Leaders: About turns should extend to pensioners

IT WAS a phrase which defined a political era. The then new Prime Minister was under pressure from inside her own party as well as from the opposition to loosen the purse strings to help alleviate unemployment, but she refused.

Margaret Thatcher defiantly told her party conference in 1980: “You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning.”

Although the Thatcher government was, in reality, not averse to changing tack if it had to, the image of the Iron Lady, steely in her resolution to see off the Tory wets, the unions and the hapless Labour party is one which remained burned on our political consciousness long after Britain’s only woman prime minister was forced from office.

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How those famous words must echo troublingly in her successor David Cameron’s ears as the Prime Minister yesterday executed the fourth U-turn of this week alone, sanctioning a move by his Chancellor to back down on controversial plans contained in the Budget to limit tax relief on charitable giving after a furious outcry from charities and rich donors to the Tory party .

This latest change follows from climbdowns on the “pasty tax”, the imposition of 20 per cent VAT on static caravans and plans to hold some inquests south of the Border in private. In all four cases, the coalition retreated in the face of powerful lobbying – from the food industry in the case of hot snacks, Tory backbenchers in the case of caravans, the legal establishment in the case of inquests and a mixture of high profile charities and Tory donors on tax relief.

Of course the government will argue, as Justice Secretary Ken Clarke did this week, that the changes are merely the result of ministers consulting and listening but it is hard not to conclude the U-turns came about thanks to the strength of the interest group which argued against the various measures. Yet what of those who do not have such power and in particular the pensioners who were hit by the “granny tax”, one of the many ideas in what is now seen as a disastrous Budget.

Older people have some clout, in that they are more likely to vote than the younger generation but they are not a particularly well organised or powerful lobbying group. However, under the plans to freeze tax allowances for anyone already aged 65, and scrap them altogether for anyone who turns 65 after 5 April, 2013, nearly four and a half million older people will lose an average of £83 each. Is this any fairer than a pasty tax or a clampdown on tax-free giving?

No it is not. In fact there is an argument that older people have a better case than the pasty-makers and the charity/donor lobby. Yet, so far, Mr Cameron and his Chancellor Mr Osborne refuse to budge. It is time they did. Even though a change of policy could cost as much as £3bn, our pensioners deserve better treatment. The government has U-turned on other issues, the laddies in Downing Street should be for turning on the granny tax.

Open for business

Scotland is not full up. As a soundbite, it was one of Alex Salmond’s best. Coined at a time of heated debate in the United Kingdom over immigration, Mr Salmond’s intention was to position the Scottish National Party as a liberal voice amid siren calls south of the Border for tighter controls of the numbers of people coming into this country.

Although, as ever with Mr Salmond, there was an element of party-political positioning in his stance, he was nonetheless making a reasonable point. Scotland a decade or so ago was not full up. There was plenty of room for more people to come here, settle, make a living, pay their taxes, and contribute to society.

The same principle applies today and is born out by official figures which show the population has reached a record high of 5.25 million largely on the back of a big increase in migration, with people from Poland, Ireland, the Americas and Pakistan leading the way. There are now more than a quarter of a million people living in Scotland from outside the UK.

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While the figures also highlight some potential problems – for example the influx includes an unspecified number of asylum seekers who, though no fault of their own, are prevented from contributing to society – the overall picture is a positive one with population growth reflecting not just a decline in mortality rates and an increase in birth rates but also the growing attraction of Scotland as a place to live and work.

As we face the challenge of an ageing population which places heavy demands on taxpayer funded services, the more people of working age we attract, the better it is for our country. Let the message go out: Scotland is not full up.