Duck houses, moat maintenance and plasma TVs have been dominating the column inches lately.
The unfolding of the expenses saga has riled taxpayers so much that the story has been in the papers for more than a month now. MPs lost their jobs and speaker Michael Martin was forced to quit.
But there is another story, a much bigger bill that we the British public have to foot, that rarely makes the front pages.
I’m talking about the big fat injustice that is public sector pensions.
If you work in the public sector, or have friends or family who do, you’ll know all about the lovely benefits. Lots of holiday, generous maternity and paternity leave, extra bank holidays like the Queen’s birthday, flexible working, and of course their gold-plated final salary pension. These are all benefits that were introduced a long time ago, when public sector pay lagged the private sector.
But nowadays public sector workers get paid more than private sector employees. Indeed, a precise figure was revealed in February: state workers earn an average of £62 a week more than their private sector counterparts, a 50 per cent increase in the differential in only four years.
So they get paid more, and they get a final salary scheme. In the private sector, you get paid less, and normally have to settle for a less generous scheme such as money purchase, or in some cases no pension.
Following announcements from BP, Barclays and Morrisons earlier this month that they would scrap their final salary schemes, this leaves just four FTSE 100 firms that offer final salary pensions to new employees: Shell, Tesco, Cadbury and Diageo. But with rising pension deficits made worse by the recession, it can’t be long before these companies also axe their schemes.
Employees may be upset if their scheme closes to future accrual, but it is an understandable decision by chief execs. Far better to rein in the benefits spend (a final salary pension adds well over 20% to payroll costs), than cut actual jobs, I say.
We have to accept the bleak fact that this is the end of the road for final salary schemes, and we must all be more responsible, and ultimately save more, to make sure our retirements are comfortable.
It is a hugely miserable truth to accept though when those on the state payroll, which of course includes MPs, are still getting their juicy pensions.
Last year, the cost of this to taxpayers was £45 billion. This is more than the cost of defending the country!
Your council tax is also paying for your local town hall workers’ pensions. Those gold-plated pensions swallow a staggering 25 per cent of all council taxes - a bill that has more than trebled under Labour.
It’s not just a cost issue, though, for already struggling households up and down the country.
The Confederation of British Industry this week warned that businesses are being put off bidding for public service contracts by the need to mirror costly public sector pensions when staff are transferred from the public sector to the private.
The CBI said this had ‘worrying implications for innovation and value for money in services such as the NHS, prison services, and the Flexible New Deal’.
This all makes for rather grisly reading. The private sector is getting shafted from three different angles: it’s pining the loss of its final salary schemes, it’s having to pay for state workers’ pensions, and the public services that it pays for through tax aren’t as good as they could be.
The Tories and Lib Dems have both publicly said that this ‘pension injustice’ needs to be looked at. It’s easy to say in opposition, but if the Tories get into power will they vote for a bill that will not only end final salary pensions for nurses, teachers and council workers, but also for themselves and their parliamentary peers?
The UK deficit is swirling higher and higher, and will do so for generations to come, as banks are bailed out, more redundancy pay is dished out and the government collects less tax from recession-hit businesses. As the debt balloons, taxes will be pushed up.
Surely it’s time policymakers climbed out of their comfy pension cocoon and binned public sector final salary schemes, making the UK a much fairer society and saving billions of pounds in the process?
Ruth Emery is deputy editor of Money Observer, Moneywise's sister publication