Retiring? Try a move to Ireland, like 75,000 other UK pensioners

State benefits are more generous and crime is rarer. By Roger Dobson and Alan Murdoch
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The Independent Online
Shangri-La has been spotted at last and it's across the Irish Sea - at least if you're a British pensioner.

Free travel on buses and trains, free television licences, free telephone rentals, cheap power and extra cash from the Government, not to mention a milder climate, near crime-free communities and a healthy routine of golf, sailing and walking amid breathtaking scenery, are luring increasing numbers of British pensioners into an Irish retirement.

New figures from the Department of Social Security show that people with UK pensions are increasingly moving overseas where many get their pensionsmade up to higher local rates, and Ireland is a prime destination. More than 75,000 UK pension-holders now live in the republic, almost double the number a decade ago and far more than the 29,000 who get their British pensions paid in Spain.

"They look after the pensioners much better over here," said May Sparks, 72, who moved with her husband, Charles, from London to Co Roscommon seven years ago. "We get a free TV licence, free telephone rental and some calls, and some free electricity, as well as free transport. We are better off here."

The new figures show that 76,943 UK pensions are paid in Ireland, compared with 42,295 a decade ago. The Irish phenomenon is paralleled to a lesser extent elsewhere: over the same period, the number of pensioners in Spain has increased from 12,222 to 29,811; in Germany from 8,891 to 20,902; and in France from 4,719 to 12,527.

Besides enjoying a range of extra benefits they cannot get in the UK, more than 8,000 of those who have retired to Ireland with their UK pensions are also getting their incomes boosted to the higher Irish rates. The British old age pension is currently pounds 61.15 for a single person and pounds 97.75 for a couple. The standard Irish pension is equivalent to pounds 79 for a single person and pounds 134 for a couple. The Irish pensioner also gets a pounds 6-a-week living alone allowance.

"The figures are an indictment of the British government," said Les Paul, a leading campaigner for better pensions in Britain, and secretary of Wales' Pensioners. "Ireland, for example, is a much poorer country and yet it treats its pensioners - and ours - far better. We should be ashamed of what we expect pensioners in this country to survive on. No wonder they are going abroad. Non-pensioners find it hard to believe that when people reach 80, the Government rewards them with an extra 25 pence a week.

"It is a disgrace that pensioners overseas end up with such a small amount that they have to have it made up to a decent level by the governments in their new homes."

Perhaps Ireland's biggest attraction is the range of complimentary services, known as "the frees". At 66, all Ireland's pensioners become eligible for the much-valued free bus and train travel pass, (plus a free companion pass for those who are disabled) introduced in the Sixties by Charles Haughey when he was a welfare minister.

Other allowances include a free electricity allowance of 1,500 units each year, or the equivalent in gas; free television licence; free telephone rental, plus 20 free call units every two months; means-tested fuel allowance, between October and April, of pounds 5 a week; Christmas bonus of 75 per cent of the weekly pension.

In Britain, the Christmas bonus is virtually the only extra available from central government and remains at the pounds 10 level it was fixed at when Ted Heath was Prime Minister.

A DSS spokesman said that comparisons between pensions were "fraught with difficulties", and said that the standard of living in Ireland was higher than in the UK.

It is not know what proportion of the UK pension-holders who have their pensions paid in Ireland are Irish citizens who spent their working lives in the UK, but it is thought that the majority will have been born in this country and have chosen to emigrate when they retired.

May Sparks's husband, Charles, 73, was born in Charing Cross Hospital and never lived outside London until he and his wife went to Ireland on holiday and eventually bought their pounds 21,000 cottage in the tiny community of Caldra, near Elphin, in Co Roscommon.

"I wanted to move in to the country and we were in Ireland on holiday when we saw this old cottage, bought it and came back permanently two years later," Mr Sparks said.

"For the first couple of years my husband loved it, but for me it was dreadful," Mrs Sparks said. "I have Irish roots, but I had lived in Victoria for 50 years and I just didn't know any people, and there was nothing to do. Now I have made friends and got involved with a lot of groups."

A spokesman for the Dublin-based Age and Opportunity, which was set up eight years ago to change attitudes about ageing in the republic, said that older people in Ireland are seen as a positive resource.

"Older people are a resource that can be used and we are doing that in Ireland," said John Cullen. "There has been a big increase in active retirement, in making valuable use of those later years. As a result, older people appreciate themselves, therefore Irish society appreciates older people."

But Mr Cullen sounded a note of caution for UK pensioners planning a move. "Our advice to anyone planning to relocate to Ireland is to make sure that they have thoroughly researched the area they are going to and what they are entitled to. Not everyone is entitled to the frees. Above all, they need to make contact with people before coming over because it can be lonely at first.

"They should also be aware that, in reality, they could find themselves retiring into a situation where they might be worse off than where they were before."

May Sparks added a note of caution of her own. "Nobody ever looks at a clock here. If they say that they are coming at eight, you're lucky if they arrive by 12, but we still get up at seven because we can't get into this laid-back business."

A decade ago, 378,000 UK pensions were paid to retired people living overseas, and the new DSS data shows that this year the figure has climbed to 750,000. The least popular spots for retirement with a UK pension include Iraq, where just two UK pensions are paid, the same as in Vietnam, Mongolia and Cuba. A number of countries boast a single UK pensioner, including Afghanistan, Laos, New Caledonia, Angola and Burundi.

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