Friday, 26 April 2019

Setting us against each other

Yesterday’s report from a committee of the House of Lords on “intergenerational fairness” raises some important points, but spectacularly misses the most important of all.  No, it’s worse than that – it doesn’t so much miss the point as reinforce a completely and deliberately misleading view of the problem.
I’ve never thought that things like the Winter Fuel Payment, the Christmas pension bonus and free TV licences were much more than political gimmicks – (comparatively) cheap giveaways by the chancellors who introduced them with a view to seeking the votes of a particular demographic whilst avoiding the more costly alternative of paying a decent pension in the first place.  (I put bus passes in a rather different category, since they also help to encourage a switch from private to public transport which has wider benefits than those gained by the groups in receipt of passes.)  The question surrounding their abolition should be the straightforward one about whether the basic pension is at an adequate level.
Evidence on that is mixed.  There are various tables showing that the state pension in the UK is lagging far behind that in other countries (here’s one example), but a fair comparison isn’t quite as simple as that, as this analysis indicates, because there are a range of other factors which need to be taken into account.  It would be fair to say, though, that state pensions in the UK are not exactly the most generous when compared with other countries of similar size and wealth.  Whilst I’m not a huge supporter of these fringe gimmicks, for those wholly or mostly dependent on the state pension those ‘extras’ are small but they are a welcome supplement to income; removing them without addressing the underlying low level of the pension is premature to say the least.
None of that is my real argument with yesterday’s report, however.  That relates rather to the juxtapositioning of benefits for the old with the struggles of the young, and the underlying argument that giving to the young depends on taking from the old.  Setting one less advantaged group against another is one of the oldest tricks in the book for those who wield the real power and control the real wealth.  Blaming immigrants for the lack of housing or blaming the old for the inability of the young to afford a home are two sides of the same coin – and both avoid discussing (let alone addressing) the real problem of an unequal distribution of wealth and income in society.  When the richest 10% of the UK’s population own more than 50% of the total wealth, the important inequality isn’t between old and young at all. 
It was disappointing, but sadly not at all surprising, to see Labour peers lining up with their Conservative counterparts to set the young against the old by telling them that their problems are being caused by giving too much money to pensioners.  It's a long way from that party's historic roots.

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