Ben Lowry: There will be resentment one day when private sector workers see how much more the public sector get in their pensions

The Grenfell tower horror was a reminder of the bravery of firefighters and the critical role they play in keeping people safe.

The ongoing terror attacks are likewise a reminder of the debt of gratitude that we owe to our security forces.

New Metropolitan Police officers during their passing-out parade at the Police Academy in Hendon, London in April. Police officers have helped keep us safe from terror and need to be well rewarded, as they are when it comes to pensions

New Metropolitan Police officers during their passing-out parade at the Police Academy in Hendon, London in April. Police officers have helped keep us safe from terror and need to be well rewarded, as they are when it comes to pensions

There is a clip of CCTV footage on the internet that shows armed police officers turning up near London Bridge and shooting Islamic fanatics just before they knife to death a young man on whom they had pounced.

The clip shows how frightening and chaotic it is for the security forces when they arrive at such a scene and how little time they have to respond accurately as the terrorists lunge at them. In a split second they could kill the wrong person. If they delay by a split second an innocent victim could be dead at the hands of a deranged attacker.

It is impossible to watch such footage and not feel a deep sense of gratitude for the men and women who put on uniforms to keep us safe from such dangers.

Can you imagine a nightmarish world in which you were the victims of such terror attackers, and no-one came to your aid? A society in which no-one was prepared to step up to the mark and put their own life at risk for the service of the whole community in such situations?

(It is also hard to watch the London Bridge footage and not feel rage at the scandalous situation in which the heroic security forces who stopped the fanatical IRA murderers at Loughgall and other similar situations are now bearing such heavy scrutiny for their actions, decades later).

Public servants of course deserve good pay and conditions, and those who put themselves in the way of physical harm are deserving of a premium.

Countless other types of public servants do admirable work, from teachers to social workers to judges.

During the last week I was visiting a relative in one of the fantastic new wards at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald.

Friendly, hard-working doctors and nurses and pharmacists and auxiliaries and porters came to her bedside dispensing medication, asking questions, offering tea.

A government should be an exemplary employer, rather than a mean one.

But at times over the decades the government has been too generous as an employer. There are parts of the public sector, for example, where performance management of staff seems to be almost non existent.

This leads to deeply unjust situations in which incompetent employees are allowed to stay on the payroll for years, perhaps even decades, preventing better people getting the job, and in some cases retiring on a large pension.

It is pensions where the real difference between the public and private sectors is going to become apparent in the coming decades, due to the deep political cowardice that has meant that state pensions are still astonishingly generous and costly to the public purse.

It is not hard to see how this crisis arose. In the old days people retired at 65 and were dead by 70. Now they might retire at 60 and still be alive at 95. This has wreaked havoc with the mathematical model behind pensions.

It took a long time for so-called final salary pensions to be replaced and even then the change is happening gradually. The new slightly lower pensions will still be lavishly generous by the standards of private sector workers.

For example, an established reporter on a regional daily newspaper can expect to earn about £24,000 a year. If they save 10% of their income diligently into a pension over 40 years and their employer does likewise, into a pension fund they will at current low annuity rates perhaps only get a pension of £6,000 a year from age 65.

When such people come to see that their taxes are funding vastly more generous pensions in the public sector there will be resentment.

Even in Northern Ireland, which is heavily reliant on the public sector, far more people – 70% of employees – work in the private sector.

Politicians need to remember the needs of this army of people who pay taxes at the same level as public sector workers, but who do not benefit from the extremely costly career scheme pensions enjoyed by the latter.

Public sector workers do now contribute much more to their pensions than they once did but not even close to the levels that would fund they income they will get.

Final salary schemes now trade at 40 to 50 times their annual payment in financial markets. In other words, a public sector retiree with an index-linked £20,000 a year pension would in the private sector need a fund up to £1 million to enjoy that income.

The universities and the BBC are putting billions aside to make up their pension fund shortfalls. Companies that face big pension deficits are often going bust.

Instead of merely calling for an end to the public sector pay cap, in a bid to get votes and to look generous, politicians must help the whole society see the vast funds we pump out to public pensions.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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