Coalition wage war on the elderly

First they came for the students, tripling tuition fees in higher education and condemning a new generation to financial worries and debt. Next they came for the public sector workers, imposing wage freezes and pension cuts. 

Then they came for those on benefits, capping the annual rise in benefits to just 1 per cent and getting the private company Atos to carry out work assessments on disabled people, assessments which have caused great distress and in some cases even suicide. 

It's clear that the Con-Dem coalition's tactic is to go after groups in our society one by one, while in the process enriching further the elite 1 per cent group of bankers, financiers and capitalists in whose interest they govern. 

It's classic divide and rule - pitting non-students against "lazy" students, private sector workers against "feather-bedded" public sector workers and "strivers" against "scroungers." 

Now it's Britain's elderly, threatened with loss of benefits and a further reduction in their living standards, who are in the line of fire. The neoliberals are itching to end universal benefits for old people and to introduce means-testing. 

Although he has ruled out any changes until after the next election, Work and Pensions Minister Iain Duncan-Smith gave a strong hint earlier this month that the winter fuel allowance and free bus passes and TV licences would be means-tested in the future. 

And when in November last year he was asked whether he supported universal benefits for pensioners, he replied: "How we give benefits to pensioners is always a matter for debate." 

His Tory colleague Ken Clarke recently seemed to bemoan the fact that the party had made commitments to protect pensioner benefits at the last election. 

"Before the election the Labour party started putting out leaflets accusing us of planning to take away benefits from pensioners. Very rapidly a promise was given that we wouldn't reduce benefits," the Minister without Portfolio said. 

Clarke went on to say that the coalition had been "tied down" by the pledge but said that he expected cutting pensioner benefits would be an "agenda item" when his party got round to compiling its 2015 election manifesto. 

Don't think it's just those nasty old Tories who have pensioner benefits in their sights. Deputy PM and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg warned last year that he would be "looking again at universal benefits paid to the wealthiest pensioners." 

In December 2011 Jenny Wilmott, chair of the Lib Dem back bench committee on work and pensions, said that because financial circumstances have changed, "you have to look at how to stretch the money further. There are benefits where we should look at means-testing - it should be considered seriously." 

Neoliberals claim that we need to make such changes to cut the deficit but the reality is that the old are being targeted for the same reason that students, public sector workers and benefit claimants have been targeted before them as part of an ideological drive to destroy the welfare state and the last vestiges of the progressive post-world war two mixed-economy settlement. 

Pensioners are standing in the way of the coalition's grand aim -to complete the "shrink the state" project first embarked on by Margaret Thatcher in 1979. The propaganda war against the elderly has already begun. 

Since the 2010 general election, we've seen a plethora of articles in the national media from representatives of various free-market think tanks calling for the elderly to pay a bigger share of the burden. 

A report by Reform published last November called for people to use more of their own money to fund their retirement and health costs - including, if necessary, selling off their own homes - and for the state pension, already one of the lowest in the developed world, not to automatically rise over time to keep up with inflation. 

In October last year the former head of the Benefits Agency Lord Bichard, whose own pension is estimated to be worth £120,000 a year, floated the idea that the elderly should earn their pensions by doing voluntary work and stop being a "negative burden" on the State. 

"We are now prepared to say to people who are not looking for work, if you don't look for work you don't get benefits," he declared. "So if you are old and you are not contributing in some way or another, maybe there is some penalty attached to that." 

Meanwhile, Swiss bank UBS analyst Lord Sefton said that young people "should be angry" at the way they are subsidising the older generation. "The current generation are very heavy contributors to the public purse, whereas previous generations have benefited from the public purse," he stated. 

Planning Minister Nick Boles doesn't just think that bus passes and prescriptions for old people should be means tested. He also appears to blame the elderly for preventing new houses from being built. 

According to Boles, they should recognise that "either they will spend their retirement propping up their kids and their grandkids or they can accept more development so their grandkids don't have the problem." 

Yet the lack of affordable housing in Britain is not the fault of the older generation but of ideological Thatcherites like Boles, who supported the sell-off of Britain's council houses and who oppose the mass building of new council houses in urban areas, a solution which would not only alleviate the housing crisis but also protect the green belt and our countryside. 

It's clear that the neoliberals want the rest of us to regard pensioners as a "burden" on our society and support cuts in their benefits and standard of living. But the arguments for cutting benefits for the elderly are bogus. 

If coalition ministers were really concerned with the cost of the free bus travel scheme for the elderly, then the best and simplest way to reduce those costs would be to renationalise bus transport in Britain. 

The scheme costs £1 billion because it is basically a hand-out to profit-hungry private companies that effectively have local authorities over a barrel. If the state-owned National Bus Company was re-established, the scheme would be much cheaper to operate. 

Renationalising our energy companies would also make things easier for old people and help save lives. Last week, Age UK warned that as many as 25,000 people were expected to die this winter due to health problems connected with the cold weather. 

"This is shocking. Winter is a risky time for elderly people but cold weather payments to vulnerable people have not kept in line with the hikes in energy prices. Millions of older people will have to make sacrifices to save on energy bills but often this is at risk to their health," Mervyn Kohler of Age UK said. 

The government has tried to sell its recent changes to the state pension, under which means-tested top-ups will be scrapped and the pension will be the same for everyone from 2017, as a sign of its commitment to pensioners. 

But while the changes do make the situation simpler, Britain still lags far behind other EU countries when it comes to the value of our pensions. 

"The £144 a week is far, far lower than the pension that would have been paid now if Barbara Castle's Serps 1970s scheme had been allowed to mature and not been emasculated by the Tories in the 1980s and lower even than the basic state pension would have been if Thatcher had not broken the link with average pay in 1980," the website Left Futures points out. 

In short, Britain's pensioners already get a terrible deal and if the coalition and free-market think tanks like Reform get their way, their lot will be even worse in the years to come. 

Instead of cutting back on pensioner benefits, a genuinely civilised and progressive country would be giving pensioners a New Deal, including a greatly increased state pension and increased benefits. 

But that will only happen when we get a government that puts the interests of the majority of ordinary people, whether young or old, above those of the 1 per cent. 

Neil Clark is co-founder of the Campaign For Public Ownership. You can follow the Campaign on Twitter@PublicOwnership and Neil Clark on Twitter @NeilClark66.
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