Public sector pensions: “we didn’t think they would make the decision behind closed doors.”

The news that the Northern Ireland Executive agreed a blanket increase of 3.2 per cent in public-sector pension contributions at a meeting last month, but failed to mention the fact, has led to the Unite union regional secretary, Jimmy Kelly, accusing the NI Executive and Assembly of acting “in a cowardly fashion”.  From today’s Irish News

Jimmy Kelly, Irish regional secretary, hit out at what he described as “the underhand decision” not to publicise news of the increase which only came to light following revelations made by the BBC.

“The assembly has hidden the fact they buckled under Lib-Dem finance minister Danny Alexander’s threats,” Mr Kelly said.

“The assembly ministers have sat on this information and kept it secret from the public domain for more than a month.

“The assembly has acted in a cowardly fashion and as such the information was kept secret from the public.  This glaring omission was done so that politicians did not have to stand the full public scrutiny and defend their actions.”

Having kept quiet at the time, the political parties are now displaying various degrees of openness and transparency.  From a Belfast Telegraph report

It is understood the SDLP’s Alex Attwood was the only minister to object to the rise during an Executive meeting last month.

Finance Minister Sammy Wilson said the Executive had no option but to bring in the increase.

“We cannot stop them doing it,” he said.

“If we decide not to put the pension contributions up where are we going to find the £140m which will be reduced from our block grant from Westminster?”

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Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph last night, Mr Attwood said although he accepted the decision, he did not agree with the move to increase pension contributions across the board.

“Once the Executive makes the decision I accept that — I did not agree,” he said. “I did outline an approach to both fully-funded and non-funded schemes but the Executive decided, and I am bound by that decision.”

A separate Irish News report has the responses from the other parties.

A Sinn Féin representative refused to say whether all of its ministers had agreed to the hike.

However, the party’s economic spokesman Conor Murphy said it had not “agreed to demands that all public-sector workers contribute an extra 3.2 per cent to their pension fund”.

“Lower paid workers shoud be protected from this £140million levy imposed on the executive by the Tories through a graduated approach and that this should be worked out in consultation with the trade unions,” Mr Murphy said.

A DUP spokesman said the party “does not comment on the internal workings of the executive,” he said.

“It was a paper that was brought by the finance minister and obviously we are happy that it has been agreed by the executive,” he said.

The UUP’s sole minister, Danny Kennedy was, apparently, in Nantes on ministerial business at the time of the decision.

“Nonetheless, the Ulster Unionist Party supports the principle that parity should be maintained with the rest of the United Kingdom, “[a spokeman] said.

“We fully appreciate that we are living in tough economic times and it is in no-one’s interests especially those who work in the public sector to break parity, and to do so will only lead to problems further down the line.”

A spokesman for the Alliance Party said: “David Ford and Stephen Farry, our two ministers, voted for the increase in pension contributions at the executive meeting.

“They did so with regret but had no alternative given the threat to the block grant.”

Well, there was an alternative, as the UK Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander said of the Scottish Government.

Mr Alexander said: “John Swinney and Alex Salmond are absolutely free to do something on public sector pensions but they will have to pay the price for doing that in terms of their own budget.

“That’s a choice they are free to make.”

And from the first Irish News report quoted above

Unison regional secretary Patricia McKeown said the lack of communication from the executive to unions was “not a good way to do business”.

“We naturally thought sombody would talk to the unions and the work force,” she said.

“We didn’t anticipate that our executive would stand up for themselves in the same way Scotland did.

“But we didn’t think they would make the decision behind closed doors.”

In Scotland the row broke during First Minister’s questions on 15 September.  And, after failing to get the requested delay, the Scottish Government have also agreed the increase.  Unison there are balloting members for strike action.

The willingness to go public in Scotland is, possibly, connected to the fact that the Scottish Government does have official opposition in the Scottish Parliament…