Bottom of the pile

At the cinema, I’d forgotten my pension card to qualify for a
cheap ticket. “Just look at my face,” I said. The cashier looked at
my lines, laughed and waved me through. Yes, I’m old, 68 to be

Sixty-eight is young-old. I can still play my grandson at table
tennis. If I survive to my late seventies and eighties I will be
old-old. I’ll probably need help from the social services.

So I was comforted last month, when I attended Community Care
Live Scotland in Edinburgh, to hear the president of the
Association of Directors of Social Work, Alexis Jay, explain how
Scottish services had a person-centred approach with an emphasis on
enabling older people to stay in their own homes. Of course, others
want and need residential care and Jacquie Roberts, chief executive
of the Care Commission, spoke on how care homes are carefully

But older people still need money. Regrettably, thousands live
in poverty because they rely on a state pension which has declined
in value. Last year, 18,000 died from the cold.

The government’s short-term answer has been pension credits to
lift all above the poverty line of £105 a week. The drawback
is that one-third do not claim. It took weeks to persuade my mother
to apply because she saw it as a means test. The Conservatives
propose to restore the link between pensions and earnings. Mind
you, it was Margaret Thatcher who removed it. The Lib Dems want a
citizens’ pension for all set at the equivalent of today’s
£105. In addition, all want workers to take out private

These policies have three limitations.

Firstly, they are not based on any investigation of how much
money older people require to support a decent lifestyle. Who
decided that £105 was enough?

Second, they give too little attention to the fact that low-paid
citizens can afford only small contributions. They may be compelled
to pay into private schemes but their profits will be tiny. Today’s
workers on minimum wages are tomorrow’s poor pensioners.

Third – and related to the above point – the proposals will do
nothing to reduce pensioner inequality. Hardly a week goes by
without press reports on the private sector fat cats being awarded
huge pensions. MPs have voted themselves what the Daily Mail calls
“gold-plated” pensions. Last year, when a black hole appeared in
their fund, they took a further £25m from public money. To be
fair, a few MPs, including former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith,
did have the integrity to vote against it. And top managers in
public bodies accept enormous pensions. Some even take the pension
and then find another job.

These are the pension rich. They are among the top one-fifth of
pensioner couples with an average income of £45,000 a year.
They live in comfortable and valuable homes, probably with a
substantial garden, can enjoy numerous holidays and travel, can
spend freely on consumer luxuries. By contrast, I recently attended
the funeral of an elderly Glaswegian. He had lived in a small
council flat with no garden, had few possessions, no savings and
never went on holiday. His wife could afford only one funeral car
and asked me to bring mine for other family mourners. There were
two wreaths of flowers.

Pension inequality is just wrong. It brings disadvantages that
go beyond those of just poverty. The elderly poor feel at the
bottom end of an affluent society, yet are powerless to change it.
No wonder some feel betrayed. Inequality breeds ill-health. The
elderly poor die years younger than the elderly rich. I cannot
understand how some social services leaders, who have voiced
sympathy for those at the bottom, can themselves reinforce
inequality by taking large pensions.

What can be done? Heavyweight government committees are agreed
that individuals must take responsibility by taking out higher
private pensions. I believe in collective responsibility. Let
individuals pay into pension schemes according to their incomes
along with appropriate contributions from employers. But, instead
of going back to them, it should be pooled into a national fund
supplemented by taxation. The outgoings should then be equal
pensions for all.

OK, the rich pensioners will say I am senile and should be put
into residential care. All I ask is that it be in the declining
number of local authority homes and not in the independent

Bob Holman has recently retired as community worker at a
locally run project in Easterhouse, Glasgow

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