The morning after the election was announced, the people of Hull were making their feelings known on Radio 4. Theresa May’s new fan club seemed to include many working women of a certain age who used to vote Labour.
Since then, that story has been repeated around the country; according to many voters, Prime Minister May “gets things done”. Female voters in particular say May stands for decency and efficiency, the minimum of fuss, an unshowy practicality. But would these new converts to Conservatism be so pleased if May forced them to stay at work when they were tired and frail, and then subjected them to means-testing to claim their state pensions?
Calling the election has delayed the Government’s plans to push back the state pension age and abandon the triple lock, due to be announced on 5 May. As things stand, May might sound an attractive proposition to middle-aged Middle Englanders, but her proposal to target pensioners’ benefits – or, as I prefer to call them, their rights – will drastically affect every voter under the age of 45 too.
Governments can review the pension age every five years, and the former Director of the CBI, John Cridland, recently published a report proposing that the age be raised to 68 from 2037, seven years earlier than planned. He wants to get rid of the “triple lock”, which protects the value of pensions against the rising cost of living, and make pensions relate to earnings instead – means-testing by another name.
May does not need young voters to get elected, but she does need pensioners. After election, the Government will have a huge task funding the NHS and balancing the deficit, so a raid on pensions must seem attractive. There’s also the argument that older people are routinely cited as the happiest, most well balanced group in society, that they are better off and have less debt than the middle-aged. Surely they should forego some of their benefits to help the young who cannot get somewhere to live? What about the danger of a two-tier society, young have-nots versus the old and comfortable?
That’s the fake moral scaremongering the Conservatives will use. Cridland says that 68 is old enough to claim a pension, but 68 still seems pretty brutal to me.
Some young women have seen their pension age rise by eight years since they started work, with nothing offered in return. Cridland has some vague plans about the Government and employers funding a mid-life MOT that would lead older workers into more suitable jobs. That will never work; it’s just another pipe dream as half the long-term unemployed at the moment are over the age of 50.
It’s a myth that changing jobs when you’re over 45 is as simple as signing up for a spot of retraining. Increasingly, automation and new technology will decrease the workforce further, making it even harder for older workers to switch to flexible hours. Where’s the plethora of job opportunities somewhere like the North East? State pensions have to be simple and applicable to all, and the prospect of relating them to earnings is a recipe for bureaucracy and inefficiency. Haven’t we already learned that from means-tested benefits? Where are all the massive savings? Perhaps whittled away on Government IT systems that don’t work.
Cridland ignores the wide variations in life expectancy and health, and indeed of quality of health provision, in the UK. Why should manual workers, or those in stressful jobs such as lorry driving, warehousing, retailing, call centres and IT, have to work until they are 68 to claim a pension? And what about commuters forced to travel two hours each way to work five days a week?
Every day I meet people in their seventies who are working and healthy, in all sorts of jobs – but almost always those jobs will be well paid. Show me all the fit and active people over 60 in manual jobs, working in shops and factories, earning a little above the living wage, and who don’t look their age. There won’t be many who aren’t tired and desperate for time to enjoy their families and their gardens.
There will always be exceptions, but at the moment the Tory attitude to pensions is (as always) one that favours the comfortably managing rather than the basically coping lower middle class, who might own their homes but could not be described as flush. Many will not have generous final salary scheme from their employers, and why should they be means-tested to claim what is their right?
Which? magazine reckons that retired couples need £18,000 a year to cover basic essentials such as food, utilities and housing – and if you want a holiday in Europe and a few leisure activities, that rises to £26,000. Savings are at an all-time low, with household debt the highest in a decade. The case for a decent state pension has never been stronger.
Only two countries have raised the pension age to 68: Ireland and the Czech Republic. We should not follow them.