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Pension thievery has become the Government's new norm


Labour party leader Joan Burton

Labour party leader Joan Burton

Labour party leader Joan Burton

The Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, was quick to dismiss calls from civil servants to cut the old-age pension, but she has something up her sleeve. Officials at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform proposed cutting the State old-age pension. This is the same department that proposed lifting restrictions on public sector pay. A cushioned elite with jobs they can't lose have one set of rules for themselves and another for the rest.

Change is on the way and unless you are a politician or public servant, it will get a whole lot worse than it is now. They borrowed €20bn a year to save the bureaucracy they'd built up for themselves, and it looks like they got away with it. Any reform in the public sector will only apply to those recruited in the future, and they've saved their own outrageous pensions even though they haven't contributed a fraction of what they cost.

To add insult to injury, those in the private sector who saved and paid into pension funds, to avoid being a burden on the State in retirement, saw more than 2.5pc taken from their funds to prop up a bureaucracy that failed to do its job. Most public servants didn't pay the controversial pension levy; they didn't have a fund to apply it to. They'll take what they want, when they want it, from other taxpayers who have nothing left themselves.

Civil servants, the so-called administration, make up only 10pc of public sector numbers. Many of them work in relatively low-paid jobs, you could call it secured poverty. But at least they have a good pension to look forward to in retirement, unlike half the private sector who have nothing but the State old-age pension to look forward to. But when civil servants, clearly the cushioned elite, suggest cutting the old-age pension, it puts their own claims into perspective. We can't let those who make the rules feather their own nests at the expense of the rest.

The vast majority of public servants work in health and education. Their jobs require skills and they can be more qualified than the average worker. There are compelling arguments to leave them to make and pay for their own pension entitlements. Pay them the salaries they deserve, even fund a basic pension too, like in the private sector, but don't give them a blank cheque. And if they want higher pensions, let them pay like the rest. If the State pension is enough for the majority of workers, why should it be any different for public servants, especially when we cannot afford what they get?

I'd be in favour of pensions for average public service workers - everyone deserves them. But if the majority are expected to take less so that a few can have more, even though we can't justify the cost, the system must change. Some civil servants may be reduced to secured poverty, but at least it's secure, and that's worth a lot. They have been asked to shoulder some of the burden by contributing a little to their own pensions, but not enough to cover the cost.

Many public servants will feel hard done by if asked to pay more for their own gilt-edged pensions, but would they be happy, instead, to take whatever pension the fund they've paid into can buy when they retire? I don't think it would pay for what they expect. Their leaders chose the system they have, if it's worthless, they have to pay more, or take less. That's what the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has proposed for those who live on the State old-age pension.

What's the point in having a functioning administration if the rest of the economy is on its knees? They promised a leaner, more efficient public service, but it's the rest that get leaner as the bureaucrats grow fat.

We live in a welfare state; it should have changed long ago. Public servants get the best benefits of all, and we can't cover the cost any more. It's easier to cut what everyone gets rather than cut waste and inefficiency.

Joan Burton says she won't cut the basic pension, and that's all well and good if you believe it, but it means the money has to come from somewhere else.

Back in September, she said there are plans to make workers pay more for their State pensions, and as we know, that means private sector workers. Meanwhile, public servants are already discussing better pay and the end of their own pension charges.

The State old-age pension will become the Government's solution for universal pension coverage. The problem with that is that it has never been properly costed, and it doesn't come close to what most people need.

Today, there are five workers for every pensioner. For the next generation, the ratio will be two to one. Who will pay for the State pension then? More importantly, who will pay the outrageous public service pensions? Dependency ratios are much the same.

A cushioned elite in public service have outrageous pensions that few workers in the private sector can even dream of earning as they work every hour that god sends to pay the bills. If they were funded in a transparent manner over their careers, they might have some merit, but as they were not, they just don't stand up to scrutiny. The money wasn't put aside, it's just not there.

The only way they can be sustained now is to cut State entitlements for everyone else, or make workers pay more than they can afford. What's left in private sector funds is being ravaged to feed a bloated, cushioned public sector elite.

It's not just how public sector pensions are funded - last year, this paper revealed how pension benefits are enhanced for the elite, and it still happens. Workers and pensioners at Waterford Crystal had to take the Government to the European Court to get what they deserved when the system abandoned them. Joan Burton signed into law changes that allow employers to walk away from their pension obligations to workers.

Charlie McCreevy had the right idea when he created the National Pension Reserve, but they've blown that too. It's all about propping up a system that's not fit for purpose. When workers realise what they need in retirement, it's already too late and nobody is looking out for them.

James Fitzsimons is an independent financial adviser specialising in tax and financial planning

Sunday Independent