Matt Smith: The real pensions divide is between the rich and poor

SO YOU think public sector pensions are 'gold-plated'? That council and health and Government workers retire early on pensions like Sir Fred Goodwin?

What's your definition of a 'gold-plated' pension? Would it be 50,000 a year? 20,000? 10,000? Would you drop as far as 3,800 a year? That is the actual level of the average pension for the UK's local government workers: 3,800 a year. It is "more tinfoil than gold-plate", as Unison's general secretary Dave Prentis has said.

If you were to believe the myths peddled by the Daily Mail and organisations such as the Taxpayers' Alliance, you might imagine there was a 'pensions divide' between a featherbedded public sector and a private sector which provided nothing but sackcloth and ashes in retirement.

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The real pensions divide is actually between rich and poor. And it is clearest in the private sector – the sector which gave you Sir Fred Goodwin and the toxic debts which led to the current recession.

Real gold-plate is to be found on the pensions that directors in the private sector continue to award themselves – often while running down their own staff pension schemes.

The TUC's annual Pension Watch report analyses the pensions of top UK company directors and staff. The report for 2008 found that:

&149 The top directors in the FTSE 100 averaged a pension of 333,664 a year in 2008;

&149 The average pension for all directors surveyed was 201,655 a year;

&149 The average occupational pension in the UK was 8,112 a year, and the average local government pension was 3,800;

• Most directors were able to retire on a full pension at age 60. The normal retirement age for workers is 65.

In short, directors have schemes that deliver final salary pensions 25 times the national average, payable at 60, which accrue twice as fast as both their own workers and all public service workers.

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Yet we are constantly told by the CBI, the Institute of Directors, Chambers of Commerce and the Taxpayers' Alliance that final salary pensions are not affordable for ordinary workers, especially in the public sector.

They want the public sector to follow the example of the countless private firms which have closed their final salary pension schemes, leaving millions of workers facing poverty in their retirement and relying on benefits funded by the taxpayer.

Unison believes everyone should have a decent and a fair pension. Our society should not be engaging in a 'race to the bottom' of pension provision. We should ensure every worker has access to a decent pension scheme. That should be about levelling up, not down.

The argument that we can't afford fair and decent pensions in the public sector is fallacious.

We expect employers to contribute to the pensions of their employees – that is fair.

The future should be one of fair and decent pensions for all. It should be equally fair, not equally unfair, for public and private sectors.

That means challenging and eliminating the real pensions divide, between rich and poor.

Matt Smith is Scottish Secretary of Unison