I wrote the following article for
the Parliamentary Monitor in July 2004
State spending on pensioner-specific benefits is currently
around 5% of GDP. The Government is planning for this to rise only marginally, to 5.3% of
GDP by 2050, despite the number of pensioners over 65 being expected to rise by half.
The shortfall is expected to be made up by reversing the balance of retirement
income so that 60% comes from private saving and only 40% from the state. But the
current level of private pension contributions (an average of 7-8% of salary a year) is
not even enough to provide most future pensioners with the level of retirement income
achieved by todays pensioners.
Therefore, as well as being concerned about the adequacy of the
incomes of present-day pensioners, the All Party Group on Pensioner Incomes is focusing on
how state spending can be structured to encourage younger people to save more. We
are very mindful of the need for political consensus on the framework for the pension
system in order to provide some certainty and security for people to plan for the future.
In its first seven years of office, the Government has done much
to improve the incomes of the poorest pensioners.
Means tested benefits for pensioners have never been more
generous. No single pensioners income after housing costs should be less than the
Government defined subsistence level of £105 a week the Guarantee Credit,
currently linked to 22% of national average earnings (NAE). The new Savings Credit to
reward pensioners with modest private pension savings is worth an average of
around £8 a week on top of this.
But even this level of income is at the lower end of what might
be considered decent. Age Concern and Help the Aged presented evidence to the Group
suggesting that the income needed by a single homeowner aged 65 75 for a low
cost but acceptable living standard is around £160 a week. Whats more
between a quarter and a third of pensioners do not claim their entitlements.
The Government argues that by targeting state support towards
the poorest by increasing means-tested benefits rather than the basic state pension (BSP),
they are keeping costs down. But with the growth in pensioner numbers, the cost of a
system that alleviates, rather than addresses the causes of poverty, cannot be contained
because the amount paid in means tested benefits depends on the amount of non-state income
pensioners have. We know that the affluent will always provide for themselves well
in excess of state provision so the real task is to ensure that the interaction between
state and private provision is such as to encourage those of modest incomes to save more.
The complexity of the pensions system (there are 23 different
potential entitlements for pensioners, with 36 different linkages between 16 of them)
makes it difficult for people to make informed choices. According to research by
Virgin Money and PricewaterhouseCooper, young people, seeing final salary occupational
pension schemes closing to them and the results of their parents hard work in
tatters through mis-selling and other failures at pensions providers like Equitable Life,
are increasingly deciding not to bother.
Almost all the organisations interested in pensions, an eclectic
group covering the pensions industry, pensioner organisations as well as think
tanks from the Adam Smith Institute on the right to Catalyst on the left, are saying
to us that the basic state pension (BSP) is too small. It should be raised to at
least the Guarantee Credit level, thus substantially reducing means-testing. The
role of the state should be to ensure that people have enough to live decently in old age,
leaving personal and occupational pensions to meet individuals own ambitions for
total retirement income.
Such a broad consensus should be a very powerful message to
Various ideas as to how to pay for a substantially higher BSP
have been put forward, the most radical advocating the amalgamation of the basic and state
second pension and the abolition of contracting out (the cost of rebates paid by the state
towards schemes contracting out of state second pension is around 1% of GDP) and a linking
of the age at which state pensions become payable to longevity. There is also scope
to redistribute some or all of the 1.5% of GDP the Government spends on tax relief on
private pension saving, 55% of which goes to the 2.5 million people paying the higher rate
The other issue under discussion is whether a universal pension
should be payable to all pensioners who pass a residency test, removing the need for a
national insurance system to keep track of entitlement based on contributions made during
working life. This would be particularly beneficial to women. The Pensions Policy
Institute has put forward workable proposals for a Citizens Pension worth 22 to 25%
of NAE based on the system in New Zealand
The Government has appointed the Pensions Commission, chaired by
Adair Turner, to look at ways of increasing private pension saving. Crucially,
however, their remit does not officially extend to the interaction between private and
state provision. The Commission is expected to report next spring, by which time the
All Party Group intends to produce its own report pulling together all the lessons we have
learned from our meetings. Hopefully this will help inform the debate and ensure no
issues can be overlooked.
other pensions articles