The DWP sees itself as the lead Government department on older people. With a quirky newsrelease (29 May), it sought to link its work on pensions with the Diamond Jubilee, and issued a story entitled ‘Pensioners Change the Face of Britain over the Queen’s Reign’. So no lack of bureaucratic artiface there, despite Steve Webb’s customary whimsical supportive commentary.
A killer fact is that there are around 13,120 centenarians today compared with 300 in 1952. The Queen has sent around 110,000 telegrams and messages to centenarians during her reign. A case of royal writers’ cramp – a case for a quick appeal to fund a new fountain pen and plentiful supply of ink for the years ahead? We are living a decade longer than our peers in 1952, but only in the last six years or so have we begun to remodel our state pension scheme to reflect our changed society, and only then at a glacial speed.
Beveridge left us a legacy of a flat-rate state pension, designed with the limited ambition of protecting older people from poverty, and based on a model where men worked and paid contributions, with their wives (who worked at home unpaid, and to whom they remained loyally married all their lives) would share if they were widowed. With a few tweaks, that model remained right into this century. It is to the credit of the last and present Government that we have seen that model change – if modestly.
Eligibility for a full state pension after thirty years of National Insurance contributions was introduced by Labour (though not retrospectively), and particularly helps working women with broken employment careers. The ‘triple lock’ for up-rating pensions was introduced by the Coalition Government: after thirty years of seeing the relative value of the state pension falling, the link with earnings was effectively established.
The Queen’s Speech announced a Bill to pay a state pension at a rate which exceeds the current means-tested benefits level (again not retrospectively, and with no yet known implementation date), which will take us back to the Beveridge vision that the basic pension should be a solid foundation upon which people can plan for further pension arrangements.
The pay-back? Well it is the raising of the state pension age, to 65 for women by 2018, to 66 for everybody by 2020, and to 67 by 2028. But the totem of retiring at 60/65, which has endured through the Queen’s sixty year reign, reflects a disappeared world, where employment in 1952 was much more manual, and much more about heavy lifting. What we have failed to do so far is provide people with the educational and re-training opportunities to re-skill in later life, and to enjoy an employed and paid career for longer.
The DWP newsrelease talks of the boy of 1952 expected to live to 78, and a girl to 83: on current forecasts, the generation born in 2012 will live to 91 and 94. That is an awfully long number of increased years to fund whether paid for by state or private pension provision, if we start from 65.
In 1952, there were 6.8m state pensioners. Today there are 12.4m. The cost of a 1952 pension was £1 12s per person per week: in 2012, it is £107.45. Many pensioners are active in their families, helping with childcare. Many are active in their communities, as councillors or local community activists. Many more are still working (like the Queen) above the state pension age. We should be encouraging them and supporting them in these roles. What we don’t need is a defeatist attitude that the pensioner population is a burden.