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Public Sector Pensions: the Government’s on the run, but must go further and faster

Until the Unison ballot result (nine-tenths in favour of strike action on 30 November, just 3 weeks away), the Government was intending to force public sector workers to pay 50% more into their pension schemes for a pension which would be worth 50% less and for which they would have to work much longer.

The Government have now made some significant concessions, for which we should thank the unions without whom the Government wouldn’t have budged an inch from a grossly unjust and discriminatory package. But are they enough? The bottom line against which to assess any improvements is that public sector pensions pay on average less than £6,500 a year (£125 a week, very close to the poverty line), but half of all women working in the public sector retire on a pension of less than £4,000 a year (£77 a week, well below the poverty line). There is little point in their having contributed for so long to get a pension below means-tested benefits.
The Government’s latest moves – that those within ten years of retirement will be exempted from the changes proposed and that the accrual rates under the new arrangements will improved by 8% – are welcome, but only against the background that the Government’s original proposals were so punitive. This is nowhere near a satisfactory pensions structure for public sector workers which ought to guarantee for all of them a pension well above the poverty line. Barbara Castle’s State Earnings-Related Pension Scheme (SERPS) did precisely that in the 1970s, since when successive Governments have moved the goalposts backwards in a continuing neoliberal drive to shift pensions altogether from the public to the private sector.

There are other good reasons too why the unions should continue to press their demands for a minimally satisfactory pensions framework, which the Government’s latest proposals certainly are not. The Government is more precarious than many people realise – it’s not only the looming double-dip recession and the deepening cuts, but also the NHS debacle, Tory MPs’ profound resentment at losing their seats in the boundary changes, and the ever-present and steadily mounting revolt within the Tory party over the EU and the referendum. This is now a government which is unpopular, facing increasing internal trouble on all sides, and is not going to withstand the pressures for another 3 years. This is a government to do battle with.

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