A day off school, but the lesson on pensions hasn’t been learnt

Of course it is easy in one sense to see why the potential strikers have allowed themselves to become so fired up. Ever since John Hutton produced his report, it has been clear that many people will effectively have to pay more and work longer to get the same sort of pension – and it is quite understandable that unions should want to represent this sense of grievance. And yet there has been one statistic that is eloquent of the underlying reality in the dispute.

Only about a third of union members even took part in the ballot. Of the 1.1 million members of Unison, just 29 per cent could be bothered to vote at all – and since only 78 per cent voted in favour, we have a strike triggered by less than a quarter of union membership.

Why such apparent apathy? The issue has been well publicised, surely, and though union membership has greatly diminished, you would expect feeling to be more intense among the dedicated folk who continue to belong. The answer is that many hard-working trade union members have thought about this argument, and they accept in their hearts that there is a case for reform. The Government has already made important clarifications. No one earning under £15,000 per year will have to pay more for his or her pension; and no one will have to work longer to get a pension if they are already within 10 years of retirement.

But, as the Hutton report makes clear, we are all living longer, and the Government’s pensions bill has risen by a third in the last 10 years. Yes, I suppose we could just whack more taxes on the “bankers”, and there will doubtless be something of the kind in the Autumn Statement. In the end, though, the system needs reform, and by that I mean we must address the fundamental injustice that modestly paid people in the private sector are paying in their taxes for state pensions on a scale that most private sector pensioners can only dream of.

The old argument used to be that it was acceptable for public sector salaries to lag behind salaries in the private sector, partly because public sector workers had the consolation of more generous pension packages. The position has now been reversed, in the sense that the average public sector worker now receives £28,500 per year, and a final salary pension, while the average private sector worker receives £25,000 per year and greatly inferior pension arrangements.

Some people argue that these comparisons are not fair or relevant, and that the figures for average private sector pay are being pulled down by the many people on very low pay who work as cleaners or in other jobs that used to be within the state sector. That may be true, but it is still surely wrong that these low-paid taxpayers should be asked to pay for public sector workers to have final salary pension schemes that have been wiped out in the rest of the economy.

The TUC’s Brendan Barber has made an excellent point, that the Government should be focusing resources on getting young people into work, by supporting apprenticeships, work placements and training on the job. I completely agree – and I would point out to Brendan that this strike is being mounted, at a very tough time, by people who have jobs, and who want to protect a lop-sided pensions system; and that the logical consequence of their actions is that there would be less for investment in infrastructure, apprenticeships, and the creation of new employment for young people.

We are told that this strike is just the first, and that the union leaderships are planning a long and miserable Seventies-style “winter of discontent.” I very much hope that is not so – and so, to judge by their reluctance even to take part in the ballot, do many thousands of sensible union members.

It is time the Labour Party stopped prevaricating, and came out against the strike. They are the political arm of the unions, and it is from the unions that they receive 86 per cent of their funding. They could call it off tomorrow.

As Ed Miliband would surely recognise, it may be exciting for kids to go to the office, but they are better off being taught in school.

Boris Johnson: prize for Thames Estuary airport is immense

At the launch of a report on Britain's airport capacity, the Mayor of London warned that Britain faces a period of economic stagnation unless a new international airport is built in south-east England.

The Government has ruled out expansion of London's existing airports, but Boris Johnson has lobbied for a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary claiming "the prize would be immense" for London if it were given the go ahead.

Environmental groups also oppose the new airport, which is estimated to cost between £40-50 billion.

Mr Johnson said: "There's no doubt that to do nothing will lead to economic stagnation. The Government must now grasp the nettle and begin serious plans for the multi-runway solution."

He added that developing the Thames Estuary airport, sometines referred to as 'Boris Island', should be viewed as a pillar in the Government's plan for economic growth.

The 100–page report also says that an extra hub airport would radically increase foreign direct investment into Britain from fast–growing developing countries. The report cites the example of France, which benefits from having more direct links with China and Brazil.

Thames Estuary: Boris Island airport ‘would bring Brazil billions to UK’

The 100–page paper says that an extra hub airport would radically increase foreign direct investment into Britain from fast–growing developing countries.

The news comes amid suggestions that the Treasury and Downing Street are throwing their weight behind the plans.

A report published by Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, today cites the example of France, which benefits from having more direct links with China and Brazil.

It says that last year France received £1.26billion of investment from Brazil, because of its direct air links with the South American country.

Britain receives only 20 per cent of the number of Chinese tourists who visit France, the report says.

A golden chance to put down the Xbox and take up sport

I am not going to count my chickens, of course, but so far preparations for London 2012 are going outstandingly well. The venues are almost complete, on time and under budget. The velodrome is ready; the aquatics centre is ready; the stadium – once seen as a potential white elephant – is now being fought over by football clubs who want to use it. International pension funds are competing to invest in the village and other parts of the Olympic park.

The Westfield shopping centre is open and bringing thousands of jobs to the area. And the benefits of the transport investment are already being felt on the Jubilee line, where the number of trains per hour has increased, and in the new East London line linking Stratford with Croydon.

The ArcelorMittal Orbit has risen like some vast scarlet orchid, beckoning the world to a part of London that has been neglected for too long; and when the world arrives next year they are going to find a city that is open for business and ready to put on an epic festival of sport.

In fact, there is only one small question in my mind. We have a fantastic team of Olympians and Paralympians, some of them veterans of Beijing, and some of them only now showing their world-class abilities. But can we do as well as we did in 2008?

We racked up a total of 19 gold medals last time, a phenomenal haul. For a relatively elderly country of 60 million people, it was quite a feat to come fourth in the medals table. We beat some old sporting foes – France, Australia and Germany – and the word is that they have all been itching to put Team GB in its place come 2012.

Boris Johnson warns that David Cameron’s ‘bazooka’ plan will wreck democracy in EU

In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph the London Mayor hit out at Mr Cameron's call for the European Central Bank to deploy a "big bazooka" - effectively printing money - to help bail out the stricken economies in the south of the continent.

Mr Johnson also attacked plans, backed by the British government, for the 17 eurozone countries to share closer fiscal links, making them more unified on tax and spending.

"What I don't think you can do, is just pretend that you can create an economic government of Europe, effectively run by Germany," the Mayor added.

He described the replacement of elected leaders in Greece and Italy with governments led by technocrats as "completely mad" and warned that if the rest of the EU went ahead with a plan to impose a "Tobin" tax on financial transaction, even without British participation, it would be seen as a "hostile act" because it would still hit so many deals in the City of London.

Mr Johnson also outlined his own "orderly" solution to the crisis - which was miles away from anything suggested by any member of the British government.

Boris Johnson: ‘I’ve a healthy dose of sheer egomania’

In his large, eighth-floor office in London’s City Hall, with its phalanx of computer screens and its views over the Thames, Boris Johnson is plotting his re-election campaign. In May, he will take on, once again, Labour’s Ken Livingstone for the mayoralty of the capital: four years after Mr Johnson swept to victory on the back of 1.1 million votes, the biggest direct personal mandate in British political history.

Mr Johnson was a controversial choice for the Conservatives at the time. David Cameron urgently needed a colourful candidate, with the charisma to show that his party could win big contests after more than a decade of defeat, but Mr Johnson’s career in journalism, and then as a Tory MP, had already marked him out as a major loose cannon.

As Mayor, many feel he has spent as much, if not more, time, taking potshots at his party’s high command as he has changing the lives of Londoners. He is the bookies’ favourite to succeed Mr Cameron as Tory leader – even though he describes the chances of this happening as the same as his being “reincarnated as Elvis”.

The Sunday Telegraph asked him about his plans and what motivates him in politics and in life.

EU crisis: The Greek Austerity Diet will only leave them feeling fed up

OK, that’s it. I can take the taunts no longer. I am inventing a new diet: it’s called the Greek austerity diet. And I am putting myself on it right away. The moment of revelation came last Friday when we were out there in Monaco to argue that London should host the World Athletics Championship in 2017.

Even though we won the bid, there was a nasty moment for your correspondent. We were all walking along some corridor in the glitzy hotel, when we went past some gilt mirror — and I saw the awful contrast between the hard-bodied core members of the team, and the portly periphery. There was the Lord Coe, lean and chiselled as a whippet; there was heptathlete Denise Lewis and supersonic sprinter Jodie Williams, without an ounce of fat between them; and there were assorted other athletes and ex-athletes, all looking pretty darned svelte. And there, alas, was I.

For some reason, it had been decided that we should all wear identical dove-grey suits, and I am afraid my measurements must have been supplied from a younger and fitter self. As I went past the glass, I could see some spherical Scandinavian businessman staring back at me with bloodshot eyes, his thighs straining at the trouser fabric like bursting sausages — and I realised it was me. Then this morning I read a cruel piece in one of the Sunday papers that says I look as though I am no stranger to a bacon sarnie; at which I smote the board, and cried, no more. It’s time for the Greek Austerity Diet ©. It’s time for a programme of savage cuts on the carbs, and steep retrenchment of the alcohol consumption. You can wave a cake under my nose and I will push it moodily away. As for cheese, it is now officially the food of the devil.

I know it will be tough. These austerity drives always are. I must brace myself for that hallucinatory feeling you get in mid-afternoon, when you haven’t had quite enough for lunch. My stomach will rumble with protest, like the crowds in Syntagma Square. My psyche will crave chips, like an army of Greek civil servants yammering for their ancestral right to retire at 50. As I cycle past London Bridge station, my nostrils will be filled with the tormenting aroma of Cornish pasty — like the torment that afflicts a Greek customs officer when he thinks of the Porsche he has had to sell, the mistress he has pensioned off, the villa he has been forced to flog to a nice man from Düsseldorf.

There will be times when the withdrawal symptoms will be so bad that I say to myself that this can’t be worth it, and that we might as well abandon the regime, just as there are constant threats to the existence of the government in Athens; and yet I will soldier on with the Greek Austerity Diet — olives, tomatoes, onions, and not even a lump of feta — with all the implacable logic of the new “technocratic” governments that are shortly to be installed in Athens, Rome and elsewhere. Polite opinion will be united: that it is the best thing for all of us. And I am not at all sure that polite opinion will be right. At least I know that my diet is a good idea. But there is (of course) the world of difference between an individual decision to go on a diet, and the agenda of economy now being forced on the peripheral euro members; and the first and most obvious difference is that my Greek Austerity Diet is entirely a scheme of my own devising. I voted for it. My own body politic took the decision. It is a plan entirely calibrated to suit my own interests, as far as I interpret them. I don’t have Angela Merkel leaning over me and cracking her whip, and barking at me to hurry up. I don’t have Herman Van Rompuy, President of the EU Council, saying things like “This is not the time for elections, this is the time for decisions!”

Metal thieves dishonour the war dead with their vandalism

It was one of the most conspicuous acts of bravery of the Second World War. On March 18, 1944, a 30-year-old lieutenant from Sidcup was leading his men up a hill in Burma that was occupied by the Japanese. It was always going to be a tough encounter, since the Japanese were known to fight with suicidal ferocity; and sure enough, an officer leapt upon George Albert Cairns and attacked him with his ceremonial sword. So furious was his stroke that the Japanese severed Cairns’s arm. Yet the lieutenant not only killed his opponent; he mastered his pain to pick up the fallen sword.

With his good arm he then laid about him to such effect that the Japanese were routed and the hill was taken – a rare event in that grisly conflict.

Lt Cairns then toppled over, with the bodies of his enemies around him, and later died of his wounds. He was awarded the Victoria Cross. His name was recorded, along with those of 137 others from Sidcup who gave their lives in that war, on a bronze plaque and placed on the town’s war memorial.

This monument had been erected by public subscription in 1921 to honour the dead of the First World War, and in particular to the 204 men of Sidcup who “passed out of sight of men in the path of duty”. So there were altogether 342 names on that memorial in Sidcup. They were there so that people of our generation, and the next generation, would never forget the sacrifice they made.

They were intended to be a permanent reminder of the horror of war, and of the losses sustained by families in this one Kentish town. The whole purpose of the memorial was to act as a physical reassurance to the shades of those soldiers that their deaths had not been in vain. It is a promise from the living to the dead – that we will always revere what they had done.