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Scots count the cost of lower life expectancy

THE figures in the Scottish Government's new analysis of life expectancy and the state pension are striking.

At 65 the average Scottish male can expect to receive £10,000 less in state pension payments over the rest of his life than the average man across the UK as a whole. For the average Scots woman, the difference is £11,000. The reason is simple: lower life expectancy. The average Scots man who retires at 65 will have 14 months less to live than the UK average. Scots women die about 16 months younger.

Taken to extremes a Glaswegian man can expect to receive £50,000 less in state pension than a man from Harrow, comparing the place in Scotland with the lowest life expectancy with England's longest-lived area. Looked at the other way around, however, an Orcadian man would receive £31,000 more than a Mancunian man.

Do these figures support the Scottish Government's claim that Scots are being "shortchanged" by the state pension? Given that everyone across the UK has an equal entitlement, the claim is only valid if Westminster is to blame for the shorter lives of Scots. The evidence for that is far from compelling. The SNP is right to highlight the failure of successive UK governments to address the widening gulf between rich and poor - a factor closely linked to life expectancy - but inequality exists across the whole of Britain, not just Scotland.

Moreover, many of the means of directly tackling health inequality in Scotland - the NHS, the education system, local care services - are under the direction of SNP ministers. Some people will be tempted to argue Scots are short-changing themselves by smoking, drinking and eating unhealthily. But that, too, fails to fully explain Scotland's low life expectancy, which is dragged down by the particular problem of Glasgow.

The "Glasgow effect" - the question of why the city has a lower life expectancy than other places with comparable social problems - is well documented but continues to mystify academics and health professionals. Was de-industrialisation under Margaret Thatcher's governments a factor, as some experts believe? If so, many other parts of Britain were also hit.

If, as their opponents insist, claiming Scotland is short-changed is more than an attempt to rally support for a Yes vote, what of the SNP's state pension plans for an independent Scotland? Under proposals set out in the White Paper and SNP Government, post-independence, it would accept a rise in the state pension age to 66 by 2020 but review a further increase to 67 planned for the UK sometime after 2026.

The suggestion is the rise could be scrapped or postponed if Scots vote Yes in September. It is far from clear that would be right thing to do given the pressures an ageing population would place on the public finances. All else being equal, an independent Scotland would face a bigger black hole in its balance sheet over the coming decades, compared with the UK, partly because the population is ageing faster than England's. An independent Scotland would have to enjoy truly impressive economic growth to avoid following other countries, from Australia to China, in raising the pension age.

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