This piece first appeared in The Weekly Telegraph on 27 October  1999
The text here may not be identical to the published text

Why won't Britain pay its moral debt?


Commonwealth blues

Pakistan was suspended from the Commonwealth this week following the military coup on October 12th. But around 400,000 older UK ex-patriates who live in Commonwealth countries may well ask "So what?" They still do not get their full UK pensions, even though they have remained within the Commonwealth. Out of the 53 member countries, UK pensions paid to people living there are only increased each year in line with prices in five (see Table). And out of 13 British Overseas Territories - all of which have associated status in the Commonwealth - the pension is only uprated in two.

From the point of view of getting the full retirement pension abroad it is better to live in Europe than in countries with which Britain has historic ties going back sometimes hundreds of years - such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, or Zimbabwe. All pensioners living there have their pensions frozen at the level they were first claimed abroad. Some older people in those states get just a few pounds a week - despite a full working life in the UK paying full National Insurance Contributions.

Many people who lived abroad paid into the UK National Insurance scheme as well, seeing it as a useful prtoection against policitcal uncertainty in their adopted country. Yvonne Malcolm-Coe went to Africa just after the war. It seemed an exciting thing to do and she tore up her National Insurance card as she left. But soon she was working for Shell and was persuaded to pay voluntary contributions into the UK scheme. In 1986, aged 60, she retired and claimed her UK pension in Kenya. As a full paid up member of the National Insurance club she got her full pension.

"It was £38 a week, it wasn't much even then even in Kenya. And then of course it stayed at that level for the next ten years. I accpeted it of course though I was very angry. I had a friend of 97 who got around £3 a week. I didnít spend much, didnít live a high life, lived in the same bed-sitter in Nairobi that I'd lived in for 36 years. But in the 90s I was caught up in riots, my car was stolen, and slowly because my pension was so low I ate into my savings. Finally, I felt I had to come back to the UK and by then I had just enough left to buy this mobile home where I live now."

Yvonne feels that if her pension had not been frozen for all those years in Nairobi she would have come back with far more. She gets a small pension from Shell - £149 for the last quarter, barely £11 a week. And its value falls as the Kenyan shilling, in which it is paid locally, falls in value against the pound.

"I think the Government should pay me back the money it took from me then by freezing my pension. If it hadn't I'd be a lot better off now. My income is a fraction too high to get income support but I do get help with the ground rent I pay here. But I have no savings. If the Government paid me what it morally owes me I could afford the double glazing I need. There is such a chill east wind blows across here, and winter is beginning already."

Yvonne was one of only a few hundred ex-patriate UK pensioners living in Kenya. And she feels their problems are ignored compared with those in the countries such as Canada and Australia where the majority of ex-patriate pensioners live. They are campaigning actively for a change in the law. But the chances of the Government changing its mind on frozen pensions seem slim.

Brian Havard is the President of the British Austrlian Pensioner Association. Following the recent reshuffle of Ministers in the UK Government he wrote to the new Minister of State at the Department of Social Security. Jeff Rooker was a left-wing, campaigning MP who had supported the campaign for unfreezing pensions in the past. But when Brian Havard asked him to support the campaign in office he got a different answer. The Minister replied in terms that could have been written by any of his predecessors.

"We have much to do to improve the position of pensioners in greatest need in the UK. Changing the policy on frozen pensions would not, therefore, be a priority call on scarce resources."

Brian Havard was disappointed

"It is a sad commentary on the level to which UK politics has fallenÖMr Rooker signed Early Day Motion 185, 13 November 1996 with its quite unequivocal assertion: the denial of pensions increases to persons who have paid National Insurance Contributions is indefensible."

The Government says it would cost around £275 million to unfreeze the pensions paid to the 450,000 people around the world who are affected. Pensioners are now looking at the growing surplus in the National Insurance fund which they say can be used to pay them. Currently it is estimated to stand at £8billion and rising. It is a battle that has many rounds to go.

TABLE 1 THE FROZEN COMMONWEALTH

Commonwealth countries with 1000 or more frozen UK pensioners.

Australia 187,100

Canada 129,100

South Africa 31,800

New Zealand 29,800

Zimbabwe 5,000

India 3,700

Bangladesh 2,800

St Lucia 1,200

Grenada 1,200

Dominica 1,000

Pakistan (suspended) 5,900

TABLE 2 WHERE PENSIONS ARE UPRATED

UK retirement pensions are uprated in 39 countries

European Union (all)

Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden

European Economic Area (all)

Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein

Crown Dependencies (all)

Alderney, Guernsey, Isle of Man, Jersey, Sark

Former Yugoslavia (all)

Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Yugoslavia (Serbia, including Kosovo)

Commonwealth (5 out of 54)

Barbados, Cyprus, Jamaica, Malta, Mauritius

British Overseas Territories (2 out of 13)

Bermuda, Gibraltar (In the Falkland Islands the local government tops up frozen UK pensions to the level that would have been paid in the UK.)

Others (5 out of around 100)

Israel, Philippines, Switzerland, Turkey, United States of America

27 October  1999


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