What will you remember about 30 November 2011 – other than it being St Andrew’s Day, obviously?
Will it be disruption to your daily routine – schools closed; rubbish not collected; operation postponed, etc? Will it be marching down the Royal Mile? Will it be a day’s shopping in the run up to Christmas? Or will it be political parties undecided as to whether election to a Parliament meant you should stay away to show solidarity with workers, or attend and tell everybody how much solidarity you felt with those same workers?
I shall remember it for several things. The first, a confirmation of my line that ‘public sector’ is a term of description that can’t cope with the complexity of life today. Buses (in Edinburgh) were running; so were trains; the BBC was broadcasting pretty regularly and both here and in London our Parliaments appeared to be working. The one realisation that gave me pause was when the early radio weather was read by a continuity man, and I suddenly recalled the weather people are not BBC but Met Office – so mainline public sector staff.
I can tell you one thing that we won’t remember it for – as being the day the Government changed direction and decided that (some) public service pensions could roll on as they are now and all the proposed changes would be shelved and forgotten. And that would be the case even if Lord Hutton had sat quietly rather than intervening again in the debate. And please, don’t anybody affected imagine that a Scottish government (whatever the constitutional status) would do anything fundamentally different even if they weren’t able to use Westminster as a human shield.
I have to declare an interest in this discussion, though one that surprises most people who think of universities as public institutions – they are not. Like me, a good proportion of the staff who work in universities are members of the University Superannuation Scheme (USS), a private group pension scheme, not one that is operated or controlled by government at any level. And yes, that scheme too is affected by changes that university employers are trying to persuade the trustees to enact that will have the net effect of reducing benefits.
And those proposed changes to the USS pension fund are being brought forward for precisely the same reasons that the London government wants to make changes for pension schemes for teachers, civil servants and health workers. We’re living longer post retirement; accumulated commitments are building up and the pressure on all spending heads means that pensions are part of a series of choices that governments at all levels will make. I know there is heated debate over the detail and trend of figures but since both sides seem to present the figures in a way that best suits them we’ll leave that lying for the moment. The curious anomaly in all of these discussions is what the Government thinks it should seek to do with the local government scheme, which is based on a series of funded schemes and so could be treated in a very different way from the main unfunded schemes.
Pensions are immensely complex, often ignored by most until very late in their careers and clearly capable of rousing very strong emotions. Perhaps because of that, I suspect most of us will recall this 30th for Jeremy Clarkson and his video promotion stunt; sad commentary on a serious issue.
Professor Richard Kerley is Professor of Management, Queen Margaret University