Labour promises higher benefits for older people, but who will pay?

Having pledged to stick to Osborne's spending limits, more generous benefits for some will need to be paid for by cuts or tax rises elsewhere.

In a speech later today, Liam Byrne will rightly highlight what he calls "the scandal of the silver scrapheap". Nearly half of all unemployed people in their 50s have been out of work for longer than a year and the over 50s now spend longer on Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) than any other age group, an average of 32 weeks. 

As Byrne will argue, the social security system currently fails such people. Having paid an average of £100,000 in National Insurance, they find they are entitled to just £71.70 a week in contributory JSA and will lose all support after six months if they have savings of £16,000 or a partner who works more than 24 hours a week. While the welfare system is often accused of offering "something for nothing", for these people it's more like nothing for something. "It makes you wonder why we bothered paying in all those years" Byrne quotes one man as saying, "they don’t bother to look at our skills. They tell us to apply for anything. It’s just banging square pegs into round holes". With this in mind, the shadow work and pensions secretary will reaffirm Labour's commitment to examine a higher rate of JSA for those who have contributed more. He writes: 

I think social security should offer more for those that chipped in most either caring or paying in National Insurance. Our most experienced workers and carers have earned an extra hand. We should make sure there something better for when they need it. That’s why we’re looking at just how we put the something for something bargain at the heart of social security reform, starting with a new deal for the over 50s.

In addition, he suggests that the UK could follow countries like Japan, Canada and the US in developing specialised support services for older workers, such as training grants. In the long-run, he argues, such measures would pay in part or in full for themselves, nothing that "if we raised the employment rate amongst our over 50s to the level enjoyed by Japan, they’d be 438,000 more people in work, and £3 billion in extra tax flowing into the Treasury". 

But what Byrne doesn't say is how more generous benefits for older people will be paid for in the short-term. Having pledged to stick to George Osborne's 2015-16 current spending limits, any new spending promises will have to be funded by cuts or higher taxes elsewhere. In his recent speech on welfare, Ed Miliband suggested that the qualifying period for contributory JSA could be extended from two years to five years. In other words, the young will pay for the old. But not only is it questionable whether it's right to reduce support for the young at a time when so many suffer spells of unemployment (or to create a benefits system that favours the fortunate), it's also unclear how much money this reform would save. Young people are far less likely to have savings of £16,000 or more and/or a partner in work, meaning many will continue to qualify for means-tested JSA. If Labour wants to build a social security system that genuinely offers what Byrne calls "a new deal" for the over-50s, it will need to spend a significant amount. Until it makes it clear who will pick up the bill, the Tories will be able to charge Labour with promising more of the unfunded spending that "got us into this mess". 

Shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne argues that "social security should offer more for those that chipped in most". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear