Wendy Chamberlain: ‘The UK’s approach to pensioner poverty is failing — it’s time for change’

Around two million pensioners live in poverty.

That is almost twice the population of Birmingham, England’s biggest city after London, or 4 times the population of Edinburgh.

Later life poverty is something we all ought to be outraged about and work our hardest to prevent. Not just because it could be us, or our parents. Not just because it is unfair for people who have worked hard to spend their twilight years struggling. But because when people in older age enter poverty, it is much much harder to escape, with working out of the picture.

There are two strains of thought that dominate my emails and letters on this issue. The despondent messages from people who have worked all their lives, but now instead of being able to relax into retirement, they spend all their energy scrimping and saving. Feeling forgotten in a society which focuses on youth and productivity.

Then there are the simply desperate ones. People who have never written to their MP before, but who are doing so now. They tell me how cold they are. So very cold and very alone.

It’s hard to feel positive when things seem so bleak. And the data tells us that there are far too many older people living in poverty.

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However, last week I felt some cause for optimism – my bread and butter as a Liberal Democrat – as MPs from all parties came together for an event in Parliament with the charity Independent Age to discuss the different parties’ priorities for fixing this mess. The charity, which focuses on financial hardship in later life, launched its Two Million Too Many campaign to ensure that older people can better access existing support, have long-term financial security, and be heard in society. These are all things I’m supportive of.

For me, the most important thing is to keep the triple lock. Inflation remains high, as are energy prices, and the world is becoming less stable rather than more. None of us can predict what the markets will do this year. But we can control the small things, and triple locking the state pension value is one of those things.

More work needs to be done to ensure that people in later life can access support that already exists.  Too many older people are struggling to make ends meet but are not aware that there is support out there they could be entitled to such as Pension Credit.  The latest UK Government figures show that up 880,000 eligible households did not receive this entitlement: this is far too high. DWP must do more to make sure this help reaches the right people.

It is vital that we tackle the gender pension gap. Older women are significantly more likely to live in poverty than men, with a third of women not on track to achieve even a basic lifestyle in retirement. A lot of the policy changes we need are long term, looking at preventing future generations falling into poverty. It is time that we reviewed auto-enrolment and considered higher contributions. And we absolutely have to look at how unpaid carers can build up savings whilst out of the workforce.

But in the meantime for older women today, the UK Government must follow the Ombudsman’s report and put in place compensation for the WASPI women. It must finish its LEAP exercise to correct the underpayments it has been making to women. And it must take proper action to make sure that everyone is getting what they are entitled to. Being a caregiver should never mean living in poverty.

I want the UK to be the best place in the world to live, work, and grow old. 2 million pensioners in poverty and rising tells us that current policies are failing. It is time for change.

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