Thousands of Britain’s poorest people “will be dead before they can retire” if sweeping pension reforms are not matched by urgent action on health inequalities between rich and poor, experts have said.
Plans to raise the basic state pension age to 70 for people currently in their twenties were laid out in the George Osborne’s Autumn Statement this week. But with male life expectancy at birth as low as 66 in some of the most deprived parts of the country, public health experts have warned that a “one size fits all” pension age risks condemning many to a life without retirement.
Average UK life expectancy at birth was 78.2 in 2010. Nationally, the figure is increasing, but huge variations exist and progress has been slower in deprived communities where poverty leads to poor diets, smoking rates are higher and alcohol abuse more common.
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.
Martin McKee, professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and fellow of the Faculty of Public Health, said that if the Government wanted to raise the pension age, they must first tackle health inequalities.
“George Osborne is thinking about the average life expectancy. The average life expectancy is fairly meaningless if you’re living in a former coal mining village in Nottinghamshire or in inner-city Glasgow,” he told The Independent. “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.”
David Walsh, a public health expert at the Glasgow Population Health Centre said that a single pension age across all areas of the country was “at the very least problematic”.
“It’s not just in Scotland, there are post-industrial parts of England and Wales, such as Liverpool and Manchester, or the South Welsh coalfields, that have much lower life expectancies associated with deprivation associated with the effects of de-industrialisation,” he said.
The charity Age UK also raised concerns over the increasing gap between healthy life expectancy – the age to which the average person can expect to be in good health – and planned increases in the pension age. Large parts of the UK already have a healthy life expectancy that is lower than the state pension age of 65, and further increases risked entrenching inequality, the charity said.
“While on average people are living longer, we know not everyone is doing so in good health,” said Age UK’s charity director Caroline Abrahams. “For instance, in Richmond in the south-east people live in good health until around the age of 70 but in Manchester just to 55. These disparities must be taken into account when raising the state pension age. Otherwise, we will be creating a more unfair society where those at the bottom of the scale risk losing out.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions said the Government recognised that life expectancy differed across the UK, adding that “a range of factors including variations in life expectancy and healthy life expectancy” would be taken into account in future reviews of state pension age.
A Department of Health spokesperson said health inequalities were being taken very seriously: “We have introduced the first ever legal duties on the NHS to have regard to health inequalities…We are also transferring £5.46 billion to local authorities across the current and next financial years, specifically for action on public health,” the spokesperson said. “We have been clear that this money should be used to reduce inequalities in health.”