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Q&A: If the retirement age doesn't rise, tax almost certainly will

 

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Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Is there a pensions timebomb looming or not?

A pensions timebomb is a real threat. You can call it what you like, but there is no doubt a major problem with funding pensions is on the way without a radical rethink, based on the latest forecasts.

Yet over the last few weeks we have heard some politicians and union figures dismiss the notion as a myth.

This was the verdict given by People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith and Siptu officials who want to halt any further hikes in the age you qualify for the State pension.

Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald also suggested demographics would look after themselves.

 

What is the problem?

If things continue as they are, the Government would not be able to pay pensioners the State pension they expect at the age they expect it.

This is because it would not have enough money to meet the cost. The reason it would not have enough money is because the number of pensioners is expected to skyrocket as the number of workers declines.

This will have an impact on the amount being paid into the social insurance fund. Workers' PRSI is paid into this and the pensions of current pensioners are paid out of it.

 

Who is making these forecasts?

An actuarial review of the Social Insurance Fund by accountants KPMG in 2015 said the number of over-66s will rise from 12pc of the population in 2015 to 17pc in 2035 and 23pc in 2055.

It found there were 4.9 workers for every pensioner but this will fall to 2.9 workers per pensioner in 2035 and two workers per pensioner by 2055.

The report said the social insurance fund could accumulate a potential deficit of up to €404bn by 2071.

The last government's Pensions Roadmap draws heavily on this report. It said pensioner numbers would more than double over the next 40 years.

The Central Statistics Office has predicted life expectancy will rise from 79 to almost 86 for men by 2051. It forecasts it will increase from 83 to 88 for women. It has also predicted that the number of people aged 65 or over will have risen from 629,800 four years ago to between 1.5 and 1.6 million by 2051.

 

What do the experts think?

Head of actuarial practice at the Society of Actuaries in Ireland, Philip Shire, said claims that the pensions timebomb is a myth were "straining incredulity" and that the pensions system would become more and more unsustainable.

"The big review of the social insurance fund was carried out in 2015 and even with the changes in the State pension age built into its projections, it still effectively saw a need for increasing PRSI contributions in future years," Mr Shire said.

"There is a problem with kicking it down the road. The longer you leave taking action, the more difficult it will become to address it. At some point in the future, a government will be faced with the choice of either cutting the state pension, which is political suicide, or significantly increasing PRSI or tax."

He said solutions could include means-testing the pension or removing an entitlement to future increases, although he felt the least painful was increasing the pension age.

However, he said the issue of workers being forced to retire at 65 needed to be addressed and some safety net put in place for those who cannot continue to work.

But he said what happened in the future was subject to variability and nobody was suggesting that the numbers put forward would work out exactly in practice.

 

What are those who claim the timebomb is a myth saying?

Siptu economist Michael Taft pointed out that much of the data used in the debate was taken from the 2015 KPMG review. He said this was based on post-recession figures before an economic upturn.

"The next review (2020) will be based on more up-to-date numbers arising from the recovery," he said. "For instance, data sent to the EU based on this review projected that employment would be 2.1 million this year.

"Actually, employment will be 10pc higher. This will have an appreciable impact on sustainability projections in the decades ahead."

 

Are pension age increases the only way to go?

Mr Taft suggested the Government response of pushing up the pension age was over the top. He said it meant Ireland had one of the highest pension ages in Europe despite having the youngest population at the moment.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has suggested other ways to boost the social insurance fund. These include pushing up employer and self-employed PRSI, tackling "bogus self-employment" and taking action to increase the number of women at work by cutting childcare costs and other policies.

 

When will we get a clearer picture about what will happen?

An actuarial review of the Social Insurance Fund is carried out at five yearly intervals, so the next one is due in December this year and will be published in 2022.

Irish Independent