Wednesday, 24 October 2012

They give with one hand, and they take away with the other

It's great news that the judges have ruled that women can take equal pay issues to court - with a greatly extended time limit for getting redress. Hurrah!

But it's not such good news that Lord Bichard - who, until he retired in 2001, was the Civil Servant in charge of the former Benerfits Agency - has come up with a radical new idea that could affect everyone's entitlement to a State Pension. He has floated the notion that 'older people who are not very old could be making a useful contribution to civil society', and he is suggesting that they should be penalised (i.e. not paid their State Pension) if they don't work for the community in some way.

He is attempting to come up with new thinking 'to stop older people being a burden on the State'.

It's only an outline proposal at the moment. His idea has been greeted with coolness in several quarters. It has been pointed out that possibly a third of the physically active retired population do some kind of voluntary work, or otherwise offer their time unpaid to various organisations. It has also been pointed out that an army of old people exists who, often with no financial support, nurse and care for their still older but very infirm parents. And of course the State Pension is taxable, so part of it is always clawed back unless it is one's only taxable income. But some are waiving these points aside. Apparently it's all going to be looked at more closely.

So not only will most people have to wait till 67 (and perhaps even older) before their State Pension theoretically comes into payment, quite a lot of them may have to sign up to a work programme in order to actually receive the cash.

How degrading. Lining up in overalls to pick up litter or whatever. Bullied by supervisors.

I dare say there would be exemptions. Anyone who already had a paid job would escape (provided they were being taxed under PAYE, or were at least known to HMRC, and checks would be made). Anyone who could 'prove' they were caring for older parents might be let off (provided it were proved with a formal home inspection, and enough boxes ticked). Anyone who was unfit or unwell might be let off (provided they had a doctor's certificate, or passed a rather stiff statutory fitness test). I would hope that volunteer hospital drivers and hospital visitors would be exempt, but who can say?

Anyone who was well-off enough to forego their State Pension (possibly Lord Bichard, I'm thinking) could sidestep the work gangs altogether. Now surely that's wrong. Wrong because they have this choice, their circumstances allowing them to avoid an early turn-out on cold or rainy mornings, washing off graffiti, spreading grit, shovelling snow, and sweeping gutters. Wrong also that in effect they'd be paying a new but voluntary wealth tax. They'd be denying themselves an incoming that was once regarded as a universal benefit, truly the sign of a civilised society, with age the only qualifying condition. The State Pension isn't the same thing as unemployment benefit. It's the country's across-the-board acknowledgement of senior citizenship, a significant regular income to guarantee that in old age no citizen will actually be destitute.

That was the original concept: cash to keep you alive, and if you were thrifty enough, alive with a measure of dignity. Lord Bichard should think again.

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