Defending the public sector isn’t defending the poor

Some who would claim to be left-wing thought it would be a brilliant idea to breach parity and thus take over ₤1 billion out of Northern Ireland’s public services over the next Assembly term just to subsidise public sector pensions at the current unaffordable level (that is ₤1 billion in addition to the money which would need to be taken from public services to pay for any additional pensions guarantees).

It’s as if by defending public sector workers’ pensions, they are defending the poor. The problem is, they’re not… they’re actually hitting the poor.

This is one of the outrageous mischievous untruths of our time. We all want money taken from “the rich” – yet none of us admits to being so!

It is easy to understand the frustration of public sector workers who find themselves working longer for less pension, despite themselves having contributed.

But then, it is easy to understand the frustration of the private sector worker who saw their salary slashed 20% overnight without warning. Twice.

It is easy to understand the frustration of the voluntary sector worker who suddenly found funding was being withdrawn from their project at the end of the current three-year term, and who didn’t have a pension or any back-up for their new-found unemployment.

It is easy to understand the sheer despair of the self-employed person who had to dip into their savings which they had intended to use for their pension at 65 to pay their mortgage and home fuel bill at 35, rendering them pension-less.

Not once has any politician publicly considered such plights; yet they are commonplace. Let’s hear those who think it’s such a good idea to toss away a billion out of our public services to pay for public sector pensions explain exactly what they’re going to do for those suffering these plights…

For the truth is that, in Northern Ireland, public sector workers are at the top of the income pile. Even their pay “freeze” saw their salaries consistently increase within scale. Not one was laid off, aside from voluntarily or through retirement. Next were the funded voluntary sector workers, who actually did have a pay “freeze”. Some found their projects ending and were left unemployed. Next were the private sector workers, most of whom took pay cuts in absolute terms, often heavy ones; thousands were laid off. About even with those were the long-term unemployed or otherwise economically inactive (say, carers and students) who in fact saw their incomes rise marginally (but not in real terms), but were often further caught in the dependency trap.

To put it simply, public sector wages are now 45% above private sector. You can try to get around that any way you like, it means directly and indisputably that the income of your average public sector worker is 45% above your average private sector worker (and of course even more ahead of those who cannot find work at all). So who, precisely, are the poor ones in need of state support and public service provision? Incredibly, the “Left” in NI would take £1 billion from public services (A&Es packed, school buildings crumbling etc) over four years – hitting the poorest hardest – in order to guarantee the pensions of those whose income is 45% or more higher (and many times more secure).

It’s all the private sector’s fault apparently, for not paying enough. That looks to me suspiciously like blaming the poor… I didn’t think those on the “Left” did that?

27 thoughts on “Defending the public sector isn’t defending the poor

  1. Matt O says:

    I am a nurse in the regional ICU in Belfast with 13 years experience. My wife is a PA in local government with over 20 years experience. We have what I consider a modest income. However you appear to be implying we are in fact rich. I’d like to know which job in the private sector is comparable mine. Which jobs are comparable to nurses, teachers, policemen, paramedics, firemen, prison officers, doctors? Which of these jobs are earning 45% more than their private sector counterparts? I expect people in these jobs to be reasonably well paid considering the job they do and their level of qualifications (graduate and post graduate). This blunt 45% figure doesn’t give any insight into who is actually being paid too much in your eyes, or maybe its just everyone? Should me and my wife take a 45% pay cut? I have a close friend who runs his own modest business and enjoys many benefits that me and my wife can’t. Pay scales are not a solely public sector attribute and your inference that everyone continued to get pay rises is deliberately misleading as you well know. The likes of me and my wife with our years of experience were sitting at the top of our scales, did not continue to receive pay rises and have indeed suffered pay freezes year on year. Your point about the pensions problem is valid and yes it probably does need reformed but please stop using misleading facts, figures and examples to bash the public sector and back your argument up. I’ve forgotten are you Alliance or still a Conservative?

    • I’m a member of the Alliance Party, whose MLAs voted exactly as I suggest here.

      But why did you ask that? It doesn’t make any difference to the facts of the matter. People are in denial that, by and large, public sector workers are among the better off.

      But the real issue here is ripping £250m per year out of essential front-line services to give public sector workers here superior pensions to public sector workers in GB and other workers anywhere. Sorry, I can’t justify that, not least since it’s the real poor who’d be most hit. Can you?

      • Julie Marinescu says:

        Ian Parsley, you are nothing more than an ill advised right wing rich boy. We, the public sector workers, pay huge amounts a month to provide ourselves with such a pension. Not least do we put up with some of the most stressful and distressing circumstances on a daily basis. The ICU being such a place. We get paid low wages for what we do. Should you compare our wage with a nurse in Australia or USA you would see that we are earning a pittance in comparison. We pay for our pension, we do a very stressful job and we deserve a lot more in wages. You deserve nothing more than contempt for the comments you have made regarding public sector workers!

      • That load of tripe actually does a serious disservice to your colleagues.

        You need to deal with the fact you earn 45% more than your average private sector worker. Just go out among the “rich boys” in the leafy lanes of South Belfast or North Down and count how many made their pile in the private sector. Very, very few.

        Private sector workers include retailers storing and selling essential items in trying circumstances; support workers for people with conditions such as Parkinson’s and dementia; construction workers operating in adverse weather to near impossible timescales.

        Such people are under the precise same pressures, yet get 45% less than you do, less job security and less pension.

        How dare you suggest they are *less* valuable than you are? What a disgraceful notion. Thankfully, it isn’t widely shared by your colleagues, most of whom argue their case respectfully.

  2. Matt O says:

    P.S. The private sector is not poor. National and multinational companies and their shareholders are not poor. Good businesses are not poor. Whether or not they pay their employees poorly is another matter.

    • Private sector workers in NI are poorer than public sector workers.

      Of course, some (few) do okay – but most of the shareholders etc live outside NI. Likewise, some public sector workers do pretty well – the CEO of one Board is on over £200k.

      When it comes to averages, however, public sector is ahead across the UK and way ahead in NI. It’s also more secure.

  3. Matt O says:

    I’ve acknowledged there is an issue with pensions. My wife and I will now be working until we are 68 and paying more into our pensions. i don’t know if this is enough to plug the gap. My main issue here is your use of misleading facts, figures and examples to back the argument up. I resent the suggestion that because me and my wife work in the public sector we are paid too much and we are the “rich”. Where does this 45% figure come from? As I’ve already asked, which jobs are comparable to nurses, doctors, policemen etc etc. and which ones are being paid 45% more than their private sector counterparts? Me and my wife are typical public sector workers and the idea that we are being paid 45% too much is ridiculous considering our qualifications and experience.

    • All the examples are factual. The double 20% was an advertising firm in East Belfast, for instance.

      Figures from DETI as reported in Belfast Telegraph on 13 December.

      Nothing dubious there.

      Just because something’s unpalatable doesn’t make it untrue!

  4. Matt O says:

    In short, your point about about taking money about of other services to prop up pensions is a valid one, but undermined and clouded by your use of dubious facts, figures and examples (in my opinion).

  5. Matt O says:

    Ok lets look at facts. First of all the double 20%. Although this may be a “fact” is an anecdotal example, not that it doesn’t have value, but anecdotal all the same and doesn’t give an accurate idea of the overall picture.

    The 45% pay difference between public sector exists for a number of valid reasons as acknowledged by DETI. Most non-professional, skilled, elementary and therefore more poorly paid jobs exist in the private sector, whereas the public sector is primarily composed of professional/graduate occupations which are paid more. Here lies the main reason for the gap. This gap has not changed since DETI started measuring it 15 years ago. Another factor is that women are the most poorly paid within the private sector due to the job profile they are most likely to fill, whereas in the public sector they are much more likely to be professional/graduate and therefore paid more – this skews the gap further.

    I repeat my point about pay freezes. Whilst many employees continued up their pay scales whilst having their cost of living increase frozen, many who were at the top of their scales have had real terms pay freezes year on year.

    Regarding employees being laid off, demand for private sector services decreased therefore employees were laid off. Public sector employees were not actively laid off because demand for its services have not changed. Demand for these services is not dictated by the economic climate. However many positions were lost/not replaced using “natural wastage”. Walk on to a hospital ward or the RVH A&E and try to tell them they are overstaffed.

    I hope this outlines why I feel you are misrepresenting or being economical with the facts, in much the same way as this Conservative government has consistently done over the last couple of years. The pension gap issue is one that needs to be discussed, but in an honest way that doesn’t deliberately demonise public sector workers.

  6. Julie Marinescu says:

    Well I sure as hell won’t be voting for the Alliance party! Thanks for the enlightenment Mr Parsley!

  7. Matt O says:

    Just another couple of final points.

    Our public services are used by everyone, not just the poor. So if there are shortcomings in public services they are felt by everyone including those who work in it.

    “It’s all the private sector’s fault apparently, for not paying enough. That looks to me suspiciously like blaming the poor… I didn’t think those on the “Left” did that?”

    This is a very strange take on the issue. No-one is blaming private sector employees are they? However there is a very strong argument that big businesses owners are not paying their employees enough. You admit that big business profits are paid out to shareholders who don’t live in the country. Perhaps these profits should be trickled down more to employees. By your logic its a race to the bottom and if the private sector pays less then the public sector should follow suit.

    • Firstly, we’ve been told for seven years, incessantly, that “Tory cuts” to public services particularly harm the poor. This happens, essentially, to be true.

      So Green/SDLP cuts of £250m/year would particularly harm them too!

      Secondly, yes, several correspondents in the Social Media have said it’s the private sector’s fault either for not paying enough or not having similar pension guarantees. Quite where they’re supposed to get the money from is never stated!

      By the way, I take most of your points. Sector Wars get us nowhere.

      But the Public Sector has to show some compassion for the basic fact that others Sectors have had it a hell of a lot worse. Again, that is a point the “Left” should be endorsing!

  8. other paul says:

    Hi Matt,
    You mentioned that the people who are in the public sector are generally better qualified. I don’t completely buy this, but assuming that this is true, why do public sector employees need to be better qualified than private sector staff? In fact why do many of them need to go to university at all?

    It seems to me that in order to grow the private sector the public sector needs to be made much less attractive to work in. At the moment, I know plenty of smart young people who might be a success in the private sector but it’s far too much of a cushy number in the public sector to ever leave. I don’t know about you but I don’t think that’s something that the government should be encouraging.

    • That’s spot on, Paul.

      Our whole system, from education onwards, is self-replicating damagingly.

      Grammar schools churn out excellent administrators – but they absorb wealth, not create it. What we really need are entrepreneurs and innovators, but Grammar schools are very poor at it (and secondaries have to teach the same, academic, administrative curriculum).

      As a result, most people end up in jobs which absorb wealth; but they also form most of the educated electorate. Anyone who comes along and points out the obvious fact that it is not good enough to have a professional educated class which absorbs rather than creates wealth is shot down by all kinds of spurious nonsense (some of which we’ve seen above). Then of course, that same professional educated class props up the very educational system which creates the problem in the first place, and round we go again for another generation.

      Worst of all, you end up with pretend-socialist (but really middle-class-conservative) parties like the SDLP and Greens reinforcing the very system which works for the professional educated class but comes at great expense to the actual poor they claim to care about.

      In other words, the so-called “Left” is propping up the very class system (including the education system) they claim to oppose. It’s quite shocking, really.

  9. Matt O says:

    Why do they need to be better qualified? Because their jobs are classed as “professional” requiring graduate and post graduate qualifications as minimum requirements. The details are all there in the DETI research quoted by Ian. You appear to be arguing for a bigger private sector and for careers in that sector to be promoted and valued more. Your absolutely right. At no point have I argued to the contrary. But your master plan for this is to make the public sector less attractive to work for rather than making the private sector more attractive. Surely this is the wrong way round?

  10. Matt O says:

    I think you also need to careful about how much this idea of a “cushy number” is bandied about. I can assure you my job as a nurse is not cushy. Would you describe it as cushy? What about teachers? Policemen? And I’ll repeat my questions again. Which public sector jobs are cushy numbers? Who are overqualified for their jobs? Who are overpaid? This appears to be the basis of much of your argument, but its all pretty vague and unqualified. Sounds like demonisation to me.

  11. Declan Wilson says:

    Interesting debate.

    I notice that the point has been made that this shouldn’t be a “rush to the bottom” and the focus should be on improving pensions in the private sector. There is some truth in this but sadly private pensions have been so comprehensively looted by governments since the 1980s that the old system, which was once one of the best in the world, is now no longer affordable. Indeed the deficits in some of the big company schemes are now so large that they threaten the future of the companies themselves. This is why so many private sector employees are now paying into defined contribution schemes (where a pension of £25k currently requires a pot of around £700k).

    The danger is that if we continue to have a system where pay and conditions in the public sector are vastly superior to the private sector you will build a huge structural weakness into the economy where your brightest and best aspire to work for the government. This is what happens in third world countries and in our case will ultimately lead to further losses in competitiveness.

    We are in this position because we allowed successive governments to destroy private pensions. The gap between private and public is now too big to be bridged and this leaves us with our race to the bottom.

    The focus should now be on how to repair the damage to private pensions so at least we can have some parity.

  12. Susan Palour says:

    You are obviously ill informed, out of touch and myopic Ian,and i know this to be the case As having engaged with you before you unfollowed me on Twitterbecause I challenged you on the same topic. I am a teacher. My husband is a teacher. We are not rich. Our pay freeze for 2 and a half years means that we are 26% Less well off than we were 3 years ago taking into account inflation and what we would have achieved on an annual pay rise (13% per person is our loss to date.)To state that we are not poor is inaccurate. We are struggling, Ian. This may be news to you but we are. I’m not sure if you are aware of current teacher salaries, but your current musings and assertions suggest to me that you are out of touch.i am dipping into my savings regularly to the point that I can no longer save. My final salary is to be based on my average salary which will be not enough for me to live on, as when I started as a teacher my wages were well below that of other graduates, meaning that my pension will now reflect that. Pension sector workers are not lowly parasites as you deem them to be, Ian. I entered into teaching because I really want to educate and make a difference. Because of this I undertook a Masters at my own expense several years ago. I subsequently had a paper published. I regularly engage with DfE and other organisations on my own tine, no fee for me for the betterment of my students. All of these endeavours are not solely for my benefit but to ensure that I can bring the necessary expertise needed to my classroom practice.,I love my job, but I am seriously considering leaving teaching for the private sector to secure better financial security for me and my family. I deeply resent the fact that you constantly at every opportunity berate public sector workers, my brother decided to take an alternative route and now works in the private sector earning in excess of £200,000 per year. I chose teaching. I would ask you to desist from persisting in public sector bashing until you examine the facts in more detail. How much do you earn per year Ian? Or what is your gripe against public sector workers?

    • Another “fact denier”.

      Head of SIB – a *public sector worker* – gets £250,000.

      We can come up with examples all day. The *fact* is that private sector average is *45%* behind public.

      I didn’t say anything against the public sector. What I said was that defending public sector pensions at the expense of £250 million cuts to public services affecting the rest of us *is not defending the poor*, because public sector workers are *on average* 45% richer than the rest.

      I had to sacrifice my entire pension savings to save my business – and to start the business in the first place, I had to make all the same sacrifice. No one is asking you to do anything close to that.

      By the way, not a single public sector worker took a pay cut and not a single one lost their job despite a 10% fall in living standards. A fall barely experienced by public sector workers, but borne entirely by the rest of us – even though our average incomes were lower to start with:

      Solidarity? Time to show some with the rest of the population.

  13. Bob Wilson says:

    Our nurse and teacher friends should remember that 30,000 people have lost their jobs in the construction industry in the past five years many of them, very well qualified people, have had to emigrate.

    In the local health service. The most recent figures for full-time equivalents in September 2013 compared with March 2011. The number of consultants, medical and dental, is up by 160, or 12%. The number of middle-grade doctors is up by 69, or 20%. Nurses and midwives are up by 531, or 4%. Nursing and support staff are up by 147, or 4%. Paramedics and ambulance staff are up by12, or 2%. Qualified allied health professionals are up by 317, or 11%.

    • Indeed.

      I’ve no problem with recruiting more health professionals by the way. In fact, I would advocate it.

      But I would expect, when they’re asked to sacrifice a small bit of their pension to save £250m/year in public spending, that they would show some solidarity with those in the construction sector and others who have sacrificed far more.

  14. Bob Wilson says:

    BTW love the idea that because Ian focuses in on some harsh realities he is accused of being a Conservative!
    Thank goodness we have Conservatives in power in London taking many of the tough decisions rather than waiting for our populist, decision-dodgers at Stormont to face realities

  15. Matt O says:

    I think we don’t actually disagree that much tbh. Again I repeat, my problem is your selective use of facts and figures and use of rhetoric undermines your argument.

  16. […] was unsurprised by the wide-ranging response to my blog post two weeks ago entitled “Defending the Public Sector isn’t Defending the Poor“. What was interesting was that not a single negative response provided any evidence […]

  17. […] Recession wiped off 10% of our overall wealth as a society (see yesterday’s piece and “Defending the Public Sector isn’t Defending the Poor“) was the common lack of solidarity towards poorer people. This is far from unique to public […]

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