A pensions swindle to make us scream

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SURELY there are two, not one pensions scandals going on? It is dreadful to discover that gullible public sector workers have been enticed into inferior schemes by fast- talking salesmen. But I am amazed that a fast-talking politician, Kenneth Clarke, has got away with his decision to raise the pension age for women from 60 to 65 with so little public hostility. Even tough commentators such as the Observer's Katharine Whitehorn have accepted it. 'With women living longer than men it makes no sense to have us quitting work sooner,' she wrote. But why on earth does it make sense to fix the retirement age for Britons in the 21st century and beyond at 65?

'They bought it,' crowed the Economist after the Budget. Well, this bit I don't, and I'm certain I'm not alone. I suspect that opposition is muted partly because of the way the Government has presented it - in a series of careful leaks over the past two years and much drumming home of demographic facts about an ageing population. Second, the policy seems to be so long term - it starts to bite only in the year 2010 and is not fully operational until 2020. This makes it is hard for anyone under 44 to get steamed up, even though they should, for it is major piece of social engineering that will affect their plans for their entire life. The problem is that pensions have always induced yawns, until, as we now see, people discover they've been had or, as in the Robert Maxwell scandal, they were robbed. But robbing someone of five years of leisure should have us screaming, too.

Opponents of retirement at 65 such as the Equal Opportunities Commission might have fought a cannier battle during the long years of indecision that preceded the announcement. In retrospect, it would have been more sensible to have accepted that 60 is rather early to retire, when set against the policies of other developed nations, and that equality between the sexes, which is the goal, applies to pensions, too. The wisest move, recognising the fundamental financial burden, would have been to argue for a common pension age for everyone, at 62 or thereabouts, and to have won broad support for this. Since 60 per cent of men retire before 65 this would surely have been popular. The new age could have been phased in as carefully and slowly as the scheme we are now landed with.

The changes also seem to me to be simply unfair: although women live on average seven years longer, they most certainly do not have an easier time of it than men, especially those who bear and rear children while holding down one of the proliferating jobs that are geared to them. In fact, the condition of modern British women, deprived of any real help for families and child care, is far from good: and the growth of long- term male unemployment is making it worse. I often think that we have a lot in common with the archetypal descriptions of the lives of some African women, who fetch the water, cultivate the crops, cook and run the family, while the men sit around talking.

The decision also flies in the face of many other social and economic trends. Only this week there has been a massive debate about Jacques Delors's plans to re-ignite Europe's economy with a massive job creation programme. Is this so unconnected with the pensions debate? For while actuaries concentrate on the crippling costs of supporting retired people, there is the perhaps graver question of where jobs for today's children and teenagers will come from. Raising the retirement age, and not even conceding the principle of flexibility and choice for those between 60 and 65, will surely only make matters worse.

We all know that young people fresh on the labour market are finding it harder and harder to land a first, worthwhile job with prospects. Even with higher education, one in eight UK graduates are unemployed. Shouldn't older workers be standing aside?

Speaking for myself, I have absolutely no intention of working until a government- set retirement age of 65. In the aftermath of the budget announcement I took remedial action, and more than doubled my pension contributions to a scheme that allows me to choose the age at which I retire. I suppose a free-market Chancellor would approve of my action. I know, I'm lucky to have the choice. But a lot of people don't, and I am heartily sorry about it.