MORE HEAT THAN LIGHT

People with long-awaited hospital appointments tomorrow risk being disappointed.  Museum and library doors will remain firmly shut.  Bus and train engines in Northern Ireland, where public transport hasn’t yet been privatised, will stay cold while those that choose to drive will be able to park their cars where they usually can’t without fear of a parking ticket.  Travellers into and out of the UK will have the opportunity to admire at length the interior decoration of various departure and arrivals halls.

Tomorrow, up to two million public servants across the UK will go on strike because they fear for their old age. Those of us in the private sector donate up to half our earnings to fund public services. In return, all we ask is that they look after our health, the education of our children, the security of our borders and the various other functions that make society tick along nicely.  Tomorrow, we’ll be left wanting without a discount.  Many of us will incur alternative costs for childcare. The unions argue that it will cost the tax payer £500 million, or just 10 percent of the cost of the latest Royal wedding.

The public servants are staying home because the Government, they claim, has decided to redirect large chunks of their pension funds to already rich bankers, leaving them with an old age that is both deferred by a few years and carries the distinct whiff of beans and toast.

The government says the strikers are threatening an already moribund economy, and that it’s simply a case that public service pensions are no longer affordable.  We’re living longer than we were when public service pensions were invented 30 years ago and something has to give, they say and the current, unsustainable public service pension liability has to give.

Unlike my children who are supporting the strikers with enthusiasm, I find it a conundrum as to which side to side with.  This is not because of indecision on my behalf, an affliction I seldom suffer from, but because the public debate on the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of this particular kerfuffle have thrown up more heat than light.  The communications from both sides on what is a matter of significant public policy has been poor.  I would like to have formed an unequivocal view like the one enjoyed by my children who will spend the day watching television and playing computer games.

Neither side has made a compelling argument in their communications for their respective hard line positions.  The Government is holding firm and playing tough.  But they have depended too heavily in their messaging on the awful state of the economy, the inheritance left them by the former government and failing Eurocrats to make its argument.  Some data would have helped.  Her Majesty’s Opposition, funded by the feuding unions, has added little to the debate.

How many public pensioners do we support today and how many more are in the queue?  What’s the average annual pension for a public servant?  What’s the total annual cost of public sector pensions today and how much is it likely to increase in the future if no changes are taken now? Some of the public sector unions are simply squaring up for a fight, the government has told us.  Facts, please.

The unions are pinning the blame on greedy bankers who would struggle otherwise to survive on their meagre bonuses.  But the unions have been reticent on how much the average public service employee pays into their respective pension pots, or how much of these pots are actually being snaffled or asked to fund longer lives.  Please give us facts, not emotion.

Perhaps the absence of facts means they don’t embellish either’s case too strongly?

People are getting emotional, whichever side of the argument they favour, but few I’ve spoken to truly understand why.  It’s always the same in any argument that’s played out in public with a dearth of easily understood and simple facts.

They public sector employees say a promise has been broken.  Really?  My mobile provider, Orange as it turns out, has just decided to up my monthly bill on a long-term contract I signed less than three months ago. Why?  Because, as the small print points out, things change.

Similarly, the value of property upon which people could easily borrow cheaply only a few years ago, has fallen.  There’s a good reason for the health warnings on all financial investments. A pension is a financial investment.  We in the private sector came to terms with that many years ago.

Equally, the Government has failed to make a compelling case for the planned reduction in the public sector pension plan pay outs. Perhaps they assume they don’t need to, that those in the private sector who don’t enjoy a ‘gold plated pension’, whatever that is, will simply get on side.  But these are OUR public services. As taxpayers, we deserve to be better informed with better facts.

No communications battle has ever been won in the court of public opinion without the ammunition of clear and concise facts.  This argument is no different, not that the lack of facts will change my children’s allegiance tomorrow, one way or another.

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