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.