"When the stock market was booming, employers took contributions
holidays worth more than £18 billion. Now the boom is over, holes are appearing
in pension funds" according to the TUC. And companies don’t seem keen to
put the money back in.
A recent TUC report has blown the gaff on what employers are trying to do.
It’s not a great surprise. They want the workers to pay for the cost of the
current crisis and prop up profits by cutting back on their pensions.
In their factsheet, Pensions in Crisis, the TUC points out that many
employers are closing good final salary related pension schemes and that
"It’s the first serious attempt to cut pay and conditions since the Second
Where workers have fought through trade unions for decent pay and conditions
over many years and won decent pension contracts, these are now under severe
Recent accounting regulations meant that employers had to show whether
pension schemes contained enough money to pay out what was due for pensions.
With recent stock market falls, many schemes were in a bad state and even most
of the top FTSE-100 companies could not meet pension liabilities.
This could upset shareholders, by causing share prices to fall – so the
obvious solution was to close the pension schemes – first to new employees and
sometimes to everyone. Nissan has closed its scheme, which was £121m short – or
an average of £22,000 per worker.
When employers close the ‘final salary’ schemes, which link pensions to pay
and the number of years worked with the firm, they offer new schemes that limit
the amount bosses have to pay in. They have already saved about £4 billion in
contributions. They’re also, the TUC says: "transferring all the risk of
stock market ups and downs onto employees."
New government plans to insure schemes and limit pension increases are not
the answer – and could make more schemes close.
As pensions expert Ros Altmann has explained: "Even fully solvent
employers can just decide to wind up their pension schemes."
Leaking Pension Pots
Perhaps Robert Maxwell’s greatest gift to the Labour movement was to instil a
healthy cynicism about employers looking after pension schemes. The Tories
passed the 1995 Pensions Act, which did nothing to really address the problem
and set up the Occupational Pensions Regulatory Authority, which never seems to
have used its extensive powers.
It did nothing for people like workers from Allied Steel and Wire (ASW) in
Sheerness, Kent which went bust last July. With insolvent companies, retired
workers pensions are protected, but those still working are just another
creditor for the company and can see their entire pensions disappear.
More than 500 workers from ASW marched to Downing Street in June to protest.
BBC News featured John Hayter, aged 59, who lost 90% of his pension, only three
years from retirement. He had saved in the company scheme for 28 years but said:
"We will have to sell up and move to a cheaper area, away from our family,
friends and grandchildren . . to raise capital which we will have to survive on
In other cases, already highly-paid executives walk away with the lion’s
share of the pot – leaving little for most of the workers. Another problem is
that less people work for companies that provide any kind of pension
contribution from employers. The TUC says that there are two million less
workers in final salary schemes today than in 1995, and in the private sector,
four out of five workers do not belong to a final salary scheme.
One bright idea was to start stakeholder pensions, which were meant to be
cheap and simple for the lower-paid to understand. Even small employers had to
set them up – but they did not have to contribute. At least 10,000 firms have
defied the law and not set up schemes – although none has yet been fined the
The vast majority of firms do not contribute, so there is little
encouragement for workers to save. Most simply can’t afford to. Even
where employers do contribute, their generosity is pitiful. The average
employer contribution to a stakeholder pension is only about £25 a
1.25% of the average UK full-time salary.
What a state!
The good news is that people are living longer. The bad news is that means we
need more money to provide for that longer life. So "people need a bigger pensions pot to provide a decent pension. Men
need around £180,000 savings at 60 to get a £10,000 a year pension, while
women need £210,000. These figures have gone up by 40% since 1994."
Experts say you have to save 15% of your pay from your 20s to guarantee a
decent pension. That means £1 in every £6 you earn. But with student debt,
sky-high property prices and other costs, few can manage it. But if you don’t
start until you are 40 then you need to save £1 in every £4.
Apart from the sheer difficulty of finding the money, many people don’t trust
pensions after all the mis-selling scandals – and recent losses don’t give
workers any confidence in the stock market. Both major political parties want to reduce the proportion of pension income
provided by government from an average of 60p in the pound to 40p.
The state retirement pension is now linked to price rises. It used to be
linked to rises in earnings. As earnings go up faster, it means that by 2020 the
state pension will be worth only 10% of average earnings. That would make
today’s pension only £56. (Before the Conservatives scrapped the link it was
worth 20% of earnings.)
The European Union has looked at the facts – especially as many countries
like France, Germany, Italy and Spain have much more generous pensions than the
UK state pension.
The European Commission Social Agenda journal of April 2003 explains that the
ratio of people over 65 to those of working age is set to double by 2050.
"Public spending on pensions is expected to rise by a third from 10% of EU
production [GDP] to 13.6% in 2040."
The solution to the problem of the ‘demographic time bomb’, where a greater
proportion of the population will be retired compared to the numbers employed,
was obvious to them: extend working lives by five years – right across Europe.
Then they realised they could save even more by cutting pension benefits.
"Keeping more people in employment for longer is a must. . .people will
be able to decide for themselves whether they want to work a few years longer in
order to achieve the same pension level as today, or retire at the same age as
today, but in exchange for a reduced monthly pension." (Social Agenda,
April 2003) What a choice!
The report ends encouragingly – with some remarks that our Government has
taken to heart and published in the British press, too: "Large numbers of
people in the 60s and even 70s will, on the whole, be physically fit, healthy
and capable of living very active lives – at all levels, including
The World Bank has now turned its attention to Europe. The International
Confederation of Free Trade Unions says that the Bank has just published a
report on "Pension Reform in Europe", which "asserts that
countries of western Europe have no choice but to carry out massive reforms
involving increased retirement ages, reduced benefits, and partial privatisation."
(And our Government has ominously just appointed Nicholas Stern, the World
Bank’s Chief Economist to a senior job at the Treasury.)
Workers in Europe have already been taking action to protect their hard-won
benefits. There have been massive strikes in country after country.
Labour Research (June 2003) details some of the campaigns: Austria 500,000
went on strike and 200,000 marched in Vienna. The Government planned to reduce
the pension basis from the best 15 years’ earnings, to the average over 40
years, with a full pension after 45 years – instead of 40 as at present.
The OGB trade union federation estimated that the cuts would be 13% in the
short term and up to 40% long-term. Union protests have put introducing the cuts
In Germany the unions are campaigning against the Government’s
programme, which plans to increase retirement age from 65 to 67. In
Italy a general strike is threatened over pensions where the Government
lowering employer contributions. They also want to cut pensions for
retiring before 65 with incentives to work longer. In 1994, a general
mass demonstrations over pensions led to the fall of the first
government. In France, 1.2million protested against the governments
planed pension cuts
and concessions have been agreed. By 2008, those with a full
will retire on at least 85% of the National Minimum Wage.
Even young workers, who in the past weren’t interested in pensions, care
about them now. They are coming to realise why the trade union movement has
always regarded pensions as deferred wages. Just as when a wage cut is
threatened – we won’t give up without a fight!
– The TUC should co-ordinate action by unions in this country, in concert
with those across the European Union, against planned cuts in workers’ pensions
– The Government should guarantee a decent standard of living for all retired
people – without means testing.
– Employers contributions should be made compulsory and workers’ savings for
retirement protected against company bankruptcy and fraud.
– The Government should nationalise the financial institutions and use the funds
to invest in decent rail and road transport and public services and to