Coronavirus is leaving a trail of destruction with jobs lost and the livelihoods of the self-employed and small business owners destroyed; school children falling behind; and, an appalling number of deaths which has touched families in every part of the country.
As attention now switches to the longer-term impact on the economy, I’m conscious of worries about how the government plans to balance the books.
Last week the BBC announced that from August, it will no longer honour the promise of free TV licences for over 75s. This has inevitably led to speculation about the triple lock, free bus passes and winter fuel payments.
Some argue that pensioners have enjoyed relative affluence over the last 20 years, conveniently forgetting the situation at the end of the 90s with elderly people literally forced to choose between eating and heating. That’s what led Gordon Brown to introduce the Minimum Income Guarantee and its successor, Pension Credit. These measures, and David Cameron’s triple lock, have served to reduce pensioner poverty although it’s worth remembering that just 2 million people claim Pension Credit with estimates that a further 1.2 million, who are eligible, fail to do so. That’s almost certainly down to means testing anxiety which always reduces actual payments over entitlement for our older citizens. It was this aversion to means testing which led Labour to introduce universal measures such as the TV licence, free bus travel and winter fuel allowance.
The triple lock was intended to provide a further guarantee of stability on incomes by ensuring that if there is price or wage inflation, pensioners will be protected. The triple lock can be criticised as can all other pensioner benefits but reversion to full-blooded means testing is a recipe for punishing those who have made their contribution to society and condemning them to an old age lived in poverty. Keeping it is also a Boris Johnson manifesto commitment.
More than 30,000 people, aged over 65, lost their lives during this awful pandemic, it would be intolerable if the government now expected pensioners who survive to pay a huge financial penalty.
Steve McCabe MP writes a weekly column for the Birmingham Mail every Wednesday