Pensioners' challenge to political parties

East Anglia's pensioners have thrown down the gauntlet to the political parties, challenging them to adopt a six-point manifesto to improve the lives of older people, or face the consequences at the polls.

East Anglia's pensioners have thrown down the gauntlet to the political parties, challenging them to adopt a six-point manifesto to improve the lives of older people, or face the consequences at the polls.

With a general election just months away, political leaders were warned 'ignore us at your peril' by representatives of the country's 11 million pensioners, whose votes will be crucial.

The National Pensioners' Convention, Britain's biggest pensioners' organisation, flexed its muscles with a challenge to all parties and would-be MPs to support its calls for a better deal for older voters.

Its demands include raising the basic state pension above the official poverty level, free long-term care, free UK-wide travel on all public transport and scrapping council tax.

It also wants the winter fuel allowance raised to �500 per household and government action to end age discrimination.

The NPC said voters should cast their ballots for candidates prepared to sign up to its manifesto which, it conceded, had not changed its launch in 2005 - highlighting, the NPC claims, a lack of progress on the issues.

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Dot Gibson, NPC general secretary said: 'Pensioners are fed up with MPs of all parties being more interested in their own expenses than the needs of their older constituents. One in four older people still live in poverty, more than 20,000 die every year of cold related illnesses and the cost and quality of care that pensioners receive is a national scandal.

'Whilst it's true that pensioners don't vote on block, they are more likely than any other section of society to turn out to the polling booth. That's why all the political parties need to realise that if they want our votes, they must start addressing our concerns.'

Cliff Horne, chairman of the NPC-affiliated Anglia Pensioners' Association, said: 'Our message to the parties is 'ignore us at your peril'. It would not be a very wise move.

'We have got a lot of clout. English people take things too easily and sometimes turn the other cheek. I think we should become more aggressive or even militant.

'We're becoming more organised and we have people in every constituency who will be going to all the hustings and public meetings. The party with the policies nearest to what we want will get our votes.'

Both Labour and the Conservatives outlined pledges for older people during the recent party conference season, with Gordon Brown promising a National Care Service, and David Cameron promising to end the plight of those forced to sell their homes to pay for the cost of residential care.

Lib Dem MP and shadow health secretary Norman Lamb said he supported moves to raise pensions and end age discrimination.

The party yesterday flagged up the government's failure to link pensions with earnings during a House of Commons debate, but Mr Lamb feared that free care for all, which his party helped introduce in Scotland, was no longer affordable.

'We absolutely want to raise the basic pension and move away from means testing,' he said. 'The care issue is a looming problem which is moving up the political scale. This is one of the big challenges for the next government and it's been ignored for too long.

'The votes of older people will certainly be a decisive factor in the next general election; the blunt truth is they are the ones who tend to vote.'

Phil Wells, chief officer of Age Concern Norwich, said he hoped the initiative would help kick start a proper debate.

'We need to have a sensible debate about whether we should be spending money on Trident or on care, and I'm worried that debate isn't being had,' he said.

'It's going to be a big issue at the next election; people will wonder how we can afford to bail out the bankers and not afford to pay for public services. What we need to do over the next few months is get the political parties to reveal their hand in detail.'

Responding to the manifesto, pensions minister Angela Eagle, said the government had already shown its commitment by lifting more than 900,000 pensioners out of poverty since 1997, breaking the link between age and poverty.

'We recognise there is more to do, which is why even in these difficult economic times, we have targeted an extra �4bn to helping our pensioners this year,' she said. 'We have made it easier to claim pension credit, housing benefit and council tax benefit in just one easy free phone call, and continue to make 13,000 home visits a week.'

In 1997 the poorest pensioners had to live on just �69 a week, but Ms Eagle said that thanks to pension credit, no pensioner need live on less than �130 a week.

'This year saw the largest increase in the basic state pension since 2001, and we are committed to restoring the link to earnings, as well as making the state pension fairer and more generous,' she added. 'I don't want any older people to be afraid to turn up their heating in winter. Real help with fuel bills is available and I want to ensure everyone gets what they are entitled to.'