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Pensioners deserve honesty from the government

Clarity is the least that our nation's elderly deserve.

Pensions have dominated the front pages of our newspapers over the last few weeks with completely mixed messages, even when reporting on the same story. A recent front page by the Daily Express ran with “Millions get pensions boost”.  The same day, based on the same research, the Telegraph went with “16m lose out on pensions”.

I don’t blame the papers for the confusion though, I blame the Tories. The government is playing politics with people’s pensions, a dangerous game at the best of times, and their tactic in that game is clear: trumpet the winners and conceal the losers.

While you’d expect any government to focus on the positives, their approach becomes a real issue when ministers refuse to tell those who’ll be most affected by the changes and when it doesn’t give people a certainty of income in retirement.

With every major pension reform the Tories have announced, that’s been the lowest common denominator – failing to be up-front about who’ll be worst off. That was clear again last week when the pensions minister refused to write to those who’ll lose out under the new state pension that starts in April.

The same can be said of reductions in pension credit announced at the Autumn Statement and of tax and benefit changes that will see some of the poorest pensioner households over £200 a year worse off, according to the IFS. That’s despite a Tory manifesto pledge to ‘protect pensioner benefits’.

The government isn’t being straight with people about their pensions and nowhere is that more true than with accelerated rises to the state pension age, which left hundreds of thousands of women without proper notice of the altered timetable. That situation has been compounded by the government’s failure to properly communicate with women born in the 1950s.

It’s also the same story in a Statutory Instrument debate that I will speaking to tomorrow on behalf of Labour. Under the new state pension, people won’t be able to receive certain benefits on the basis of their partner’s national insurance contributions. Age UK has sensibly called on the government to write to those with gaps in their NI record who might be affected but again ministers are refusing.

As well as leading the front pages, pensions have made the papers with rumours of a flat rate of tax relief. Labour will closely scrutinise any proposals the government brings forward on this issue. However, a good place for ministers to start is to be honest about the downsides of any changes as well as the upsides.

People understand that any major reform to pensions is likely to create losers as well as winners. But it’s dishonest of the government to keep trumpeting the winners and concealing the losers. The Tories should treat working families with more respect. If people are going to be made worse off, the government should at least let them know. I don’t think that’s asking too much. 

Angela Rayner is Labour MP for Ashton-under-Lyne and shadow education secretary.

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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left