Wednesday, 30 November 2011

So what did you do on 30 November Daddy?

I've just been disturbed at my office by a small rally of public sector workers blowing whistles and chanting 'No ifs no buts no public sector cuts.'  I'm somewhat miffed as it disturbed my concentration on some case papers I was studying.  No doubt that was the protesters intentions - and I respect them for doing that, as that is their democratic right.

In fact earlier today - from as soon as I woke up my day has been 'impacted.' But perhaps not in the way that many would imagine.  Like many households we have the queue for the bathroom in the morning.  I kick off proceedings at 6:50am, followed by my wife 10 minutes later and then the 3 teenage children.  On a weekday I have the pleasure of waking up my wife, once I'm clean and spruced up.  Today however the usual cheery greeting to Dianne to get her moving was met with - 'don't worry I can have an extra 10 minutes today - I'm not taking the children to school.'  I snorted in reply - through jealousy in not having taken the chance of an extra 10 minutes  in a warm and cosy bed - and also in disapproval of what the day was likely to bring.

So far, however, the tally is pretty positive - that is if I ignore the momentary disruption outside my office window and the £80 down - the price of allowing my daughters to go Christmas shopping in Chester for the day.  I imagine the retailers around here are pretty pleased with many 'school refugees' out for a day's entertainment.  Even my son has arranged an impromptu football session with his mates.   My journey to work to Birkenhead was made easier with both Mersey Tunnels closed - the traffic was lighter - and I've noticed the contractors who, seemingly are permanently at work on the approach to the Wallasey Tunnel, have taken the opportunity of doing more work on the flyovers given that there is no traffic to and from the tunnels.

I'm a former public sector worker - indeed I was a public sector worker in the time of the closed shop.  I was ostensibly required to join NALGO - but the Union didn't get its act together, never offered me membership papers and didn't take Union subs from me.  I was however invited to play for the Union cricket team.  They were sufficiently short of talent that my miserable abilities were seen as an asset!  I happily played.  Anyway - in the 1980s local government seemed permanently at odds with central government and the day came for NALGO to strike.

As a local government lawyer who occasionally helped out the child care team I couldn't understand how all the other lawyers could consider strike action and not provide emergency cover.  Whilst I respect the right to strike  its not something, personally, that I'm happy to do.  If you've signed an employment contract - honour it or leave - is my simple philosophy.  So the days came - I went to work... and the price of my obduracy and my personal decision to provide the legal cover for the childcare team - I was thrown out of the NALGO cricket team!  Aaah well I'm pretty sure neither side was particularly affected with my early retirement from the cricket squad.

Whilst I acknowledge that the adjustments to public sector pensions will cost employees - but will ensure that the state can continue to fund them - I am very struck with the double standards that some of the strikers and protesters conveniently ignore.  

Lets go back to 1997 - then Britain had pension arrangements that the rest of the world envied.  There were many final salary schemes in both public and private sectors and increasingly thriving private pension provision.  One of Gordon Brown's first acts as Chancellor of the Exchequer was to tax gains made by pension investments.  That single move (which hasn't been reversed) took and still takes billions of pounds out of our pensions - leading directly to the closing of most final salary pension schemes for those working in the private sector.  The financial gyrations since 2008 have caused further very painful damage to private pensions - especially to the increasing numbers who are shouldering the risk of stock market returns.

So when you consider the disruption being caused today - pause and reflect.  Would you want a secure public sector pension that is going to cost a little more to have with reduced returns for the more wealthy public servants (protecting the lower paid) - or the uncertainty of a private sector pension whose growth has been significantly stunted by Gordon Brown and is now fully exposed to the financial market turmoil?   One colleague of mine has seen his pension pot effectively halved by the financial turmoil.  He was going to retire in the next 5 years.  I think both he and I are committed to a life sentence of work.  I can't envisage retirement - unlike the public servants...

Photo - Protesters in Birkenhead - note the empty parking spaces.  Hamilton Square used to be thronged with cars - until Wirral Borough Council imposed parking charges ... damaging local business.  It clearly isn't a huge revenue raiser either but does leave plenty of room to protest.

And a final thought - 'No ifs no buts no public sector cuts' - Cheshire West and Chester has already saved £58 million out of the costs of running local government in our part of Cheshire since creation in April 2009 - and few have noticed any impact at all.  £11 million has been reinvested in Children's and Adult's services from those savings.  The quality of service delivery is improving.  We were one of the few authorities in the country to increase spending on Adult Social Care last year... There is a better way.  But I don't underestimate that we still have a hard road to tread as a country over the next few years.