It's shameful that some two million British pensioners are currently living in poverty. According to figures from the European Commission's statistical agency Eurostat published this week, around one in three older people in the UK are facing life on the breadline. It puts our pensioners on a par with those living in countries such as Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, and a long way behind those living in the Czech Republic, where just one in 20 pensioner lives in poverty.
One in five British people aged 60 and over are skipping meals to save money on food‚ while two-fifths are struggling to afford essential items, according to the charity Age Concern and Help the Aged. In effect, many of our grandparents and parents are living their retirement as second-class citizens, unable to afford life's essentials, let alone the occasional little luxury.
So it was interesting to read on Thursday a "Tackling Pensioner Poverty" report from MPs on a Department of Work and Pensions committee. It notes that the current Labour government's pension credit initiative has helped lift large numbers of pensioners out of poverty, but that take up of the benefits is declining. It recommends that the DWP looks at more innovative techniques to ensure that the benefit reaches as many vulnerable pensioners as possible. At the same time, local authorities should do more to increase take-up of Housing and Council Tax Benefit.
"Working to end pensioner poverty once and for all should be a real focus for both this government – and for the next," says Andrew Harrop, head of public policy at Age Concern and Help the Aged. "Older people should be able to live with dignity in retirement, not be forced to scrimp and save. As our society ages, policymakers must wake up to the short-sightedness of failing to act on what is an absolutely crucial agenda."
It is crucial but, judging from this week's report, the Government is struggling to find real solutions. I asked Tom McPhail, pensions expert at adviser Hargreaves Lansdown for his solution to the problem. "The only meaningful way to deal with pensioner poverty is to reform the pension system," he told me. "The Government should scrap the laughably complicated multi-layered system of state pensions and means-tested welfare and replace them with a simple, universal, more generous basic state pension. Anything less is not only not going to work, it is also dishonest."
Strong words, but the situation demands real action rather than more talking. The fact that even a tiny proportion of our pensioners is spending time in penury is something we should all be ashamed about.
*Talking about being ashamed, I have little sympathy with the two young Britons flung into a Brazilian jail this week after they were accused of lying about being robbed. Police claimed the two 23-year-olds fraudulently claimed £1,000 for iPods and cameras which were later found hidden under their hotel beds. Whether or not this is true, insurance fraud is theft and the more people realise that there could be grave consequences for making false claims the better.