- Tuesday, 28 June 2011
- Written by Darrall Cozens, UCU Chair of West Midlands Retired Members Branch
The message is also reinforced by the capitalist-owned media that would have us believe that the “country” can no longer afford the “luxury” of decent pensions for all. For them the issue is one of finance, of affordability. The reality, however, is that pensions are not about finance but about class and therefore the pensions issue is a political one.
Pensions and the Rich
The rich don’t have a problem with pensions. When Sir Fred “The Shred” Goodwin, he of super injunction fame, retired from RBS at the age of 50, he left with a pension pot of £8m, £2.7m of which he cashed in tax free. His annual pension was £557k but due to a public outcry he only took £342k. But that wasn’t enough for him so he got another job with a top architect’s firm in Edinburgh. RBS is 83% owned by the taxpayer after having to be bailed out with public money to the tune of £45bn. In March it was also revealed that 9 top executives in RBS were given share options worth £28bn.
When Alex Hornby, ex chief of HBOS, recently quit as Alliance Boots CEO, he was given a bonus of £450k not to join a rival group. At the age of 44 his annual salary was £2.4m including a £337k pension supplement. Last September it was revealed that the departing head of Lloyd’s Bank, Eric Daniels was to retire this year with a £14m payoff and an annual pension of £190k. Lloyds was bailed out by the Labour government to the tune of £20bn.
In June the M&S new internet guru, Laura Wade-Gery, was given a “golden hello” worth more than £4m as well as an annual salary of £525k and a pension supplement of £131k. On the way out of M&S was Sir Stuart Rose with a “golden goodbye” of £8.1m.
The list is endless. The TUC has published figures that show that in 2007 the average value of the total pension of the FTSE top 100 directors was £3m with an annual average pension payout of £147k. By 2009 the total pension had risen to £3.4m and the annual average payout was £180k. Such figures are common place. In addition, when you make provision for your pension, you can get tax relief from the public purse. 25% of all pension tax relief, amounting to £10bn in 2010, went to the top 1% of the population.
Rich Ricci, aptly named, of Barclays Bank secured a pay deal in March of £44m, £10.6m of which was his salary. In May we learnt that the average pay, not pension, of the FTSE top 100 CEOs was £4.2m annually, some 145 times larger than the median wage of just under £26k. On present trends it was calculated that by 2020 average pay will be £8m or 214 times the average median wage. The rich therefore don’t have a pension problem. Even the Business Secretary Vince Cable has been moved to say that, “It is actually outrageous that last year median earnings for FTSE 100 chief executives rose 32%, whereas the share index rose only 7% - and average employee pay rose by less than 2%, barely half the rate of inflation.” (Guardian, June 23rd). He bleats well does Vince but nothing will be done except to appeal for restraint!
Pensions and the Working Class
When it comes to us working people whose labour produces the wealth of this country, we have a problem with pensions in both sectors of the economy. We already have the lowest state pension in Europe. As a proportion of average working pay it is 31% while the European average is double that at 60%. In Denmark it is 80%, in the Netherlands 82% and Sweden 62%.
At the same time the National Pensioners Convention (NPC) has shown that 2.5 m pensioners are living below the official poverty line, that 61% of pensioner couples have an annual income of £15k or less, 45% of all single pensioners get £10k or less annually and 66% of all pensioner households get the majority of their income from state pensions or benefits. It is little wonder that pensioner poverty for working class people is on the increase, that 3m pensioner households are deemed to be living in fuel poverty or that each winter about 25,000 more pensioners die in England and Wales than at any other time of the year. Average annual energy bills are more than £1,000. When the Winter Fuel Payment was first introduced it covered about a third of the average energy bill, now it covers barely a fifth and is being cut by this government.
Despite all of these facts we are told that changes have to be made as we are living longer and we can no longer afford the “gold- plated” pensions that exist in the public sector. The renegade Labour MP Lord Hutton, whose recommendations have formed the basis for the government’s changes to pension provision, produced the following facts about how “gold-plated” pensions are. Average local government pensions are £4,000 for men and £2,800 for women. Some 900,000 retired local authority workers get this amount, an average according to Hutton of £3.048 or £55pw. Some 670,000 retired NHS workers get an average of £4,087 or £78pw. In Further Education the average pension is £10k for men and £6k for women. If you serve the capitalist system well, however, your pension will be better. After 20 years as an MP you can get a £37k per year pension. If you are a judge, the majority of whom have been to Oxbridge, you get nearly £53k per year.
Longevity and the Working Class
As for us living longer, what a joke! They claim that average life expectancy for men is now 77.7 year and for women 81.8. Averages hide many sins! We have huge geographical and social differences. In Chelsea and Kensington for women it is 87.5 years and for men 83.7. For women in Hartlepool it is 78.1 and for men in Blackpool 73.2. But within cities the difference is even greater. In Coventry an article in the local paper last October had the headline, “Inner City Men Die Before Retirement”. In two of the most deprived wards, the average age of dying for men in Foleshill is 64 and in Hillfields 65. In the leafy suburbs of Styvechale it is 78 for men. And every city in the UK could produce similar figures!
A recent report from the Office for National Statistics (Guardian, June 9th) showed “variations in income, socio-economic status and health behaviour continued to take their toll: average life expectancy for both sexes in greater Glasgow is lower than in Albania and nearer to that of the Palestinian territories than to the wealthier London boroughs.” Dr Simon Szreter, professor of public policy and history at Cambridge University, said: “Life expectancy has a long-standing correlation with social class and income.” And the situation is getting worse as “during the last two decades, class has become more closely tied to income. Income inequality has gone up significantly.” In other words working class people sell their labour power in exchange for a wage. As we expend our labour, we create wealth but as each year passes we get back a smaller and smaller part of the wealth we have created. Income inequality grows and we as workers die young, and many of us will die before we even get to pensionable age.
One fact above all brings home the reality of the situation. The raising of the state pension age from 65 to 66 will save each year £1.8bn. According to the National Audit Office the amount of money given to the banks to bail them out was £950bn and they still have £512bn. We therefore have spare cash to bail out the rich who are still getting their pay rises and bonuses, but we don’t have money for pensions for working class people. The Guardian of April 26th reported that although bonuses for City of London workers have shrunk by 8% over the past 12 months, the same workers have seen a permanent rise of 7% in their basic salaries. Average wage settlements in the same period were 2% while the measure of inflation usually used as a benchmark for wage negotiations stood at 5.3% in March. One law for the rich and one for the poor!
Whose money is it?
So at the end of the day, whose money is it that goes to pay for the pensions that we are now told we cannot afford? This is a question that is rarely asked in our movement, yet the answer is crucial to understanding the pension crisis for working class people under capitalism.
According to the NPC, in 2009 there were around 12m pensioners living in the UK, 7.5m women and 4.4m men of state pension age. This is 19% of the total population. By 2050, the number will rise to 16m or 21% of the population. State pensions are paid out of the National Insurance Fund that was set up in July 1948 to provide unemployment and sickness benefit, as well as retirement pensions and other benefits. This Fund works on a pay-as-you-go basis with the contributions for each year being used to pay the benefits and pensions in each year. The NPC states that at the moment employees pay 11% of income between £111 and £844 per week and employers pay 12.8% on all incomes above £94pw. Workers therefore pay out of their wages and employers pay out of the profits or surplus value that the workers have created but not received in wages. We who create wealth pay for our pensions and at present the Fund has a surplus balance of between £41bn and £43bn.
This fund could be topped up in a number of ways. An extra £10bn could come from abolishing the upper earnings limit on NI contributions as the limit means that the higher paid actually pay a lower proportion of earnings than the lower paid. Employers’ contributions could be raised from 12.8% to 15% as in many EU countries. There could be reforms of the tax relief on private pensions where the top 1% gets 25% of the tax relief of about £40bn. In addition some £120bn of tax goes missing from avoidance and evasion schemes by the rich. All of these measures are to be welcomed and have been advocated by trade unions such as Unison and PCS.
Pensions and Capitalism
There is however a fundamental flaw. Under capitalism the function of the state machine is to protect the power, wealth and privileges of the rich, of the ruling class. As a backup measure too the rich employ an army of tax specialists and accountants to ensure that they do not pay what they should. Sir Philip Green of BHS is an example. He pays virtually no tax on his super profits yet is in government advising on how to make cuts to the social wage! Our NI contributions however are taken from us at source before we get our wages. The rich can negotiate with the tax authorities on how much they pay and often arrive at backroom deals where they end up paying far less than they should have. We cannot escape the fact that until we own and control the production of wealth, we will never have any equality in contributions for pensions nor in pension levels.
In the private sector the picture is even starker. We again contribute to our private or works pension by having deductions from our wages. Our employers also contribute from the profits that they make. The profits are part of the wealth that we create when we work so we in fact make contributions from our wages and from the profits. Pensions are therefore deferred wages. A recent example really hammers home the message. It was announced that BT investors were hoping for a payout on the back of pension cuts (Guardian, May 13th). It stated: “Investors could benefit from a £100bn windfall over the next 15 years following a government switch to a lower measure of pensions inflation that has given BT a £4bn plus boost to its finances….a ruling that allows it to link pension payouts to the lower CPI measure of inflation.” Lower pensions therefore mean higher profits and vice versa.
This attack on pensions is part and parcel of the general attack on working class living standards. Over the past 30 years the share of national wealth as measured by the GDP that goes to wages has fallen from 65% to 53%. The share that goes to profits has risen over the same period from 13% to 21%. More and more of the wealth that we create is stolen from us under the system of the private ownership of the means of production. But even this is not enough. The rich and their government want more. The more they can cut public spending, the less they have to pay in taxes and the more will the spivs and speculators in the bond markets be reassured that any money they lend to the government will be repaid.
Pensions are therefore a political issue. It is about how the wealth that we create is taken from us and used for the benefit of the rich and powerful in society. Under capitalism it cannot be any other way.We will therefore fight to stop these attacks on our social wage, on our pensions, but we must also realise that until we control the wealth that we create, we will never have a system of pension and benefit levels that give the majority of the population anything like a guaranteed decent standard of living. For that to happen we need to change society. That is why we are socialists and why we link the struggles of the present to protect our gains from the past to the need to change society.