This week, we have seen some major potential changes in the UK’s welfare state. One key change involves child benefit. (see Who won’t benefit from child benefit?) However, a more recent development stems from a problem that has built up over a number of years and is not just peculiar to the UK: Pensions.
As technology advances and medical procedures improve, there has been a general increase in life expectancy for both men and women across the world. People are living for longer and longer and hence pensioners can be in retirement for over 30 years. This is over double the retirement time we used to see decades ago. Therefore, pensioners are eligible to receive their state pension or their private pension for much longer and hence the cost is becoming unsustainable.
Lord Hutton has led a review into public sector pension schemes and has concluded that public sector workers should be paying higher contributions. Lord Hutton has said that employees should be working for longer and hence retiring later. This would increase their contributions throughout their lives and also reduce the time period over which they receive a pension, hence cutting costs. There was also a recommendation that ‘final-salary pension schemes should be scrapped and changed to so-called ‘career-average’ schemes. The final-salary scheme benefits high earners and not those who make gradual progression up the career ladder. This possible change should certainly reduce the pension you are eligible to receive and hence should positively affect the sustainability of pension provision in the UK.
However, public sector workers who may face higher contributions and have already, in some cases, faced pay cuts or pay freezes, are unsurprisingly upset. They argue that accepting work in the public sector means accepting a lower wage than they could achieve in the private sector. The compensation, they argue, is the reward of a higher pension, which could be about to change. However, the independent review has found that the contributions made by the public sector do not reflect the true cost of the benefit they receive in their pension. This is likely to be a contentious issue for some time to come. Below are some articles considering this, but keep a look out for further developments.
Public sector pensions report explained BBC News (7/10/10)
Public sector pensions review: Q&A Telegraph (9/10/10)
Pensions reforms to focus on high earners Independent, Simon Read (9/10/10)
Why Lord Hutton could make public pensions bills bigger … not smaller Financial News, Mark Cobley and William Hutchings (8/10/10)
Lord Hutton: I busted the myth that public sector pensions are gold-plated Telegraph, Lord Hutton (8/10/10)
Key points of UK public sector pension review Reuters (8/10/10)
Public pensions review recommends higher contributions BBC News (7/10/10)
Public sector workers paying ‘less tax’ due to generous pension rules Telegraph, Myra Butterworth (8/10/10)
Asda closes final salary pension scheme Telegraph, Jamie Dunkley (9/10/10)
Hutton report: he’s no friend of gold-plated pensioners Guardian, Patrick Collinson (9/10/10)
Asda to close final salary pension scheme BBC News (8/10/10)
Lord Hutton: what the pension revolution means for public servants Telegraph, Emma Simon (8/10/10)
Independent Public Service Pensions Commission: Interim Report Pensions Commission, Lord Hutton October 2010
- What is the purpose of a pension? Think about the idea of redistribution.
- Why should average-career pension schemes be less costly than final-salary pension schemes? Which is the most equitable arrangement?
- What are the key problems that have led to the pensions problem in the UK?
- What are the main recommendations of the independent pension review?
- How is opportunity cost relevant to problem of pensions provision?
- Is it fair that public sector workers should pay higher contributions towards their pensions?
- The BBC News article, Public sector review recommends higher contributions states that: “The recent decision to uprate pensions in line with the consumer prices index (CPI) rather than the retail prices index (RPI) has shaved 15% from the cost of the schemes.” Explain why this is the case?
In his speech to the Conservative Party conference, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced that from 2013 child benefit would not be paid to any household where one or both parents had a high enough income to pay tax at the 40% rate. This means that if either parent earns over £43,875, they will receive no child benefit for any of their children. If, however, neither parent pays tax at 40%, then they will continue to receive it for all their children. Thus if both parents each earned, say, £43,870, giving a total household income of £87,740, they would continue to receive child benefit.
Not surprisingly, people have claimed that it is very unfair to penalise households where one person earns just over the threshold and the other does not work or earns very little and not penalise households where both parents earn just below the threshold. So what are the justifications for this change? What are the implications for income distribution? And what are the effects on incentives? Are there any people who would be put off working? The following articles look at these questions.
How benefit cuts could affect you Guardian, Patrick Collinson and Mark King (5/10/10)
Q&A: Child benefit measures will be messy Financial Times, Nicholas Timmins (5/10/10)
Cameron Defends Cut in Child Benefits for Stay-at-Home Mothers Bloomberg Businessweek, Thomas Penny and Kitty Donaldson (5/10/10)
Three million families hit by child benefit axe Telegraph, Myra Butterworth (5/10/10)
George Osborne’s child benefit plans are characterised by unfairness Telegraph letters (5/10/10)
Child benefit: case study Telegraph, Harry Wallop (5/10/10)
Child benefit cuts ‘tough but necessary’ say ministers BBC News (4/10/10)
Child Benefit Changes – Should Parents Take a Pay Cut? Suite101, John Oyston (5/10/10)
No such thing as an easy reform BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (5/10/10)
Child benefit saga: Lessons to be learned BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (6/10/10)
Higher rate taxpayers to lose child benefits from 2013: extracts from speech BBC News, Nick Robinson (5/10/10)
Our tough but fair approach to welfare Conservative Party Conference Speech, George Osborne (4/10/10)
Data and information
Child Benefit: portal HMRC
Child Benefit rates HMRC
Income Tax, rates and allowances HMRC
- Assess the fairness arguments for not paying child benefit to any household where at least one person pays tax at the 40% rate.
- For a family with three children, how much extra would a parent earning £1 below the threshold have to earn to restore their disposable income to the level they started with?
- What incentive effects would result from the proposals? How might ‘rational’ parents respond if one parent now stays at home and the other works full time and earns over £43,870, but where both parents have equal earning potential?
- What income and substitution effects are there of the proposed changes?
- Discuss other ways in which child benefit could be reformed to achieve greater fairness and save the same amount of money.
- What are the arguments for and against tapering the reduction in child benefit as parents earn more?
The incoming coalition government in the UK has been spelling out its fiscal policy. It is sticking to the Conservative pledge of cutting £6bn from government spending this fiscal year (6 April 2010 to 5 April 2011). It hopes to make most of these by ‘efficiency savings’ – in other words, providing the same level of service for less money. It has, however, said that it will take advice from the Treasury and the Bank of England as to whether the cuts need to be delayed if the economy weakens substantially.
But the Bank of England is forecasting a continuation of the recovery (see its latest Inflation Report below), even assuming no further quantitative easing beyond the £200bn of assets purchased by the Bank. The Governor, Mervyn King, feels that the economy can indeed bear the proposed £6bn cut in government spending and that this will also send an important signal to the market that the government is committed to reducing the deficit.
The new government has also said that it will honour the Liberal Democrat pledge to raise the personal tax free allowance on income tax to £10,000. It has also backtracked somewhat on the Conservative pledge not to raise national insurance. Only employers will be spared the rise; employees will have to pay it.
So has there been a major change in fiscal policy? Has the focus moved from one of maintaining aggregate demand in order to avoid falling back into recession to one of making a start on tackling the deficit straight away? Or is the change in emphasis more one of presentation than substance? The following webcasts looks at the new fiscal policy emerging from number 11 and at the latest forecasts for growth and inflation.
What kind of medicine is the economy going to be fed? BBC Newsnight, Paul Mason (13/5/10)
Policy breakdown for Lib Dem-Conservative coalition BBC News, James Landale (12/5/10)
Savings cuts to ‘hit middle class families’ BBC News, Keith Doyle (15/5/10)
Inflation Report, May 2010 Bank of England (click on Watch Webcast) (12/5/10)
Documents and data
Coalition Agreement published (see here for text of agreement) Conservative Party (11/5/10)
Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition negotiations agreements Liberal Democrats (11/5/10)
Inflation Report, May 2010 (portal) Bank of England, see in particular:
Department by department, what the new Government plans to do Independent (13/5/10)
VAT rise looms as coalition deal adds estimated £10bn to debt Guardian, Katie Allen and Julia Kollewe (13/5/10)
Some initial reaction to the Tory / Lib Dem coalition agreement Institute for Fiscal Studies Press Release, Robert Chote and Mike Brewery (12/5/10)
Tax rises likely under coalition government, says Institute for Fiscal Studies Telegraph, Edmund Conway (13/5/10)
Give and take BBC News blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (12/5/10)
- What ground has been given by (a) the Conservatives; (b) the Liberal Democrats in terms of their proposed economic policies (see Looking at the manifestos for details of their proposed policies).
- What will be the implications of a £6bn cut in government spending on aggregate demand? What other determinants of aggregate demand need to be taken into account in order to assess the likely growth in GDP over the coming months?
- What are the distributional consequences of (a) a rise in the personal income tax allowance to £10,000; (b) a rise in VAT?
- Has there been a major change in fiscal policy?
Below you will find links to the manifestos of the three main UK-wide parties for the general election on May 6. It’s not our role to suggest to those of you living in the UK with the right to vote how you should vote. The one thing we would suggest is that you consider carefully what the parties are proposing.
What is clear is that the state of the economy and the policies necessary to tackle economic problems are central to all the manifestos. As a student of economics, you should be able to assess the manifestos in terms of how the parties set out the economic problems facing the UK and what they propose doing about them.
So look through the manifestos below and then answer the questions we’ve posed about the UK economy and about the economic policies being proposed. If you are uncertain about how to answer them, then ask yourself what extra information would I need to enable me to give a good answer.
The manifestos (in alphabetical order)
The Conservative Party manifesto
The Labour Party manifesto
The Liberal Democrat Party manifesto
We are reluctant to recommend newspaper articles, as all newspapers at election time tend to be highly partisan and are therefore likely to give you a very specific ‘spin’ on the parties’ proposals. Perhaps the two best independent sources are the BBC and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. See:
Election analysis 2010 Institute for Fiscal Studies
Election 2010 BBC News
Stephanomics Stephanie Flanders’ blog (this links to the archive).
- How do the analyses of the economic problems facing the UK differ between the three manifestos?
- Compare the policies of the three parties for cutting the public-sector deficit. Consider the following issues: the size and nature of any cuts in government expenditure; the size and nature of any tax increases; the timing of the meaures.
- What assumptions are being made about the determinants of aggregate demand over the coming months and the role of fiscal policy in this?
- Compare the policies of the three parties towards the distribution of income. To what extent have the parties taken into account possible incentive/disincentive effects of policies of redistribution?
- To what extent are the parties proposing using the tax system to tackle problems of externalities? Give examples and assess how effective the policies are likely to be.
- To what extent do each of the manifestos leave you with unanswered questions about the economy and how their proposed policies will tackle economic problems?
In 2008, the UK government set up a National Equality Panel to investigate inequality. “The Panel was asked to investigate the relationships between the distributions of various kinds of economic outcome on the one hand and people’s characteristics and circumstances on the other.” The panel delivered its report, An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK, in January 2010. It “addresses questions such as how far up or down do people from different backgrounds typically come in the distributions of earnings, income or wealth?”
The aspects of inequality examined include: educational outcomes, employment status, wages and other sources of income (such as benefits) both for the individual and the household, and wealth. “In our main report, we present information on the distributions of these outcomes for the population as a whole. Where possible we indicate how they have changed in the last decade or more, and how the UK compares with other industrialised countries. But our main focus is on the position of different social groups within the distributions of each outcome.”
A major influence on people’s income was the income, wealth and class of their parents since these affected education, peer groups and a whole range of other life chances. This made it virtually impossible to achieve equality of opportunity.
The report also looks at policy implications. These include not just the redistribution of incomes, but also the more fundamental issue of how to create equality of opportunity. “The challenge that our report puts down to all political parties is how do you create a level playing field when there are such large differences between the resources that different people have available to them.”
So what has happened to inequality? What explanations can be offered? And what can be done to lessen inequality? The following articles look at the findings of the report and offer their own judgements and analysis.
Rich-poor divide ‘wider than 40 years ago’ BBC News (27/1/10)
The Big Question: Why has the equality gap widened even through the years of plenty? Independent, Sarah Cassidy (28/1/10)
UK is one of world’s most ‘unequal’ societies Irish Times, Mark Hennessy (28/1/10)
Unequal Britain: richest 10% are now 100 times better off than the poorest Guardian, Amelia Gentleman and Hélène Mulholland (27/1/10)
No equality in opportunity Guardian, Phillip Blond and John Milbank (27/1/10)
Has the wealth gap really widened? Guardian, Tom Clark (27/1/10)
Inequality in a meritocracy Financial Times, Christopher Caldwell (29/1/10)
Who wants equality if it means equal poverty? (including video) Times Online, Antonia Senior (29/1/10)
A Major miracle on equality Public Finance, Richard Reeves (29/1/10)
UK one of the worlds most unequal societies; report says The Sikh Times (29/1/10)
Only policies, not posturing, will bring down inequality Independent (28/1/10)
The full 457-page report can be accessed here.
A 44-page summary of the report can be accessed here.
A 6-page executive summary can be accessed here.
Click here for the charts and tables from the report.
Another good source of information on the distribution of income is the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings published by the Office for National Statistics.
- How can we measure inequality?
- Outline the findings of the report.
- Why is inequality so high in the UK and why has it continued to deepen?
- Have tax credits helped to reduce inequality?
- To what extent are greater equality and faster economic growth compatible economic objectives? How are incentives relevant to your answer?
- What specific policies could be adopted to give greater equality of opportunity? Identify the opportunity costs of such policies.