Adrian Butler looks at the big public service pensions debate
THE GOVERNMENT'S latest plans for public sector workers have re-ignited the debate about how much their pensions should be costing the taxpayer.
New proposals would raise the retirement age of workers to 65 and scrap early retirement provisions.
Various unions representing public sector bodies are balloting members over industrial action.
Unison, Amicus and the Transport and General Workers union are consulting, with the Fire Brigades Union and Natfhe, the union representing lecturers and teachers, expected to follow.
Pensions have become a key issue for Merseyside Fire and Police Authorities in recent years as the spiralling pensions bill has really eaten into annual budget.
Neither service has their own separately-funded pension fund and the police bill for pensions on Merseyside alone will be £68m this year with another £21m for firefighters.
Recruitment drives in the late 1970s mean the situation is actually due to get worse in 2008 and 2009.
The government is considering bearing some of the burden, setting up a centralised system where authorities would pay employers' contributions only and any deficit would be made up by them.
But however the system is administered, the taxpayer is still overwhelmingly shouldering the burden for public sector salaries.
Is a decent pension something every employer should be providing for its staff, public or private?
Or has the era where employees should expect their savings to be organised for them long gone?
It is unfair for taxpayers to make up the shortfall
NO SAYS Paul Feather, artistic director of Feathers Events
I FIRMLY believe it is essential that all people have decent pensions which they can enjoy when they come to the end of their working life.
Finding a way to do this is always going to be a tricky question, and workers on low salaries should not have to suffer.
But I strongly object to the way the system works at the moment, where the private sector is having to pay to support public sector pensions because the Government has mismanaged its investments and run out of money. At the moment, businesses and individuals support these pensions through direct and indirect taxation.
The government, in my opinion, has a responsibility to provide basic pensions for state and public employees. But if there is a cash shortfall, it is completely wrong that the private sector should pick up the bill.
Through my business I employ more than 100 people, who all pay into private pension schemes.
We think it works because it is up to the people to see that their money is being well-handled, and not up to central government.
This is the system the government should look at adopting for public sector workers as the burden of pensions grows.
Politicians need to give people who work in the public sector back their money, freed from the burdens of regulation, and let them invest it themselves.
They might want to invest the money in property and sell the property when they retire, or they might want to make other investments.
It is unfair that the British taxpayer should make up the shortfall in these pensions, which will only grow as people live longer.
But before any reforms can be made, the government should look at how existing funds are managed. It should be up to the government, if it chooses the wrong method of investment, to pick up its own tab.
We pay enough taxes in the commercial sector. It's amazing that when an issue suddenly arises which needs a huge amount of government money, the public purse finds a way of funding it. This was true with the foot and mouth crisis, and it was true with the war on Iraq.
Yet when a shortfall appears in pension funds thanks to a misdirection of investment, suddenly there is no extra money to be found.
What the government needs to do is to stop looking at ways of trying to get more money into the public purse by way of the private sector picking up the bill. Under no circumstances should the private sector pick up the responsibility for government failing.
Public sector workers should be allowed to save for their own futures with an acceptable level of regulation on their investments. They should not be paying into an unaccountable central pot.
Throughout time we have seen that the public sector will never support the private sector - it always ends up being the other way round.
All workers are entitled to decent pensions
YES SAYS Alan Manning, North West secretary for the TUC
AS a community we should not expect those who work on our behalf to have less favourable treatment than any other citizen.
I believe everyone at work should be able to look forward to a secure income in retirement.
This income should provide a decent standard of living and allows full participation in society. These days that means a good state pension plus an occupational pension scheme.
All workers, no matter who they work for, should have the benefit of a pension scheme that allows them a comfortable standard of life, and that includes public sector staff.
Public service workers do essential jobs - they care for the sick and vulnerable, keep the environment looking good, keep us safe, give crucial advice and support to those on benefits and many more things that we could not do without in a modern country.
We should also remember that we are often talking about low paid workers. NHS Ancillary Staff start at minimum wage levels. Refuse collectors, for example work for as little as £11,127 per year. And on the current rates, these crucial workers could only expect an occupational pension of around £6,000 a year - even after 40 years' service..
It makes no sense to talk about public service pensions being subsidised.
Pensions are not an extra expense - they are an integral part of the amount we need to invest to recruit and retain the staff to do the jobs we want them to do.
No one would expect employ-ees not to have holidays, meal breaks or work in safe conditions just because they were in the public sector. So why should they not be entitled to pensions?
There is a lot of debate on the proposals the Government has made for changes to many occupational pension schemes - particularly in the retirement age, which ministers want to raise to 65 in all cases.
These planned changes will have a seriously detrimental effect on many long serving members, especially the lowest paid men and women.
Many of these employers, who are already burning out because of work pressures, will have to work five more years to be able to retire with a pension above the poverty threshold.
If they cannot stay in work, they may well end up dependent on means tested benefits and on the taxpayer. They would also lead to real cuts in pensions.
We support an agenda which would offer people choice through a flexible retirement age and for unions to be actively engaged in a constructive debate with the employers and Government.
But the bottom line for us is that public service workers are entitled to decent pensions. We know that hundreds of thousands of workers will be saying just that this coming Friday as they participate in rallies, go to meetings and lobby their MPs as part of the TUC's protecting public service pensions campaign day".