We are committed to maximum engagement with the public sector unions to seek agreement on essential reforms, and especially to make public sector pensions sustainable and among the very best available, as Lord Hutton, Labour’s Work and Pensions Secretary has recommended. I am sorry that a handful of unions are hellbent on pursuing disruptive industrial action while discussions are continuing. However, we have rigorous contingency plans in place to minimise disruption in the event of industrial action.
Yes, I do. I strongly recommend that they should not go in for industrial action. If schools close as a result of teachers going on strike, there will be considerable disruption not only to children’s education but to the lives of parents whose livelihoods depend on schools being open. While discussions are still going on about how to keep public sector pensions among the very best that there are, and at a time when taxpayers in the private sector have seen hits to their own pension schemes, I think people will be really fed up if industrial action goes ahead.
Why should the Government be surprised that public sector workers, many of whom are pretty poorly paid, faced with an onslaught on their pensions and frozen pay have decided to fight back? It would be surprising if they had not.
If the coalition Government had not inherited the biggest budget deficit in the developed world, we might not have to be taking these steps. I remind the hon. Gentleman that a civil servant on median pay—about £23,000—who retires after a 40-year career, which is not untypical, will have a pension that would cost £500,000 to buy in the private sector. No one in the private sector now has access to such pensions.
May I commend my right hon. Friend for his determination to engage to the maximum with the public sector unions to try to avoid industrial action? He has made it clear, however, that he does not rule out legislative changes. May I plead with him, on behalf of the Public Administration Committee, that we make changes in an orderly fashion, and that perhaps he should publish a Green Paper to consult on what changes should be made, so that we can have a proper debate about them rather than find ourselves propelled into legislative changes in an emergency?
I do not have responsibility for industrial relations law; that rests with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. We have made it clear that we do not rule out changes, and a number of proposals have been made from outside. We think that industrial relations law works reasonably well at the moment, but we keep it under review.
Does the Minister agree that pensions should be regarded as deferred wages, and that therefore, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) said, it should come as no surprise that pension scheme members are seeking to protect their future income?
That is why we are engaging in discussions with the TUC at its behest. The discussions continue, and there is much still to be sorted out. I remind the hon. Gentleman that Lord Hutton, Labour’s Work and Pensions Secretary, recommended the reforms to make public sector pension schemes sustainable and affordable for the future. That is what we are determined to achieve. Any union or public servant contemplating strike action is jumping the gun. There is a long way to go yet.