Saggy knees, secret courts and why granny tax isn't the end of the world

Who ever could have seen the "granny tax" revolt coming, eh? Well, everybody. Clobber pensioners and the retribution will be swift and universal, in the pages of the Mirror as much as the Mail. Ros Altmann of Saga called it an "outrageous assault" and an " enormous stealth tax".

There was only one problem: the granny tax (why not a "granddad tax"?) can only be the beginning of the reforms necessary to deal with the plain fact that we're living longer and having fewer children. The most sobering comment came from the Channel 4 News economics editor, Faisal Islam, who asked on Twitter: "Given response to this tiny tax rise on [the] old, how on earth is Britain going to deal with the fiscal challenges posed by our ageing society?"

Hang on, I know this one: very badly. In the days after the Budget, the Institute for Public Policy Research pointed out that removing their higher tax-free allowance "takes much more from better-off pensioners", with the biggest losses falling in the second-richest fifth of households. It concluded: "There are simpler and better-targeted ways of supporting pensioners struggling on low incomes that do not rely on people claiming complex allowances."

Gordon Hector at the Joseph Rowntree Foun­dation agreed, concluding: "It's a relatively modest move that hurts a bit. It's not nothing. It's also not the end of the world." Tell that to the newspapers.

Young offenders

I've been writing a little about "intergenerational justice" and there's one response that comes back, again and again: variations of "We paid in all our lives", with "Young people are selfish and all expect something for nothing" running a close second. Both are seductive but wrong-headed. State pensions account for half of all welfare spending and that money will come from a smaller and smaller pool of workers as the years go on. Those currently working will also pay in all their lives, but to what end?

It's in my interest for pensioners to get a reasonable standard of living; after all, I hope to become one eventually. (By the way, the analyst Club Vita expects new graduates will have to work until 71 before getting a pension, and John Lawson of Standard Life said: "Children born in 2012 are unlikely to get their state pension until 80.")

Meanwhile, young people, far from being feckless, Xbox-addled wasters, get a bum deal in all kinds of ways: a lower minimum wage for those under 21, £9,000 tuition fees for those going to university, a job market that makes the Russian tundra look warm and enticing. They suffer, too, because Britain doesn't have enough houses to go round, due to high prices, mortgage restrictions, restrictive planning laws and the lack of land on the market.

The final argument advanced against anyone questioning the entitlement of the 1940s generation is this: it is wrong to stoke "generation war"; there are many poor old people, too. So there are, although a lower proportion of pensioners than working-age adults live in poverty. But while we have Budget measures - and endless newspaper front pages - that lump us together by age groups, it makes sense to talk in these terms.

No one is saying there was an intentional plan to squeeze the young for all they're worth; it's just how it's worked out. People have different needs at different times in their lives - and the older groups' needs are being protected at great expense, because they vote, while those footing the bill will never get anywhere near the same level of help. To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, unfunded state- and public-sector pension commitments run to well over £2.3trn, more than our annual GDP.

By clutching our collective pearls over a relatively moderate measure such as the granny tax, we've made it even more unlikely that we'll have a proper debate about how to provide for an ageing society. So when it comes to generational war, I have to be a little bit childish and say: you started it.

Knees are good

Having worked at the Daily Mail for several years, I felt a brief pang of nostalgia when reading the New Yorker magazine's long profile of the newly crowned "Newspaper of the Year". One former journalist was quoted anonymously saying she "just got fed up with writing picture captions about celebrities' saggy knees" and I've spent most of the week so far telling ex-colleagues it wasn't me. As it happens, though, I did independently get a bit fed up with writing picture captions about saggy knees. Just shows how many there were to go around.

Hearing trouble

Still on the Mail, the paper is absolutely right to campaign against secret courts - particularly as the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, wants to extend "closed material procedures", in which evidence is withheld from litigants "in the public interest" (usually national security grounds but potentially with much wider applications).

On 26 March, the paper reported that the Independent Police Complaints Commission is reluctant to hand over material about the death of Mark Duggan to a coroner. Technically, if there is no inquest, there must be an alternative public inquiry. But the family of Duggan, whose shooting by police sparked the first of last summer's riots, is worried about the precedent set by the case of Azelle Rodney, who was shot six times at point-blank range by Met officers in 2005. Seven years later, his family is still waiting for a full hearing.

In the name of the father

Some very odd stuff has come out of the news lately but nothing quite as odd as this: David Cameron had lunch at Chequers with a man named Fares Fares. It reminded me that the father of the footballing brothers Phil and Gary Neville is called . . . Neville Neville. How does this happen?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, France is my enemy