This piece first appeared in The Daily Telegraph on 31 July
The text here may not be identical to the published text
More than 200 angry pensioners rallied in Whitehall, London on Wednesday to deliver a petition to 10 Downing Street demanding a minimum state pension of £75 a week. Currently the full basic retirement pension after 40 years work and contributions into the National Insurance scheme is £66.75, which is £8.25 a week below the official poverty line for people over 60.
The petition had been signed by 110,000 people. It was packed into 12 boxes labelled in large type "£75 in '99" and wheeled on a barrow to the front door of No.10 by six older people, including the veteran anti-nuclear weapons campaigner Bruce Kent, and accompanied by the Labour MP for Newport West, Paul Flynn. Mr Flynn told The Daily Telegraph that the Government was breaking a pledge in its 1997 Election Manifesto.
"It said all pensioners should share fairly in the increasing prosperity of the nation. That is a manifesto statement they have not delivered on. All we're asking for today is a basic £75 a week now. A million pensioners live on less than that."
Pensioners parading outside the gates to Downing Street agreed. And they wanted the retirement pension to rise each year in line with earnings not prices as part of that commitment to let them share in the growing prosperity of the nation. Mary Geary from Hackney in London told The Daily Telegraph.
"We're here to protest at the low pensions we're expected to live on. The Tories broke the link with earnings. We expected a Labour Government to restore it. We are very disappointed."
Other pensioners were angry that Tony Blair's annual report for 1999 - published earlier this week - contained no mention of that particular manifesto statement or whether or how it had been delivered. Raising the pension in line with earnings rather than prices would have led to an increase this April of 5.1% rather than the 3.2% actually given - only an extra £1.20 a week. But the campaigners are old enough to remember that pensions were raised in line with earnings nearly 30 years ago.
The link was introduced by Barbara Castle but was soon abolished when the Conservatives swept to power in 1979. If it had continued, official figures show that the basic pension would now be about £95 a week - £28 more than the current level. The Conservatives said such increases could not be afforded. Even the £8.25 a week rise being asked for on Wednesday would cost the National Insurance Fund £3 billion a year. But Dr Gary Kitchen, National Organiser of the National Pensioners Convention which was behind today's petition, says there is more than enough in the National Insurance fund to pay it.
"Of course it's affordable. We base that view on answers to parliamentary questions put by some of the 100 odd MPs who support us. The increase would cost £3 billion. The Government Actuary says there will be a surplus of £5.9 billion in the National Insurance fund this year 1999/2000."
A surplus in the National Insurance fund is an inevitable and embarrassing fact for a Government committed to cutting back on social security spending. Contributions to the Fund are collected as a percentage of earnings. So the Fund's income rises in line with earnings. But the benefits paid out rise only in line with prices. So unless there is a cut in the contribution rate, the Fund will grow. The previous Government responded by giving away billions of pounds to people who left the State Earnings Related Pension Scheme (SERPS) and joined a personal pension.
Unless the present Government finds a similar way of draining off the surplus it will face growing demands to use it to raise the main benefit paid by the Fund - the state retirement pension. Even the campaigners do not say that £75 a week - £3900 a year - is really a comfortable amount to live on. Age Concern has fixed £150 as the minimum for what it calls 'comfort and dignity'. But £75 has already been fixed by the Government as its 'minimum income guarantee' - anyone aged 60 or more who does not have an income at that level (£116.60 for a couple) then it will make their income up to that level through a means-tested benefit called income support. Effectively, £75 is the poverty line for pensioners. But Dr Kitchen says getting people to claim is the problem.
"Around 700,000 don't claim it. The Government said last year it would make claiming more automatic, but no proposals have been put forward. Some don't claim through pride. Others can't because they have savings just above the £3000 threshold."
That was echoed by many of the pensioners at Downing Street. Elaine Miles said
"This isn't charity, we've paid all our lives for this pension by working. We've done our bit for this country. Now we want to be able to live decently."
Ramen Bhattacharyya (correct), ex-mayor of Camden and now living in Hampstead said
"I am not one of the poorest, I have been a teacher. But we need to make up for the gap that has grown over the years. We need an earnings related income."
After delivering the petition, a letter of protest was handed in at the Department of Social Security headquarters and the group assembled outside the deserted Houses of Parliament for speeches, songs and photographs. No Government ministers nor senior officials were in sight.
31 July 1999