30 November 2011
Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude made an oral statement in the House of Commons in relation to today’s industrial action.
Check against delivery.
I would like to update the House on today’s public sector strike action which is about long overdue reforms to public sector pensions.
I start by thanking the large majority of public servants who have turned up for work today as normal. The low response to the call for strike action reflects their dedication to their public service calling. It also reflects the recognition that strike action while negotiations continue on an almost daily basis is irresponsible, inappropriate and untimely – It is just wrong.
This strike is about long overdue reforms to public sector pensions. I repeat that we want public sector workers to continue to have access to pension schemes that are among the very best available. They will continue to be defined benefit schemes, delivering a guaranteed pension, index-linked and inflation-proofed. These schemes have all but disappeared from the rest of the workforce.
But reform is urgently needed. The cost of public service pensions has increased by a third in the last 10 years to £32bn and the OBR forecasts that without reform spending on pensions will rise by nearly £7 billion over the next 5 years. Life expectancy is rising, and people are living longer, so in future people will work longer, for a better balance between life spent in work and life in retirement. And most public sector staff, except the lowest paid, will pay more for a fairer balance between what they pay towards their pensions and what other taxpayers pay.
We’ve been willing to listen to the concerns of staff, and have responded. On 2 November, after months of negotiations, we set out a revised offer that was more generous by 8%, and we have made sure that any public sector worker within ten years of retirement will be able to retire on their current terms.
We are also protecting the lower paid. Public sector staff earning less than a full time equivalent of £15,000 will not have to pay anything extra at all.
The offer on the table is, by any standards, a generous one – a deal that most people in the private sector can only dream of being offered. Most staff on low and middle incomes will retire on a pension that is as good as what they expect today, and for many it will be better.
The changes to the pension schemes will particularly protect women, who form the majority of the public sector workforce, many of whom are on lower pay. And a move to career average will secure fairer outcomes for lower paid workers, most of whom are women. This scheme will also protect future generations from an unsustainable burden placed on them by unaffordable public sector pensions.
It is simply not true that the government is not negotiating. Only yesterday there were discussions with the Civil Service unions; there will be formal discussions with the teaching unions tomorrow; and with the health unions on Friday. In addition, there are frequent informal contacts between the government and the TUC. Contrary to some claims being made this morning, talks are very much alive, intensive and making good progress – and I regret the misleading claims to the contrary.
All of this underlines how indefensible today’s strike is while these talks at scheme level are moving forward. This strike is inappropriate, untimely and irresponsible especially while talks are ongoing and only a third of union members voted for this action.
I can confirm that our latest data gathered from all government departments show that, as of 11:00 today, 135,000 civil servants were on strike. Well below a third of Civil Servants have taken part in this action. The government has rigorous contingency plans in place to ensure that essential public services are maintained during periods of industrial action.
For example, I can confirm to the House that: Nearly all jobcentres are open for business, with only 16 of 930 closed to the public and UK borders are open and operating with only minor delays to the travelling public.
Across the other sectors, the impact has been varied. According to estimates early this morning, across all state-funded schools in England, 13% of schools are open, 12% are partially open, 58% are closed and 16% have yet to report their status. I am grateful to those who have worked hard to keep their schools open across the country; the head teachers, governors and support staff who may all have concerns about their pensions but have chosen to put the needs of pupils and parents above their own to minimise the impact of this strike. I deeply regret that there has been disruption to the lives of so many hardworking parents across the country.
Overall, the NHS is coping well with industrial action. Early indications from Strategic Health Authorities suggest the strike is having only a minor impact on patient services, and has largely been mitigated by robust contingency planning. . Although several Trusts were forced to make cancellations of elective surgery, which is unfortunate, but many organisations are reporting that they are operating at near normal levels. There is some disruption taking place in the local government sector. Councils have worked hard to successfully agree exemptions with their unions on services such as dementia care and homelessness services to protect some of the most vulnerable members of the public from the most serious possible impacts of strikes. However, not all local unions have made this effort to protect the public and in some areas disruption may be more extensive and will be affecting services such refuse collection and street cleaning.
Mr Speaker, I have huge respect for the dedicated women and men who keep our public services running. Their work is demanding, essential, and highly valued. They deserve to be able to retire on decent pensions. Our reforms will ensure that their pension schemes can be sustained for the future. They deserve no less.