Mooted changes to the pensions triple lock have divided Conservative MPs. Some insist it is “sacrosanct”, while others are pushing for it to be overhauled at the next election.
The future of a policy that had become a hallmark of recent Conservative governments appeared in doubt after Rishi Sunak three times refused to commit to retaining it at the next election.
He is under pressure from some in his party to address intergenerational unfairness, given that voters are turning Tory at an increasingly older age. Others want the prime minister to shore up support among older voters, who tend to be more likely to turn out to vote and back the Conservatives.
Sunak set hares running in his final Commons performance before party conference recess, when he was quizzed about the future of the triple lock, which guarantees pensions will rise by the higher of average earnings, inflation or 2.5%.
After being labelled “Inaction Man” by the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, Sunak three times said he was “committed” to the triple lock – but refused to commit to its inclusion in the next Conservative manifesto.
Some senior Tories are privately pushing for a change, fearing that its future is unsustainable on the basis that pensions are expected to rise in April 2024 faster than wages because of a delay in tracking earnings versus inflation.
One former Treasury minister said: “Everyone agrees it’s massively unaffordable now. But the timing of this is questionable. It should be pitched in the wider context of intergenerational unfairness and a new social contract. With two byelections around the corner, is this really the message we want to be sending when we need to be encouraging Conservative voters to turn out?”
After William Hague, the former Tory leader and Sunak’s former mentor, argued for a rethink, further pressure on the centre-right grew on the prime minister.
David Gauke, the former work and pensions secretary, told the BBC there would have to be “tough choices” in the face of strained public finances. Adam Hawksbee, the deputy director of the Onward thinktank, also called the triple lock “unsustainable” and said it should be ditched after the election.
However, Nigel Mills, who chairs the cross-party parliamentary group on pensions, said the triple lock was “sacrosanct”.
He told the Guardian it would be “politically impossible” to jettison the arrangement. “No one ever wants to talk about what will be in the future manifesto, but we should be clear that the state pension should keep pace with inflation and earnings. That’s sacrosanct,” said Mills.
The Guardian revealed earlier this week that Treasury officials are discussing a one-off break from the pensions triple lock that could save £1bn by preventing a bumper 8.5% increase in the state pension next year.
The triple lock will eventually take up a bigger chunk of the welfare bill, given Britain’s ageing population.
Mel Stride, the work and pensions secretary, hinted that it was not sustainable in the long term. And Rupert Harrison, who sits on the government’s economic advisory council, said there should be “an independent review with cross-party support” concluding after the next election on the future of pension rises.
One senior Labour source scoffed at the idea, saying: “I’m sure the Tories would love that. If they want to scrap it, they should just say so and stop flapping around looking for a way out.”