Setting an example to sullen Whitehall

Ministers might win goodwill by changing their own pension arrangements

Whitehall is said to be in “sullen” mood on the eve of strikes over coalition plans to scale back public sector pensions. Easy to see why. The pension changes come just as many mandarins are having to reapply for their own jobs, which is humiliating even if the case for cutbacks is compelling. Those staying in post find it unsettling to see colleagues pushed out. “No surrender” speeches by the likes of Danny Alexander, Treasury secretary, have not helped. Yet ministers might win goodwill by setting an example with their own pension arrangements.

The pension benefit that MPs earn is 50 per cent more generous than that of civil servants, teachers or health workers. MPs voted themselves a better deal 10 years ago despite a warning from the then leader of the House, the late Robin Cook, that they would lose the moral high ground. Now they could regain it if ministers pushed through some speedy, simple changes to the rules, putting politicians on the same terms as others in the public sector.

PS. One reason for the pension changes is that we are all living longer. So how much longer can mandarins like Sir Gus O’Donnell, cabinet secretary, expect? Latest civil service pension scheme accounts assume a man retiring at 60 will live to be 88. Sir Gus is 60 next year which gives him another 29 years. He will have no worries. He is already entitled to a pension of £100,000, plus a lump sum of about £300,000. The official value of his pension pot is £2.3m but independent expert John Ralfe says the market value is closer to £3m. The betting is that Sir Gus will stay on until next year to see in the Queen’s jubilee and the Olympics – particularly as he is a sports fan.

Déjà vu at defence

How strong must be the sense of déjà vu at the ministry of defence this week. Liam Fox, the defence secretary, has castigated the MoD’s “chaotic” budgeting and backed a review by Lord Levene calling for a leaner, more unified structure at the top to curb squabbling among service chiefs. Wind back to 1984 and what do we find? Michael Heseltine, Tory defence secretary, imposing a leaner, more unified set-up on the service chiefs, while asking a certain Peter Levene to review procurement spending.

The Heseltine/Levene reforms had considerable success but in the past 27 years – and particularly the past 10 according to insiders – the service chiefs have fought to take back some of their former influence and budget discipline has been routed. All is to do again but ’twas ever thus. In his book, Life in the Jungle, Lord Heseltine quotes diarist and navy secretary Samuel Pepys complaining about overmanning in the dockyards and saying: “I see it is impossible for the King to have things done as cheap as other men.”

Ruling red tape

The prospect of lots of lovely free tickets means there is no shortage of people applying to join quangos connected to culture and sport. Yet other quangos are not overwhelmed with good people – the jobs are often difficult, not well paid and very much in the limelight. Sir David Normington, former top official at the Home Office and now doing the twin jobs of first civil service commissioner and public appointments commissioner, wants to widen the pool of applicants.

This week he is issuing a consultation paper on overhauling the public appointments system. He wants Whitehall to raise its game, but will have to start by putting his own house in order. One thing that puts people off applying to quangos is the bureaucracy. No wonder. Sir David tells me that the code of practice for appointments to public bodies is 126 pages long. For civil service appointments it is a mere eight pages.

Inside story

At a Westminster gathering attended by Michael Portillo, former Tory cabinet minister, talk turned to the difficulties of winning public support for prison reform. Ignore the government’s latest climbdown on plans to halve rapists’ jail sentences if they plead guilty. Maybe that was over lenient. Yet banging up ever more people is costly and counter-productive – almost half are reconvicted within a year.

So how can politicians push through a liberal agenda in the face of hostility from the tabloids? Said Mr Portillo: “I assume we’re ruling out courage and political will?”

sue.cameron@ft.com

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