Belfast Telegraph

Friday 11 July 2014

We must fight this death by a thousand pension cuts

Striking back: public sector workers are right to protest about pension cuts being instigated by David Cameron

Peter Robinson throws a wobbler about the design of the badge on prison officers' caps and, suddenly, Stormont is in uproar. But the cap on public sector pay and pensions elicits little more than a shrug.

The contrast between the pattern of our conventional politics and the issues that touch on day-to-day life has rarely been so clearly on show.

Unions representing 30,000 teachers across the North launched ballots for strike action after the Executive gave the go-ahead earlier this month for the smash-and-grab raid on pensions ordered by the Tory-led Coalition.

The breadth and depth of the anger has been evident in the outcome. Head teachers voted to take to the streets alongside classroom assistants, admin staff and dinner ladies. The Daily Mail may have been in a state of shock when it gasped that something will have to be done about 'the Scargills of the school rooms'.

Bet you never thought Miss Mulrooney had a Socialist Worker T-shirt under her sensible blouse.

The percentage of teachers in the UK voting to strike was greater than the percentage of the electorate which backed the Tories in last year's Westminster election. In the North, the percentage for striking on November 30 has been twice as large as the share of the electorate which voted for any Executive party last May.

The same picture has emerged from the other union ballots: small wonder when the only pension plan on offer means pay more, work longer, get less.

David Cameron says that there is no alternative because the country is broke - specifically, that the public sector pensions 'burden' will soon reach unsustainable levels as a result of people living longer: that is, pensioners will have to be punished for refusing to die.

However, even life expectancy in our divided society is a question of class. The life expectancy of UK manual workers has increased by only two years since 1970. Women cleaners have not seen life expectancy increase at all. Yet these sections of the workforce, too, are now being told that they'll have to pay more out of their wages in order to qualify for their deferred pensions.

Under the proposed changes passed by the Executive, a teacher earning £21,000 will have to pay an extra £732 a year - £61 a month - towards the pension. If the same teacher works on for 36 years and retires on a salary of £41,000, they'll find their pension entitlement slashed from £18,000 to £13,000.

Same for others in the public sector. A part-time nurse on £17,000 would have to come up with an extra £100 a month. Examples abound.

But the question remains the same: how can public sector workers be expected to come up with this sort of money when they are already subjected to a three-year pay freeze - which, with annual inflation at 5%, amounts to a drastic wage cut - and are confronted with soaring food and fuel prices as well?

The pensions crisis which has supposedly made these measures inevitable is phoney. There is no pensions crisis. The UK has more wealth in pension funds than the entirety of the eurozone.

This year, the Exchequer will pay out more than £20bn in tax relief on pensions contributions. More than half, £11bn, will go to the top 10 % of taxpayers.

If even half of that went into the State system, it would be enough to bring the basic State pension up to £110 a week.

Or consider national insurance. Any reader on a million a year will be paying 11% in NI contributions on every pound between £4,888 and £32,760, plus one percent on earning above that. So our annual millionaire - check the maths - will pay a total of £12,800.

But if he or she were paying at the same rate as the vast majority on all of his/her earnings, the contributions would amount to £110,000. Applied across the board, an extra annual £10bn would flow into the coffers of the State.

There is only a pensions crisis because governments tend to have a fit of the vapours at any suggestion that the rich should be asked to pay the same share as the rest of us to fund the society we are told we are sharing.

In light of all of which, the only sensible response to the Westminster-Stormont pensions plan is to join the head teachers and others seething with radical fervour.

All out on November 30!

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