Friday, 25 October 2013

Who is allowed to have a good pension?


As a UK university lecturer, I am enrolled in the USS pension scheme.  I pay in, knowing that I will need a pension one day, but find the whole thing a bit too abstract to worry about in terms of whether it will all work out in the end and pay up.  Perhaps I should be worried.  My dad was banjaxed by the failed Equitable Life scheme and such pension failures do happen.  So perhaps I ought to be worried today by the news that there is an apparent shortfall in my pension scheme.  It sounds like it might just be a bit of a scare story from a couple of journalists who had asked one person to look at the scheme, but as I say, I find the possibility of problems with my income in 30 years time a bit too abstract to take seriously.  

What did irk me about the whole news story, though, was the comment from David Willetts.  It is a repeat of a mantra that has been used by both sides of the coalition government (Nick Clegg more than anyone else) over the last few years.  According to the BBC news story above, he said "It would be wrong to expect students to bail out pension deficits to support pension schemes that are far more generous than students are likely to enjoy when they're older." On the face of it, it doesn't sound outrageous, but is it fair?

It is my recollection (though I don't have the links or evidence to hand - any relevant comments would be welcome, below) that there was a lot of such statements a few years ago from the new coalition when public sector pensions were taking quite a battering.  These were all pejoratively called "gold-plated" pensions, and it was considered unfair for the hardworking taxpayer to fund such schemes when many of them may not get such a good pension themselves.  I think that's a crass argument which is nothing more than a greedy and envious way of promoting a race to the bottom - at least for the dreaded public sector worker.  But let's say that public sector workers should have crappy pensions to ensure that no hardworking taxpayer is forced to fund a decent pension for someone else.  Does it apply to the private sector too?  Are people like David Willetts saying that the chief executive of Tesco shouldn't have a good pension because it wouldn't be fair of hardworking people who shop at Tesco to fund it?  Presumably in that case, the holy market saves the Conservative, so that they can say that people just shouldn't shop where they don't want to pay for pensions.  

Now, in the current era when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have changed University education so that it is no-longer the taxpayer that pays, but the "customer" they still make the argument that it is not fair for students to fund good pensions for lecturers.  Surely now the customers can choose to go wherever they like.  You can't have it both ways, Willetts. You've forced a market on us, now leave you anti-public-sector spite out of it.  Am I missing something?

Aside from anything else, why is it pensions that are being targeted?   Why not just salary?  "It is unfair that a taxpayer should have to fund the salary of a doctor, which will be much more than most taxpayers will ever earn."  "It is unfair of someone, who is required to have a bank account, to fund the lifestyle of bankers" "It is unfair that taxpayers, who through no fault of their own have been born in the UK, and don't even live in Havant and haven't voted for him, should have to fund the top-few-percentile salary of David Willetts."  The whole argument just doesn't make sense.  It is nothing but the politics of envy.  There may be other reasons to attack particular pension schemes, but this is a crass one unworthy of anyone in public office.