The Pensioners’ Manifesto, issued by the National Pensioners Convention last year after months of nation-wide discussion among pensioners’ groups, covers a wide range of topics - not just pensions but health and social care, transport, environment and active citizenship. Its main proposals include:
• The basic state pension should be raised to the means-tested “guarantee credit” level - now £109.45 for a single pensioner and £167.05 for a couple - as an immediate step towards a basic non-means-tested retirement income.
• The pension should then rise annually in line with average earnings or prices, giving pensioners a share in the nation’s growing prosperity.
• It should be paid in full to those with gaps in their contribution record due to low pay, part-time work and caring responsibilities.
• Long-term personal, as well as nursing, care should be provided free, whether in a person’s own home or elsewhere.
• Pensioners and disabled people should travel free, nation-wide, on both buses and trains.
• Council tax should be abolished and local services financed through government grants, business rates and income tax.
Of course, none of the three main political parties are promising to do all these things if we vote for them on 5th May - but all three have obviously read the Pensioners’ Manifesto and adopted important parts of it in their policy statements.
The basic state pension
While none of the parties is proposing to raise the basic pension for all pensioners to £109.45 for a single person and £167.05 for a couple, the Liberal Democrats say they will do that for those aged 75 and over, with a view to extending the higher rates to younger pensioners at some unspecified time in the future.
Linking pensions to earnings
The Liberal Democrats also promise to link the basic pension to average earnings, but again only for the over-75s, resulting in a steadily widening gap between younger and older pensioners. The Conservatives, while not promising any large increase in the basic pension, would restore the earnings link not just for the over-75s but for all pensioners. This is an odd reversal of positions. It was Labour that introduced the earnings link in 1975 and the Conservatives who abolished it in 1980. Yet it is the Conservatives who are now promising to restore the link, which the present Labour government has persistently refused to do.
The Conservatives, while not actually admitting that they were wrong to break the earnings link, do admit that it has resulted in an enormous increase in means-testing. With the pension rising only in line with prices, while the means-tested minimum has generally risen in line with earnings, more and more pensioners have seen their incomes fall below the minimum. Raising the pension in line with earnings from now on, as the Conservatives propose, will prevent the number of means-tested pensioners from rising still further, but will do nothing to reduce it.
Even that is more than Labour offers. Ministers defend Labour’s record by arguing that pensioners as a whole, and especially the poorest pensioners, have gained far more from the extension of Pension Credit and other means-tested benefits, combined with other measures such as winter fuel payments and free TV licences for the over-75s, than they would have done if the government had restored the earnings link. Simply restoring the link, however, is not what the Pensioners’ Manifesto demands. It calls for an immediate increase to £109.45, followed by the linking of the pension to earnings for future years.
The Pensioners’ Manifesto’s demand for the full basic pension to be paid to people with gaps in their contribution record is aimed mainly at improving women’s pensions. The Liberal Democrats would tackle that problem by converting the basic pension into a “citizen’s pension” payable in full to all who have lived in this country for long enough - but at first this would apply only to those aged 75 or over, so women under 75 would be left to struggle on with their present inadequate pensions.
The Conservatives offer a package of less radical changes in women’s basic pension entitlement. They would scrap the rule which says that those with contributions paid or credited for less than a quarter of their working lives get no basic pension at all unless they qualify for the reduced married woman’s pension. They would make it easier for those with caring responsibilities to build up pension rights, and for contributions to be paid in arrears where necessary. And they would look into the possibility of periods of earning less than £79 a week counting towards the basic pension. But none of this would help women who lost out by opting to pay the reduced married women’s contributions, or whose child-rearing years occurred before 1978, when the system of “home responsibilities protection” began - two of the main reasons why women’s pensions are so poor. And as the changes would not be retrospective, women already over pension age would not benefit from them.
Labour, at the time of writing this article, has proposed no similar reforms, though their election manifesto may have something to say on the subject.
Free long-term care
On the question of free personal care for older people, the Liberal Democrats propose that it should be provided for people in residential homes, but it’s not clear whether those receiving care in their own homes would also get it free. The Conservatives propose that, as now, care home residents with assets worth less than £20,000 should get free long-term care, while those with more than £20,000 would only have to pay for the first three years.
Since the Pensioners’ Manifesto was published, Gordon Brown has announced that, from next year, pensioners and disabled people throughout the United Kingdom will get free local bus travel - not quite what the Manifesto demanded (only local journeys are covered and trains are excluded) but an important step in the right direction and a clear plus for Labour. London pensioners will not benefit because we already have our Freedom Pass.
On council tax, the Labour government has announced, for this year only, a refund of £200 to council tax payers aged 65 and over. The Conservatives, who introduced council tax in the first place, are promising a 50 per cent discount, with a maximum of £500, for any household all of whose members are aged 65 and over. This, they claim, will help 5 million pensioners - less than half the total number. The Liberal Democrats propose to abolish council tax and replace it with a local income tax. This would mean some people paying less and others more, but most pensioners would be likely to gain. The Lib Dems claim that a "typical" pensioner household could be £1,000 a year better off.
As a strictly non-party organisation, SPAG does not advise its members on which party to vote for - and you'll want to look at the parties' policies as a whole, not just what they are offering to pensioners.
Please note, also, that this article was written before publication of the parties' election manifestos, which may contain important additional proposals.