Leading article: In state pensions, one age should fit all

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The Independent Online

At the present state of discussions, it is hard to know who, if anyone, is trying to bluff whom and what shape the real bargaining is taking.

Pre-emption was the charge flying around yesterday, with the public-sector trade unions accusing the Government, in the shape of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, of pre-empting their talks by insisting on a rise in the pensionable age, and Mr Alexander himself suggesting that, by calling their co-ordinated strikes, the unions were acting in a way that was "inflammatory".

Whatever transpires from this war of words, however, the public-sector unions would do well to go easy on at least one element of their campaign. Objecting to a rise in the retirement age designed to equalise the age at which everyone is entitled to draw a state pension is unlikely to garner much support from the rest of the working population. Nor should it. Ministers have made clear that those in the armed forces and the emergency services will be exempt, but there is no reason why other public-sector employees should qualify for their pension several years before their private-sector contemporaries just because they are employed by the state.

The anomaly, at a time when much work in the public, as in the private, sector is office-based, is already glaring, and a growing source of resentment. The principle that all workers should qualify for a state pension at the same age should be beyond argument. The only question – and one the trade unions can negotiate on – is how soon, and by what steps, that equalisation should come about.

With the Government undertaking that the lowest-paid employees will not face a rise in contributions and the recommendation that their pensions should be calculated on an average-salary basis, public-sector staff are still looking at a pension advantage, compared with most private-sector workers. They should be careful to pick their battles, lest they lose what public sympathy they still enjoy.