GUNN on Politics

The introduction of the pension credit last October was hailed by
many Labour MPs. Now, based on a totally unscientific survey, it
appears that complaints are far outweighing letters of praise in
their postbags.

Initially, even I had to concede that a guarantee of a minimum
income of more than £100 a week for a single pensioner and
over £150 for couples looked like a winner. However, while
accepting that the intention behind the new benefit may be
laudable, it can be a nightmare in practice.

I received a phone call from a retired teacher who lives in my
council ward who in earlier dealings struck me as sensible. But,
asking if I could possibly have time to visit her – “don’t tell
anyone please” – she sounded genuinely scared. Initially I thought
it might be intimidation from some noisy neighbours I had helped
her deal with, even though that problem had appeared to be solved
with less than the usual aggro.

On arrival, she was clearly distressed. “Look”, she said, pointing
to her two cabinets full of china. I know how proud she was of her
collection and that, for years, she had asked those wanting to give
her a present – including pupils and their parents – to add to

Realising that I was missing the point somehow, she explained. “Do
I have to declare them? Will I lose my pension if I do? I don’t
know what they’re worth. Maybe I should get rid of them?”

Slowly, as she handed me the tortuous pension credit forms, I
gathered that she was worried about whether to own up to her china
as an “asset” – and the consequences if she did.

Even after I trawled through them, I was not sure of her position.
I telephoned the pension credit hotline. The friendly voice assured
me: “No, you only have to declare financial assets.”

Having left her much relieved, I started to think of others. Would
I advise a pensioner with savings just over the limit for
qualifying for the pensioner tax credit, to blow some cash on a
really good holiday? A beautiful painting? A state-of-the art TV
perhaps? Yes, I know this would be highly irresponsible. But that’s
the whole problem with means-tested benefits. In addition to
causing great distress to some and great confusion to many, they
automatically set off thoughts of how to play the system to
advantage. Maybe I should write to my local MP about it.

Sheila Gunn is a political commentator and a Conservative
councillor in the London Borough of Camden.

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