Raising the pension age will just turn 69-year-olds into the "undeserving poor"

The Institute of Directors is wrong to call for raising the pension age; it's not a magic money tree

Increasing the state pension age to pay for better pensions is a popular policy on the right. The Institute of Directors (pdf) are the latest to call for a rapid increase beyond 70.

It is easy to see the attraction. If you reduce the number of pensioners, then you can increase what each one gets from the state without putting up the pensions bill. Both employers and employees can contribute less to a pension if it is supporting fewer retirement years.

Increasing the pension age has become a magic money tree for pensions wonks as by definition they have no interest in the income needs of those yet to retire.

But while we cannot ignore the challenge of increased longevity, every increase in the pension age redistributes money from poor pensioners with shorter life expectancies to those from professional backgrounds who live longer.

And while longevity has increased for all social groups, the gap between rich and poor is growing. As the ONS say in just four years:

The gap between the health areas with the highest and lowest life expectancies at birth increased over the period from 9.8 to 11.3 years for males and from 8.2 to 10.1 years for females. At age 65, the gap increased from 6.7 to 8.5 years for men and from 6.3 to 8.3 years for women.

If you are only going to live to 75, you lose a much bigger proportion of your pension with an increase in the state pension to 70 than a centenarian will do. MPs who get on the Jubilee line at Westminster can see life expectancy drop by one year for each stop to Canning Town.

The other big problem with this policy is that it assumes that the pension losers in their late 60s can continue to work. Of course, many would welcome the opportunity to extend their working lives – and the coalition was right to abolish the statutory retirement age – but what looks attractive to knowledge workers with interesting jobs may simply not be an option, let alone a choice, for the less skilled and manual workers with dull or heavy jobs.

The differential state pension ages for men and women means that the poorest men who cannot work in their early 60s at the moment can at least claim means tested pensioner benefits before the state pension age as EU law does not allow age discrimination in benefits.

But with womens’ state pension age rapidly catching up with mens’ this loophole is closing. Soon we will have a situation where someone who is 66 will be a member of the deserving poor because they will be seen as pensioners, while 65 year olds  will still be among the work-shy scrounger unemployed category of the undeserving poor. They may be tired, worn-out and not very fit, but that will not be enough to satisfy ATOS that they cannot work.

Yet when the TUC did a detailed breakdown of the labour market position of 64 year olds before the recession we found that more than half of 64 year old men were economically inactive – some through choice, but doubtless many would prefer to be working.

Longevity increases inevitably bring change, but rapid increases in the state pension age are extremely unprogressive. Even a more gradual increase requires action to reduce health inequalities and to provide more flexible routes to retirement that end the cliff-edge between full-time work and full-time retirement. Yet employer groups were mostly opposed to scrapping the mandatory retirement age, and with continuing high unemployment, there is little pressure for creative thinking from employers about keeping older people in work.

An elderly man hoes a field in Havana: is Cuba the Institute of Directors' dream for Britain?

Nigel Stanley is the head of communications at the TUC. He blogs at ToUChstone.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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