Alan Johnson – 2005 Speech at Age Concern Conference


Below is the text of the speech made by Alan Johnson, the then Work and Pensions Secretary, to the Age Concern Conference on 1st March 2005.

I’m very pleased to have this opportunity to talk to you this afternoon – at a conference that really captures the full dimensions of the challenge of our ageing society.

We are all seeking to find a way through the welcome problems posed by this challenge. There’s no pre-existing road map for a world where pensioners outnumber children and where the dependency ratio will be 2 to 1.

It’s a world that can often seem strange to people today – because it challenges their assumptions and expectations.

Preparing to meet the new demands of healthier and longer lives is a challenge that has perhaps never been higher in the public consciousness.

Tomorrow’s pensioners will be very different from today’s. They will have lived through technological revolutions rather than World Wars. They will have had to cope with the Smart Card rather than the ration book. They’ll be independent, healthier and have very different political demands.

That we need to act today to build solutions for tomorrow has never been clearer. But the debate about demographic change too often focuses on purely financial issues. How to fund pensions for the longer term – how to enable people to save more for their retirement.

These are crucial questions and it’s absolutely right that pension reform should be key to this debate. But ultimately – as this conference and Age Concern’s report published today make clear – the Age Agenda must be wider than these financial issues. It’s about creating a comprehensive, strategic framework that captures employment and discrimination; healthcare and access to services.

It requires Government to think much more widely adopting a joined-up approach to help older people meet their needs: From Sports Centres – to care homes: From transport –- to the workplace.

And it requires all of us to work together to break down out-dated stereotypes and to explode the myth that ageing is a barrier to a positive contribution to the economy and society – by promoting and supporting work and active engagement in the community.

Much of the Government’s effort in the past seven years has been about protecting the most vulnerable.

Through Pension Credit we have revolutionised the targeting of state support to poorer pensioners. Over 3.2 million pensioners are now in receipt of Pension Credit – with take-up strongest amongst the very poorest.

For those who would otherwise be below the Guarantee element, our best estimate is that take-up rates are running at over 80%. And for single women in this group, take-up could be as high as 90%.

Delivering this change has only been possible because of the hard work on the ground by the Local Service working in partnership with those in the local community.

Effective partnerships need support and a unifying goal. After listening to our customers we launched Link-Age last summer – to build partnerships with local authorities and voluntary bodies around the deceptively simple objective that our customers should have to provide information only once to get their entitlement.

The Pension Service Partnership Fund provides £13 million to finance local initiatives to improve take-up of older people’s benefits – particularly those in hard to reach groups.

The support of Age Concern and other partners has been crucial with for example, Partnerships Against Poverty – in helping to improve the take up of benefits entitlements.

In some cases, improving take-up can make a huge difference. For example, a member of the Local Service in Norwich visited an 85-year-old lady who lived alone in her home to help her complete a Pension Credit application.

Because of a visual impairment she was in receipt of Attendance Allowance and had wrongly believed that this would count as income and prevent her being entitled to any Pension Credit.

Following the Local Service visit she was awarded over £64 a week Pension Credit and a backdated payment of over £3,300.

Many of you in this audience have helped to transform people’s lives through such experiences on a regular basis.

I believe that we are starting to change what it means to be old in our society.

Since time immemorial, old age has been associated with poverty – from the workhouse, through the studies of William Booth, to the 1980s when many pensioners had to choose between heating and eating.

But figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies show that we are now in an unprecedented position where pensioners are no more likely to be poor than any other group in society.

The prevention of poverty will always be a fundamental role for the State and it’s one of the principles underpinning any future reform of pensions which I set out last week.

But we must go further and wider in our approach – moving beyond the old debates about how to manage dependence and looking to a new world of enabling independence. A world where we have the infrastructure to make ageing an opportunity rather than a threat – encouraging and supporting older people to play an ever greater role in our society.

This means:

– tackling discrimination;

– enabling older people to fulfil their aspirations in the workplace;

– helping them to save for retirement with confidence and in a pensions system that is fair, inclusive and more comprehensible;

– as well as promoting and supporting healthier and more active lives in old age

I’d like just to say a few more words about each.

Firstly, the Government is committed to stamping out discrimination. We will legislate on age discrimination to support our goal of higher employment for all ages.

And our recent announcement of the Equalities Review, examining Discrimination legislation demonstrates our commitment to breaking down the barriers to equality of opportunity in society.

But as with all forms of discrimination – legislation only takes us so far. We all need to work together to achieve a wider cultural change that banishes outmoded attitudes.

For example, generalised stereotypes of people past state pension age as dependent, incapable and vulnerable are a particularly pernicious form of age discrimination. They undervalue the capacities and potential contribution of millions of fit and able people. And by the same token they can inhibit service-providers from focussing properly on those who really need support.

The announcement we made on age equality at the end of last year also took us a long way forward in terms of moving us towards a culture where Retirement Ages are increasingly consigned to the past.

We’re abolishing them for people under 65, and we’re giving those above that age a Right to Request to work past 65 which their employers will have to engage with seriously.

And the review in 2011 – which will look at whether it is time to sweep retirement ages away entirely – is to be tied to evidence on specific social trends all of which are showing that retirement ages are increasingly outmoded.

Empowering older people in the workplace, enabling them to choose to work for longer must be a key part of any response to the ageing challenge. As a society, we can not afford to squander the skills and contributions of anyone who can and wants to work, but who remains outside the labour market.

This was a central theme of the DWP’s Five Year Strategy which was published at the beginning of last month, at the heart of which was a new long-term aspiration of moving towards an employment rate equivalent to 80% of the working age population.

It takes us beyond just helping the unemployed to help those who are even further away from the labour market – who have more complex and substantial barriers to overcome.

It could involve supporting as many as 1 million people on Incapacity Benefit into work, an extra 300,000 lone parents; and 1 million more older workers in the labour force, including many who will choose to work beyond the traditional retirement age.

Some have suggested that we should raise the State Pension Age but part of the challenge that we face in the UK, is to help people to work up to the current State Pension Age rather than setting a new one. For example, statistics show that over 1/3 of men are outside the labour market by the age of 60; 2/3 before age 65.

Our approach is to give people the flexibility and choice to work longer if they want to. State Pension Deferral increases the rewards for choosing to work for longer – introducing an enhanced pension 50% higher for life or a lump sum of up to £30,000 for people who decide to take their State Pension at 70 rather than 65.

And our tax simplification measures also mean that, for the first time, it’s possible to carry on working for the same employer whilst drawing an occupational pension.

Another key dimension, is giving individuals the information they need to enable them to save for their retirement. And we are delighted to be working with Age Concern and Citizens Advice on developing a partnership programme on Informed Choice and Financial Capability.

Through the Pension Protection Fund – and other measures in the Pensions Act last year – we have taken radical steps to bolster security and confidence in occupational pensions. This includes offering some financial assistance to those who have lost the most in the past.

Last week, we set out our principles for wider pensions reform, seeking to establish a national debate as a first step towards building a lasting consensus on the way forward.

It’s good to see this was welcomed by Age Concern, the CBI, TUC and many of our other partners.

As well as building this consensus and continuing to tackle pensioner poverty, we’re determined to ensure fiscal sustainability, while seeking greater coherence, inclusiveness and equitability.

Sustainable public finances are a pre-requisite to achieving high and stable rates of long-term economic growth and to ensure that spending and taxation impact fairly between generations.

In building a long-term solution, we must not be drawn into policies – however appealing today – which will ultimately place an unsustainable burden on future generations.

In respect of greater coherence, we’re seeking to make the system simpler to understand and to make it easier for employers to get on with running good schemes.

With inclusiveness and equitability, we’re seeking to provide the opportunity for everyone to build an adequate retirement income – whether they are low to medium earners; employed or self-employed; and to ensure fair outcomes for all, particularly women.

One of the key questions that we are asking in launching this national debate is whether the gains from a residency-based eligibility for the Basic State Pension would provide a cost-effective and practical alternative way of improving equity of entitlements.

Meeting the ageing challenge is also wider than saving more and working longer – it includes healthcare and access to services.

Good health is the key to a good quality of life and to fully-independent living. This also means continuing to invest in community services, particularly to support family members and other informal carers.

But it’s about more than just health and helping people secure the care they need. We need to tackle the fear of isolation and exclusion that comes from increasing numbers of older people living on their own and feeling unable to influence local decisions.

So achieving real engagement of older people in community decisions, will require enabling them to build alternative networks of support and interest and to contribute their wisdom and skills through voluntary activity.

All these themes will be drawn together in our national Strategy for an Ageing Society and I have been grateful to Age Concern and our other partners for their support with our work on this.

The Strategy will be the first of its kind pursuing the ambitious aim of transforming the challenges of demography into opportunities for our society.

It will look and plan ahead – seeking employment opportunities that are not dependent on age; longer life expectancy with better health; a practical vision of active ageing to support personal responsibility and engagement with the community; and independence and choice in older age with support for those who need it.

It will bring together plans for development and reform into a programme built around achievable outcomes.

It’s a truly cross-Government operation – but it’s far from restricted to Government alone.

Ultimately, delivering the cultural change that is needed to break down old stereotypes means working with Age Concern and all our partners to deliver real opportunity and security for all in later life.

Together we can empower older people and allow society to benefit from what is ultimately one of the greatest advances of our time – longer and healthier lives.