Why I...don't want to work until I drop

November 19, 2004

It is two years since the Government published its pension Green Paper Simplicity, Security and Choice . New Labour's new slogan is "choice". With pensions you can choose to die in poverty or die in harness.

Since the Green Paper appeared, we in Natfhe and all the teacher unions have been campaigning and arguing against the key proposal to raise the normal pension age from 60 to 65, a move that would affect all lecturers in new universities and colleges of further education.

It is an understatement to say that teachers and lecturers do not take kindly to the prospect of having to work five more years to achieve the same level of benefit as under the current scheme. We are furious. The Department for Education and Skills has responded with a complex package of changes and improvements which, so it imagines, will sugar the pill of higher retirement age. It is called the Teachers' Pension Scheme Modernisation Review. Why does your heart sink to hear the M-word when ministers talk of changing the pay and conditions of public-sector employees? Improvements, such as making survivor benefits available to unmarried partners, are supposed to offer crumbs of comfort and are welcome. But don't hold your breath.

The Government is proposing to use only half the savings from the age change to fund the improvements. Total savings are estimated to be 2 per cent of teachers' pension scheme costs; 1per cent is to go on improvements.

This is why the "scheme improvements" are insignificant in comparison to the effect of raising the normal pension age from 60 to 65. The other 1 per cent is to be returned to employers so that they can reduce their contributions to our pension scheme.

It is difficult to believe that the savings are so little for such a substantial change but, naive as I am, it is astounding to me that a cut in the employer's contribution should be contemplated in current conditions.

What is the effect of raising the normal pension age? As David Miliband, Minister for Schools, has said, it doesn't mean that you cannot retire at 60. What he doesn't say is that, for a new entrant to our profession, it would mean a huge cut in total pension benefits. Given average life expectancy, it would mean a 23 per cent cut in annual pension and lump sum.

Of course, it isn't just the money. The pressure to work for more years when health and happiness demand otherwise means a real worsening of the work-life balance. We all know of colleagues who are struggling to cope with increasingly stressful jobs or colleagues who died before they could claim little if any of their pension.

I work as a lecturer in a small university department. Two of my colleagues died in post this year. Working longer in full-time jobs means reducing the prospects of enjoying the rewards of working life in a long and happy retirement. Pensions are deferred wages. The Government proposes a wage cut for all public service workers. That is why all the teacher unions, the Trades Union Congress and all the public-sector unions are so opposed to these proposals. MPs and prospective parliamentary candidates just might be more responsive to us in the run-up to next year's election. Let's ask them all if they agree with reducing our pensions. Then we'll publish the results.

We must make sure they can't ignore us over the next six months. Industrial action would be the best message to a future government that may continue to attack our hard-won pension entitlements. Imagine the power of a combined public sector one-day strike. Whatever happens, we need a strong response from all the public-sector unions to make it a real possibility that we can get these proposals changed.

John Wilkin
Vice-president of the lecturers' union Natfhe

This text is based on a speech John Wilkin gave at a rally on public-sector pensions on Tuesday.

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