It was Douglas Adams who perhaps best captured the conflict between the jobsworth official and the British sense of fair play, when in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy he depicted the Vogon Constructor Fleet ready to demolish earth, and mentioning that any objections to the plan should have already been registered at the local planning office near Alpha Centauri.
As the Home Secretary has now announced the Reform Design Framework for police pensions, and as the staff associations limp away from the 'consultation' slightly battered, but with a 'we did our best' attitude, I have to say that I am reminded of the Vogons.
This is because police pensions may well be generous, expensive and in need of reform, but there is one aspect of the reform that is just plain wrong and I can illustrate this with a personal example, worked through with help from anonymous serving officers who I must thank.
I left the police some time ago, and have done most of my 'crimefighting' from the outside, but had I stayed I would just recently have completed 20 years service. I would have fallen in that band of officers who get tapered protection from the impact of the police pension changes. That is to say, with two-thirds of the anticipated length of my police career behind me, if I carried on for the remaining third I would not be able to retire on the deal I was promised at the start of my career.
There are other difficulties. I would not know how much of my pension I would be able to commute to create a lump sum, on which paying off my mortgage might depend, because normally I would need to complete 30 years in the scheme to commute 25%, but this tapering business would prevent me from doing that, and talking to serving officers reveals that tiny differences in length of service can lead to differences in commutation sums that approach 6 figures.
And if I'd had a period working part-time, as I have done in local government, it seems I would have pretty much no idea where I stood, and the effect on my 'protected' status.
For officers with less service than my hypothetical 20 years, the change in prospects is even more stark. Some may still have joined on the 30-year '1987' scheme and, I am told, may need to work up to 12 years longer to get a 'full' pension that still pays less than what they were promised when they joined.
Now I know we live in times when austerity is appropriate. For the record, I don't think we've even started on the road to austerity yet, but it is no solution to balance the books by doing things that are wrong. If someone did this with a private pension, even if the Vogons had hidden a clause somewhere that allowed the goalposts to move after the game had started, it would be mis-selling. It should be no different because the provider is some branch of the state.
So when police officers talk of stolen pensions I have sympathy with them and not just because a few years ago a certain Mr Prescott came up with something similar for local government workers like me. There are some things you just don't do, and wriggling out of the terms of a deal you struck once people have committed their lives, careers, mortgages and families to that deal is not made justifiable just because you can do it, or feel you have to, or just because times are hard and 'if these people don't suffer someone else will'. Morality is at its most useful when it is hard to do the right thing and easy to do the wrong. That's why we have rules. If you do this to the police, how can you ever again expect them to do the right thing when the going gets tough?
I suppose you may not need to. My personal decision to go and do something else instead looks a little better in the light of these developments, even though I have ended up with an even less generous pension. For how many of the best and brightest in our police force will the balance have changed such that they are tempted to put the unwelcome bits of policing behind them and give something else a go?
This election should be about policies, yes, but it should also be about character. None of the candidates will need to make the decision the Home Secretary has already made, but how many have the character to admit that moving the goalposts on pensions is wrong, whether it be this decision, or similar moves by the last government?