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Thursday, 5 December 2013

Feeling Blown About and Battered? By the High Winds or the Autumn Statement?

Well done George Osborne, you've brought me back to my blog! And yes, it's the pension headline that everybody is talking about, so I thought I'd join in. I might just warn that there are a couple of other topics coming, so if you're not into pensions, stay with me for food banks and depression...

With auto-enrollment spreading are we looking at the death of the state pension? Retirement is a relative concept, and without employment, it becomes a bit of a nonsense. The Fabians are on this tack, so go have a look there when you've done here, but not before.

It saddens me to be able to see the beginning and end of the Welfare State in this country. My parents, born in the 1920s had the benefit of it as adults, as parents themselves and into late middle age as they fell ill and out of work. My father didn't live to draw his pension at 65, he died aged 60 on invalidity benefit as it then was. My mother benefited from a widow's pension for 18 months, which is just as well because she 'didn't pay full stamp' so wouldn't have had much of a pension of her own. My grandparents had no state pension - if they lived into old age (a few survived beyond 70, a very few) they lived off continuing earnings if that was possible, or shared income from sons and daughters sharing their home, or from charity or the parish. In my family history research I have found none of my direct relatives named as workhouse residents, but I have seen them named on the 19th century Census returns as 'pauper' and 'destitute'

I've said it before, the Welfare State has made me what I am - a hard working relatively prosperous member of society who has paid in and will (absence of further crashes willing) be paid out with a company pension at 60 and a state pension at 66. My husband has a modest private pension coming from a long career in private and public sectors at an average  income level. Our personal pensions, which we can access whilst we still earn money from our business, mean that we can manage well for the next few years, hopefully, although if the next three years are as tough as the last three, we will be managing rather than thriving. But yes, we are the lucky ones.

My son, in his first job after graduating, is also lucky to have one which is interesting, stimulating and appropriately paid - so many graduates continue to fill our shops and cafes waiting to do what they really want to do, and so many young people without a degree wonder what the future holds for them. Going through the consultation on auto enrollment with his employer, my son feels sufficiently well paid to go with the enhanced company scheme. I have been surprised at the low take up of pensions in the sectors I am involved in as a Board member - housing, social care and universities, even though we pay a so called Living Wage. It isn't surprising if you're young and low paid that you prioritise the here and now. How worrying if you're older and low paid. 

So, no state pension until 70? Why bother? Indeed, if you have a job it makes more sense to provide for yourself through a contributory scheme. But what if you haven't got a job, or you're in and out of work, or low paid all your life - this is the reality for millions of people. It feels to me like the last half of the 20th century was some kind of dream where we had a belief in the social provision of welfare support but now we've woken up to find that we're going back to a 19th century kind of world where the poor are  villified, offered little support or 'support' in the form of punishment.

Bringing me neatly to food banks. It is not the done thing to say you hate food banks - it sounds mean at the very least. But I do hate them because they symbolise a willingness to accept that we live in a country where large numbers of people are unable to feed themselves and their families properly. The large numbers might include people who (some of us think) have got their priorities wrong, but the truth is that many many people using food banks are doing their best, living without food themselves to feed their kids, working their socks off and still not able to put food on the table. What an absolutely exhausting nightmare that must be. We cannot let food banks cloud our vision and think they are a solution, they are not, they are a sop, and we have to have a system which provides a proper safety net for individuals and families, and which helps people to thrive in the long term. 

I don't sign many petitions or contribute to Kickstarter projects but this week I have supported #jackspetition and a book about Incredible Edible local food campaigns. This is better than just fretting about food banks, let's take a bit of control!

I do want to say something about the wonderful step John Woodcock MP took yesterday in talking about his depression, but I think there is so much to say that I will save it for another blog, not in four months, but maybe more like four hours, or four days time. I hope so, writing this has been good, I'm glad to be back!

And in York, where 74 mph winds this morning have taken the felt off our shed roof, the air is calmer and the sun is peeping through - let's hope that in itself is a sign of better things to come.