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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.