Letters: 'Middle Class Benefits'

Old, poor but middle class
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The Independent Online

All the speculation about Nick Clegg's views on "middle-class" benefits overlooks a reality: older people are, in the main, pretty poor ("Middle-class benefits cannot be sacrosanct, Cameron is warned", 24 August).

More than 70 per cent of households with someone aged over 75 are in the lower half of the income distribution. Nearly two-thirds of householders aged 65 to 74 are also below that halfway mark.

To design a system that properly protects everyone with modest incomes, while filtering out the rich, implies more means-testing, which would be expensive, divisive and no doubt imperfect in its targeting. With the numbers of rich relatively small we could end up with little by way of real savings in public expenditure.

Of course, envious eyes are cast on dukes warming their palaces with the winter fuel payment, and free bus passes being handed out to company directors earning handsome bonuses. But these groups receive the state pension and NHS services too, which attracts little public disquiet.

The reality is that most "middle-class" pensioner benefits go to people pretty far down the scale on our national income distribution. We are in danger of seeking savings which could be marginal, while prejudicing the help that people with modest incomes deserve in a civilised society.

Michelle Mitchell

Charity Director, Age UK,

London SW16

The Deputy Prime Minister is the latest politician to jump on the bandwagon of "Get people off benefits and into work". Thousands ought to respond with, "Clegg, where are the jobs?".

Many people with disabilities are more than ready, willing, and able to work. A man of 50 in my family is typical; he has been trying to get a job for years, but we have lost count of the number of unproductive interviews, unacknowledged applications, and fruitless visits to the Job Centre, in spite of intervention by his MP.

Now he is told that he can't even get further training: he is over-qualified. Is the Government going to match its rhetoric with a requirement to employers to give fair opportunity to people with disabilities? If not, it is merely adding to the demeaning and depressing culture of blaming people on disability for being on disability.

John D Davies

Gobowen, Shropshire

The Institute for Fiscal Studies research categorically confirms all our fears about the direction of welfare reform the Government is pursuing ("Child poverty will rise as cuts hit families", 25 August).

The impact on Disability Living Allowance, for example, indicates that up to 20 per cent of disabled people may lose this vital support. DLA is not and has never been an out-of-work benefit but is provided to meet the additional costs of living with an impairment. For many disabled people and their families, it is their lifeline, enabling them to go out and live their daily lives.

Without this fundamental support we are likely to see more disabled people becoming isolated from our communities and pushed deeper into financial poverty, struggling to make ends meet. This could ultimately lead to even greater dependency on the state and an even greater demand on the public purse.

We urge the Government to take the steps they need to fully understand the consequences of their actions and to ensure its plans will not further disadvantage disabled people and their families.

Richard Hawkes

Chief Executive, Scope,

London N7

The analysis suggesting that the measures in the June Budget will hit poorest families the hardest (report, 25 August) will be of great concern to many disabled people. Disabled people are already twice as likely as non-disabled people to live in poverty, they are far less likely than non-disabled people to be in work, or to have any savings.

The extent of disability poverty in the UK should be considered a national scandal and policy decisions must not be made that will make the situation even worse. The Government should keep all its policies under review in this context; if financial measures are to be fair and progressive, then tackling disability poverty must be at their heart.

Guy Parckar

Acting Director of Policy and Campaigns,

Leonard Cheshire Disability,

London SW8

The facts about those pensions

Terry Hancock's letter (24 August) exemplifies the ignorance and prejudice that prevents rational consideration of the conflict between public and private pensions. He doesn't know what he paid, but it was almost certainly more than the 60th (1.66 per cent) that he quotes (he probably paid 5 to 6 per cent) and he doesn't realise how little he would receive as a pension if he had paid similar sums into a private pension scheme.

The cost of a final-salary scheme is too great for most companies to contemplate. As long ago as 1987, I was advising company clients to abandon their final-salary schemes.

When advising individuals about private pensions, I ensured that they understood they were entering a lottery, and if they contributed about 20 per cent of their income and they won the lottery then they might just get a pension that was near to that enjoyed by public workers. Naturally, what every person wants is a predictable pension and final-salary schemes give this.

The state could provide predictable pensions for private individuals if it chose to do so. It would need to provide a gilt-edged fund yielding inflation plus say 2 per cent so that investors would be able to calculate in real terms the value of their funds at their chosen retirement date. The state would also need to provide predetermined annuity vesting rates to enable investors to calculate the level of pension they could enjoy.

Such a scheme would start to demonstrate the true cost of public pensions and thereby give additional facts to be considered when considering the vexed question of the right level of pay for public employees.

Clive Georgeson

Dronfield, Derbyshire

Terry Hancock has fired an additional volley in the seemingly interminable battle between recipients of private or public sector pensions and "funded" versus "unfunded" schemes.

All UK pensions are "unfunded" because they rely on the future productivity of the workers and assets of this country, whether through dividends on shares or interest on cash or bonds or on tax receipts. There are differing levels of guarantee for these future benefits that are part of the risk-reward balance of your employment, but they all represent a rolling system of deferred gratification and they all require an act of faith that they will deliver anything of value in the future.

No scheme, company or country is immune from the risk of erosion of value or even complete collapse. Because of tax breaks, private "funded" schemes perform well only when compared to banknotes stuffed under the mattress, so we are all reliant on the Exchequer to some extent. No one has the moral higher ground in this debate.

Peter English

Ruthin, Denbighshire

Terry Hancock draws comparisons with his friends in the private sector. Being in the same scheme for 40 years with the same employer is job security unheard of in the private sector.

He should recognise that if he has been paying 1/60 (1.7 per cent) of his salary for 40 years, he is very fortunate. Virtually all private sector employees would be paying at a minimum three times this amount for what is probably an equivalent pension.

Also, paying the equivalent amount into a private pension fund would never yield the same benefit without a massive employer contribution. It is the employer (that's me, the taxpayer) contribution that makes the final cost so prohibitive in the state sector as it has done so in the private sector.

Malcolm Greenslade

Langton Green, Kent

US must protect Iran opposition

As Robert Fisk rightly says (Comment, 20 August), the Americans have handed Iran a victory they could not achieve in battle through their influence over the Iraqi government. And it has also helped them attack their main opposition, the People's Mujahedin of Iran, 3,400 of whom are in Camp Ashraf, 60km from Baghdad.

At the behest of Iran, the Iraqi government is guarding the camp, allowing in only limited essential supplies, effectively turning it into a prison to try to force its closure, the residents being threatened with expulsion to Iran.

The withdrawal of the nearby US forces and UN observers makes Camp Ashraf even more vulnerable. The UN granted PMOI refugee status, but this status is largely ignored.

Given that the PMOI would cancel any Iranian nuclear weapons programme, have declared they would not use weapons of mass destruction, and recognise Israel, presumably meaning that they would stop Iran's funding of Hizbollah and Hamas, they would appear to be just the sort of group that the America should be backing. Perhaps they could spare some of their 50,000 remaining non-combat troops to help?

Philip Brown

East Barnet, Hertfordshire

Talking bull

Alex James's advice on what to do if confronted by a bull (Notebook, 26 August) could have serious consequences. It's fine to wave your arms and square up to bullocks because they will turn tail. Waving your arms at a bull will make him angry. If in a field with one, act nonchalantly, don't draw attention and get out quickly. If he chases, pray you can sprint quicker than he can.

Dewi Jones

Pontypool, Gwent

Pole positions

You report (27 August) that 25 per cent of lap dancers are university-educated. Perhaps this reflects the open-minded attitude of intelligent young women, who reject traditional feminist restrictions on career choices. Or it may just be that universities have been offering places to more and more lap dancers.

Phil Woodford

Teddington, Middlesex

Perspectives on vocational education

University is not the answer for all

Amol Rajan's view that the poor are being pushed into vocational education while the rich benefit from university is outdated and unsubstantiated (Viewspaper, 26 August). Everyone is different, and these differences filter through into learning styles. For those who struggle with academic methods of learning, vocational education can open up a variety of learning and career opportunities.

The Skills Economy Report – our recent survey of 1,200 employers over 26 industries – shows that six out of 10 employers felt the biggest benefit of vocationally trained staff is that they have the skills and expertise to work for the business from day one.

In addition, 45 per cent of bosses without vocationally qualified staff acknowledge that they are as well-qualified for positions as graduates without vocational training. To say that vocational education offers an easy option and does little to prepare learners for life is far from the truth.

Vocational qualifications span learning levels, from entry levels courses through to advanced levels that require many years and vigorous assessments to complete. Life skills such as literacy and numeracy are taught in all of our courses.

Chris Jones

CEO and Director General,

City & Guilds, London EC1

Rich legacy of practical skills

GK Chesterton said that "Education is simply the soul of society as it passes from one generation to the next". It is axiomatic that the legacy of practical skills – in disciplines from technology to textiles – is just as rich as other kinds of inherited knowledge.

How dull Amol Rajan's vision of accomplishment is as he disregards the beauty of craft, the excitement of the creative industries, and the challenge of engineering. Only a media weakened by haute bourgeois preoccupation with the academic would give credence to such nonsense.

Now the Government has redirected funds to create 50,000 extra apprenticeships, and we emphasise a range of routes to work, from degrees to BTECs to HNDs.

John Hayes

Minister for Further Education and Skills,

Department for Education,

London SW1