Monday 14 January 2013
Steve Webb brought pensions to life... pity hardly anyone was there to watch
Sketch: The topic is both radioactively important electorally and mind-numbingly complicated
It's doubtful that anyone has ever known more about his chosen policy area than the (LibDem) minister Steve Webb. If there was a Regius professorship of old age pensions, Webb would be a shoo-in. It isn't his fault that as a topic it manages to be both radioactively important electorally and mind-numbingly complicated.
To be fair, Webb did his valiant best to make it intelligible. Underlining the benefits for women of the new system, he pointed out that the present one was born in those far off times when it was thought "a man needed a pension and a woman needed a husband." And he read out a fine example of the kind of letters, at once impenetrable and menacing, that the elderly receive under the present system:
"At some time you chose to contract out of the additional state pension by paying into an occupational or personal pension. Because of this we make a 'contracted out deduction' – a COD – from the maximum amount of the additional state pension we would otherwise pay you. We make changes every year to the additional state pension and the COD but this may be at different rates. This means your additional state pension could be different from the amount we have estimated, and could actually be zero."
Henceforth, he promised there would be no need for such Whitehallese gobbledygook.
Recipients could be told that while things might be complicated "under the bonnet" they had paid NI (National Insurance) contributions for so many years and would now get the new simplified flat rate of £144 a week. (That's fine except that in the hands of public officials less benign than Webb, the "under the bonnet" principle could be open to abuse. As in – say – "you don't need to know the reason why but you have been underpaying your council tax by 250 per cent and the bailiffs are on their way.")
While supporting the flat rate principle, Greg McClymont, the shadow pensions minister, claimed that the announcement was only being made because the Prime Minister (who had earlier been interviewed on the subject) had been "desperate for something to talk about other than Europe"
If true – which it probably isn't – this would be intriguing in the light of the weekend revelations by David Cameron's super-hip former guru Steve Hilton, pictured, that Number 10 often hears about Government announcements for the first time in the media; suggesting that Cameron had read the weekend papers and thought "Blimey that's a good one; I'll have a piece of that."
Surprisingly, though, MPs' attendance for the statement was surprisingly thin. Big mistake by those absent. Pensions may be boring but they matter like hell in their constituencies.
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