The furore surrounding the Government’s plan to speed up the increase in State Pension Age to 66 reached a new height this week, with the Pensions Bill’s Second Reading in the House of Commons. I do not intend to argue the merits or otherwise of the policy in this article, for by now we are all well versed in the dire state of the nation’s finances, and becoming increasingly aware of the longer-term but equally inescapable logic of demographic change.
What the controversy does illustrate, however, is a worrying tendency amongst Government MPs and Ministers to accept all opposition attacks and accusations as the necessary accompaniment of tough decisions in Government. We cannot cave in to every campaign against our policies, of course, but nor should we simply brazen it out and allow repeated assertions of bad faith to become received wisdom by virtue merely of their repetition, not basis in fact.
There is, of course, a campaign against the provisions of the Pensions Bill, one driven particularly passionately by those who are worst affected. Some of these campaigners are now arguing the Government’s plans breach the Conservative manifesto and, for that matter, the Coalition Agreement. EDM 1402 highlights this – 23 Lib Dem MPs and a few Conservatives have now signed the unhelpful motion, which states:
“That this House welcomes the equalisation of the state pension age for men and women, but notes with concern the Government's proposals to accelerate the timetable for doing so; recognises that 300,000 women born between December 1953 and October 1954 will have to work an additional 18 months or more of which 33,000 will have to work an extra two years; further recognises that these women have less than the 15 years of preparation time recommended by the Turner Commission before the changes take place; and calls on the Government to take these issues into account and revise the timetable in order to maintain the commitment given in the Coalition Agreement.”
In fact none of the Government’s changes are out of line with the Conservative manifesto at the last general election, or the Coalition Agreement which followed it. The Conservative manifesto states that:
“[We will] hold a review to bring forward the date at which the state pension age starts to rise to 66, although it will not be sooner than 2016 for men and 2020 for women;
And the Coalition Agreement that:
“[We will] hold a review to set the date at which the state pension age starts to rise to 66, although it will not be sooner than 2016 for men and 2020 for women.”
Looking at the timetable suggested in the Pensions Bill, it is evident that the first date at which women will draw their pensions at age 66 is April 2020, a date entirely in accordance with the extracts above.
It is important that we do not accept without challenge the suggestion that pledges are being broken where they are not. Our opponents will gratefully present the persuasive narrative of an untrustworthy administration to an already wary general public.
We cannot deny that we have had to row back on some of our key manifesto commitments (repeal of the Human Rights Act, Inheritance tax, a plan to end couple penalty in the tax credit system) and people naturally do not like it.
The reality of government, especially coalition government, is that compromise is unavoidable. However, I repeat, we must not allow the opposition to suggest that promises are being broken in cases where they are not.
The damage done to the Liberal Democrats over broken promises on tuition fees ought to underline the importance of this lesson: the people will judge political parties not just on what they do in government, but on how honestly they make their case. Backbench MPs, both Liberal Democrats and Conservatives must take a far stronger line in defending Coalition positions, but Ministers should also take note: too many u-turns damage our own self confidence, at a time when resilience has never been more important.