In earlier segments of this huge topic I highlighted approaching problems in public services and suggested how the NHS half of expenditure might start addressing them. But pivotal across all public services are staff, whose engagement and motivation will be crucial. In section 3.10, the Christie Report states: “Our evidence demonstrates the need for public services to become outcome-focussed, integrated and collaborative. They must become transparent, community-driven and designed around users’ needs. They should focus on prevention and early intervention.” Unfortunately, few staff think in such terms at present.
In fact, many are absorbed by issues like pension reform and typically see their final salary pension as a basic right. This view is shared across sectors and unions, so that an industrial showdown looks likely. What exacerbates this is the union principle of insisting that existing pay and conditions cannot worsen, even if this means colleagues losing jobs because shrinking money can stretch only to fewer numbers.
Heavyweight commentators are condemning this approach as short-sighted. “The unions have chosen very weak ground. They scarcely have the support of their own members, let alone the rest of the public.” (Fraser Nelson, The Spectator, 30.6.11). “Just as Margaret Thatcher took on the miners on her own terrain, so Cameron and Osborne have chosen the ground on which they hope to defeat the likes of Bob Crow and Dave Prentis: pensions. The unions are striking in defence of incredibly expensive final salary pensions that are unavailable to the vast majority of Britain’s 28 million workers.” (Iain MacWhirter, The Herald, 30.6.11).
Unions cite that most public service pensions are only a few hundred a month (£7.800 p.a., according to Hutton) and that many public service workers are low-paid. This is true; such people have not been well served by the system. But the bulk of workers employed through the noughties public service boom have yet to retire, especially senior staff, where Chief Executives over £100,000 and Directors over £80,000 are the norm (over 250 such people in councils alone). Elsewhere, bank-scale bonuses compound the problem (five Scottish Water executives shared a one-off £450,000 bonus this week).
Marchers on Thursday argued for their pensions as their right. A decade ago when the private sector was booming, public sector pay certainly lagged. Job security and a modest pension were seen as compensation for that. However, average earnings in the public sector are now higher than in the private. Add in the devastating effect of the recent recession, add in that one million private sector workers have been forced to swap secure full-time jobs for part-time work with no tenure and no prospects, add in that half of them have no pension beyond the paltry state provision…and the idea that teachers or anyone can retire aged 60, and be paid for by people who have to work until they’re 66 starts to look foolish, if not outright selfish.
The days when nursing or any other public service was seen as a calling, rather than a career, are long gone. But Christie’s advocacy for more symbiotic working (“public service organisations must engage with people and communities directly, acknowledging their ultimate authority in the interests of fairness and legitimacy”) is completely oot the windae, unless the hardship now facing most in the private sector is partly shared by the public. To say they’ll consider no cuts that will fund banker’s bonuses (vile though they are) is like throwing the crew out of lifeboats on the Titanic because they worked for the officers on the bridge who got everyone into this mess.