Spot the difference: pensions vs student loans

It's only OK to retroactively change a deal when it affects young people.

The Guardian's Aditya Chakrabortty and the False Economy network have a massive scoop this morning. A secret government report from 2011 proposes retroactively changing student loan agreements to force pre-2012 graduates to pay more for their education:

At the moment, the cap on student debt taken out before 2012 keeps repayment rates at 1.5%. Lifting it would mean a rate of 3.6%, in line with RPI in March 2012. One indicative calculation suggests that an employee on £25,000 a year, with £25,000 of undergraduate loans taken out before 2012, could work until retirement without ever paying off their debt if the interest rate cap were removed.

Somewhat astonishingly, the report also contains a "script" for ministers to push the policy:

"We all live in difficult times," they suggest ministers argue. "You have a deal which is so much better than your younger siblings (they will incur up to £9,000 tuition fees and up to RPI+3% interest rates)".

Needless to say, the report does not address the fact that the ministers' generation had a deal which is considerably better that either younger or older siblings.

There's an element of sleight of hand at play here. Since the actual fees are not retroactively raised, the government would be able to argue that it's not really changing all that much, just the terms of repayment. But student loans are already basically taxes in how they're repaid. What this will do in that assessment is extend the length of time which those taxes are paid – in some cases, right up until the 25-year cut-off, at which point the outstanding debt is wiped away.

The reason why the change is so remarkably unfair is because of its retroactive nature. A cohort of students decided to go to university based on the deal that they would repay loans at the lower of 1 per cent above the Bank of England base rate or RPI. If that weren't the deal at the time, it's a fair bet a number of people might not have decided to get themselves into around £20,000 of debt.

There's a certain amount of fun to be had comparing the proposals to the reaction to Labour's markedly less radical suggestion that pensions count as welfare spending, and might need to be capped if welfare spending as a whole grows too large.

That is not a particularly bold statement. As Ian Mulheirn of the Social Market Foundation has showed, given the rate at which pension liabilities are growing, just to keep total expenditure flat would require massive cuts to every other spending program. Nonetheless, it's led to comments like this, from the National Pensioners Convention:

Ed Balls has made a fundamental error of judgement in suggesting that state pensions are just another benefit in the general scheme of welfare spending.

Everyone knows that you only receive a state pension if you have paid national insurance for at least 30 years. This contributory principle means that it’s not a benefit, but an entitlement.

Interestingly, no-one brings up the same point when contributory JSA is cut, a benefit which also relies on NI contributions. But the larger point is that the contributory principle says nothing about the level of benefits.

It may well be a terrible idea to cut pensions, for exactly the same reason that it's a terrible idea to retroactively increase student loan payments: people make spending plans spanning decades based on these figures, and a cut can wreck those plans at a time when there's no chance to rescue them.

(Of course, that objection doesn't quite hold water in the case of pensions, which have, thanks to the Government's "triple lock", increased in present value significantly. Removing the triple lock could not irreparably damage anyone's long term plans)

But young people are easier to screw over than old people. And divide and rule – pitting one cohort of young people against another – makes it even easier still.

Here's a better idea for funding universities: don't scrap a tax which brings in billions of pounds from people who can overwhelmingly afford it, and then complain that the one generation which actually paid for their university education should pay more.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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Britain's shrinking democracy

10 million people - more than voted for Labour in May - will be excluded from the new electoral roll.

Despite all the warnings the government is determined to press ahead with its decision to close the existing electoral roll on December 1. This red letter day in British politics is no cause for celebration. As the Smith Institute’s latest report on the switch to the new system of voter registration shows, we are about to dramatically shrink our democracy.  As many as 10 million people are likely to vanish from the electoral register for ever – equal to 20 per cent of the total electorate and greater than Labour’s entire vote in the 2015 general election. 

Anyone who has not transferred over to the new individual electoral registration system by next Tuesday will be “dropped off” the register. The independent Electoral Commission, mindful of how the loss of voters will play out in forthcoming elections, say they need at least another year to ensure the new accuracy and completeness of the registers.

Nearly half a million voters (mostly the young and those in private rented homes) will disappear from the London register. According to a recent HeraldScotland survey around 100,000 residents in Glasgow may also be left off the new system. The picture is likely to be much the same in other cities, especially in places where there’s greater mobility and concentrations of students.

These depleted registers across the UK will impact more on marginal Labour seats, especially  where turnout is already low. Conversely, they will benefit Tories in future local, Euro and general elections. As the Smith Institute report observers, Conservative voters tend to be older, home owners and less transient – and therefore more likely to appear on the electoral register.

The government continues to ignore the prospect of skewed election results owing to an incomplete electoral registers. The attitude of some Tory MPs hardly helping. For example, Eleanor Laing MP (the former shadow minister for justice) told the BBC that “if a young person cannot organize the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they don’t deserve the right to vote”.  Leaving aside such glib remarks, what we do know is the new registers will tend to favour MPs whose support is found in more affluent rural and semi-rural areas which have stable populations.  

Even more worrying, the forthcoming changes to MPs constituencies (under the Boundary Review) will be based on the new electoral register. The new parliamentary constituencies will be based not on the voting population, but on an inaccurate and incomplete register. As Institute’s report argues, these changes are likely to unjustly benefit UKIP and the Conservative party.

That’s not to say that the voter registration system doesn’t need reforming.  It clearly does. Indeed, every evidence-based analysis of electoral registers over the last 20 years shows that both accuracy and completeness are declining – the two features of any electoral register that make it credible or not. But, the job must be done properly.  Casually leaving 10m voters off the electoral resister hardly suggests every effort has been made.

The legitimacy of our democratic system rests on ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. This is a task which shouldn’t brook complacency or compromise.  We should be aiming for maximum voter registration, not settling for a system where one in five drop off the register.