Pensioners have not only been impacted by rising living costs, but by continued systematic failures from the DWP, the Government must do better

Two million older people in the UK are living in poverty, equating to one in six. Another million are sitting just above the poverty line, silently struggling to get by. This is a shocking number of people and highlights the Government’s failure to properly care for older generations. As the cost of living crisis continues, Age UK found that 4.2 million people have been forced to cut back on groceries while mortality rates are rising due to unaffordable heating costs. These figures are shameful, and show that there is much more to do to support older people in poverty.

Pensioners have not only been impacted by rising living costs, but by continued systematic failures from the Department of Work and Pensions. The most obvious example is the experience of women born in the 1950s – WASPI women. Who, as a result of the DWP’s own errors, have lost out on the ability to properly plan for their retirements. Not only are their retirements impacted, but their financial autonomy has also been lost and many have been pushed into poverty as a result, or required to work for longer. The Parliamentary Ombudsman continues to consider their case, and I hope that we will see an outcome to this injustice as soon as possible.

While I welcome the eventual decision to keep the triple lock for this year, the hesitation to confirm it’s implementation it is rather telling of the Government’s attitude towards pensioners. Again, errors in DWP systems has meant that we have seen pensioners nearing or reaching pension age, trying to top up their national insurance records, and seeing their money disappear without a trace. Only after weeks of chasing by their local MP, an advisor or through media coverage are they seeing their money reappear. This problem is exacerbated by jammed helplines and people losing track of their savings after paying them over to the Government. It is abundantly clear that the Future Pensions Centre needs adequate resourcing to ensure their systems align and function properly. I think a receipting system would also be extremely beneficial so that people can have proof of their payments, particularly given that trust is so low.

One of the simplest tools that the Government can use to help lift pensioners out of poverty is pension credit. While this top up benefit is extremely useful, uptake remains stuck at 63%, indicating that many pensioners are missing out as a result of either not knowing about it, being unsure on whether they are eligible, or struggling with the stigma attached to needing it. I have been in this role for over three years now and have had countless conversations about how to increase uptake. We clearly need more than leaflets – instead, a long-term strategy should be implemented. One that focuses on sharing data to identify those who are eligible for pension benefit and then ensuring they actually claim it.

A long-term cause of pensioner poverty is high housing costs which are also increasingly impacting pensioners as more and more continue to rent privately into older age. Twice as many rent now than they did a decade ago and this trend is set to continue as young people increasingly struggle to get onto the housing ladder. This is clearly a problem facing multiple generations which is why, whilst we must tackle the poverty immediately in front of us, we have to look at the long-term drivers of poverty amongst pensioners and put a stop to them.

One of the biggest causes of poverty is the gender pension gap. At 35%, this is the result of predominantly women having to take periods of time out of work for child rearing or caring responsibilities. This causes women to be much more likely to miss out on savings for their retirement. This is of course the result of the gender pay gap which in of itself needs addressed, however, work must be done to allow female pensioners a more equal footing once they reach retirement.

I’ve talked about a lot of different moving parts to the overall pension and poverty landscape. But what we need – what older people need – is a comprehensive plan and a Westminster Commissioner for Older People and Ageing.

Wendy Chamberlain MP

Wendy Chamberlain is the Liberal Democrat MP for North East Fife, and was elected in 2019. She currently undertakes the roles of Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), and Liberal Democrat Chief Whip.