The pensions crisis is one area of social policy that has been the focus of attention for some years. With an ageing population, more people entering higher education and a rather substantial deficit facing the government, pension reform has been high on the agenda and not just in the UK.
A number of factors have contributed towards the so-called pensions crisis: rising life expectancy; the ‘baby-boomers’ retiring; more people staying in education for longer; an ageing population. All of these have led to a dependency ratio that is becoming worse – fewer workers to support every pensioner. Over the past few years, strikes have taken place in protest to government pension plans, especially for public sector workers, who see the proposals as making them worse off once they retire. Doctors are the latest group to strike in protest over having to work longer before retiring and having to pay higher national insurance contributions.
So, are the doctors justified in their protests? They are currently on a final-salary pension scheme, which is a very generous scheme, although it is being phased out and replaced with a career average scheme, which will have big implications for doctors’ pensions. Furthermore, there was an overhaul of their pensions in 2008, thus the criticism that further changes are now being made to make them even worse off. Doctors do pay higher national insurance contributions than other occupations, such as teachers and they will naturally receive a higher pension than other NHS workers, such as nurses simply because they earn more. However, this does have big implications for their future.
Inequality is a big issue across the UK and this doesn’t only refer to income. Those earning higher salaries are more likely to live longer than the average worker. So, we see life expectancy inequality as well. The consequence of this is that once an individual retires at say 60, if your life expectancy is 85, then you have 25 years to live in retirement receiving whatever pension you have accumulated throughout your working life. If, however, your life expectancy is only 75, perhaps because of your background, your occupation, your health, then you will only spend 15 years in retirement. The person that lives longer therefore receives significantly more in pension payments and if this differing life expectancy is related to your occupation and thus your salary, then inequality of income clearly has some very wide implications for pension schemes and rates of contribution.
There are, of course, wider effects of any industrial action by doctors. Whilst some may agree with their view that this further pension reform is unfair, if any strike action does take place there will be wider economic effects. Those in need of treatment may have to delay it and if that means more people taking sick days, then the economic cost to the economy could be significant. The following articles consider the latest controversy in public-sector pensions.
Independent Public Service Pensions Commission Final Report HM Treasury, Pensions Commission March 2011
Doctors’ strike: how the cost of NHS pensions soared Telegraph, Matthew Holehouset (21/6/12)
Are doctors’ pensions too generous Guardian, Hillary Osborne and Jill Insley (21/6/12)
Lansley: ‘Doctors’ pension scheme is generous’ BBC News (21/6/12)
Doctors get a nasty taste of Gordon Brown’s pension medicine Telegraph, Philip Johnston (18/6/12)
Doctors wrong on pensions, says Hutton Financial Times, Sarah Neville and Norma Cohen (19/6/12)
BMA ‘Inherent unfairness’ in doctor pensions BBC Radio 4 Today (21/6/12)
Reluctant move against intransigent government Scotsman, Dr Brian Keighley (21/6/12)
Will you be affected by the doctors’ strikes? BBC News (15/6/12)
- Explain the main factors that are contributing towards the so-called pensions crisis. In each case, is it a demand-side or supply-side issue?
- What are the main proposals to tackling the pensions crisis (not just for Doctors)?
- What is the difference between a career average and a final salary pension scheme? Which is better for (a) those on a higher salary at the end of their career and (b) those who are on a relatively lower salary at the end of their career? Make sure you explain your thinking!!
- What are the arguments both for and against this new round of pension reforms for doctors? Do you think the doctors are justified in taking strike action?
- What are the wider implications of industrial action? Think about the effect on individuals and on the economic performance of the wider economy.
- To what extent is it equitable that public sector workers should pay more in contributions and retire at the same age as the state pension age?
- How might higher contributions affect the incentive to work? What could we see happen to labour supply? Think about both income and substitution effects.
Calls for a simplified tax and benefit system have been ongoing and many see the Coalition’s plans for a Universal Credit as a step in the right direction. However, a second suggestion set out in a report by lobbying groups is to introduce a single rate of income tax at 30%. The argument is that it will simplify the system, help lower income earners and boost growth.
As well as the introduction of a single rate of income tax, The 2020 Tax Commission’s Report also suggests an increase in the personal allowance to £10,000; scrapping National Insurance Contributions, stamp duty, inheritance tax and air passenger duty, as well as cutting fuel duty by 5p. For the typical tax payer, it may sound great – the difference between your gross and your net pay would narrow, but the wider consequences must be considered. Although a single rate of income tax would undoubtedly simplify the system, the impact on government finances must be considered. The commission predicts that overall borrowing would fall by £35bn after 15 years, but that the national deficit would increase by £49.1bn in the first year. Perhaps not an ideal solution given the current state of the national deficit!
The report does contain some radical change, but the idea of simplification is well-recognised as a necessary principle of any tax system. As the Chairman of the Commission, Allister Heath said:
It is time for Britain to make a vital choice between tweaking the status quo and letting our economy continue to be crippled by complex and punitive taxes, and drastically changing course with a radical but realistic plan for a tax system fit for the 21st century.
The 2020 Tax Commission has set out that plan and would ensure that income is taxed once at a single, much more reasonable rate. It could create the conditions to establish the UK as a global trading hub, generating renewed prosperity for all those who live and work here.
The current system is complex and many people end up paying an extremely high rate of tax, once everything has been paid. The Guardian article below gives a nice illustration. “If you earn income from shares, first corporation tax is taken out of the profits. Then you pay taxes on the dividends. Then because those profits drive up the share price you pay capital gains tax as well.” With a simpler and fairer tax system, the Commission argues that it will boost the competitiveness of the UK economy and help boost its struggling growth rate. How many, if any, of these proposals will be incorporated into the government’s plans is anybody’s guess, but it definitely presents an interesting solution and problem.
The Single Income Tax The 2020 Tax Commission (May 2012)
Why it’s time for a single income tax Guardian, Matthew Elliott (21/5/12)
Business backs income tax rate of 30% Financial Times, Martin Sandbu (21/5/12)
Calls for single 30% income tax rate BBC News (21/5/12)
Single 30% tax rate ‘essential’ for growth Sky News (21/5/12)
Osborne urged to introduce 30pc income tax for all The Telegraph, Tim Ross (20/5/12)
Tax shake-up urged to empower consumers and kickstart growth Independent, Russell Lynch (21/5/12)
The Tax Reform Britain needs Wall Street Journal, Matthew Sinclair (20/5/12)
- What are the key principles of a tax system?
- Explain why simplicity is so important when reforming a tax system. How can it affect the incentive to work?
- Would a 30% single rate of income tax be equitable?
- If the reforms set out in the report were to go ahead, what do you think would be the impact on goods and services provided by the government, such as the NHS, education, roads?
- Using indifference analysis, illustrate the effect of a cut in the basic rate of income tax. How does it affect the decision to work more or less? You should consider the income and substitution effects in your answer.
- Why does the report argue that the reforms they suggest would help boost growth?
- How might the proposals affect government finances in both the short and long term?
One of the key issues tackled during Labour’s term was poverty. In 1997, the UK had one of the worst child poverty rates in Europe (20% of the population) and so Labour made a concerted effort to move more people out of poverty than ever before. Low income was defined as income below 60 per cent of median income. As Chapter 1 from the first “Data and reports” link below states:
Over the period 1994/95 to 2008/09, the percentage of the population below 60 per cent and 70 per cent thresholds of contemporary median income showed slight falls on both Before Housing Costs and After Housing Costs bases. …The proportion and number of the population below low-income thresholds … fell substantially over the same period – with proportions falling by around one half.
Over the period 1994/95 to 2008/09, there was a marked fall in the proportion of children below low income thresholds held constant in real terms. 2008/09 has shown a fall compared to 2007/08.
Despite these improvements, there is a high concentration of people just above the 60% of median income level. And, although poverty rates have fallen since 1997, income inequality remains stubbornly high, with a post-tax-and-benefit Gini co-efficient hovering around 0.38 since 1992, compared with around 0.30 in the late 1970s/early 1980s.
As recession set in, there were concerns about the effect it would have on poverty figures. However, according to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), throughout 2008 and 2009 both children and pensioners saw their position improve, as hundreds of thousands were lifted out of poverty. According to the DWP’s annual Households Below Average Income report, mean take-home incomes grew for the seventh consecutive year – by 1% in 2008/9.
Whilst the most vulnerable seem to have survived the first test, the next will come with the substantial budget cuts the UK will see, as the government attempts to reduce the budget deficit. Poverty campaigners have warned that attempts to reduce the deficit must not be detrimental to poverty figures, by taking benefits away from those who need them. As Michelle Mitchell, the charity director at Age UK said: “Clearly there are huge challenges ahead for the new government, but now is the time to renew the fight against pensioner poverty and commit to eradicating it once and for all.”
Campaigners warn Coalition not to jeopardise falling poverty rates Guardian, Katie Allen (20/5/10)
Child poverty ‘historically high’ The Press Association (20/5/10)
Labour kept poverty in check, says IFS Financial Times, Nicholas Timmins (22/5/10)
Child poverty in Scotland increases by 10,000 in year Scotsman, Gareth Rose (21/5/10)
What the poverty figures show Guardian (20/5/10)
The untold story of poverty in working households Guardian, Peter Kenway (21/5/10)
UK pledges to reduce poverty Financial Times, Daniel Pimlott (21/5/10)
Don’t scrap child benefits, charities warn Guardian (20/5/10)
Data and reports
Households Below Average Income (HBAI) 1994/95-2008/09 Department for Work and Pensions (19/5/10)
Households Below Average Income (pdf file) National Statistics, First Release (20/5/10)
Effects of taxes and benefits on household income Office for National Statistics (see also, especially Tables 26 and 27)
Poverty and inequality in the UK: 2010 Institute for Fiscal Studies
A range of poverty data The Poverty Site
See also The poverty of poverty reduction policies
- What are the main causes of a) poverty and b) inequality?
- What is the difference between poverty and inequality? Can you think of any policies that might improve one of these objectives, but worsen the other?
- Explain how and why the recessions of the early 1980s, the early 1990s and between 2008 and 2009 could have led to poverty being reduced.
- The Financial Times article talks about different levels of poverty across the country. What can explain these regional disparities?
- The Coalition government has pledged to lift the income tax threshold to £10,000. What effect could this have on unemployment and poverty? How might this effect the poverty trap?
- The Guardian article ‘What the poverty figures show’ says that high levels of child poverty will cost the country at least £25bn a year. Why is this?
The article linked to below from Evan Davis’s blog starts with the following multiple choice question:
“What effect do you think it has, if a British bus company employs a bus driver from overseas?
a) it takes away the job of a British bus driver?
b) it increases the number of bus drivers we have?
c) it undercuts the wages of British bus drivers?
d) it reduces bus fares for British passengers?”
What is your answer?
On the buses BBC News Online (5/11/07)
||Explain what is meant by the phrase “lump of labour fallacy”.
||Assess the extent to which the most appropriate answer to the multiple choice question is “(e) all of the above”.
||Discuss the extent to which the answer to the above multiple choice question may differ in a perfectly competitive and imperfect labour market.