Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Let's strut! Pensioners Staying Alive with a bus pass

Let's strut!  Pensioners Staying Alive with a bus pass

You know what we want to do?  We who are getting on a bit? We want to strut. We need the surge of excitement that shoots through your veins putting a smile on your face because you're out there, staying alive.

OK, so some pensioners strut better than others. The ones who haven't done their knees or hips in, that is. So we have a wrinkle or two or three.  So the joints are a bit stiffer, the breath a bit shorter.  But you're never too old to want to strut.  All the way to the bus stop.  But we need our bus passes or we can go nowhere. 

We are now in receipt of the scandalous revelation that successive governments have Robert Maxwelled the National Insurance state pension fund. The government's website explains the use and purpose of National Insurance:

 "You pay National Insurance contributions to build up your entitlement to certain state benefits, including the State Pension."

We are told that the NI surplus (predicted by the Commissioners for the Reduction of the National Debt to be £38 billion at the end of March 2012) is being hijacked by the government to pay off its debts interest free!! How dare they?

The Mature Times writes
"It is quite clear that millions of pensioners, workers and their employers have no idea that the money being paid in National Insurance every month is not being used to pay higher pensions and benefits – but is instead being used to balance the government’s books. As a direct result, the state pension is being kept unacceptably low and millions of older people are facing financial difficulties."  
Don't stop bus passes from being a universal benefit. Don't complicate things by means testing, by setting up a costly, chaotic administrative process that channels money away from the bus passes themselves with no guaranteed savings. The system is self-regulating. Nick Clegg has claimed that tax payers shouldn't be paying for travel passes for the "well off" pensioners.  I point out once again that pensioners are tax payers who pay tax at the same rate as everyone else whether they work or not. The richer the pensioner the more tax they pay and have paid. And pensioners save the government billions of pounds in the care they give to their families and to each other. Getting a bus pass is not automatic. It has to be applied for and many better off pensioners never apply.  Then there are the many pensioners who don't use a pass because their mobility prevents them ever travelling on public transport. So although all pensioners are eligible to claim a bus pass, a large number do not.  And if a better-off pensioner, who is in any case in a minority, decides to apply, then why not? They pay their high rate of tax, always have, and are entitled to a pass.

Only those who are getting on a bit will remember the tough US western TV series "Have Gun - Will Travel" that seemed to run and rerun for ever at the end of the '50s and into the '60s.  I only stayed up to watch when my parents were too absorbed in something else to notice I was there, but I remember the title would trip off many an adult tongue in the best cowboy accent they could muster when they were about to travel just about anywhere, to great amusement.  Today, for those of us for whom the joke still echoes in our ears, our gun is the travel pass. It enables us to fight against those baddies in black: the loneliness, aloneness, isolation, disengagement, depression, all a result of being holed up at home day after day. Don't cut pensioners off from the world.  There is an intended use for NI. We paid in in good faith. We woz conned. Put things right Political Big Brother, or face the vote!

Meanwhile click here....................

Saturday, 12 January 2013


My guest blog on Gransnet: December 2012

La BloggeuseWill everyone please stop demonizing pensioners. Nowadays staying alive has become a crime against society. But why should we apologise or feel guilty? What would society do without us?

Only recently Lord Bichard claimed that older people are a "negative burden on society" - that the elderly should do community work or lose their pensions. He has no grip on reality. We support the economy free of charge. We care for grandchildren to allow their parents to work and pay tax. We care for very elderly parents whose community care has been withdrawn or become unaffordable. And we have the true "big society" ethic giving our time to charities and communal projects. It is because we don't have jobs that we can do all this, and what is more we are tax payers. Whether we work or not we pay tax at the same rate as everyone else. We pay tax on our pensions. We have paid all our working lives towards our old age and to helping others and continue to do so. Only the poorest pensioners, like the poorest wage earners, are exempt from tax because they are below the tax threshold. 

I lay in bed the other night tossing and turning. Hope that's not too much information. I was angry. I fantasized about a new political party: The Grey Party.  Statistics based on the 2011 census shows 9.2 million people in England and Wales of pensionable age. One in six people in the UK are over 65. For the first time there are more people of pensionable age than there are people under the age of 16. Many older people are not on line. They do not have contact with social networks to widely express and share their views. But what older people do is vote. We are a massive and powerful lobby. Our voices should be heard loud and clear. 

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Ha! Now for the pensioners!


Pensioners are hitting the front pages as the government points its finger of fate at its next vulnerable victims.  They've had their fun with the disabled and the jobless who have been suitably bullied and harassed for the time being, and as IDS explained, are being "helped to move on".  Now to well and truly turn the country against the pensioners before doing the dirty on them.

Immediately after winning the vote to take the Welfare Reform Bill to a second reading, the government insisted that pensioners are protected against their proposed legislation.  But by the late-night Sky Press Preview the question was raised about who are the 'givers' and who are the 'takers' in our society, a variation on the 'strivers' and 'scroungers' theme so beloved by the government. Back in the Autumn, the coalition's allegedly 'caring' regulator Nick Clegg may have hoped he could claw back a point or two in the opinion polls if he came down hard on the universal nature of the pension system:

"I cannot stress enough that what I mean is people, who are very wealthy indeed, receive off millions of ordinary taxpayers across this country free bus passes, TV licences and winter fuel support; even though they frankly don’t need it."

He cites Sir Alan Sugar and Peter Stringfellow as examples of very-wealthy-indeeds who receive these benefits. 


Somehow, even the most avid supporters of universal benefits and of pensioners constantly fail to mention that pensioners ARE taxpayers.  Whether they work or not they pay tax at the same rate as everyone else. They pay tax on their pensions. They have paid all their working lives towards their old age and towards the public purse and they continue to do so. Only the poorest pensioners, like the poorest wage earners, are exempt from tax, because they are below the tax threshold. The richer the pensioners, the more tax they pay, and have paid, and the "millions of ordinary taxpayers" of whom Clegg speaks include millions of pensioners. 


Pensioners do not automatically "receive", for example, their bus passes, as Clegg wrongly claims.  These have to be applied for, forms have to be filled in and submitted. So when the likes of Matthew Paris and Polly Toynbee complain ad nauseum about how ridiculous it is that they and other well-off pensioners receive bus passes that they don't need, they can stop fretting, because they need never apply. It is often mentioned with great hilarity that the Queen is entitled to a bus pass, but there is a difference between being entitled to one and actually applying for and using one. And there are many pensioners, who, as they get older, are unable ever to use a bus pass because of mobility problems which prevent them from travelling on public transport.  So many pensioners neither have, nor use, nor are able to use a bus pass.

But even if the small number of "very wealthy" pensioners did decide to apply, the passes and other pension benefits are not "freebies" and "handouts" as The Sun provocatively claims.  Alan Sugar was quick to point out to Clegg in disgust and not surprisingly, that he doesn't have a bus pass, but "even if I did have a bus pass, I’ve personally paid tens of millions in tax, my companies hundreds of millions in the past 45 years."  He and other rich pensioners are entitled to one taking into account the contribution they have made and continue to make to the Treasury. Though most of them wouldn't be seen dead with one, and pay their fare if and when they travel by public transport.

Clegg also seems unaware that free TV licenses are only available to the over-75s, and as Lord Sugar and Peter Stringfellow are 65 and 72 respectively, neither is eligible.  Clegg should get his facts right. The current average life expectancy of a male in the UK  is 78 and a female 82 so this can be a very short-term benefit, and even then only if you are lucky enough to live long enough to receive it.  

The majority of our current pensioners are not wealthy. Far from it. They struggle to make ends meet as they watch their benefits already being cut while their savings, if they have any, dwindle away, accruing no interest of which to speak. Retail prices have risen to unaffordable topped by increased VAT and the 'heating or eating' option is very real. Running a car is pricing itself out of the market. 

Lib Dem, Paul Burstow, has proposed this week that the winter fuel allowance be means tested. You might think this would be aimed at weeding out the richest or perhaps the ex-pats living in hot climates, but that isn't the case. Burstow recommends that 3/4 of all pensioners lose the allowance, that is all those who do not receive pension credit.  It would hit most pensioners very hard at a time when energy bills are soaring.

The government may advocate means testing when it comes to giving, but they have no problem with it when it comes to taking.  Every pensioner whatever their financial situation was targeted in the 2011 Budget, when George Osborne decided to cut the winter fuel allowance without notice from £250 to £200 for those aged 60-79, and from £400 to £300 for those 80 and over, cuts of a fifth and a third. The cuts did not appear in the 100+ page Budget document and came as a shock to pensioners, especially as it happened weeks after the big six power firms hiked the price of gas and electricity and have continued to do so.

The proposed introduction in 2015 of a flat rate pension of £140 for all new pensioners will disadvantage all existing pensioners whose basic pension of £107.45 will fall substantially short even with the expected annual increments. And it is not  yet clear if the £140 is a cap amount or if it will increase each year in line with inflation.

As well as hitting current pensioners with cuts, savings are already in place for the future before any further adjustments. By raising the age of retirement incrementally from 60 and 65 for women and men respectively to 67 for everyone (and it has been suggested that this could rise to 74) the government's commitment to pensioners has been massively reduced.

We all know too well that steps must be taken to fix the deficit which the government claims is the necessity for benefit cuts.  People are living longer and are expected to continue to do so in the years to come. The pension system has to be reviewed, and I'm not making a case for "very wealthy" pensioners, as they really can look after themselves, though they do make a large contribution to the Treasury, and at the same time as Nick Clegg woos the electorate with promises of cutting universal benefits to the wealthy, his government has given the richest a very generous, means-tested 5% tax cut while universally abolishing tax relief for all pensioners over 65.  But I am making a case for keeping the pension benefits universal for existing pensioners, as they are self-regulating.

When it comes to a choice between means testing or self-regulation, the latter might well be the most financially and administratively sound way to go.  Means testing would be an expensive and an administrative nightmare and if outsourced millions of pounds would be diverted from the national pension pot into private coffers.  As we've seen with the ATOS work capability assessment, Child Benefit, the Welfare Reform Bill, the winter fuel allowance cuts, to name but a few, the government just can't be trusted with the concept of 'fairness'. How would a "better-off pensioner" be defined? If assets are taken into account to determine wealth, which has been suggested, no home-owning pensioner would be eligible for any benefits, however little money they have to spend each week. Given the example of the government's pride and satisfaction with ATOS's target-driven assessments, there is no reason to suppose that pensioners' means testing will not turn out to be the same ruthless method of getting rid of as many dependents as possible without a thought for the consequences.

And there is the wider picture. It shouldn't be overlooked that pensioners support the economy free of charge. They care for grandchildren to enable their children to work and pay tax. They care for very elderly parents whose community care has been withdrawn or become unaffordable. And many have the true "big society" ethic giving their time to charities and communal projects. It is because they don't have jobs that they can do all this, and of course, I must say it again as no-one else ever does, they are tax payers. Pensioners are an undervalued asset.

I lay in bed the other night tossing and turning. Hope that's not too much information. I was angry. I fantasized about a new political party: The Grey Party. The Green Party has only around 12,500 members in England and Wales. Statistics based on the 2011 census show that there are 9.2 million people in England and Wales of pensionable age. One in six people in the UK are over 65. There are more people of pensionable age than there are people under the age of 16. Many older people live alone and are not on line. They do not generally have contact with social networks and so are unable to express their views widely. But what older people do is vote. They are a massive and powerful lobby. No politician can afford to forget this. By all means let us find a better and more sustainable way for the future, but stop persecuting today's pensioners at the end of their lives.  Look at the numbers. It isn't worth it.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Divide and rule: Is the govt guilty of hate crime?

Divide and rule: Is the government guilty of hate crime?

"In crime and law, hate crimes occur when a perpetrator targets a victim because of his or her perceived membership in a certain social group" 1

Throughout history, in times of crisis, whether war, plague or financial hardship, scapegoats have been identified and persecuted. Religion or race has been the major identifier, and still is. In his 2012 Christmas address, a concerned King Albert II of Belgium warns against "trying to find scapegoats for the current financial crisis, whether foreigners or compatriots".  In the UK today, however, it is the most vulnerable groups in society who are being targeted: the elderly, the disabled and the jobless. 
As 2013 begins, instead of my usual blank-page-on-which-anything-can-be-written excitement, optimism is hard to muster as society becomes more and more divisive. And the perpetrators of this divisiveness are the self-proclaimed champions of fairness, the Big Society and Localism, namely the government. 

We're facing a year of massive cuts from the welfare budget and the government seems determined to put the blame on those who will experience these cuts, to make it appear as if they deserve it. The newly-identified social group of 'strivers', ie the good people, are portrayed as the victims. The country would be so much better off if all the cheats and scroungers who are draining the economy dry, have their ill-gotten benefits whipped away. And the flames of hatred and mistrust are being fanned by The Sun writing of "freebies" and "handouts".

So is the government guilty of hate crime under the Criminal Justice Act of 2003? Their blanket bullying, harrassment and victimisation of these vulnerable groups suggest there could well be a case against them. There is even an element of physical abuse in the brutal, unfair, inaccurate way the chronically sick and disabled who are obviously unfit for work are forced by ATOS to take up some form of employment that has led tragically to a series of seemingly-related suicides. 

George Osborne's now famous portrayal of the jobless as work shy “with their curtains closed, sleeping off a life on benefits” is juxtaposed with the behaviour of the approved 'strivers' who walk past these drawn curtains on their way to work. Grant Schapps, the new Co-chair of the Conservative party, recently started up a campaign entitled “Time to end Labour’s something for nothing culture”. And in answer to Labour MP, Ian Lavery's PMQs plea for change prompted by a suicide note from one of his sick constituents who had been told he must work or lose his benefits, David Cameron grabbed the opportunity to tell-tale in Violet Elizabeth style that "some people have been stuck on these benefits and not been reviewed for year after year after year."  This is just not true. The people I personally know who are suffering through the ATOS system were previously checked every two years with medical back up from their doctors and consultants. 

There can be no objection to people being properly assessed. That is how it should be. But it is the target-driven decisions to intimidate someone chronically sick, either mentally or physically and/or disabled into a job that they obviously cannot do, by assessors who are bullying, medically unqualified and ignore the reports of medical experts, that are objectionable.

The system isn't working, as around 40% of people who appeal against ATOS decisions, and of those who go to tribunal, around 38%, have the decision overturned in their favour. However, it is expensive to take action.

One chronically sick and disabled friend of mine who bravely deals with severe pain as well as paralysis and blurred vision and more every day, has been deemed fit for work and advised to take up her old profession of hospital carer. She is also advised to apply for a grant for a carer to accompany her to work to carry out the "physical side" of the job. Your way is not working IDS. It makes no sense and it is causing human misery.
Yet there is no recognition by the government that anything is wrong. In fact, in today's divide and rule Britain, those at the very top of government including the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Secretary of State for Works and Pensions and the Deputy Prime Minister are justifying it. IDS claimed in November that "There is no evidence at this stage for a further period of radical reform".[2] In other words, the government doesn't feel that anything needs to be changed.

Job Centres are now places of security guards and CCTV cameras and stern interviewers whose aim is to catch you out and make it so difficult to fulfill the rules that as many claimants as possible can be relieved of their benefits or have them drastically cut for not trying hard enough to find a job that isn't there to find. And it is in the open, public, policed areas of these Job Centres that ATOS interviews the sick and disabled, overheard by anyone who happens to be there.

From this month the jobless must look for work on a "revolutionary" new government website, Universal Jobmatch. Failure to do so could lead to their benefits being slashed. They will be tracked online to ensure that they fulfil requirements. The system, run by a private company, Monster, is known to be insecure but jobseekers must provide details such as national insurance numbers and CVs containing personal details.  IDS calls the system "brilliant" and boasts that "It will be accessible in internet cafes, libraries and on personal computers".  Let's hope for their own sakes that every jobseeker is computer literate, that if they don't own a computer, they can still find a library that hasn't been shut down, or that they can afford the hourly rate each time they need to visit an internet cafe.  

Next Tuesday, there will be a Commons vote to sanction a loss to the unemployed of their weekly £71 jobseeker's allowance for up to three years if they are judged to have serially breached the tough new conditions for the universal credit, including the obligation to attend job interviews, accept job offers or take on unpaid work experience. At the risk of stating the obvious, the government is determined to rid itself of its dependents however needy and deserving they may be.  

The welfare system is an unwieldy, overcomplicated, expensive mess. It is also abused by some, though not by nearly as many as the propaganda suggests. An overhaul is long overdue, but not by this inept government of playground bullies and the nobly intentioned but seriously bonkers IDS. Just look at Child Benefit: unfair, complicated, and already a disaster in its implementation.

The government has entrenched itself until 2015, but Cameron and the Conservative party made a contract with the people in 2010. Vote us out in five years' time if we fail to deliver on promises. There was that bit about protecting the winter fuel allowance, bus passes and free TV licences for over 75s and this week a worried Cameron, mindful of the implications in 2015, vowed to keep his promise on pension benefits. The opportunity will arise to kick the Coalition out on its ear, but what we need to know is if Labour will do it any differently. For the time being we can only dream of a better future and live in fear as Tory Westminster Council threatens to penalise the overweight. Who is next? Never send to know for whom the bell tolls as hate crime reigns.

Demonization of pensioners coming next...............................

[1] Wikipedia definition

[2] IDS response in November on behalf of the government to Professor Malcolm Harrington's third independent review of ATOS's Work Capacity Assessment