There is strong support among major Scottish employers for a lower state pension age in an ­independent Scotland, and for tax breaks on health and wellbeing programmes at work, to tackle Scotland's "sick man of Europe" status, according to a new survey.

It also found a quarter of employers believed that an independent Scotland should introduce compulsory pension scheme membership, with no opt-out from auto-enrolment, and higher minimum pension contributions, to rescue the nation's savings.

The survey by JLT Employee Benefits, the biggest workplace benefits adviser in Scotland, covered 150 large private sector firms (all with more than 500 employees) either based in ­Scotland or with cross- Border operations.

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Asked what the state pension system should be in a Scottish state, 40% of firms agreed that Scotland should set its own level of state pension, and that the pension age should be lower to reflect differences in demographics.

The Scottish Government has promised a slightly higher pension level but has committed only to an "independent review" of the state pension age, which is set to rise to 66 in 2020 and 67 by 2028.

Malcolm Paul, chairman of JLT in Scotland, commented: "Here, 46% of the population have a long-term health condition, life expectancy in Scotland is the lowest in Europe and these problems can only get worse as, from 2024, more than 50% of the population will be over 50."

Experts however have said separate state pension ages would be unworkable in practice. JLT's John Wilson said: "There is the complexity, and the need to stop it from being abused. If the problem is that Scotland is the sick man of Europe, surely the need is to address that rather than simply let people be sick and give them a lower state pension age."

The survey found 69% of the firms claimed to operate a workplace wellbeing programme, and 47% said an independent Scottish Government should introduce tax breaks for providing them. More than 30% said such incentives would encourage them either to introduce a new programme or extend an existing one, and 23% said those incentives might influence decisions on relocating business into or out of Scotland.

Almost a quarter of the firms saw an opportunity for Scotland to go further than the rest of the UK on auto-enrolment into pensions by making it compulsory, with no opt-out, or by introducing higher minimum contributions. Mr Wilson said: "They recognise that the reforms as they stand are not going to be enough to give people the outcomes in retirement they might hope for or expect, because a lot of the people who opt out are the people who need to be in a savings plan." He said research suggested that combined contributions needed to hit 20% of salary over a 40-year working life to guarantee a decent pension, while auto-enrolment guaranteed only 8%.

Almost half the firms believed a separate Scotland should create its own pensions regulator and pension protection fund, despite the inevitable extra employer costs. But 23% said different pension requirements in Scotland might influence their location decisions.

Over half the employers operate final salary schemes, mostly closed to new money, and 27% said they would introduce a separate pension scheme for employees in Scotland.

EU rules on the funding of cross-Border schemes typically require schemes to be fully funded within three years. Despite this, and the fact that the average fund is worth 60% or less of its full insurance buy-out cost, 26% of firms claimed they would "fully fund" their entire scheme if necessary.

Only 12% of the firms believed Scotland would become independent, with 76% saying the Union would prevail.