On Thursday George Osborne announced some of the most far-reaching changes to pensions ever.
At their heart are changes to the pension age. That will rise to 66 by 2020 , and to 67 by 2028.
But there’s more to it than that. In future, the age at which people will receive a state pension will go up – in line with rising life expectancy.
So it’s predicted that those born in the 1990s, people now in their 20s, will work until the age of 70.
This sliding scale for retirement age, tying it to average life expectancies, is a major change. It’s one which demands scrutiny.
The first thought is that, once again, this Coalition government is cynically hitting the young. They are already paying the price of Osborne and Clegg’s austerity measures – in unemployment, increased tuition fees, removal of education maintenance allowances. There’s a generation being effectively written off here, in favour of their regularly-voting elders. The young would certainly be wise to ignore Russell Brand and get out to the ballot box in 2015.
But these measures do not simply mean inter-generational injustice – though they certainly contribute to that. There is also major injustice between social groups, which results from using an average measure of life-expectancy.
As usual with the Tories – and their Tory-lite LibDems friends – the poor will pay a disproportionate price in these proposed changes.
The problem with average life-expectancy figures is that they are just that – averages. They vary enormously from area to area – and especially, in this case, by social group.
As the Independent reported
‘In Glasgow City, where male life expectancy at birth is 71.6, boys born in 2010 are expected to die on average 13.5 years earlier than those born in the London borough Kensington and Chelsea, where life expectancy is 85.1. Girls in born in the London borough in 2010 can expect 12 more years of life than those in Glasgow. Even these figures veil vast inequalities that exist within regions, with life expectancies as low as 66 years in some of Glasgow’s most deprived areas.’
But you don’t need to look as far afield as Glasgow. These inequalities are present right here on our own doorsteps in Leeds.
The figures from Leeds Primary care trust [2001-5]showed that in the city as a whole average life expectancy for men was 75.9, women 81 [in England as a whole the figures were 76.6 and 81]. But in the 20% of most deprived areas of the city, the fgures were far below that – 78 for women, and a depressing 70.6 for men.[Yorkshire and Humber Public Health Observatory report on Inequalities ]
That order of difference was shown again in the 2010 figures for Leeds. They revealed a whopping 10.1 year gap in life expectancy between City and Hunslet on the one hand and Harewood on the other. Hunslet men had a life expectancy of 71.6 years, Harewood 81.7; for women, the variation was a 9.6 year gap between City and Hunslet [76.1 years] and Adel and Wharfedale [85.7]
That’s a ten year difference.
The report also showed that 20% of Leeds’ population lived in the 10% of most deprived areas in England.
The figures for Hunslet and Harewood are, of course, themselves averages – Hunslet must have many deaths below the age of 70 to produce averages of this order. And the figures are compiled by ward/wider locality. There are pockets of lower life expectancy throughout a city like Leeds.
Nick Clegg talks piously about the justice of changing to a system where no more than a third of life will be spent in retirement.
On these figures, few people in Leeds can expect a third of life in retirement even under the present retirement age – and a substantial proportion of them can look forward to very few years after stopping work – let alone under the sort of changes his government is suggesting.
And life expectancy is only part of this retirement equation. It’s not just years of life which are important here, but HEALTHY years of life.
Here again there are huge disparities.
Martin McKee, Professor of Public Health at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine “There are many parts of the country where people have nowhere near the average life expectancy and, crucially, nowhere near the average healthy life expectancy. It’s not just the fact people will be dead before they reach pensionable age, it’s that they will be unfit to work.”
According to the charity Age UK large areas of the UK have a HEALTHY life expectancy lower than 65, let alone 70. In Manchester, e.g., people live in good health as little as 55 years on average.
And again, our fellow citizens here in Leeds are part of this depressing picture
‘The average health of people in Leeds is generally worse than the England average. However this average for the whole of Leeds masks the different experiences of people living in different parts of the city. . . . [Inequality to Inclusion]
And the differences which emerged so sharply between deprived Hunslet and affluent Harewood make clear the crucial role of poverty in affecting these figures.
‘By comparing the most deprived neighbourhoods to the least deprived, the inequality gap in Leeds can clearly be seen.’
Health inequalities result from a wide range of factors – but they cluster round poverty and deprivation, and are worst in communities suffering from the results of de-industrialisation. – [NHS Choices ‘Early Death Map’]
As a study by Leeds University on Population Structure and Life Expectancy in Leeds concluded ‘Poverty and inner city living seriously affect your health’.
So the poor live less long, and the quality of their life in their later years is likely to be substantially worse than their richer neighbours.
As the headline in the Independent put it, under Osborne and Clegg’s proposals “Britain’s poor ‘will die before they retire’ unless changes to pensions are matched by health improvements.”
Osborne, Clegg and their rich southern friends may expect to live long and prosper – they live long BECAUSE they prosper. But that is not true of a large proportion of our fellow citizens here in Leeds. And the squeeze on living standards under this government will do nothing to decrease that proportion – quite the opposite.
We ought to be getting used to the fact that this Coalition is blind to the situation of large sections of the British population. But it still comes as a shock to realize how little they have thought through changes like this – and the rank injustice of them.
Or could it be that they just don’t care?
Britain can do better than this.