Ed Balls and George Osborne attend the State Opening of Parliament on May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How Labour can trump Osborne's pensions reforms

A state annuity scheme would improve the public finances, provide financial security and raise living standards.

When the hardline conference motions used to roll in calling for the nationalisation of the top 200 industries, John Smith would jest that we should replace the term "industries" with "chip shops". These days there are few opportunities for such humour in the Labour Party, but sometimes this means Labour avoids advocating an obvious state solution, even when it represents much better value than a typical annuity.

George Osborne’s Budget pension reforms are, in fact, a case in point. No one can doubt that locking pensioners into poor value annuities was no longer tenable. Giving those reaching retirement age greater freedom to make their own investment and spending decisions also makes plenty of sense. The concern is that the risks associated with such freedoms may result in some pensioners falling back on the state later in life. This not only means many living out their final years in penury but also the taxpayer having to find extra funds to cover social care or benefits such as housing benefit.
 
The Conservatives want to suggest that those who raise fears about the personal and fiscal consequences of Osborne’s reforms are accusing pensioners of being bad people, stupid and irresponsible to the core.  But did we accuse working age people of irresponsibility when we introduced opt-out defined contributions pensions for all?
 
The problem is a simple one: someone reaching retirement does not know how long they will live, and many underestimate how long they will. Someone who turns 65 this year will, on average, live to 85 (84 for a man and 86 for a woman) and annuities, for all their faults, take away the risk of failing to judge your life expectancy correctly.                    
 
The solution is equally simple. While continuing to offer retirees the freedom to pay down a mortgage, buy a Lamborghini or even a chip shop, the state should offer its own annuity. It has a vested interest in doing so because it will pick up the tab if Osborne turns out to be less prescient than he would have us believe. The state can offer value for money because it does not have to make a profit. If the state were raising funds through the bond market it would pay out a perfectly respectable interest rate, currently somewhat above 2.5 per cent for a 10 year bond. On this basis, someone investing £100,000 in a state annuity would be likely to do better by about £12,000 over a remaining 20 years of life than with a private sector annuity.
 
Indeed, because of the potential risk to the public finances the state may want to be more generous than this.  All it needs is clear and transparent actuarial calculations and payments could be made with those for the state pension. The insurance industry would howl but it would have little cause for complaint because the market failure is obvious and Osborne has already driven a stake through its less than generous heart. Besides, the state would not be a monopoly but act as a competitor to the private sector: as a spur to efficiency and innovation. And with a state annuity, freedom would be underpinned by security.  
 
Many suspect Osborne of alighting upon his pensions reform with more than a thought given to the short-term fillip to the public finances, as the newly retiring enjoy their unexpected freedom, and with little regard for the long-term impact on the public finances. A state annuity has the potential to provide a very substantial medium-term boost to the public finances while simultaneously warding off a potential fiscal time bomb. If the state annuity was sensibly generous, and the default position for three quarters of a pension pot, with retirees (anyone 55 or older) having to opt-out rather than opt-in to the state annuity, as many as half or more of those reaching retirement might take up the states offer and use their pension pot to pay for a guaranteed lifetime income.
 
With roughly 650,000 people becoming eligible in a year, and an average pension pot of close to £30,000, if half of retirees used three quarters of their pot (the remaining quarter being taken as a tax-free lump sum) to buy a state annuity, the public finances would be better off by around £7bn in the first year and still better off each year for many years to come. Over the lifetime of a parliament, the public finances might be boosted by as much as £30bn. Of course, there is a debate to be had about how we treat this on the public books, but without doubt the impact on the government’s finances would be exceedingly positive in the early years.
 
Where else can Labour so readily demonstrate that it can improve the public finances, provide financial security and raise living standards? And all this without nationalising any chip shops.

Nick Pecorelli is Associate Director of The Campaign Company

Photo: Getty
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It's a stab in the dark: the myth of predicting your student loan repayments

Even the company responsible for collecting repayments admits that it can't tell students what they'll be.

In response to renewed calls to overhaul the student finance system, the universities minister Jo Johnson insisted last week that the "current system works". He pointed out that a university degree boosts "lifetime income by between £170,000 and £250,000".

What he failed to mention is that not even the people administering the loan system can tell students what they will be expected to pay back each month, because they can't work out what they'll earn. 

When asked by the New Statesman why it had pulled an online calculator designed to tell students what their repayments would be, the Student Loans Company (SLC) said it wasn't "possible to answer customers' questions about how long it will take to repay their loan or how much they will owe at a point in the future because there is no accurate way of predicting their future earning".

The confusion around student loans stems from the fact that, unlike loans from banks, their repayment is income contingent.

Until May last year, the SLC had a calculator on its website which students and parents could use to predict how much they may have to repay in the future. But after Andrew McGettigan, a higher education journalist, emailed the SLC noting that the calculator did not take into account gender inequality in future salaries, it was swiftly taken down. 

It was in response to queries about this calculator from the New Statesman that the SLC admitted that there was no accurate way to predict future repayments. The organisation added that it was "exploring new and better ways to present information" to its customers. 

This admission appears to undermine Johnson’s “fair and equitable” description of the student finance system. If even SLC can't say what repayments could look like, how do we know? 

Further controversy around student loan repayments is expected when a report is published later this year by the Department for Education on student finance and expenditure. This is expected to highlight the discrepancy between the maintenance loans students receive and rising rent costs. 

There are still a range of unofficial student loan calculators on the internet, but many use overly optimistic projections for future earnings. McGettigan says this is because they are based on salary trends from the 1980s to the 2010s. He also adds that these unofficial calculators are all based on the official one that was removed – and that they also do not take into account the impact of Brexit. It's a stab in the dark.

The SLC notes that "every student who applies for their student finance online must navigate a page of key repayment information that outlines six points". Student loans are inherently complicated by design, but as Amatey Doku, NUS vice president (higher education), makes clear, this has consequences for fair access to higher education. “We know that BME and poorer students are more worried about high levels of debt than any other group, but the current system does not provide adequate support for those about to enter it.”

Students seeking advice from an independent body will be hard-pressed to find one. The independent Student Finance Taskforce set up by the coalition government in 2011, which sought “to reassure potential students about what they can expect when applying for university and beyond”, was quietly discontinued and never replaced. 

Read more: Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

Further confusion surrounds the government’s framing of student finance to sixth formers. Beyond the debate surrounding tuition fees, there is the assumption that has never been made explicit by either political party, which is that students who have a household income of more than £25,000 are expected to have some form of financial support from their families for living costs.

Are parents made aware of this before their children apply to university? Unlike in America, where parents are encouraged to put money away into a “college fund”, the British government never openly encourages parents to save specifically to send their children to university. 

Although there is “no specific date” for its publishing, the Department for Education's report is is believed to argue that, much like the NUS’s debt report did in 2015, that the current system results in poorer students having to take excessive part-time work during the university term. Some also have to take on commercial loans. The stress of both can have an adverse effect on students' mental health.

All this, and not even the organisation responsible for collecting repayments can tell students how much they will be paying back.