Kohler of Help the Aged is optimistic about the power of the pensioner lobby
but irked by politicians’ lack of interest.
pensioners’ parliament gathered in Blackpool for three days in May. Organised by
the National Pensioners Convention, 3,000 older people met to consider
pensions, health and care, and transport. It was a lively and vibrant
gathering, characterised by the usual impatience of the NPC at the slow rate of
progress on these key themes.
Actually, pensioners’ issues have risen fast
up the agenda in recent years. Devolution has helped to reshape the treatment
of transport, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland queuing up to introduce
better concessionary fare schemes than the minimum required in England.
Likewise, the championing by Scotland of the Royal Commission’s approach to
long-term care is going to reverberate around the rest of the UK, and the
National Assembly for Wales is openly hostile to the diktat on "free
nursing care" imposed by Westminster.
The minimum income guarantee makes a big dent
in pensioner poverty – to the two-thirds of those eligible who claim it – and
it is linked to earnings for the duration of this parliament. It will be
difficult for a Labour government to break that link. As other parts of the
pensions jigsaw show signs of breaking up (such as occupational pensions,
annuities, and the state second pension), so there is a growing clamour from
academics and professionals for a fresh look at the state pension, re-establishing
its role as the foundation stone of pension planning. The pensioners’ cause has
gained a high degree of political and moral momentum.
The case for more resources to be given to
pensioners has been largely won. Pensioner poverty is acknowledged. But the
manner and means of addressing this remains controversial. But the overwhelming
message from Blackpool was root and branch opposition to means-testing.
Questions of dignity and choice were paramount. Keeping up to date with the
ever-changing kaleidoscope of benefits has become a full-time job for
pensioners (and for a significant array of advisers, counsellors and
officials). Even if you have the knowledge of what you may be entitled to,
there remains the self-abasing act of having to ask for it, and, effectively,
prove your poverty.
Pensioners are still seen by governments as a
cohort of people who have things done for them. This was another key message
from Blackpool:give us a reasonable standard of income, and we will actually
get on with living our lives independently and quite successfully. And, if you
ask us, we can tell you what help and support we actually need.
The third message from Blackpool was absolute
frustration that no politician had shown up to hear these two simple, points. A
further instance of ageism perhaps?
Mervyn Kohler is head of public affairs, Help