On pensions, we should listen to Tony Blair and not his father-in-law

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They all have them. It is an occupational hazard of prime ministers and presidents to be embarrassed by their relatives. Roger Clinton was a cocaine user. James Major went back to basics in the Marks & Spencer lingerie department. Patti Davis, Ronald Reagan's daughter, denounced her parents as "dysfunctional". Mark Thatcher got lost in the desert. Billy Carter was a drunk who looked uncannily like his president brother. Peter Jay cheeked Jim Callaghan by revealing how his father-in-law saw himself as Moses leading the British people to the Promised Land.

They all have them. It is an occupational hazard of prime ministers and presidents to be embarrassed by their relatives. Roger Clinton was a cocaine user. James Major went back to basics in the Marks & Spencer lingerie department. Patti Davis, Ronald Reagan's daughter, denounced her parents as "dysfunctional". Mark Thatcher got lost in the desert. Billy Carter was a drunk who looked uncannily like his president brother. Peter Jay cheeked Jim Callaghan by revealing how his father-in-law saw himself as Moses leading the British people to the Promised Land.

And Tony Blair has his own father-in-law, Tony Booth, actor, retired hell-raiser and socialist fundamentalist. Mr Booth once drunkenly accosted Harold Wilson at a party in Downing Street and accused him of selling out. Now he is set on repeating the charge, sober, against his daughter's husband. He has lent his support to the National Pensioners' Convention campaign to persuade Mr Blair to restore the link between the state pension and average earnings which was broken by the Conservatives in 1980.

Of course, it does not matter who is leading the charge. What matters is the issue itself. It is undoubtedly important. It promises to be one of the issues dominating Labour's conference - likely to be the last before the election. The struggle will spill over into the process of drawing up the Labour manifesto and balloting the members on it.

On the issue itself, however, Mr Blair is broadly right and Mr Booth is broadly wrong. The Prime Minister's father-in-law authentically expresses the sentimentality of old Labour at its least rational. He is right about one thing: that poor pensioners have been betrayed by their country over the past 20 years. They paid their National Insurance contributions in the expectation of a modest pension that would keep pace with the nation's prosperity. By uprating the state pension only in line with prices, not earnings, the Conservative government ensured that it is fast becoming, in the telling phrase once used by the shadow Chancellor, "nugatory".

But when it comes to doing something about it, we start from where we are, not from 1980.

The fact is that pensioners are as divided as the rest of the nation. One-third of them are poor to the point almost of destitution, often too proud to claim social security benefits to which they are entitled, a stain on our national conscience. But another third are very well-off. This is no surprise: looked at the other way round, the richest people in Britain tend to be older because they have had longer to accumulate wealth.

The principle of a universal state pension has its advantages, especially in ensuring that poor pensioners take up their entitlement, and the basic pension should be raised up to a point and clawed back from the better-off by reducing their generous tax allowances. But the truth is that large increases in the state pension are an expensive and inefficient way to help poor pensioners.

Equally, there are drawbacks in a more targeted approach, because help for the poorest tends to penalise those just above the poverty line who have made some provision of their own for their retirement and find themselves no better off. In the end, a balance has to be struck.

The Government could be more generous to poorer pensioners, and could rely less on the gimmickry of Christmas "bonuses" and free television licences, but its "minimum pension guarantee" is broadly the right approach. Mr Booth should pipe down.

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