Sunset for Pensions: No Politician Dares Suggest That Depriving a Chunk of the Country of Its Retirement Prospects Is a Fiscal Necessity-But They Should

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The biggest debate in British politics in 2010 will be how to cut the size of government. With annual borrowing heading for [pounds sterling]178bn in this fiscal year, whoever is in charge will have to wield the axe. One obvious target for the government and oppositions is proving to be retirement. The consequences of removing pensions benefits, though painful, are felt later rather than sooner. But as we saw with Gordon Brown's dividend-tax raid on private pension funds in 1997, such measures can have hugely damaging effects.

Alistair Darling's December 2009 pre-Budget report was filled with pension cluster bombs. By far the most important was the decision to postpone implementation of New Labour's landmark "personal account" pensions reform, with a saving to the state of [pounds sterling]2.3bn by 2014-2015, making it one of the largest identified cuts. Darling insisted on the delay despite a spirited fight by the Work and Pensions Secretary, Yvette Cooper.

The impending political battle over the costs of retirement was signalled by the Conservative shadow chancellor, George Osborne, in his October 2009 "austerity" speech to the Tory party conference in Manchester. Osborne was accused of betraying the elderly and failing to think through the consequences of raising the retirement age to 66 from 2016.

But the Tories were also recognising that, for much of Labour's 13 years in office, pensions have been an issue that dare not speak its name (though it has been at the core of Labour's value system since the Attlee government steered the National Insurance Act through the Commons in 1946). Over the first decade of New Labour, differences over pensions came to symbolise divisions between Tony Blair and Brown. Blair was a long-time advocate of pensions reform. But Brown say any efforts to fiddle with state, public-or private-sector pensions as an intrusion on his territory at the Treasury.

The result was years of stalemate, bungled decision-making and the impression that no one really cared. It was only after heated meetings at No 10 between Brown, the then pensions secretary, John Hutton, and Blair in 2006-2007, that agreement was reached on sweeping changes to retirement provision, based on the recommendations of the Blair-appointed Pensions Commission, led by the Lord (Adair) Turner.

In an effort to phase out the need for widespread means testing, state pensions would be linked again to rises in average earnings from 2012 onwards. This would be paid for by raising the state pension age to 66 from 2026 (ten years later than the Tories), 67 in 2036 and 68 in 2046. All private-sector workers would be automatically enrolled in a new, government-organised scheme of "personal accounts" (just renamed the National Employment Savings Trust), similar to others in Australia and Sweden. This should have been operational in 2012.

It was the delayed implementation, if not destruction, of these plans that Darling sneaked through in December.

Deep in debt

The need to do something about the Budget deficit is clear: for every [pounds sterling]4 the government will spend in the next financial year it will raise just [pounds sterling]3 in taxes. As a result, borrowing in the current financial year will surge to 65 per cent of national output, the highest figure in peacetime (with the possible exception of a short period in the 1970s).

Without sharp rises in taxation and spending cuts, borrowing could rise to 78 per cent of GDP by 2014-2015. But these numbers tell only part of the story. Britain has enormous hidden liabilities that are not included in the Budget. Among the biggest of these burdens of future generations is the nation's unfunded pensions promises to employees in the public sector. …