Gordon Brown should not get any plaudits but it was his decision in 2003 to introduce Pension Credit – the benefit intended to top up the State Pension to an acceptable level - which contributed to the deep unpopularity of the Conservative’s plans to means test Winter Fuel Payment.
Though the Tory plan was never spelt out in detail, the numbers they used suggest they planned to implement means testing by only giving Winter Fuel Payment to pensioners claiming Pension Credit. The huge difficulty with that approach is that around a third of the poorest pensioners who are entitled to it do not claim it. If in failing to claim Pension Credit they also lost Winter Fuel Payment it would be a disaster. Someone surviving on the basic state pension of £122 a week would lose one of their most significant other sources of income – the £200-£300 of Winter Fuel Payment.
Independent Age and IPPR have looked at four options for means testing Winter Fuel Payment and concluded that linking it to the Pension Credit is one of the most regressive. No wonder that other parties queued up to oppose the idea, including partners-in-government the Democratic Unionist Party and, even more embarrassingly, the Conservative party in Scotland.
But in opposing the expected policy we are losing sight of the bigger problem: Pension Credit itself. What started as a well-intentioned plan to get money to those most in need has failed because around a third of those who should claim it do not. That means over one million pensioners living unnecessarily in poverty.
The introduction of the flat rate pension in 2016 is a tacit admission that the policy has failed but it does not solve the problem for those 1m+ who had already begun receiving the state pension before April 2016 (and indeed, as the flat rate pension is effectively phased in, for many who are approaching state pension age).
Our response to this huge policy failure has often been to blame pensioners themselves. They are, we are told, too ‘proud’ to claim Pension Credit. Yet the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) own research shows that the main reasons for not claiming the benefit are simply because pensioners don’t know about it and, if they do, think that they are not eligible. Certainly it is not hard to believe that a generation that lived through the privations of the second world war and its aftermath might think it normal to survive on the basic state pension and no more.
Sadly we too have accepted this as normal. Take up of Pension Credit has been stable at around 60% for several years and, despite work by charities, some councils and the DWP itself, shows no signs of improving. Nor will it without a far more concerted effort to help the poorest pensioners claim.
Yet that looks less likely than ever, with the flat rate pension meaning that those who need to claim Pension Credit will gradually reduce in number as existing non-claimants die.
It is not surprise then that none of the parties even mentioned this as an issue in their manifestos. The government should redress that and begin a concerted effort to reach the poorest pensioners and get them onto pension credit.
That’s partly because it should be unacceptable to us all that over a million pensioners live on so little.
But it’s also because without a simple but comprehensive way to identify and reach the poorest pensioners there will never be an effective way targeting resources to them and money that could in theory be channelled from wealthier people – or from any other sources – will stay where it is.
Gordon Brown’s ambition to find a way of targeting those in greatest need should remain a key policy objective even if his solution has - so far - failed.