By Mary Phillips
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Decent state pensions are a right, not charity

This article is over 12 years, 9 months old
Around a sixth of Britain's population – some 11 million people – are pensioners. Yet the basic state pension is just 15 percent of the average wage, down from 25 percent when pensions were first paid in 1909.
Issue 2145

Around a sixth of Britain’s population – some 11 million people – are pensioners. Yet the basic state pension is just 15 percent of the average wage, down from 25 percent when pensions were first paid in 1909.

The arguments 100 years ago against introducing the pension were similar to those more recently put against the minimum wage – that the country ‘couldn’t afford it’. But our great grandparents won the state pension by fighting for it.

The Victorian view of the elderly poor was that they were responsible for their plight. Old people who were put out of work were threatened with the workhouse.

Here men and women were separated in communal dormitories and given rough uniforms. The food was more or less a starvation diet, mostly a thin, watery porridge known as gruel, and small amounts of bread and cheese. The inmates had to labour – men at stone-breaking and women at picking tar out of old rope. People did their best not to go there, but some had no choice.

Herbert Stead was the warden of the Browning Settlement in the south London borough of Southwark, one of the most deprived areas in the country. ‘I saw men past work persist in trying to work,’ he said. ‘I saw men, who trembled for very age, hawking trifles in the streets and tottering on through mud and sleet and icy wind.

‘Many old men came to me with tears running down their cheeks asking as if I were almighty God to have pity on them and give them work. They loathed the gate of the workhouse, I fear, a deal more than the gate of hell.’

Stead invited people to a meeting in the Browning Hall in November 1898 to hear William Pember Reeves from New Zealand – the first country in the British Empire to have an old age pension. The audience, of around 400 people, was riveted.

Social movement

A conference on campaigning for state pensions in Britain, held in December that year, attracted about 40 representatives from trade unions, friendly societies and cooperatives. Between them they represented a quarter of a million people and a national movement was set up.

Finally, in 1908, a law was passed bringing in a state old age pension. The pension was paid out of taxation rather than from insurance contributions, and so was redistributive. Even though the pension was just 25 percent of average earnings, old people felt they were being treated as human beings at last.

The pension was raised from five shillings a week to ten shillings at the end of the First World War. This still left pensioners in poverty.

In his book, Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell described the wretched situation of old men trying to live on the basic pension in the 1930s: ‘Till meeting them I had never realised there are people in England who live on nothing but the old age pension of ten shillings a week.

‘His food was bread and margarine and tea – towards the end of the week dry bread and tea without milk – and perhaps he got his clothes from charity.’

The state pension was raised again in the 1940s and in the 1970s the Labour government linked the state pension to average earnings. Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government broke that link in 1980.

This year the full basic state pension is just £90.70 per week for a single person and £145.05 a week for a couple. Many women do not even get the basic state pension because they were unable to pay full national insurance contributions when raising children or looking after relatives.

Before the first pensions act was passed, Scottish Labour leader George Barnes said, ‘Pensions are for everybody. They are not a dole, but a right. They are not charity. A man should be proud to take a pension for the service he had rendered to the state’ (and a woman too!).

Mary Phillips is vice-chair of Southwark Pensioners Action Group, which will be taking part in a national day of action on pensions on Monday 6 April called by the National Pensioners Convention. There will be events all over the country, including a rally at the Department for Work and Pensions in Whitehall, London

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