Are public sector pensions unaffordable?

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A revealing exchange between Today's Evan Davis and the Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude set the scene for today's strike over public sector pensions.

Maude claimed that public sector pensions are unaffordable. The prime minister went further recently claiming that the "pension system is in danger of going broke". Yet Davis unsettled the minister when he quoted figures from the independent and government-commissioned Hutton Report showing that the cost of public sector pensions is actually projected to fall as a share of national income (from 1.9% of GDP this year to 1.4 % in 2060).

So, how then can the government claim they are unaffordable?

The key fact ministers deploy is that payments to public sector pensioners and their dependents rose by a third over the decade since 1999 - reaching £32bn by 2009. At a time when many other things are having to be cut their message is that pensions cannot be immune.

Hutton agrees to this extent. He did argue that the taxpayer was unfairly subsidising public sector workers pensions which are much more generous than those in the private sector (almost all public sector workers are on defined benefit schemes whereas only just over one in 10 private sector workers get a guaranteed company pension).

The government is trying to take £2.8bn out of the bill. The last Labour government had plans to take out £1bn and the party leadership is not supporting today's strikes.

So, the battle is on for public opinion. Will people blame the unions or the government for today's inconveniences? Will they agree with workers who say they're fighting for a decent retirement or ministers who say voters are being misled by unions set on confrontation. Above all, though, will taxpayers judge that public sector pensions are or are not affordable?

Update 1752 BST: It's taken them some time, but the Treasury have now decided they need to explain why they believe public sector pensions are unaffordable.

The figures I quoted earlier - and which Evan Davis used to skewer Francis Maude this morning - showed that the cost of those pensions is due to decline over the next few decades. That, say the bean counters at the Exchequer, is because they are based on assumption of further reform - precisely what is being negotiated now - and a change - which some are resisting - to the inflation uprating of pensions (from RPI to CPI).

They point to a quote from Lord Hutton on BBC1's Politics Show that "we shouldn't rely on that 50-year bet that overall these pensions are sustainable in their current form".

Nick Robinson Article written by Nick Robinson Nick Robinson Political editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 343.

    The reality is there are only six million union members in a population of 60 million. The vast majority are int he public sector.

    Sympathy vote: nil... Own goal: three.

    This is a pantomime with all the usual union 'characters'. Long may they rant on the nation's television and radios to worsen their plight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 342.


    Well played, sir. Well played.

  • rate this

    Comment number 341.

    Nonsense to say the public sector doesn't create wealth. Of course it does. Useful service activities in the private sector create wealth - countless successful companies we could mention - and so do useful service activities (health, education, policing etc) in the public sector. This is obvious if we think about it. We shouldn't confuse making a profit with creating wealth - not the same thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 340.

    The Hutton forecast is based on the proposed reforms being implemented.

  • rate this

    Comment number 339.

    323 - "Whatever I pay into my pension ... is what I will end up getting.

    Surely that's the same for the teachers etc"

    No. Most public sector pensions are unfunded and final salary. Public pensions are paid from all CURRENT worker's taxes, not your own PAST contributions.A payrise on your last working day and your pension is increased for life even though you've paid nothing towards that.


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