At a launch of its Pensioners’ Manifesto on 5 November, the National Pensioners Convention (NPC) brought hundreds together for its rally inside the Palace of Westminster where three MPs representing the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties held forth before the real experts, the assembled pensioners, spoke.
Earlier this year, the NPC held a three-month consultation with 1,000 pensioner groups across the country to find out the main issues of concern amongst older people. Thousands took part in the exercise. The top five concerns were:
- Raising the basic state pension for all above the poverty level of £175 a week, ensuring existing pensioners were not penalised by the new single-tier state pension.
- Increases in pensions to be linked to the best of RPI (Retail Price Index), CPI (Consumer Price Index), earnings or 2.5 per cent.
- Maintaining universal pensioner benefits (bus pass, winter fuel allowance, free TV licences for the over-75s and free prescriptions) without any means-testing.
- Creating a merger of the National Health and Care Service which is free at the point of use and funded through taxation.
- Introducing a legally binding Dignity Code to improve the quality and standards of care for older people in hospital, care homes or their own home.
The Convention also received over 120 additional policy suggestions from its members, including a call for more action to be taken to combat the negative portrayal of older people in the media, a nationwide programme of insulation and energy efficiency measures to tackle growing fuel poverty and a minimum visit time of at least 30 minutes for social care at home.
Killed by cold
There are 11 million pensioners aged 65+ in Britain. Britain’s state pension is amongst the least adequate in the developed world and last winter over 30,000 pensioners died from the cold. The NPC argues that Britain is not an easy place for many older people to be right now: pensioners have not been exempt from the government’s austerity programme.
Pensioners are not selfish or insular. They recognise that younger people are also having a difficult time. The age groups share the same concerns over affordable housing, public transport, low incomes and retirement ages. The NPC General Secretary has pointed out, “Suggestions that there is a kind of generational divide are therefore totally untrue. The real division is between those at the top of society and the rest of us who are paying for their mistakes.”
The speeches of the politicians largely confined themselves to dealing with minutiae or slight improvements in the pension arrangements and avoided commitments as much as they could. Most chased the red herring of getting more people to save more for their future. Some flagged the idea of means testing rather universal benefits in the future. Most of them held out no better hope than that £175 a week might be reached by the end of the next parliament, still some five-and-a-half years away. A constant refrain of the politicians was that pensions could not avoid “the financial situation facing the public purse”.
“Can a £115 state pension be boasted about?”
The speeches of the pensioners were generally dismissive of the politicians, well informed and passionate. One observed, “Can a £115 state pension be boasted about?” in response to the politicians’ complacency. Another pointed out the illusion behind calls for saving in private pensions, “How can you save for pensions on low salaries?”
The loss of public sector care and its replacement with private care with its extortionate costs and poor professional service troubled many in the audience. One person said, “Care workers need higher wages if care is to be more professional.” There were many references to the difficulties of free travel for the elderly as more and more bus services were being cut across the country.
There were several references to the pensioners’ plight being a result of government’s banks bail-out. “No party will control the banks,” as one person put it. There was a curious mood in the room: polite but determined. You felt that Britain is a powder keg; it’s just when it decides to blow.
There is an old maxim, always worth remembering because it is true. A country can be judged by the way it treats its young and older members. Concerns over pensions, care and universal benefits have to be addressed immediately. For many older people the luxury of time simply doesn’t apply. They need action now. The question is, how do pensioners who are isolated and outside of the unifier, work, find ways to exercise collective pressure?
• See also an online e-petition on universal benefits. Anyone of any age can sign the e-petition.