Friday, August 01, 2008

Old age pensioners battling on

TODAY is an important anniversary. One hundred years ago, on August 1, 1908, the Old Age Pensions Act became law.
On 31 March 1909 some 647,494 people were to receive the "Lloyd George", as they called it, after the prime minister responsible. To qualify you had to be over 70, of "good character" - if you'd done time in prison or were a habitual drunk you were out -and to have less than twelve shillings and one penny a week from other means. Not everyone received the full pension of five shillings a week, though the majority could.

Britain was not the first country in the Empire to have a pension. In that as other things, New Zealand was ahead, by nearly ten years in this case.

Before the Old Age Pensions Act, if you were fortunate enough to live beyond your working life you had to turn to charity for subsistence, or join the paupers in the workhouse -that wonderful Victorian Christian institution where husband and wife were separated, deprived of their own clothes and dignity, and treated as prisoners whose sin was to be poor. In 1891of England's 29 million population, 1.3 million were paupers, and over 60s comprised 31 per cent of these.

Very few people qualified for private pensions, and not many people earned enough to be able to save for their old age.

Some people did start campaigning for some kind of pension for the old. The borough of Deptford started a pension scheme for deserving residents, dependent on donations, in 1893. Some trade unions established contributory superannuation schemes. But these only covered a small number of workers. Then in December 1898, Reverend Francis Stead and Charles Booth addressed a meeting at Browning Hall, Southwark, where some 14 trade unions - representing engineers, carpenters, gas workers and shop assistants, cab drivers and clerks, etc, together with the National Union of Women Workers, agreed to launch a campaign for an old age pension. A year later this gave rise to the National Pensions Committee, and ten years later the pension was law.

Along the way the Boer war gave MPs an excuse to delay doing anything, but calls from the national pensions committee, the TUC, and the Labour Representation Committee, bearing a 799,750 signature petition, gave them an extra push.

I have gathered all this information from an excellent large-format 16 page book called "The Battle for the Old Age Pension", published by the National Pensioners Convention, to mark the 100th anniversary but also to help their campaign for a decent state pension today. Researched and written by Joe Harris, with editing, design and additional text by Neil Duncan-Jordan, it is well-illustrated and a good educational read.

I bought my copy from my old comrade and friend Dot Gibson, who has become a leading figure in the National Pensioners Convention, and last night I was pleased and very pleasantly surprised to see Dot, who has worked hard in so many campaigns with little publicity, over the years, finally getting a well-desrved few minutes on TV. It would be nice to see and hear more of her and other campaigners like her, instead of the smarmy careerist politicians and vacuous "celebrities" of whom we get so much on TV.

As Dot pointed out, that five shillings given by Lloyd George's government was 25 per cent of the average earnings , whereas today's 93 quid is but 17 per cent of average pay. With food and fuel prices zooming, many old people could once again be faced with the choice of whether to heat or eat.

Pensioners aren't necessary the poorest people in Britain. But whereas some, like me, have benefited from occupational pensions on top of the state money, others have seen their pensions and savings go down the pan, through trusting in dodgy "respectable" companies and listening to government advice. Often old people are unaware of their entitlements or reluctant to apply for means-tested benefits. They don't want to burden their children who, with student loans and mortgages are themselves well into debt. And too often the old are patronised as charity cases, or seen as a "problem" for society, rather than enitled to enjoy some of the wealth which their past labours helped to create.

On the other hand, now that we are living longer, and before the government finds ways to make us work on longer till we drop, having time on our hands, and in many cases organising experience, without the worries of childcare, or fear of being blacklisted and unable to find a job, retirement can provide some of us with a golden opportunity for activism - and not just campaigning for our pensions alone. Meanwhile, with an estimated one in three pensioners facing future poverty, younger people will need to take up the fight for their old age pensions now, rather than wait till they're retired.



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