Sunset for pensions

No politician dares suggest that depriving a chunk of the country of its retirement prospects is a f

The biggest debate in British politics in 2010 will be how to cut the size of government. With annual borrowing heading for £178bn in this fiscal year, whoever is in charge will have to wield the axe. One obvious target for the government and opposition is proving to be retirement. The consequences of removing pensions benefits, though painful, are felt later rather than sooner. But as we saw with Gordon Brown's dividend-tax raid on private pension funds in 1997, such measures can have hugely damaging effects.

Alistair Darling's December 2009 pre-Budget report was filled with pension cluster bombs. By far the most important was the decision to postpone implementation of New Labour's landmark "personal account" pensions reform, with a saving to the state of £2.3bn by 2014-2015, making it one of the largest identified cuts. Darling insisted on the delay despite a spirited fight by the Work and Pensions Secretary, Yvette Cooper.

The impending political battle over the costs of retirement was signalled by the Conservative shadow chancellor, George Osborne, in his October 2009 "austerity" speech to the Tory party conference in Manchester. Osborne was accused of betraying the elderly and failing to think through the consequences of raising the retirement age to 66 from 2016.

But the Tories were also recognising that, for much of Labour's 13 years in office, pensions have been an issue that dare not speak its name (though it has been at the core of Labour's value system since the Attlee government steered the National Insurance Act through the Commons in 1946). Over the first decade of New Labour, differences over pensions came to symbolise divisions between Tony Blair and Brown. Blair was a long-time advocate of pensions reform. But Brown saw any efforts to fiddle with state, public- or private-sector pensions as an intrusion on his territory at the Treasury.

The result was years of stalemate, bungled decision-making and the impression that no one really cared. It was only after heated meetings at N0 10 between Brown, the then pensions secretary, John Hutton, and Blair in 2006-2007, that agreement was reached on sweeping changes to retirement provision, based on the recommendations of the Blair-appointed Pensions Commission, led by Lord (Adair) Turner.

In an effort to phase out the need for widespread means testing, state pensions would be linked again to rises in average earnings from 2012 onwards. This would be paid for by raising the state pension age to 66 from 2026 (ten years later than the Tories), 67 in 2036 and 68 in 2046. All private-sector workers would be automatically enrolled in a new, government-organised scheme of "personal accounts" (just renamed the National Employment Savings Trust), similar to others in Australia and Sweden. This should have been operational in 2012.

It was the delayed implementation, if not destruction, of these plans that Darling sneaked through in December.

Deep in debt

The need to do something about the Budget deficit is clear: for every £4 the government will spend in the next financial year it will raise just £3 in taxes. As a result, borrowing in the current financial year will surge to 65 per cent of national output, the highest figure in peacetime (with the possible exception of a short period in the 1970s).

Without sharp rises in taxation and spending cuts, borrowing could rise to 78 per cent of GDP by 2014-2015. But these numbers tell only part of the story. Britain has enormous hidden liabilities that are not included in the Budget. Among the biggest of these burdens on future generations is the nation's unfunded pensions promises to employees in the public sector.

The number of state workers has surged under Labour as more than a million people have been added to the payroll.

The last published figures show that civil ser­vice pensions liabilities climbed 40 per cent - from £84.1bn to £119.4bn - in the three years to March 2008. However, if you count the total liability across government, including the NHS and education, the figure rockets to £750bn. Local government funds alone will have a deficit of £60bn next year, according to new data collected by the Liberal Democrats. Despite this, reform of public-sector pensions is one of the great unmentionables of the political debate. So far, no politician has dared suggest that depriving a large chunk of the country of retirement prospects is a fiscal necessity.

This, however, is precisely what has been happening in business. Britain's defined-salary pension scheme, not so long ago the best funded of all those in the western democracies, has been in decline ever since Labour came to office. The retreat is a product of several factors.

In 1997, Gordon Brown, in his first Budget, abolished the tax break for dividends invested in pension funds, removing an estimated £125bn of income. Extra regulations have also hugely increased the cost of running such schemes. Pile on the additional burdens of changing mortality as people live longer, and more than a decade of turbulent stock markets - culmin­ating in 2008's crash - and the gold-standard final-salary pension becomes an unbearable weight for many companies.

Generous package

It used to be said that the baby-boomer generation - with its inflation-proofed final-salary retirement plans - was the "pensions aristocracy". That may have been the case, but the most fortunate are now in the public sector, where many are in non-contributory plans that pay out inflation-proofed pensions at the age of 60.

Generous retirement arrangements for state employees were seen as compensation for lower wages. However, during the recession, average pay in the state sector has caught up with pay by private companies. In fact, this clash of reward structures, if not addressed, could damage social cohesion and the de facto contract between taxpayer and state.

The Confederation of British Industry has been among those leading the calls for reform. The employers' group proposes that the retirement age be raised to 65 for younger state workers. More realistic employer contributions should be deployed and mortality assumptions altered in line with practice in the private sector.

The Chancellor unveiled changes, aimed at capping public-sector pensions, in December. But with estimated cost savings of just £1bn, these barely scrape the surface. At the very least, public-sector retirement ages should move in step with those for state pensions, thereby cutting back the burden for future generations of taxpayers. However, a bolder solution would be to bring future public-sector employees under the umbrella of the "personal account" system, if it gets off the ground.

There is no reason why the government, setting an example to the private sector, should not contribute more than the minimum. Unfortunately, that is not going to happen. All too often, when it comes to pensions, obfuscation and complexity are preferred to bold thinking.

Alex Brummer is City editor of the Daily Mail

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war