On the doorsteps
Seeking a firm footing
Old age pensions
THREE budgets have become part of Irish political legend. Charlie McCreevy’s tax individualisation idea in 2000 was branded an attack on stay-at-home mothers. John Bruton’s proposal to increase VAT on children’s shoes brought down Garret FitzGerald’s first government. But perhaps the most notorious budget of all came in 1924, when Ernest Blythe cut a shilling off the old age pension. The decision was political dynamite and was recycled by his political opponents for decades.
It’s safe to say that no political party will be scoring that particular own goal any time soon. With an election looming and the country’s coffers bulging, the Progressive Democrats have been first off the mark with a promise to the over 65s. Michael McDowell says the weekly pension will increase to €300 in the lifetime of the next government if the PDs are returned to power. Age Action has welcomed the fact that the Tánaiste’s proposal has highlighted the issue, but the interest group is now lobbying all parties to have the state pension index-linked to the average industrial wage.
“Age Action’s target is to raise the pension to 50 per cent of the average industrial wage by 2016,” explains Ballina-based spokesman James Reddiough. “At the moment politicians just take figures out of the air that they think are realistic. They say ‘we’ll give €300 by this time’ or ‘we’ll promise €200 by that’. It’s all very arbitrary. Age Action say there should be something set down that would link the pension to the average industrial wage.”
Minister for Finance Brian Cowen brought the non-contributory pension up €18 in the last budget, so it now stands at €200. The contributory pension is €209.30, having been raised by €16. The fuel allowance went from €14 to €18. Reaching the €200 mark fulfilled a pledge made in the 2002 Programme for Government, but Reddiough feels recent increases in the price of coal and briquettes underlined the need for index-linking.
“The real question,” comments David Stratton, Age Action’s head of policy and research, “is whether €200 is sufficient to live life with dignity. The answer is a definite ‘no’ in the case of a single pensioner living on a basic social welfare pension.”
As things stand, the pension is just over 33 per cent of the average industrial wage. The interest group say it should be ‘a matter of national shame’ that Ireland has ‘one of the lowest pension spends in Europe’ (three per cent of GDP compared to eleven per cent in the UK).
“Pensioners have contributed greatly to the economic success of this country and they are continuing to contribute through tireless voluntary work,” says Eamon Timmins, Age Action’s head of advocacy and communications. “It is only fair that they should share in the fruits of this economic success and not be dependent on a €5 increase in their pension one year and maybe €7 the next.”
A perusal of Irish parliamentary debates on pensions reveals some fascinating nuggets. In 1924, Clare man Andrew Moloney had his allowance withheld because the certificate of baptism he submitted listed his name as Tim. In 1932, Sir John Keane warned in Seanad Éireann that the proposed Old Age Pensions Bill could suffer from the fraud besetting the Blind Persons Act. (The Senator described watching a man successfully shoot a duck – ‘and as he stooped, his blind pension book fell out of his pocket’). In 1966, one opposition deputy complained that some pensioners were being denied an increase of 5/- because ‘they may be in possession of three scraggy hens’.
Voters aged over 65 currently account for 17 per cent of the electorate, and traditionally, a large proportion of pensioners cast their ballots. With 460,000 people dependent on the weekly payment as their main source of income, they constitute a potentially powerful voting bloc. As candidates are asked about pensions on the campaign trail, it’s unlikely there’ll be any mention of scraggy hens.
HARRY BARRETT Lab
“I totally support any proposal to increase the pension. Elderly people in Mayo have been very hard hit by the County Council’s decision to privatise the bin service. Given the massive increase in the cost of living, I’m in agreement with anything that will alleviate the pressures on pensioners. One elderly gentleman from the Erris region rang me because he cannot afford to pay for his bins. He has a disabled wife and he has a bill of €350 to pay. That, to a pensioner, is like asking the County Manager €5,000 for his bin service, based on his wages. The cost of living is creeping up at five, six, or seven per cent, and pension increases are going at two or three per cent. So it doesn’t take a genius to work out that pensioners are losing out in this inflated economy of ours. They have to be protected.”
MICHAEL RING FG
“There’s no point in giving a budget increase if it’s eaten up with the cost of living. It’s no good giving with one hand and taking away with the other. People should be able to live on the pension without having to scrounge for money. I would support Age Action in their call. It’s a scandal the way we treat pensioners. The fuel allowance should be available all year round. Pensioners should be able to use the travel pass for taxis, because there’s no transport infrastructure in the west of Ireland. The refuse collection should be included in the ‘household package’. The PDs and Fianna Fáil have been in government for most of the last 20 years. If they ever thought of the pensioners, they wouldn’t be just talking about this increase. Why didn’t they do it in the last budget? Why didn’t they do it in the last ten budgets?”