Saturday, 29 April 2017

It's time for a sensible discussion about pensions - my Catholic Universe column

Dear Reader, I must confess to you that I am writing this week's column in something of a rush.

I didn’t plan to be putting pen to paper quite so hurriedly but things didn’t work out so well today. Let me explain.

I’m a creature of habit and I always like to write my column for you at the same time each week. I tend to think, although I’m sure many would disagree, that it’s when my creative juices are flowing most freely.

So I was just about to sit down and start writing today when my wife shouted out that she couldn’t find her car keys. Sadly for me there could be no dispute that I was the last one to drive her car and despite all of vain protestations that “I’m sure I gave them to you” it was pretty clear that I was indeed the last one to see them.

My wife is a delightful woman although it is fair to say it’s best not to upset her and she we already running late for an appointment so dutifully I and my three children, who understand very clearly that a happy Mrs Spence is best for all of us, threw ourselves into find the missing keys.

We searched high and low for the best part of thirty minutes. We retraced our steps, we retraced the possible steps that the dog may have taken if he had found the keys on the floor, we retraced the steps that burglars may have taken if they had broken into the house causing absolutely no damage and left taking nothing with them. But still the keys could not be found.

Mrs Spence was not happy.

And then it struck me. Last night I had been reading an article which told me that burglars always looked for car keys in ‘the usual spots’; by the front door, on the stairs or on a key rack and that it was a good security measure to put keys in places that they would never think of looking.

That’s when I remembered that it might not be a bad idea to look in the lidded saucepan sat on the cooker and at last my dear wife’s keys were found. I expect to be forgiven sometime around next Tuesday.

I tell you all of this for a reason. I normally think of myself as a relatively sound, serious man. I like to think things through and arrive at rational decisions. You might not agree with my views but I like to think that in general I can explain why I do things.

But every now and then, like the story of Mrs Spence’s errant car keys, I do something remarkably stupid; and I must confess that today’s foolish mistake – the reason I’m writing this column in such a rush – was actually the second such error in two days. Let me tell you about the first.

I should have learned long, long ago that there are certain places you look to have rational, deeply thought debates. Those places include formal meetings, council chambers, coffee shops and over a couple of pints of best bitter late into the night in idyllic country pubs.

There is one place however that you should never try and enter into any form of rational debate and that is social media. Facebook is not a place for reason but for herd mentality but stupidly yesterday I forgot that key, crucial point and tried to discuss the funding of pensions with a friend on that forum.
The key problem is that unlike in a pub when you discuss something with a friend it is entirely possible that another friend of theirs may be listening and chipping in with salient points; on social media however ‘friends of friends’ is often code for ‘licence to abuse’.

Political parties of colours love pensioners. If there is one thing that every political activist knows, is taught from the very moment that they join a party it is that pensioner vote. You absolutely know that the vast majority of retired people will turn out on polling day, a sizeable minority regularly as clockwork vote using postal ballots way before then, and that their views will go a long way to determining the final result.

You also know that more often than not younger people don’t vote, that they are not going to determine the victor, and as such if you have a difficult choice to make to put it very politically ‘give to the old, take from the young’.

It’s a mantra that has been followed throughout the years but arguably never more so than with the last coalition government, elected in 2010.

As the austerity agenda kicked in, not just because it was politically expedient but also because it’s absolutely right to protect our most vulnerable and elderly citizens, protections for pensioners became the order of the day.

Bedroom tax didn’t apply to the elderly, neither did reductions in council tax benefit. Older people  still received free public transport, free TV licences and winter fuel payments. As universal child benefit was rightly being cut for higher earners with young children retired millionaires were still getting money to help with their heating although patently many didn’t need it.

But perhaps the biggest protection for older people was the state pension triple lock. The triple lock was introduced in 2010 and was a guarantee from the Tory-lead government that pensions would rise annually by either the higher of inflation, average earnings or at least 2.5%.

Practically, because both inflation and earnings have been growing at historically low rates, retired people have been receiving a 2.5% increase in their pensions. Or to put it in other words their income has been increasing faster than most people.

Now I completely understand that for the poorest pensioners 2.5% isn’t much and making ends meet is tough, but for those better off pensioners with private incomes a question has to be raised about whether the triple lock is both affordable and equitable to others.

The triple lock is going to be a big issue in the upcoming General Election campaign. At the time of writing the Labour Party has pledged to keep it in place for the next five years whereas the Conservatives have made no such commitment although they haven’t said they would repeal it either.

It is perfectly possible to have a rational debate about the triple lock and come to a reasoned position on either side of the argument. I would advocate as budgets get tighter need become more important than entitlement, even with the elderly. On the other hand it could be argued that the concept of means testing is very expensive and universality means greater buy in to ideas from wider society. My point is there is a good debate to be had which would inform how we vote and possible even party manifestos. I’m just not sure that debate can be had on social media.

I made comments to my Facebook friend very much on the same basis as the ones set out above. But social media appears to be the place for ad hominem attacks so consequently I was told that I don’t ‘get anything’, that I’m a ‘bigot’, that I ‘regurgitate arrogant words’, the list goes on.

The reason I raise all of this is simple, Dear Reader, and I know you will understand where I’m coming from.

Politics is about ideas. We have just embarked on a seven week General Election campaign and that’s a lot of conversations, a lot of debates and I’m sure a lot of social media arguments.

Let’s try and be civil to each other. Disagree about ideas certainly but do it with a smile and a belief that the person voicing a different opinion is every bit as decent as we want to portray ourselves. That they are someone with alternative views not a monster or lesser being.

We’ve got a long way to go in this campaign, let’s pace ourselves.

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