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Someone's raiding the pensions piggy-bank: Government changes mean the rich will be subsidised by the poor.

Someone’s raiding the pensions piggy-bank: Government changes mean the rich will be subsidised by the poor. [Picture: The Guardian]

We all know that pensioners have a charmed life under the current government – right? Pensions take up around half the £160 billion social security budget and there are other perks like the cold weather payment during the winter months, free bus passes and free TV licences – right?

They get a triple-lock inflation guarantee, under which the state pension rises according to the highest of CPI inflation, the rise in earnings or 2.5 per cent. They get Pension Credit (otherwise known as the Minimum Income Guarantee) to ensure they receive a weekly minimum of more than £140.

So no matter what happens to the rest of us, they’re in clover – right?

Not really.

Just taking those examples, Tory Liam Fox wants to cut the cold weather payment down to nothing, and the Liberal Democrat Vince Cable wants to means-test or tax pensions. The free TV licence will disappear if the rising clamour to privatise the BBC receives government blessing.

Then there’s the fact that the age at which we can start drawing our pensions is rising – from 65 (for men) and 60 (for women) in 2010 to 68 (for both) by 2046, which may seem a long way into the future but in fact affects people from 2016 onwards.

The government is bringing this in because people are living longer, and this may seem like a reasonable idea – until one takes into account the fact that life expectancy is hugely dependant not only on where you live but on your social class as well.

For example, in Kensington and Chelsea, average male life expectancy in 2010 was 85.1 years, and average female life expectancy was 89.8 years. In Glasgow at the same time, average male life expectancy was 71.6 years – 13.5 less than men in Kensington and Chelsea – and average female life expectancy was 78 years – 11.8 years lower than in Kensington and Chelsea.

Between 2004 and 2010 the gap in life expectancy between the two places increased by one year and 1.7 years for men and women respectively, indicating that health inequalities across the UK are increasing.

Social class also has a huge effect on life expectancy, with people in higher managerial and professional occupations likely to live 3.5 years longer than those in routine occupations.

But they all pay National Insurance contributions for the same period of time – 30 years – in order to qualify for the state pension. This means working class people living in social housing are likely to be paying towards the pensions of upper-middle class professionals in penthouses, as well as their own.

Now the government is introducing the flat-rate pension for people reaching the state pension age who have made 35 years’ National Insurance contributions. The payment will be £144 per week at today’s prices.

People who have built up large savings for their retirement will be considerably better-off because pensions will no longer be means-tested (Pension Credit will be phased out).

Existing pensioners will remain in the old system and are likely to be worse-off than those who qualify for the new pension.

People aged in their 20s at the moment may also be worse-off than under the current system (so, even with pensions, the Coalition government has found a way to attack the young).

And people who have not paid National Insurance for at least seven years in total will not qualify for the new single-tier state pension at all.

Workers who belong to contracted-out final salary schemes pay lower NI contributions at present, but these will rise after 2016. Public sector workers in such schemes will have to pay more.

The couple’s pension rate, which is lower than the individual rate, is being phased out. This means around 30,000 women due to retire in and around 2016 are expected to lose out, as they were relying on their husband’s NI record for a state pension income and will no longer be entitled to it.

We already knew all of that.

Now, the National Federation of Occupational Pensioners says the government is proposing changes to workplace pension schemes that will undermine benefits, increase pension poverty and widen the gap between the private sector and public sector schemes, according to Mature Times.

The proposed changes mean companies will be allowed to change their scheme rules to remove the inflation link for pensions, increase their pension age and get rid of other benefits such as pensions for spouses. This significant downgrade of pension provision means scheme members could reach retirement and then realise that the expected return from their pensions has been severely reduced.

Put it all together and the less wealthy are being subjected to another rip-off – this one delayed until retirement. Who knows how much energy bills will cost by then? How many of us will have rent to pay, or mortgage payments to complete? How much will the weekly groceries cost? Will the equivalent of £144 per week be enough, by then?

And – in the current cutthroat times – how many of us will survive to find out?