08 July 2011

Withered on the vine

The state pension was cut (made means-tested) in 2003. Those who were already receiving it, such as myself, or who were within sight of qualifying to receive it, such as some of my colleagues, had been paying into it for several decades during which there had been no hint that it would ever be cut (means-tested) although for some time state pensions had been described (apparently officially) as ‘withering on the vine’, and attempts to increase them in line with inflation or the national wage had presumably lapsed, although I had not been paying attention to what was going on. At any rate, the pension which I started to receive in 1996 was pathetic, bearing no relation to pensions in private schemes or to average salaries. It was increased each year by nugatory amounts, so that the gap between it and a realistic pension appeared to widen rather than be decreased.

In 2003 it was announced that state pensions were to become means-tested, the concept having apparently metamorphosed from that of a replacement for a salary to that of a benefit whose purpose was to save the most needy from starvation. The basic state pension itself was to fall in real terms, and it was no consolation to me that if I became poor enough I could apply for pension credit. This was something I would never do.

Probably many had (and have) the same aversion to this idea as I had myself, although in a less clear-cut form, and the failure (or refusal) of many to apply for benefits to which they were entitled has been ascribed to ‘pride’ or to the complicated nature of the forms to be filled in. (Snooping systems are now being set up to identify hidden carers and hidden cared-for, to induce them to apply for ‘benefits’.) When some element in living costs rose noticeably, optional bits and pieces for special purposes (such as for council tax and the winter fuel payment) were sent in addition to the pension, but not guaranteed to continue indefinitely.

The Coalition commenced its era of reform, announcing that the state pension would now be increased per annum in accordance with wages, the CPI, or 2.5 per cent, whichever is highest. This is called the triple lock. Cunningly, the government chose to use the CPI (Consumer Price Index) and not the RPI (Retail Price Index) which at the time was higher than all three.

Now that the withered state pension was rising by this guaranteed amount each year, the bonus for council tax could vanish. As energy prices were rising dramatically, proposals to scrap the winter fuel payment were opposed, and it remained, but has now been cut from £250 per annum to £200.

So the rises in the state pension have been offset by the loss of these temporary subsidies, and the rises in the amount actually received each year by an individual who chooses not to expose himself to state assessment by applying for top-up benefits are correspondingly reduced. Clever!