With pensioner poverty on the rise, now is not the time to scrap free TV licences for the over-75s, writes Stephen Lambert.

FOR many people, it feels like the region's pensioners have never had it so good. Old age benefits have been protected through the Government’s "triple lock". Pensioners' incomes have risen, with free TV licences for all over 75-year olds. A new grey economy has emerged to meet the aspirations of better-off pensioners – sometimes referred to as Woopies (well-off older persons).

In fact, better-off pensioners are only a minority of older people in the North today. Many have little or no work-based pension income and depend mostly on state benefits to which they’re entitled – though the value of Basic State Pension is expected to rise in the next decade. Pensioner poverty has been rediscovered. It’s on the increase again. Now is not the time to abolish free TV licences.

Previous studies have found that older people are at a higher risk of poverty than average. At the turn of the twentieth century, Rowntree in his famous study of York, found a high risk of poverty in old age.

Although the post-war welfare state abolished the abject grinding poverty of the inter-war period – studies by Alan Walker and Chris Philipson in the 1970s revealed that millions of older people weren’t sharing in the fruits of national prosperity. They were in relative poverty.

The Northern Echo:

Councillor Stephen Lambert

From 1979 to 1998, inequality in old age widened. The income of the top 40 per cent of pensioners increased by two-thirds, whereas for the bottom fifth real growth rose by only ten per cent. By 1994 one-third of pensioners were paying income tax and were comfortably off, one-third were at or below the official poverty line and the rest were somewhere in-between.

Inequality in retirement is both class and gender based and reflects too often inequalities in working life. Blue collar workers are less likely to be covered by good, final salary- pension schemes. Working class women often had to rely on their husband’s record of national insurance stamps rather than qualifying in their own right.

Years spent in bringing up children, unemployment, or in low paid work, or in companies not providing work pensions, have all tended to reduce the amount of income available to people when they stop work. For these pensioners, especially the over-75s, poverty is deep and corrosive.

By 1997 the newly-elected Labour government pledged to eradicate pensioner poverty. Pension Credit was introduced to provide a minimum income guarantee in old age. In the next two decades, poverty in old age was halved.

According to new figures by the independent think tank, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, pensioner poverty is on the rise again. For the foundation director, Campbell Robb, "Pensioner poverty is a problem that we thought had gone away."

Poverty in old age started worsening in 2012-13. By 2017, 16 per cent of pensioners were living in poverty. For those in social housing, the figure was 31 per cent and for those caught in the private rented sector it was a staggering 36 per cent. Nationally, 1.9m older people are trapped in poverty and this figure is likely to exceed 2m by 2022. The over-75s, mostly women, are 50 per cent more likely to be in poverty than the 65-74 age group. In fact, one in four of the over-75s is eligible for pension credit (£164 for a single pensioner) because their income is so low.

CONTRARY to popular belief the UK Basic State Pension is one of the lowest in Europe and pensioners' contribution to the economy, in unpaid jobs such as child or community care is, huge.

But research done by Age UK reveals that lots of older people aren’t claiming the money they are entitled to. Four in ten County Durham pensioners aren’t getting pension credit. The value of unclaimed old age benefits amounted to £35bn – an increase of £400m from 2017.

In Newcastle's Kenton Ward alone, through the work of Kenton Our Place project, £167,000 was awarded to pensioners who hadn’t claimed their pension credit or related attendance allowance. Much more needs to be done by central government to tackle increased poverty in old age.

As a society we can’t abandon those older people on the lowest incomes to miss out on what they’re due. An increased national and regional public awareness take-up campaign of pension credit is needed. Older people, some with memories of the long shadow of the "nash" (national assistance), are either unaware of pension credit or are too proud to claim it.

We can’t expect older people to do all the hard work of claiming it themselves. It’s unfair to expect this generation, some of whom are likely to be in poor physical or mental health with declining sources of informal support, to navigate the complexities of the benefits system.

For help in claiming what’s due, call Age UK on 0800 055 6112 or Independent Age on 0800 319 6789.

  • Stephen Lambert is a Newcastle City Councillor and former senior lecturer in Social Policy at Bishop Auckland College. He is a member of the Council’s Welfare Rights Working Group.