At the excellent Social Liberal Forum Conference on Saturday, a group of eight bloggers spent the lunch break interviewing Liberal Democrat Pensions Minister Steve Webb just before he delivered the second Beveridge Memorial Lecture.
The thing about Steve Webb is that he might have Professor in front of his name and MP after it, but he’s in no way intimidating, though. He speaks with authority, but engagingly so, has no airs and graces and has a knack of explaining some complex concepts in language that even I can understand. He was in the sort of company that was most likely to have difficulty with some of the policies his department had enacted, but he approached the issues we raised in a respectful manner, acknowledging the difficulties.
First up to ask a question was Maelo Manning. How, she wanted to know, would we regain the trust of young people when youth unemployment was so high and housing costs made it difficult for young people to live independently.
Nick’s Youth Contract gives all young people the chance to earn or learn and there will be updates to that shortly. Nick is the only party leader who has explicitly talked about the need to be fair to all generations. David Cameron and Ed Miliband are doing their best to appeal to pensioners, while Nick is thinking about all ages.
The Government has not yet done enough on house building. We must do more.
Iain Brodie-Brown of Birkdale Focus asked a question about friendly societies. Steve said that pensions weren’t a cottage industry. By their nature, providing them was a big scale operation. However, the Government had made provision for those the market didn’t provide for with NEST, the National Employment Savings Trust, a not for profit pension scheme.
He also dropped a hint of “radical ideas” to come on pension tax relief. Raising of the tax threshold means that you don’t get tax relief on your pension contributions if you earn under £10,000. However, you can get tax relief at 40% and then only pay 20% tax when you retire.
Louise Shaw’s question was also about pensions. She said that she needs to make decisions at her age about her retirement. Would the retirement age be put back in several decades’ time when she retires?
Steve explained that people would not find out less than a decade before they retire that they would have to work longer but he said he’d be lying if he could categorically tell her now when she’d retire. The age would be reviewed every Parliament but it was also important to take into consideration that even though people were living longer, they weren’t always in good health in their retirement.
The Bedroom Tax was always going to come up somewhere. Why, Mark Jewell asked, was it not possible to only penalise those who didn’t want to move to somewhere smaller, who had turned down an offer of a smaller property. Steve said that it wasn’t comfortable territory for us. However, councils have £25 million in Discretionary Housing Payments. He pointed out that £11 million in DHPs were returned last year because councils couldn’t use them. While there needs to be continuing effort to assess the scale of the need, properly resourcing local authorities to make decisions on individual cases was to him the best way of going about it.
I asked what benefit it brought to people looking for work to have to go to the job centre once a week, especially if there were no extra staff to make it a meaningful experience with proper support in job hunting.
Steve said that there was a key difference in approach between us and the Conservatives. Our coalition partners are very keen on conditionality. The language Liberal Democrats and Conservatives use to describe is different. Conservatives will talk about how claimants must learn English to get their money. Liberal Democrats would say that it gives someone a better chance in the job market if they can speak English, so in order to help themselves, people should go on the course. However, Liberal Democrats would never accept losing benefits if people weren’t able to reach the required standard.
He said that the “conditionality” measures all cost money. English classes and support to build CVs had to be provided.
Matthew Hulbert asked whether we communicated well enough the differences between us and the Tories. Steve said that leaflets, talking to people and the national media were all crucial tools. He said that a good thing about being a minister is that he might say something he thinks is ordinary and it’s deemed newsworthy.
He said that his priority was to have a the end of five years a list of positive changes we’d done. So far he has made sure everyone has a workplace pension ( and few opt out), and the State Pension had been reformed to give those the market was unable to help a decent retirement, as well as his “triple lock” on annual pension rises. His first priority was to sort out the State Pension, as he put it, to use the apparatus of the state to sort out the imbalances, the failure of the market to help people who had been out of the labour market for caring reasons, mostly women.
Grandstanding on issues wouldn’t have helped get these things through.
His collaborative approach extends to Tory Special Advisers. He gave them the heads up on what he was going to say in his Beveridge Lecture.
With that, he went off to deliver his Beveridge Lecture, where he talked in more detail about his Pensions reforms and the thinking behind them. “Liberal Democrat through them like a stick of rock,” he said.
* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings