Thursday, March 18, 2010

MPs are a striking example

Thousands of civil servants went on strike last week. Nobody noticed.

It’s a shame, really, for the 200,000 people who withdrew their labour.

After all, if you go on strike and lose two days’ pay, you like to think you’ll have some impact otherwise what’s the point?

You’d hope your bosses and your customers might be at least a little inconvenienced.

Instead, life carried on pretty much as usual though they did manage to close the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament.

Most people would regard that as a valuable contribution to the nation’s well-being. Pity they didn’t shut down the Houses of Parliament as well.

Otherwise, it was business as usual.

The Department for Work and Pensions told those staff still in the office to pretend they were answerphones, tell callers to ring back later and hang up.

But as that’s what normally happens if you try to phone any Government department that supposedly deals with the public, callers wouldn’t realise anything had changed.

Our public servants are complaining about attempts to reduce the amount of redundancy money they’re entitled to if their jobs are axed.

It’s understandable they’d be worried – especially as whoever wins the General Election will have no choice but to start chopping away pretty drastically.

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) claims civil servants are low-paid, under-valued, unsung heroes who keep the country running.

It’s true we do need people to collect our taxes, sit at immigration booths looking bored, man Jobcentres and risk their lives supervising driving tests.

They’re not badly paid and enjoy good pensions. The strike is about plans to cut their redundancy pay from three years’ salary to two.

Thousands of people who have lost their jobs can only dream of getting a pay-off worth two years’ pay let alone three.

The union complains that, at the moment, someone aged 41 who earns £24,000 and has 20 years’ service, would be entitled to redundancy pay of £72,000. Under the new plans, that would be £60,000.
How many private-sector taxpayers could hope for anything approaching such munificence?
What would someone get who was also 41, earned the same salary, and had worked for the same employer for 20 years but was not paid by the taxpayer?
The Government’s own web-site gives us the answer. A private-sector employee would be legally entitled to 19.5 weeks’ pay at a maximum rate of £380 per week. That’s £7,410.

It’s awful for anybody to lose their job. If you get booted out by the Government, it’s just as painful as if you’re the victim of a small business closing or an American-owned processed cheese-maker shutting a chocolate factory.

But even under the Government’s new plans, our “typical” civil servant will get sixty grand to cushion the blow – compared with maybe as little as £7,410 in the private sector.

It’s not the civil servants who should be going on strike over their unfair treatment, it’s the rest of us.

Bizarrely, by going on strike, the unions are biting the hand that feeds them.

This Government has been lavishly generous towards public sector employees not just because they’re heavily unionised but because Gordon Brown thinks the State knows best how to run our lives.

After the election, life will get tough for civil servants. It’s not a threat; just a fact of life. The country is broke, the recession will drag on for years, the private sector is limping along, ordinary taxpayers are becoming poorer.

A new government, even led by Mr Brown, will have to reduce public spending drastically. It will have to face down much tougher unions than the PCS.

It will even have to take on the British Medical Association, the doctors’ union, which one health professional told me is as militant and inflexible as Red Robbo was at British Leyland in the 1970s.

The unions know the score, which is why they’re trying to defend their redundancy payments.

If I were in some cushy publicly-funded little number with a nice, fat, index-linked pension to look forward to, I’d be indignant as well at the Government’s attempts to curb my redundancy money.

But our civil servants clearly don’t realise how featherbedded they really are. Haven’t they seen what’s been going on over the past 18 months? Surely those working in Jobcentres must realise we’re up the creek.

Even our Prime Minister admits we’re not out of recession. His pay freeze for top people – NHS managers, judges, generals, consultants and so on – is beside the point. Most of them should have pay cuts.

Yet he still plans to give increases to the majority of civil servants and, even if it’s just one per cent or so. When thousands take pay cuts rather than lose their jobs, even this is a bit rich.

That may be because our MPs have just awarded themselves a 1.5 per cent pay rise – which, of course, will boost their pensions when many of them lose their seats in a few weeks’ time.

With leadership like that, no wonder civil servants have a sense of entitlement you don’t find in the real world.

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