That doesn’t seem to me to be very different from what he has suggested should happen to state pensioners. It might be argued that the state pension scheme has never been actuarially sound, and that the contributions made have never been enough to support the level of benefits promised to pensioners. That would be true; but those in receipt of, or expecting to receive, state pensions are hardly to blame for the fact that those managing their pensions promised them certain benefits and never took enough money from either the employees or the employers to pay for them.
From the pensioners’ point of view, the two situations are very similar – they paid in what they were told to pay in, and were promised certain benefits in return. What his lordship seems to be proposing in the case of the state pension is to breach the contract to which those paying their NI contributions over 40-50 years thought they had agreed.
His choice of words is interesting as well. He refers to being able to “use incentives to encourage older people, if not to be in full time work, to be making a contribution”; but his proposal to reduce the level of pension paid for those who don't sounds a lot more like a penalty for not ‘volunteering’ than an incentive to do so. The carrot looks more like a stick to me.
His comparison with the question of student fees is another notable aspect. As the BBC put it: ‘He acknowledged it would be difficult for politicians to sell to the public, but added: "So was tuition fees."’ It seemed a fair point to me – and a lesson which we should learn.
No matter how unacceptable many of may feel his latest proposal to be, the parallel with tuition fees is instructive. All four parties in Wales opposed tuition fees at some point or another – but eventually, the majority of elected members in all four were persuaded or cajoled into voting for that which they had previously opposed. To an extent at least, this was as a result of civil servants (such as Lord Bichard?) telling them that they had no alternative. But by caving in so easily, they have moved the political centre of gravity to the right, and created a climate where people like Bichard can use their U-turn on one 'difficult' issue as a precedent for further movement in the same direction.
Those who said one thing in opposition and did the opposite in government have a lot to answer for.