Rishi Sunak ready to hand £4bn to pensioners despite rejecting Covid catch-up plan for schools

‘That’s how the triple lock works. That is government policy’, chancellor says – when confronted with huge bill for pension rule

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
@Rob_Merrick
Thursday 17 June 2021 08:10
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<p>The chancellor in Downing Street on Wednesday</p>

The chancellor in Downing Street on Wednesday

Rishi Sunak says he is ready to hand £4bn to pensioners next year to keep his “triple lock” pledge, despite rejecting a Covid catch-up plan for schools as too expensive.

The bounce-back from the pandemic has pushed average wage rises close to 6 per cent – which, under the controversial rule, would then become the increase in the state pension.

Asked if he was willing to pay that bill – put at around £4bn by economists – the chancellor replied: “That’s how the triple lock works. That is government policy.”

The announcement on pensions comes just two weeks after Boris Johnson’s education catch-up tsar quit in protest at the refusal to spend £14bn on helping pupils recover from lost lessons in the lockdown.

“You would give an extra £4bn to pensioners, even as you’ve denied catch-up for tutoring school kids whose education has suffered in the pandemic?” interviewer Andrew Neil asked.

“Your numbers are correct, but they are speculation at this point,” Mr Sunak replied, pointing out many forecasts during the pandemic had been wrong.

In the interview on the new GB News channel, the chancellor also:

* Failed to rule out tax rises to plug the vast Covid spending black hole – admitting he had a “job to do at the spending review in the autumn”.

* Declined to say whether householders or the Treasury would fund the £10,000-per-home bill for replacing CO2-emitting gas boilers – as required to meet climate targets.

* Defended the huge changes to be made, when the UK accounts for only 1 per cent of global carbon emissions – pointing to an economic boost from selling new technology to other countries.

* Described himself as a “fiscal Conservative” rather than a One Nation Tory or believer in “big government”.

The triple lock promise ensures pensions rise annually by whichever is the highest of average earnings growth, inflation or 2.5 per cent.

Average weekly pay, excluding bonuses, rose by 5.6 per cent year-on-year in the three months from February to April – with some forecasts predicting it could reach 8 per cent.

The increase has been distorted by earnings plunging during the first lockdown in March last year, prompting suggestions the Treasury will try to wriggle out of the triple lock, when pensions rise next April.

Asked who will pay to replace gas boilers, Mr Sunak replied: “We all pay, the government doesn’t have any separate money of its own.

“But how we make this transition will be a question of what’s the right technology to do it? What’s the right timeframe to bring it in?”

And, asked to define his personal politics, the chancellor said: “Of course I’m a fiscal conservative,” saying he was always conscious he was spending “other people’s money”.

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