Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Bad language in pensions

Recent comments from the Conservative pensions spokesman Philip Hammond about public sector pensions reminded me of just how hysterical some of the commentary about pensions can get. Hammond actually used the term 'apartheid' to describe differences in provision between different groups of workers, according to industry mag Professional Pensions:

"There’s growing pension apartheid in this country. Private schemes are winding up in droves while the taxpayers liability for gold plated public sector schemes is spiraling out of control." (from the online news site today)

This is wrong on several levels. For one, MPs like Mr Hammond himself benefit from a more generous pension scheme than public sector workers. And actually a significant number of private sector DB schemes remain open to new members, according the employer trade body the NAPF.

But what really annoys me is the comparison of the denial of basic human rights on the basis of race under the regime in South Africa with different types of pension provision. I'm fully aware that the difference between types of provision can have a significant value for an employee, but to call it apartheid is ridiculous. Public sector workers still get paid less than their private sector counterparts (which was one of the reasons for having decent pensions in the first place) but I don't expect Unison or PCS to call that pay apartheid. Using language in this way is no different to the sort of puerile Bush = Hitler type remarks you get on the hard Left.

However this type of bad language is not uncommon in pensions. Last year the former head of the NAPF described the Government's Personal Accounts system as 'Stalinist'. Presumably there must be a line in the White Paper somewhere that if you opt out of the Personal Accounts system then you get sent to a gulag.

I think mostly this type of language backfires. The person using it looks like they don't know how to make a reasoned argument. However once in a while the argument sticks, which can be very problematic. A good example is the "£5bn a year tax raid on pensions", which I'll deal with in a separate post.

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