Saturday, 16 August 2008

Civil Service Pensions

It's funny how things link up. Last Thursday, at a scrutiny committee, I was happy to subscribe to Labour councillors' praise for the contribution of trade unionists to a paper on medication protocols, due to be adopted by the social services committee later that afternoon. I commented that the general public tend to see trade unions single-mindedly looking to increase their members' pay, usually in terms of conflict. (The media, especially the press, have their own reasons for presenting this picture.) However, their members's interests extend beyond their pay packet, and for the employers's side, there is a range of expertise among TU representatives and officials which is there to be tapped if consultations are conducted in a constructive way.

On Friday, the front page of Liberal Democrat News featured an attack by Jenny Willott on the pension rights of top civil servants. I was appalled by an easy, populist, attack by an otherwise admirable MP. Hypocritical, too, as she will in due course benefit from pension provision which is in many ways better than public servants'.

The link came on Saturday, as the familiar features of Ken Thomas looked out from the obituary page of the Independent, though the photo shows his hair, which I remember as reddish, to be streaked with grey.

It's hard to remember now how I got to know Ken Thomas. It could be that he was the assistant secretary at CSCA* HQ responsible for relations with the Ministry of Transport, either before or after George Jamieson (who had had to be shifted to us from Defence because of alleged sympathy with communism, either on his part or that of his wife, Muriel Coult).

It could also be that he was one of that group from HQ who, on a balmy May night in the mid-1960s in Brighton, swept up those young delegates lingering in one of the CSCA conference bars to engage in discussion and afterwards search for some decent fish-and-chips. General-Secretary-elect Bill Kendall led the group and there were other future GS's in the party - almost certainly Alistair Graham and Ken Thomas. I remember some twitting of Bill Kendall for eating his fish-and-chips from the paper in order to demonstrate his working-class credentials. That would have been in character for either Thomas or Graham.

Sessions like that, after branch executive meetings or conference sessions, were probably more instructive than all the summer schools laid on by the union.

Anyway, I learn from the obits that, long after I had left the "army of pen-pushers" for the world of IT, Ken Thomas was the main man behind the improvement in the civil service pension scheme.

It is a good scheme, but not, I suggest, outstanding at the time it was brought in. This was before first Mrs Thatcher and then Gordon Brown started raiding private pension funds. It is only as the latter have degraded that the CS scheme has become so exceptional, in its guarantee of a reasonable income in retirement. The formula which provides that to the bulk of its members, who would not rise above executive grades, if that, automatically provides rather more to the men and women at the top.

The First Division have answered Jenny Willott's specific charges better than I could, but I cannot resist pointing out a corresponding case from the City. Under Lord Browne a once-great company went down in reputation and long-term profitability. Yet he was rewarded with a shining golden parachute which puts even top civil servants' pensions in the shade.

There is a political dimension, too. There is every reason to believe that Liberal Democrats will be in a postion to at least share power in Westminster after the next general election. This is no time to antagonise, unfairly, Sir Humphrey, nor the many civil servants who must be a significant proportion of those people who vote in London and South-East England.

*Civil Service Clerical Association, later to become CPSA and latterly the PCS

Posting updated 2008/8/18


Anonymous said...

Although the Tory Tabloids do have a downer on Trade Unions, my experience is that the representatives are there to cover their own arses, specially in the Steel Industry.

As you are aware Frank, I stood in Briton Ferry West in May 1999, Mr Ian Sherwood was standing in the East. When my line manager found out about this he threatened, that if I get elected that he would get me sacked. Promptly went to the Amicus Union rep about this who proptly agree that I should be sacked "if he's standing as a Liberal Democrat".

We also have the situation in Bridgend CBC at this moment where one of the Councillors is a representative of Unison on the health side of things, I might add, although Unison is the main union within the council, there has got to be some conflict of interests here!

This does bring the question "should councillors have other jobs?" Ordinary councillors can probably be working in addition to holding down the role of Councillor, Cllr Tony Taylor has managed it for over 20 year from the Aberafan Ward, if there isn't a conflict of interests; but when it comes to Cabinet Posts....Cllr Peter Foley (Morfa Bridgend) gave up his position as Lecturer to concentrate on being a cabinet member during the days of the Rainbow Coallition in Bridgend. Now Labour are back in Power, five of the six cabinet members have other jobs, good job the Council Officers are running the council. One of the ordinary Councillors, no names, but lives in the Llynfi Valley has a number of jobs, these include, County and Town Councillor, Caseworker for the local MP, Chairman of BAVO, Member of the LHB, Member of the Llynfi Valley Forum, Governor at a couple of Schools in the Valley, Youth Officer for the local labour party. These are the jobs I just know of.

Frank Little said...

The fact that some reps. and officers misuse their position should not detract from the rôle TUs play in public life.

I accept that the sort of bullying you describe does go on, Gary. It's high time m'learned friends took an interest.

What saddens me is that too many trade unionists and their ruling bodies still see themselves as part of the Labour "tribe", when the truth is that Blair-Brown has, from the health service to the railways, acted against their interests. Blair's sole gesture towards liberalisation after 19 years of Toryism was to allow TU membership at GCHQ. Indeed, he celebrated the fact that Britain had the most oppressive trade union legislation in Europe in a Radio 4 interview not long after he became PM.

UNISON threatened to withdraw support from the Labour Party after the staging of nurses pay. Why didn't they carry that threat out?

Frank Little said...

I'm all in favour of councillors having proper jobs, as Tony Taylor does. The system is weighted against them, though, and towards the retired and the unemployable.

I take your point about cabinet positions, if we have to have the cabinet system in local government.

Some of those additional jobs you list look like the sort of voluntary positions which many in full-time employment take up.

I can remember holding officerships in two chess clubs and being on a PTA when I was at DVLC.

At present, I am a school governor, chair of the local party and on two community councils. But I'm only a back-bench county councillor.

Anonymous said...

Point taken, Jeff Jones in his submission to the Richards Commission described councils as "gerontocracy", unfortunately, that's democracy, or what passes for democracy within the First Past the post, Councils in Wales.

On the subject of FPTP Labour gaining control of Bridgend with 50% of the Councillors (27 out of 54) with just 42% of the vote.