The Week

The Week 15 September 2023

James Sweetland
Senior Researcher

This week in Westminster has mostly been about the 3 Cs — concrete, China, and Channel crossings. At Reform, we’re squarely focused on another one — (party) conferences — which are only two weeks away: scroll down to catch a sneak preview of our full programme of conference events! On the policy front though, we’ve seen the pensions debate unexpectedly burst into life this week…

It all started with this IFS report published last Saturday, discussing the ‘triple-lock’ on state pensions. As a reminder, the triple-lock — first introduced under the Coalition in 2011 — ensures that the annual increase in the state pension will always be at least 2.5%, or otherwise pegged to whichever is running highest out of inflation (using CPI) or average earnings growth. So, for example, in 2015, with CPI at 1.2% (imagine!) and earnings up just 0.6%, state pensions were locked to the 2.5% increase instead.

In practice, it’s proven a remarkably generous deal for pensioners. With the introduction of the new state pension in 2016 — accessible to men born after April 1951 and women after April 1953 — pensioner benefits are now much closer to the level of average pay in the wider population. According to the IFS, as of 2022, the state pension is “worth almost 25% of average full-time earnings, the highest level since 1980 and close to its record high as a fraction of earnings.”

But, of course, this comes at a significant cost to the state. The same analysis shows that the triple-lock has imposed an extra £11 billion on government spending every year. As a result, despite its appeal to an age group (one which, it should be noted, reliably turns out to vote), the triple-lock has come into question. Last year, the Government suspended it on a temporary basis, after average earnings spiked at 8.6%. CPI (running at 3.1%) was used to determine the level of uplift instead.

The bigger insight here is the IFS’ modelling of the future burden on government spending. They suggest that a reasonable estimate of extra spending on the state pension by 2050 (“taking place 80% of the time”) is between £5 billion and £45 billion. If government stuck to this, they argue, it could lead to “insurmountable pressure for a much higher state pension age”.

The long-term case against the triple-lock is pretty well established. Indeed, even in the short-run (by 2025), interesting analysis from The Times in August found that the state pension could cost government more than the day-to-day budgets of the DfE, MOD and Home Office combined.

As usual in our political system though, the short-term is what’s really driving change. With the rise in annual earnings announced this week (8.5%), there’s speculation the Treasury might seek to avoid sticking with the triple-lock again and instead offer a lower annual rise instead.

This is fiscally sensible, given spending pressures elsewhere. But it might also be the final nail in the coffin for the triple-lock — a policy designed to address short-term priorities without considering the possibility of radically different economic conditions (see 2022; 2023) making it unaffordable. With neither Labour nor the Tories apparently willing to offer a long-term commitment anymore, is this the beginning of the end for this boon for pensioners? Perhaps short-termism has accidentally aided the quest for long-term, tough decisions.

Onto our recommended read…

Pensions speculation aside, there’s been relatively little in the way of substantive policy this week. One exception though is the Government’s new ‘Suicide prevention strategy for England: 2023 to 2028’, published by the DHSC on Monday — the first national suicide strategy since 2012.

Since the last strategy, the English suicide rate per 100,000 people has risen from 9.6 (2012) to 10.5 (2021). The broader pattern though is for fluctuation within a roughly similar band, with rates varying from 9.2 at their lowest (2017) to 10.8 (2019). The new strategy sets an admirably clear (if admittedly unquantified) objective: cutting this rate over the next five years.

To achieve it, there’s a focus on tailored support, improving data and evidence, and more early intervention. This all sounds like pretty standard, sensible stuff. It’s in some of the specific ideas that there’s more evidence of innovative thinking.

A plan for the DWP to procure a call alert and transcription service “to support the quick identification of people who raise suicidal thoughts when using DWP call helplines” and a new country-wide real-time suspected suicide surveillance system run by OHID (due to arrive in November 2023) are just two examples. At the same time, guaranteed funding for the Samaritans’ prison listener scheme until March 2025 (at a cost of £625,000) is also welcome news, given that men in prison are 3.7 times more likely to take their lives than those who are out in the community.