At least Simon Hughes MP was prepared to come and talk to teachers at a meeting at City of London Academy this evening. Unlike Ed Milliband, he was also prepared to make clear that he had 'no problem with people taking strike action'. However, his defence of Lord Hutton's supposedly 'independent' recommendations cut little ice with the many young teachers who had stayed at school on a Friday evening to discuss with their local MP.
The Southwark MP outlined the contentious areas in the pensions debate fairly clearly. But his admisison that Hutton and the National Audit Office figures had both showed that the cost of pensions were falling was in direct contradiction to his suggestions that there was a problem with the 'sustainability' of public sector pensions.
Teachers present soon picked up on the contradiction. If we're paying in more for longer yet the costs are already set to fall, then where is the money going? Are the employers' contributions set to be cut? Although Simon Hughes thought that unlikely, Kevin Courtney, the NUT DGS who was also present, pointed out that this was exactly what was being suggested in negotiations. In other words, teachers pay more so that the employers can pay less and/or the surplus goes to the Government.
As one teacher out it, "We're not stupid, this is a cheap grab". Others pointed to the stress of the job and questioned how much longer they would be living after working in an inner-city school until 68 or more! Others questioned why capable graduates should go into teaching when teachers' pensions were being attacked and what this meant for education.
One teacher rightly pointed out that it would be harder to get a job, and certainly to gain promotion, if older teachers were having to remain in post beyond 65. Another raised that young teachers would leave the pensions scheme if the costs rose so greatly - particularly when there was no guarantee that pension payouts wouldn't be cut again, robbing them of what they thought they would be earning in retirement.
Simon Hughes agreed that teachers should know with certainty what their pensions were worth - and that the deal struck post-Hutton should therefore be for the long-term. But, I pointed out, why then were they ripping up a deal that was agreed just a few years ago with the last Government?
The MP suggested that there was little chance of the Government retreating on the increase in the retirement age ( think again Simon!). However, he tried to show sympathy over the cost of increased contributions, especially for teachers contending with the high costs of living in London. However, this was coupled with a dangerous suggestion of 'divide-and-rule' with Hughes suggesting that teachers should be a special case and fix a separate deal to the other sectors. No doubt that's exactly what is also being said to other sectors - to try and break-up united opposition.
However, the reference to higher salaries in Inner London gave me the chance to point out that the significant post-threshold uplift had been won a decade or so ago - by strike action. As I pointed out to the MP, teachers had welcomed the chance to discuss their concerns with him. However, if Ministers didn't listen, then teachers would again need to rely on further strike action to make sure our arguments were listened to.