Report from the TUC meeting on the state pension

In recent years the Conservatives seemed to consider the state pension is a plaything whose protections can be altered at their whim.  In truth, it is a right enshrined in law, payment of which is triggered in most cases by an individual’s National Insurance contributions over many years.

On Thursday 23 July 2020, Joe Hannigan (management committee member) and myself took part in an online Zoom meeting organised by the TUC to discuss the triple lock pension protection.  Leading the discussion was Prem Sikka, Professor of Accounting and Finance at the University of Sheffield and Emeritus Professor of Accounting at the University of Essex, together with Dot Gibson, Deputy General Secretary of the National Pensioners Convention.

Prior to the meeting we were invited to send in questions to the Panel.  We sent two of the six submitted, all of which concerned similar issues.

  • Government sources are signalling that as a result of the financial support given to furloughed workers, the triple lock protection will deliver disproportionate increases on the state pension next year. If this is true, do you think pensioners as a group should agree to depart temporarily from triple lock and accept a lower offer (accepting that our state pension is proportionately already one of the lowest in Europe)?
  • Conservatives have for a number of years been hostile to the triple lock on state pensions. One of my committee says the reason for this hostility is that it preserves equity, i.e. it protects benefits against erosion.  Do you agree?

Professor Sikka said that the triple lock protection would be under continuous attack in the future, indeed pressure groups were already calling for its reform.  He advocated every such attack in the media or wherever should be met with a strong protective response.

Further, he said proportionately the state pension is the lowest among the richest nations and currently is on a par with Mexico.  The state pension is either £7,000 or £9,000 per annum and is subject to taxation.  The national minimum wage is £17,000 per annum.  The professor said that if the national minimum wage to live on was £17,000 we should campaign to get the state pension to the same amount, ignore calls for variation on the triple lock, just push for parity with the national living wage.   He said in the future, to meet government’s responsibilities and to pay a decent state pension, further taxation would be required and the burden of this should fall mainly on the wealthy.  He suggested a number of measures.

  • Use the billions of pounds surplus in the National Insurance Fund
  • Remove the National Insurance contribution upper limit
  • Deal with tax evasion, the official estimate of which is 30 billion pounds per annum, although others believe the true figure is near 100 billion
  • A ruthless clamp on tax avoidance
  • Reverse changes to Corporation Tax and insist large corporations and international businesses are challenged on their shenanigans to avoid tax payment
  • A Finance Transaction tax

Dot Gibson has been the spearhead of the powerful leadership the National Pensioners Convention (to which we are affiliated) has given on pensioners’ issues in these difficult times.  She stated that we should counter the view that pensioners had escaped the effects of austerity, which is not true.  Only 47% of young members of society support decent and generous provision for the elderly, which is a low figure.  To counter this, we should unite with the young and explain that our today is their tomorrow.

Dot said trade unions had put the state pension to one side.  Auto enrolment to pensions for many people on low wages means that the state pension will become an increasingly important part of people’s income in the future.

Unions should realise that our pensioner issues are very important to their current working members.

Pensioners are not respected in our society and are not a source of media interest.  Many social changes were achieved by our ancestors.  We are trying to protect these jewels of progress for future generations.  A message to unions – your support of pensioners is basically tokenistic.  We do not have clout.  You do.

Your committee does not in any way distance itself from Dot Gibson’s views.  We will try to convince fellow Unison members in our branch, regionally and nationally, that pensioner issues are as relevant to current working members as they are to retired members.  Your committee has worked hard to defend pensioners’ rights through the media, joining with other organisations and writing to our democratic representatives and taken the arguments to the streets.  Our conclusion is that unless we as a union speak with one voice on these issues, the future could be bleak.

Chris O’Neill

Chair, Hampshire Unison Retired Members Section