Why we should not be shut up about pensioner poverty – it exists and it shouldn’t.

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If you’d been at the ICAS “how to avert the pension crisis” debate on Tuesday, you’ll remember that part of the conversation when we discussed the Institute of Fiscal studies’ contention that we were having difficulty spending our retirement savings. I mentioned in my blog earlier in the week – that this did not seem a crisis to me. 

Since then Miriam Somerset-Webb has picked up on the IFS’ research in a blog at the FT. It’s a very good blog but you need to get past the paywall to read it. Miriam picks up on Clare Reilly (Pension Bee’s) comments, that it would be a lot easier to spend your pot, if you had proper technology that responded to your wish to have your money back when and where you wanted it. Clare’s is a good point but it is based on there being wealth to drawdown.

For a very substantial number of people in Britain today, there is no such wealth.

Damian Stancombe, pension guru at Punter Southall, called me on this and reminded me of work carried out by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (published Nov 2017).

For the avoidance of doubt, the report offers data that shows how  the public policy decisions of recent years mean more money in the pockets of some families, while others are hit hard

It also published this excellent set of slides,

Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s work showed that for a significant proportion of the population, retirement was a time when every penny counted. For those dependent on benefits in retirement, the world has got a bleaker place in the last ten years. For it is our poorest who have suffered the most from the austerity imposed since the financial crash.

I mentioned in Edinburgh (ICAS) that if we had a crisis, it was a crisis not about pensions but about the lack of them; more particularly, we now have a crisis in benefits.

Unfortunately this was deemed “off topic” and we spent much of the debate talking about how to engage the “haves”, rather than what to do with the “have nots”.

To redress matters, I’m thinking about the “have nots” and hope that someone in the DWP will pick up on the matters raised by that presentation

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation made three recommendations in its report


  • As the cost of achieving a minimum standard of living increases with inflation, the Government must ensure that Universal Credit and other support for families is uprated at least in line with prices, ending the benefits freeze.
  • The Government must allow families receiving in-work benefits to keep more of what they earn, so that increases in the National Living Wage are not clawed back through reductions in Universal Credit and other support.
  • As pensioner costs also increase, pensioner benefits should continue to be uprated at least in line with prices, and should continue to keep pace with increases in earnings over the long term.


While I am not proud that our poorest citizens continue to fall behind due to the freezing of benefits, I am proud that we are upgrading the state pension  by the triple lock.

But it’s worth pointing out that it costs a lot less to triple lock Universal Credit, paid to the few, rather than the single state pension -paid to everyone.


The National Audit Office reports DWP in denial.

As Damian did, so the NAO have pricked my conscience on this matter this morning.

Though I didn’t then have a link to the NAO’s report, the edited highlights given us by the BBC’s Hannah Richardson, told me what I needed to know. That Universal Credit, through its flawed roll-out and fundamental inconsistencies, is leaving large numbers of people in genuine crisis.

I now have the link to the NAO press release, which links to the full report – you can find both here.

There are numerous case studies in the report . They cannot be swept under the carpet as “off -topic”. This is from the BBC article..

And yet the Department for Work and Pensions does not accept that UC has caused hardship among claimants, the (NAO) report says.

The report points to a recent internal departmental report showing 40% of claimants are experiencing financial difficulties.

I hope that somebody in the DWP is reading that. The criticism that the fate of our poorest is being swept under the carpet is coming not just from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation but from the National Audit Office.

Whatever happened to social justice?

I’m supposed to be a Tory, I carry their card. I was speaking at a conference of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland about a pension crisis. I wear a suit, I have a degree from the right kind of University, I am white, male and by any standards, part of the establishment.

And yet, when I introduced the concept of pensioner poverty into a debate about pensions in crisis as one of the panellists, I was told to shut up.

What chance for anyone who has not got all my privileges –  to get heard? Small wonder that the Grenfell march is a silent protest.

We should not be living in a society which shuts the door on such debate. We should allow a debate on pensions crisis to include the impact of public policy on all citizens, not just the affluent.

It is time that more people like JRF, the NAO, Unite and Damian Stancombe, got listened to.





About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen,, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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7 Responses to Why we should not be shut up about pensioner poverty – it exists and it shouldn’t.

  1. Gregg McClymont says:

    Important piece.

    Sent with BlackBerry Work (www.blackberry.com)

    From: The Vision of the Pension Playpen <comment-reply@wordpress.com> Date: Friday, 15 Jun 2018, 6:43 am To: Gregg McClymont <Gregg.McClymont@aberdeen-asset.com> Subject: [EXT] [New post] Why we should not be shut up about pensioner poverty – it exists and it shouldn’t.

    henry tapper posted: ” If you’d been at the ICAS “how to avert the pension crisis” debate on Tuesday, you’ll remember that part of the conversation when we discussed the Institute of Fiscal studies’ contention that we were having difficulty spending our retirement savings. I “

  2. Couldn’t agree more Henry. This has been my experience for nearly 20 years since I first started to research pensioner poverty. These things are inextricably linked and should all be part of the exact same conversations and indeed the major reforms achieved in the last 10 years only ever happened because people like Steve Webb linked these debates and gained a better understanding of what drives pensioner poverty. Two further points to add: (1) wealth transmission is a much greater driver of inequality than income and this is relevant when thinking about these inequalities we are creating and inheritance etc and (2) when we see what is happening across the country with the benefit system across multiple domains and the resultant increases in poverty and chaotic lives for children, gerontologists will tell you that we are scarring their adulthood and later lives as well. We are actually witnessing something terrible that we should be trying to eradicate not exacerbate as is happening. The Social Policy Association has been running some excellent blogs on what is happening in the benefits space; with a lifecourse perspective we need also to think about what happens next and in the future to people suffering under the current system.

  3. Ant Donaldsoon says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Henry. So much of the pensions industry is focussed on wealth yet, especially with auto-enrolment, most of its customers will never experience wealth. Pensioner poverty affects all of us because it impacts demand and funding for health and social care, leaving aside the ethical aspects.

  4. Bryn Davies says:

    I agree strongly. The Pareto law of pensions commentary is that 90% of what’s said or written relates to 10% of the population.

  5. I’ve been thinking about this a little more, thanks Henry and others. I think the trick is that we need to see pensions as a *system* rather than component parts, and the system comprisies both state and private (employer and insurance) pensions, also complicated by when the state acts as employer, which it does of course for millions of people. We need to lay over that that this is a system that operates across the lifecourse, so that income from all sources (earnings, benefits, other sources) become relevant at all stages of life. The more important the private/employer elements of the system are, the more important it is to understand the dynamics of paid work across the lifecourse in addition. We know from much research that for all of these issue childhood and maternal poverty have lasting and scarring effects. Anyway, its something like that. Probably needs more thought.

  6. Ian Neale says:

    I agree strongly with Henry on this, and with other commentators. My comment is that we need to change the silo mentality in policy-making, so that holistic thinking prevails and we adopt an integrated approach to funding for later life, for example. Retirement income and social care funding should be considered together.

  7. Phil Castle says:

    I agree Henry. We’re seeing young people stuck in renetd accomodation because they couldn’t get ANY credit and then had minor defaults. Southern Water don’t even link accounst when someone moves and I’ve seen minor water debts (nder £100) they didn’t even know hadn’t been carried over to their new rental proeprty then make it impossible for them to get a non adverse mortgage, they then have to chosoe between remaining in the rental sector, going for an advserse mortagge and just hope they don’t end up having to fall back on universal credit if something goes wrong outwith their control (Rolls Royce anyone?) which then means they get in to arrears and remain stuck on adverse mortgage rates forever (assuming they can). They then have to decide whether to contribute via autoenrollment (as is sensible for their long term) or focus on putting aa roof over their heads where they have some control (owned) rather than rented.
    There is some pensioenr poverty now, but it’s going to be a lot worse in 40 years time when some of teh young people now neitehr have a roof they own over their head, NOR a decent level of pension income.

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