme’, or ‘SERPS’ for short. The contributions could be called something like ‘National Insurance’.

Flipancy aside, this is exactly what is required. All of society coming together to share the risks and benefits of pensions of everyone.. because, whether you’re right or left, it should be abundantly clear that ‘the market’ has failed in this area.

pensions have been a major issue for more than 3 decades, so it’s a bit strange that it’s suddenly being pumped up as an effective tactic to oppose government cuts at this point in time – very opportunistic.

not in my whole lifetime has the state pension been expected to be the sole means of support for retirement.

this has been repeatedly communicated by successive governments, and was partly behind promotion of the property market as an alternative investment to offset the excessive influence of pension funds over the stock market which had been and still are managed consistently and spectacularly badly.

the aging population has been a policy challenge since the ‘baby boomer’ generation was first identified, so complaints about ‘working longer and getting less’ are incredibly late in the day – where where they back then… getting fat on credit with no intention to repay it?

employees in the private sector have faced the same issue and found solutions without any support from trade unions, so it’s not surprising that sympathy for public sector counterparts who want to maintain an unsustainable status quo at the wider public expense from here to eternity is limited.

standards in the public sector are not high enough to justify special treatment (literacy and numeracy rates, please teachers!), so the longer this politicised stand-off continues I expect it to result in growing support for greater marketisation of state provision which will inevitably lead to private organisations supplanting tax-payer funded services.

so tories must be loving these strikes, it just goes to prove their point.

47. Richard W

SERPS was more a ponzi scheme as is national insurance. There were no assets or retained value behind any of them. Funding from general taxation today for work carried out forty years ago is nuts. What value today does a taxpayer get from a traffic warden sticking tickets on cars during the 1960s? Zilch. They still have to pay for the pensions and received none of the benefits. NI should be abolished and called what it effectively is and that is tax. My idea is all pensions should be funded from stores of value.

Richard

To be clear, I agree entirely. Pensions should be funded by investing to create and store up the value required in retirement. Neither public nor private schemes do that particularly well.

Re SERPS, I just find it amusing that the answer is essentially an honest reincarnation of something we’re busy phasing out.

I have – in the last two days – completed my ten years’ service in the civil service. I’m an Executive Officer (two rungs up from the bottom) and am looking at a pension of £1,500 a year. When I lose my job. Which will be in the next year.

Rob,

what do you expect for 10 years service in a job that is two rungs up from the bottom?


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