Give terminally ill early access to their state pension, urges charity

Allowing people with a terminal illness early access to their state pension could lift thousands out of poverty.

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The UK Government could stop terminally ill people of working age being driven into poverty by increasing its annual spend on the State Pension by just 0.1%.

New research from Loughborough University, funded by the end of life charity, Marie Curie, shows that giving this group early access to their State Pension could almost halve their rate of poverty across the UK, lifting more than 8,600 dying people out of poverty every year.

The cost of introducing this change, £114.4 million per year, is 0.1% of the annual State Pension bill and just £4 million more than the Department for Work and Pensions spent on overpaying the State Pension in error last year.

Those who die in working age are twice as likely to spend their final year of life in poverty compared to people of pension age. Marie Curie says this change would reduce the likelihood of a terminal diagnosis driving working age people into poverty.

The charity also highlights that most people who die in working age have paid their national insurance contributions for 24 years.

Marie Curie says the change would be transformative for families affected by terminal illness and could be delivered at a minimal cost to the taxpayer.

The charity’s Dying in Poverty campaign has shown how terminal illness can force working age people into poverty, with one in four people who dies in working age spending their last year of life below the poverty line.

Mark and Cheryl Whittaker, aged 61 from Warrington, Cheshire, have been struggling financially since Cheryl was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Mark said: “The oncologist basically said just go and enjoy the rest of your life together while you can, which was traumatic in itself. Financially, things are just as distressing as the cancer, we’re surviving on credit cards.

“Our bills are excessive. Cheryl is now incontinent, so I have to do a lot of extra washing. Her neuropathy affects the feet and toes so she’s always cold but once she starts shivering, it’s hard to stop her. Sometimes I just sit in bed with her to try to get her warmed up again.

“We’ve had to cut back on everything. Our bank account has been £2,000 overdrawn for best part of a year now. And for that we get charged £600 a year.

“Emotionally, when things aren’t going well, it is too much. I’ve sat in the living room on my own crying. The lack of government support has left us feeling worthless.

“Accessing Cheryl’s State Pension would change everything. Cheryl worked all her life, 30 years in a managerial role, and now she’ll get nothing. Giving her access to her State Pension would give us back some dignity. It would give us our independence.”

The campaign has substantial public support, with over 160,000 petition signatures and polls show that 75% of UK adults support giving dying people early access to their State Pension.

Furthermore, 72% believe the government has a responsibility to protect terminally ill people from falling into poverty.

Mark Jackson, Marie Curie Senior Policy & Research Manager, says: “If you are diagnosed with a terminal illness under the age of 65 you are more likely to be driven into poverty as a direct result of that illness.

“Why? Because the benefits that are available to working age adults are simply not fit for purpose.

“The State Pension is the single most effective safeguard against poverty in our social security system. But no matter how long they have paid in, people living with terminal illness in working age are denied this security.

“Most people unlucky enough to die in working age have paid their national insurance contributions for 24 years. Having contributed for so many years, it is only right that the State Pension supports people when they need it.

“Extending that safeguard would prevent thousands of people living with terminal illness falling into poverty at the end of their lives. It is the minimum of what a civilised society should expect to do for dying people.

“We’ve done all the leg work. We’re giving the Government a solution that could be implemented at an affordable cost to the state. In fact, the cost could almost be entirely covered by savings made by simply reducing overpayment errors by the DWP.

“We urge the Government to account for this in its Spring Budget.”

In support of the campaign, Helen Barnard, Associate Director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Research and Policy Director at Pro Bono Economics, says: “It’s quite simply wrong that so many people are ending their lives in hardship.

“Families are forced to feel all the stress and guilt of being unable to make them comfortable, rather than being able to treasure the last few days, weeks or months with their loved ones.

“Surely, we can all agree that we must ensure dying people are protected from poverty, and this is an eminently affordable way to do the right thing.”

Dr Juliet Stone, Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Research in Social Policy, who carried out the research, added: “Our analysis of poverty at the end of life produced the shocking finding that 90,000 people are estimated to die in poverty each year, and that the risk of poverty is highly concentrated among people who die before pension age.

“This latest work demonstrates that the simple and cost-effective measure of giving working age people with terminal illness access to the State Pension could be a highly effective policy to reduce the risk of poverty for people at a time when they are already extremely vulnerable, both personally and financially.”

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