Life expectancy in Britain is increasing, and at a faster pace than what the statisticians call “healthy life expectancy”. That means we are living longer, but also that we are living longer in poor health. This necessitates a serious national debate about how we pay for longer retirements and their demands on health and social care.
The current political consensus is that we must increase the pension age – scheduled to rise to 67 by 2026 and to 68 by 2044 (subject to review every five years from 2017) – and cut social care provision.
Some people will be happy to work longer, others not. But living longer doesn’t mean we are able to work longer in physically demanding jobs like that of the firefighter, police officer or paramedic. And it’s not just in the emergency services: construction workers, care workers and prison officers cannot be expected to work into their late 60s.
So we need a flexible pension age that allows people to work for as long as they want to, while also recognising that for many people the nature of their work, their health, or their disability may not allow that.
Pensioners protest outside the Houses of Parliament on government intentions to encourage people to work later in their lives.
Increasing the state pension age to 68 does not recognise this reality. It will mean that those who have worked in well-paid jobs with good pensions will continue to take early retirement, while lower-paid workers with the least savings will have to work until they drop. It will create a two-tier system in which the fortunate few can retire into long contentment, while increasing numbers retire later in poor health and poverty.
Currently, nearly two million pensioners live in poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation said last year that the minimum income standard for a single pensioner was £182.16 per week. That is some way above the £144 per week touted for the single tier pension from April next year.
“Some care home providers have registered themselves offshore to avoid paying the very taxes that fund their sector”
Increasing the basic pension for all pensioners by just £1 per week costs over half a billion pounds, so increasing the single tier pension to the minimum income standard might cost an extra £22 billion.
The last Labour government introduced a minimum income guarantee – pension credit – providing a universal level beneath which no pensioner would fall.
The winter fuel allowance, free bus passes and free TV licences for over-75s all served to reduce pensioner poverty, and to deal with the higher costs of living and risks of social exclusion pensioners face. By 2010, Labour policies had lifted nearly one million pensioners out of poverty.
The cuts to public services are having a big impact on older people. Most starkly, £4.6 billion has been cut from social care budgets since 2011. There was already an urgent need to tackle the dysfunctional care sector, which pays exploitatively low wages to dedicated staff on poor terms and conditions. Meanwhile some of the biggest providers in the sector are private equity-owned companies paying obscene salaries to their bosses, and have registered themselves offshore to avoid paying the very taxes that fund their sector.
Heart attack: protesters outside Downing Street demonstrating their opposition to Health Minister Andrew Lansley’s proposed reforms of the NHS – Competition is the best medicine for the NHS
It is important that the NHS becomes a National Health and Social Care Service. Such an integrated service would end the scandalous lack of care time, which leads to neglected older people requiring more expensive hospital care. And it would cut out the exploiters and exploitative working conditions suffered by too many care workers, who should be put onto NHS pay scales and given time to care for the person’s needs.
But this agenda for older people also means we have to talk about tax. The basic rate of income tax was 25 per cent a generation ago; now it’s 20 per cent. For most of Mrs Thatcher’s time in office, higher earners were paying 60 per cent; now even the super-rich only face a 45 per cent rate. After 18 years of Thatcher and Major’s Conservative governments corporation tax was 33 per cent. If George Osborne has his way it will be just 18 per cent by 2020.
If we want dignity for all in old age, then it has to be paid for. That’s why I believe Labour in opposition should establish an Older People’s Commission to create a new deal for older people, with funding options that can be discussed throughout the country in advance of 2020. Honest, straight-talking politics demands open and democratic debates to resolve difficult issues.