This is Caroline Lucas's speech to the National Pensioners Convention today.
Thank you all for inviting me here this afternoon and for all your work in support of a fairer deal for pensioners. At least 2 million of Britain’s pensioners currently live in poverty and I am sure I am not the only one here who fears this figure may increase significantly in the wake of one of the most regressive budgets this country has even seen.
A budget which will destroy half a million jobs in the public sector, according to the government's own estimates. And with the knock-on effect of at least as many jobs lost in the private sector.
When those public sector workers find themselves out of work they will, along with disabled people, feel the full force of the additional £7 billion worth of cuts in welfare spending, on top of the
£11 billion of cuts announced in June. The housing benefit regime will become much more harsh, risking a rise in homelessness. They will also find that the loss of public services that this budget represents will massively disadvantage them, and all the most vulnerable people in society who rely on those services.
Where's the fairness in a budget that lets vital public services go to the wall, hitting the poorest hardest? Hitting women hardest, hitting disabled people hardest and hitting pensioners hardest.
And all unnecessarily.
Yes, it’s important to reduce the deficit but cutting spending will not do this. What we need to do instead is address the collapse in tax revenues –with a fairer taxation system that ensures those who can afford to pay more into the pot do so.
That ensures tax avoidance and tax evasion are genuinely a top priority, not just when it suits.
And that doesn’t plan to cut, yes cut, corporation tax over the next few years, despite the fact we are apparently all in this together.
We need too to instead to invest in the future not decimate it. So I think we should, for example, be creating new green jobs with programmes like free insulation for all those homes that need it, giving priority to pensioners and those living in fuel poverty. Given that almost one in three older people live in homes with inadequate heating or insulation making their homes more difficult to heat and/or keep warm this would deliver real benefits to some of the most vulnerable in society. It would also, of course, help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the fight against climate change.
Not all the news is gloomy – I would like to welcome David Cameron’s recent announcement that he is backing long standing Green Party policy with the introduction of a universal state pension. This is something we have argued for over the years and which I know the National Pensioners Convention supports too. Cameron has promised £140 per week which is still £30 below the poverty line of £170 per week and the level of state pension Greens recommend. But it is a starting point.
I believe that we should treat longer life as an opportunity, not a problem. Older people have the wisdom, skills, experience and time to be of enormous benefit to our society. Pensioners deserve a state pension sufficient to cover their basic needs and enable them to live with pride and dignity. For me, a Citizen’s Pension is a citizen’s right. We don’t know many details yet about what Cameron is offering – and we certainly need to retain a degree of healthy scepticism about what might amount to little more than a press stunt to generate some positive headlines after so many negative ones.
We also need to press for any universal pension to not restrict an individual's right to continue working, and for any additional earnings to be taxed just as they would for those below the pension age. A Citizens Pension must be unconditional, given as a right and not subject to means testing. It must not be restricted to those people who have paid National Insurance contributions, which, for example currently leaves many women without a proper state pension due to having an incomplete payment record.
Scrapping means testing also helps address the fact that between an estimated one-quarter and one-third of pensioners are unlikely to claim the full benefits they are entitled to because the process can be both bureaucratic and humiliating, making a huge saving for the government at the expense of pensioners.
Crucially any funding for a Citizens Pension must not be at the expense of other necessary support for pensioners, like winter fuel grants, health care benefits and travel passes. These already make a difference to the lives of millions of pensioners and the Green Party is committed to protecting and extending them.
And funding for a fair and universal state pension must not be at the expense of decent social care. Around 80% of those in need of care at home do not get it from the state and again any provision is linked to means testing. Modern society is supposed to be about progress – but when we look at how pensioners and older people are treated we seem to have gone backwards.
Well, I want to reverse that trend and also maintain the principle of a free NHS by implementing in England and Wales the scheme that provides free social care to the elderly in Scotland. If the Scots can do it so can we. Yes there will be a price tag attached but the value of something is about much more than what is costs – something the coalition government have failed to realise.
It is wonderful to see so many of you here today committed to making sure that changes. To making the case for genuine fairness and to standing up for pensioners rights. The Green Party are with you all the way.