The head of the UK’s largest trade union responds to last week’s piece on the pensions row

I read with interest the article written by Jane Marshall and Wendy Hunter on the pensions debate between public sector unions and the Government. I feel that I have to respond to this rather one-sided piece.

In April this year, the Government managed to avoid the biggest strike since 1926 when it revoked the regulations that would have changed the local government pension scheme for the worst. They greatly underestimated the strength of feeling and conviction of our members and I hope they do not make the same mistake again.

The Government wanted to raise the retirement age to 65 in both local government and health. What’s wrong with that you may ask? Indeed, many people can, and do, work until they are 65 and remain in good health, and there are also many who do in local government and health.

But for some, they will never reach this age. New research has shown that there is a direct correlation between the size of your pension and your life expectancy – those on pensions of less than £4,500 a year are twice as likely to die early than those drawing more than £13,000. The average pension in local government is £3,800 and these statistics show that local government workers are twice as likely to die between the ages of 60 and 64 than someone working in IT or financial services.

And what of NHS workers? To suggest that NHS workers should be forced to work until they are 65 is living in cloud cuckoo land. As it is, 73 per cent of paramedics are forced to retire through ill-health before they reach the age of 60, let alone carry on until they are 65. Forcing staff to work longer will simply raise the level of ill-health retirements and end up costing the NHS more.

Some of my paramedic members say they go to more funerals than retirements.

Local government and health workers have never gone into public service for the pay, perks or bonuses – because there aren’t any. One thing they were able to rely on was an adequate pension at the end of their working lives. And this pension is not the fat-cat pension often portrayed. The average pension for a local government worker is £3,800 a year – not a princely sum.

My members have a contract with the Government that enables them to retire with a pension without having to rely on means-tested state benefits. Backtracking on that contract will put the Government on a collision course with the very people it wants to deliver its agenda for world-class public services and force many to live in poverty.

The employers themselves, and previous governments, must accept their share of the blame for allowing the pensions pot to run low by changing legislation to allow local authorities to take pension holidays and run schemes at only 70 per cent funding.

This is no way to treat workers who have devoted years in the service of others. We have an agreement with the Deputy Prime Minister that talks will not be limited. We have heard the Employers Organisation countless times in the press saying how much money not changing the schemes will cost local authorities. We think their figures are wrong and the Government should not bow to these scare tactics. We don’t deny that pensions need revisiting so that they remain sustainable, but we won’t be sidetracked – this is too important an issue to allow the Government and the employers to get away with.

Dave Prentis, general secretary, Unison