Public and private sector pensions compared

Cash Pension comparisons between the public and private sectors are not straightforward

The government is asking most public sector employees to contribute more for their pension and to work for longer.

Throughout the dispute that resulted, ministers have suggested that public sector workers enjoy a pension provision more generous than those in the private sector can expect.

In response, unions say the typical public sector worker will get far less for their retirement years than people think.

Those who have been out on strike would also point out that the comparison is only part of the argument. They are angry that they will not receive what they were promised.

Making a fair comparison between public and private sector pensions is difficult, mainly because there are so many variables.

Moreover, a direct comparison of "generosity" fails to address the key issues of whether workers are saving for a pension at all or at what age they start saving.

So what do official statistics and publications tell us about the state of the nation's pensions?

How many are saving?

The UK has a workforce of 29 million people.

Pension schemes explained

  • Final-salary scheme: Guaranteed pension based on earnings at the end of your career and length of service
  • Career average scheme: Guaranteed pension based on your average pay over your career
  • Defined contribution scheme: Determined by contributions and investment returns. Usually worth less than final-salary pensions

Some 23 million of these are employed in the private sector. Of these, only 3.2 million contribute to a workplace pension scheme that also includes a contribution from their employer.

The number of people actively saving in company pension schemes in the private sector has almost halved since 1991.

The Workplace Retirement Income Commission, which was commissioned to investigate the state of the sector by the National Association of Pension Funds (NAPF), recently reported that millions of private sector workers faced a "bleak old age" because they fell through the cracks of pension provision.

The remaining six million workers are in the public sector. A much higher proportion of them (about 5.3 million) save in a workplace pension scheme.

There are also 6.4 million people paying into personal pensions, which have no contribution from their employer. This is the only option for the self-employed.

How much pension can we expect?

The median average salary-linked public sector pension that is currently being paid out to a pensioner, is worth £5,600 a year.

That compares with £5,860 in the private sector, according to the National Association of Pension Funds (NAPF).

Using a mean average, some £7,800 a year is being paid in a public sector pension compared with £7,467 for a private sector salary-linked pension.

But this is where a comparison becomes tricky.

Some 87% of public sector employees are currently paying into a salary-linked pension scheme, compared with 12% of private sector employees.

Many of the salary-linked pension schemes in the private sector have been shut by employers.

Instead, 32% of the private sector workforce, including the self-employed, contribute to personal pensions and other schemes where there is no promise of a particular level of retirement income.

So the "generosity" of these schemes depend on many variables, including the performance of investments funded by these savings and the state of the market at the time people decide to retire.

At present, one pensions analyst calculates that a "typical" personal pension pot of £30,000 could buy an inflation-proof annual pension income (called an annuity) of £1,115 a year.

Isn't a pension part of the pay deal for workers?

To a degree, it is.

However, Lord Hutton, in his influential report on public sector pensions, says that there is no evidence that pay is lower for public sector workers to reflect higher levels of pension provision.

It remains difficult to find comparative jobs in the public and private sectors anyway.

He makes two other key points.

Firstly, he regards public sector pensions as far from "gold-plated".

Secondly, he says that, although some private sector employees receive less, this should not affect public sector pensions. It should not, he says, be a race to the bottom.

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