Pension protesters call for end to means testing

Pensioners took to the streets in protest when the Government's controversial Pensions Credit scheme was introduced yesterday, claiming it should be replaced by an increase in the basic pension.

Ministers say half of Britain's eight million pensioner households will be £400 a year better off with the new credit. But pressure groups say the means-tested scheme is too complex and expensive to run.

Accompanied by a piper, the 100-strong crowd marched from Smith Square to Portcullis House, central London, stopping on the way to drop off letters at the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative Party headquarters.

Malcolm Wicks, the Pensions Minister, was jeered when he addressed a meeting organised by the National Pensions Convention. "Today sees the introduction of a Pension Credit scheme," he said. "Let us do our best to make sure that every elderly person eligible has the opportunity to secure it. I am going to take up a target of 100 per cent and I want everyone to claim it." He said that 1.3 million people will be better off as a result of Pension Credit, and to heckles of "tax the rich", he said there was no other way for pensioners to be better off.

"As a socialist my particular responsibility is to help the poorer people rather than the rich," he said. "The fact is we all know that there are some pensioners with very good occupational pension schemes and there are some pensioners, often women, who are poorer and never got the chance for such a pension scheme."

He claimed that since 1997 the increase in the basic pension had gone up "one hell of a lot" and pointed to various other new schemes for the elderly, such as winter fuel payments and free television licences. He added: "You do not represent all pensioners. I've got to listen to the silent voices, the people who are not here, the over 80-year-olds for example and those who need our resources. John Cryer, Labour MP for Hornchurch, attacked the Tories' plan to reinstate the link between basic state pensions and average earnings.

"I've always believed in universal benefits and that's partly why I came into politics," he told the pensioners. "The fact that the Tories have made this announcement, I would treat with a great deal of suspicion. They will inevitably rob that money from other areas.

"I want to see public spending in this country going up - this will not happen if the Tories get back into power. They believe in the law of the jungle and nothing else."

Mr Wicks said that the announcement was "opportunistic and ill thought-out".

Ron White, 77, from London, told the meeting: "We shouldn't have to come and beg for money just because we are finding that our basic living quality is going down."

He told Mr Wicks not to "try to be Robin Hood" but to make his first priority to make the benefit system right, to listen and to do something.

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