'Scrap public pensions,' says pensions guru
It was the battle Mrs Thatcher ducked.
"Leave it for another government," the former PM was reported to murmur, when presented with a civil service dossier marked "Public Sector Pensions."
The Iron Lady, famed for relishing a fight with miners or Argentinians, flinched when it came to dinner ladies' nest eggs.
"I'm afraid my unpopular measure is simply, we must stop public pensions now, and replace them with private pension plans."
Mark Dampier is Head of Research for Hargreaves Lansdown, the massively successful investment brokers based in Bristol. The firm recently reported an 18% rise in pre-tax profits, they've signed up 48,000 new clients and now look after £17.5bn of people's money. So these people understand money.
Much of their expertise is in pensions or other ways of saving for your retirement. And Mark Dampier has long banged on about the need for more people to save. Never stops cajoling journalists like me to encourage youngsters to think about the dark day the pay check stops coming and they still have bills to pay.
So Mr Dampier is not "anti-pension". Far from it. What's he got against special pensions for firefighters and French teachers then, bin men and brigadiers?
You can watch his whole argument here, if you like, as he sets it out on a special Points West Debate on the Spending Review, to be broadcast on Thursday evening, 9 Sept, BBC One, at 10:35. It will also be on the iPlayer, here.
I was at the recording, and I can tell you Mr Dampier didn't go down well. A teacher accused him of "raiding the poor to rescue the country from the mistakes of rich bankers". Council union people asked him if he'd like to work for twelve grand a year, and then have a fat cat steal his pension. A policeman, of 50, said millions of public servants like him had worked unstintingly in the national interest, and didn't deserve to be treated like this.
It's a lively debate, ahead of its time, and well worth watching.
Now of course he's not arguing teachers and nurses should be left with nothing, nor that people in their 50s should have the promised pension ripped from them just as they reach retirement. Future staff, he says, should have the same pensions as everyone else in the private sector, no more and no less.
What struck me was that this is an argument where the two sides pass like ships in the night. The public sector reaction is fueled by understandable emotion. Betrayal, anger, envy are everywhere. But Mr Dampier's argument is simply cold financial logic.
In 2008-9 the Treasury paid out £13,387m to NHS Pensioners. It was over a tenth of the total NHS budget of £119bn. (You can see the figures for yourself here , halfway down page 6). Since one in four public sector workers are in the NHS, a rough total for the national pension bill for retired government staff would be in the order of £50bn.
The point is, it's a lot of money. And public sector pensions are much more generous than private ones. Here's how Mark Dampier explains that:
"Take for example a nurse earning £25,000 a year. Currently she pays 6.5% of her salary towards her pension - that's £1,600 a year. We taxpayers then promise her a further 14% on top. Overall, £3,500 goes towards her pension each year.
Then take someone working in the private sector, a shop worker perhaps, also on £25,000 a year. On average employees like this pay 6% of their salary towards a pension - equating to just £1,500 a year - less than half what the nurse receives. How can that be right?"
Will his radical plan ever happen? That depends on a political calculation. Teachers unions, council unions, police officers and nurses can all be relied on to oppose change, perfectly understandably. But for every public sector worker in the UK, four people work for private firms.
So for every person furious at Mr Dampier's proposal, there will be four people who pay the bill he's trying to cut.
He know's it is unpopular, possibly brutal. But is there an option?
The rest of this argument is for you. Have your say, then come back and read what others say. Mark Dampier himself will read this page, and respond. I know it's an emotive issue. In 20 years in journalism, I've never reported a proposal Mrs T considered too hot to touch. Over to you then...