Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The Smell Of Sacred Cows Burning, Or Why You Should Always Look On The Bright Side Of (Public Sector) Life.

I feel positively geriatric. Not only is the final landing of the Discovery space shuttle shown on tonight's news, but I recall watching its first-ever launch. And why does everyone keep talking about retirement?

"What's your pension like?" says Max this morning, as we leave the house. Late, because we've overslept again.

"God knows," I say. "Probably rubbish, seeing as the House of Commons have changed their minds about the provider at least three times since I started work."

"Well, it could be worse," says Max. "You could work in the Private Sector - like me."

Aargh. I've spent hours over the last few weeks listening to constituents complaining about their pensions, from every possible angle. Those who have got Public Sector pensions are furious at proposals to make them less generous; while those who haven't are enraged by the notion of the former's entitlement to final salary pay-outs. Not to mention by the statistics on relative pay across both groups.

Honestly, casework has such a nasty habit of making you question sacred cows, not that this is the moment to start having yet another existential crisis about my political beliefs. Better just to carry on as if Max hadn't even mentioned the Private Sector. 

"Well, never mind about that," I say. "Seeing as you were really asking about my pension. Let's just say that the definition of 'actively managed' means different things to different people."

In the olden days when I first started working for The Boss, the House of Commons gave MPs a list of 'approved providers' that their staff's pensions contributions could be paid into. All pretty simple, except that, almost as soon as my pension was set up, the company running it was bought out.

My scheme was closed to new entrants, and a crash and burn approach was adopted towards those of us who were stuck in the damn thing; so the only benefit to arise from that experience was an increased ability to empathise with all the constituents who've been affected by the Equitable Life debacle. Not that empathy has proved to be of much comfort to anyone so far.

After that, the *HOC had the bright idea of allowing staff to choose their own stakeholder pensions - so I took advice from the union, who organised for me to join a new scheme. It was a bit of a pain having two pensions statements to try to decipher - seeing as I am clueless about anything financial - but at least the new provider didn't seem quite as determined to lose all my money as the original one was.

Problem therefore neatly solved - for all of a year - until those idiots in the *Fees Office decided that too many MPs' staff were still not bothering to set up their pensions. This was blamed, not on the terminal apathy of the staff involved, but on the system being too demanding for them to cope with. (Which rather begs the question of whether they were fit to work for MPs in the first place, but I suppose that's a different story.)

Anyway, the result was the creation of the Portcullis Pension Plan, which meant I had to move my contributions yet again - a nightmare that took absolutely months. (Though it presumably wasn't considered as demanding a process as simply getting off your arse and signing up for one of the earlier pension plans would have been - unless I'm just bitter. Which I might be.)

And I bet this won't be the end of it, either - but I do wish they'd just leave our pensions well alone. By now I have absolutely no idea where I'll stand when I retire, because I can't make head nor tail of all the letters I get from different pension providers, except that the word 'growth' seems to be conspicuous by its absence from all of them. I bet George Osborne knows exactly how I feel.

So I'm not feeling too guilty about my supposedly fool-proof public sector pension by the time I get around to explaining it to Max. Who'll probably have left me by the time I can claim it, anyway - due to the beard, if nothing else.

"All I know is that the original pension is now worth less than a tenth of what it was at the end of my first year in the job," I say. "So I wouldn't exactly count on it to fund any trips to Thailand. Or even to Sainsbury's, for that matter."

Max looks horrified - which is a particularly unflattering facial expression that I'm starting to get used to, ever since his boss sent out the redundancy notices.

"Well, what on earth are we going to do if I don't get a job in one of the other stores, then?" he says. "If I end up unemployed at my age, I might never work again. I'll probably be featured in a Panorama programme in ten years' time, hugely obese and eating a McDonalds while watching The Jeremy Kyle Show."

Now there's something to look forward to. Honestly, it's getting harder and harder to follow Mum's edict to always look on the bright side of life. Especially when Max and I seem to have spent the last two days talking about nothing but pensions. Where the hell's the romance in that?

I'm actually quite relieved when I arrive at work, for once - even though the first caller is Richard Bloody Levinson. At least he provides a change of subject.

"Did you see that bloke from the Police on TV last night - moaning about bonuses being cut?' he says. "Why do people get bonuses just for doing their bloody jobs? And they're paid more than firemen! These people make me sick. Join the real world, that's what I say."

By which he means the world of The Daily Telegraph, but never mind. I can cope with anything today, as long as it doesn't involve the dreaded P word.

I make a non-committal grunt, partly so as not to interrupt Richard's train of thought, and partly to allow me to swallow the Haribos Greg's just given me for breakfast.

"And as for these other public sector workers demanding no change to their ruddy gold-plated pensions, don't even get me started on them," he says. "Which includes you and your lot, I suppose. What's the matter with you all? Don't you even know how lucky you are?"

"Um, yes," I say. Which Mum would be very pleased about. I can almost hear her humming the tune.

*HOC - House of Commons, as usual.
*Fees Office - House of Commons Department of Finance & Administration. Used to be responsible for payment of salaries and allowances etc, which functions are now the role of IPSA

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