The Tories are right to highlight this issue

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There are two charges that could be levelled at the Conservatives for their decision to bring pensions into the election frontline. The first is that this issue, while worthy, should be discussed in a spirit of cross-party consensus, not the partisan jousting of an election. The second is that they are cynically pandering to a particular group of people, those near retirement, who are more likely to vote than their younger counterparts. While there may be substance to both criticisms, the Tories are actually doing us all a favour.

There are two charges that could be levelled at the Conservatives for their decision to bring pensions into the election frontline. The first is that this issue, while worthy, should be discussed in a spirit of cross-party consensus, not the partisan jousting of an election. The second is that they are cynically pandering to a particular group of people, those near retirement, who are more likely to vote than their younger counterparts. While there may be substance to both criticisms, the Tories are actually doing us all a favour.

The cross-party consensus on pensions has not existed for many a year and, despite the crisis facing the pensions system, there is little prospect of its return. Nor do the Conservatives' proposals target only the near-retired. They are in fact directed at younger and lower-paid employees outside the public sector whose pension planning is lamentably inadequate - and has only worsened in recent years.

The time was when Britain was the envy of other European countries for its forward planning on pensions. By encouraging individuals to contribute to private pensions, successive governments believed that Britain could cheat the demographic trend and avoid paying out the vast sums that other state exchequers would be liable for when their post-war generations started to retire.

As Adair Turner's commission on pension provision concluded last autumn, however, Britain now finds itself in the same boat as most other advanced economies when it comes to pensions. The stagnation in the stock market frustrated hopes that private provision would suffice. Companies have cut or ended the more generous final-salary schemes. Gordon Brown's decision to tax pension fund dividends exacerbated the problem. The commission hazarded that unpopular remedies would be unavoidable: a sharp cut in benefits, a rise in the pensionable age, compulsory saving for retirement or a general tax rise.

The Turner commission's final report, and the Government's response, have both been postponed until after the election. We wonder why. Yesterday, the secretary for work and pensions, Alan Johnson, responded to the Tory proposals by confirming that there would be no major reform of pensions even during a third Labour term. It is reasonable to ask who benefits from this delay: certainly not the next generation of British pensioners.

In choosing to talk about the pensions system, the Conservatives have identified a matter of justified public concern. In offering financial encouragement for individuals wanting to save for a pension, they have also avoided going down the route of compulsion. And in targeting their proposed tax cut - £10 for every £100 saved by a basic rate taxpayer - they avoid disproportionately favouring higher-rate tax-payers, whose pension provision is generally more secure. At a time when low interest rates have discouraged all types of saving, this represents a start.

The chief criticism of the Tories' scheme must be its modesty. We may never know whether the incentive on offer would encourage ordinary taxpayers to save 20 per cent more - the calculation presented by the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, David Willetts - but it seems improbable that a cost to the public purse of £1.7bn would contribute much to eliminating the likely shortfall. If the Tories intend, as they say, to link pensions to earnings (rather than inflation) and end means-tested pensions credit, the money will go even less far.

Modest Michael Howard's proposals may be, and hardly innocent of political calculation, but he has found a chink in Labour's armour that deserved to be exposed. The Blair government may pride itself on its stewardship of the economy, but its provision for the next generation of pensioners leaves a great deal to be desired.

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