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Hayley Meachin

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OAPs: Your Turn Next to be Labelled 'Benefit Scroungers'

Posted: 29/06/2012 14:41

As much as we like to the sneer at the comic-like quality of The Sun newspaper, as many a Prime Minister has discovered, its status as the highest circulation daily newspaper in the UK means that you ignore its influence at your peril. And indeed, as the Leveson inquiry has highlighted, peril is just what many of its targets have felt over the years; with minority groups such as single mums and foreigners among the preferred victims for a 'Wapping Whipping' - in turn so often eliciting a response from the occupant of Number 10.

Despite the obvious need for greater disassociation these days, the link between this corner of the fourth estate and Downing Street has been in evidence once again this past week, as The Sun's spotlight begins to settle on our elderly citizens. No coincidence surely, that as David Cameron hints for the first time that benefits for pensioners, such as free bus passes, free prescriptions, free eye tests and the winter fuel allowance could become means-tested after the next election, we see The Sun turn away from the "benefit scroungers" it usually demonises, and starts to bash pensioners.

Despite pledging during the 2010 election to retain pensioner benefits, Cameron is under increasing pressure to reconsider in order to plug the funding gap on adult social care, and it seems his spin doctors are keen to get the message out there that older people are unfairly hoovering up resources.

This week The Sun ran two stories about the elderly. The innocuous sounding, "All OAP expats can claim £200 winter fuel allowance", was accompanied by a shot of two suntanned OAPs gleefully tossing salad by a poolside, an image which, judging by the clothes and the retro patterned sun lounger, was last used to illustrate a holiday brochure in 1973.

Beneath the hyperbole, the main thrust of the article is a test case whereby an elderly Brit living in "low-tax" Switzerland, won a landmark case against the Government last month. Iain Duncan Smith frothed, with a Churchillian zeal for taking the battle to the beaches: "We will fight these ridiculous EU rules. It is ludicrous we could have to pay more pensioners living in hot countries."

He was perhaps forgetting that the test case refers to a resident of the more than occasionally chilly Switzerland. What IDS was also neglecting to consider is that if you have paid your contributions, and are eligible for a pension, then you are entitled to get it, regardless of where you then choose to reside.

The Sun knows this, but it does not want readers to know this, because then people might get a little more upset that the government is attempting to hack benefits to which people are fully entitled, to the bone.

On 26 June, the elderly again got it in the neck from The Sun in the story headlined, "Wealthy OAPs to lose cash in benefits plan", this time illustrated by an image of a suntanned elderly couple wearing white clothing and beaming out from the deck of their yacht. Just your average UK pensioner then!

Championing David Cameron's call to "slash hand-outs for rich OAPs", the story juxtaposes a rising benefits bill with millions seeing their incomes fall. The paper hails Cameron's apparent refusal to guarantee benefits for pensioners as "a major boost for The Sun's Ditch Handouts to the Rich campaign".

Looking at recent media activity, it seems to suit the government to avoid the thorny topic of high income tax avoiders, gambling banks, and rogue city traders, and instead focus their political rhetoric on those more vulnerable.

The wider media, not just The Sun, also seized on a recent story based on a report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies stating that pensioner households would lose less on average than working-age households, both with or without children, from George Osborne's tax and benefit changes.

Therefore, the report concludes, the care funding reforms suggested by last year's Commission on Funding of Care and Support, headed by Andrew Dilnot, estimated at £1.7bn in extra public support, could be funded by curbing entitlements to pensioners.

In other words, make the elderly pay for their care even more so than they do already. At present, anyone with assets of more than £23,250 has to pay for residential care costs, which forces many people to have to sell their homes. Dilnot recommended raising this threshold to £100,000 worth of assets, hence the need for an extra £1.6bn in funding.

Of course, not all OAPs are poor, Rupert Murdoch being a case in point, but to suggest that the majority are yacht-going socialites is ludicrous. The reality is that many are struggling to survive.

For every OAP wilfully refusing to retire and hogging a job that could go to a young person, as The Sun suggests, many more are unwell, with complex illnesses. They aren't getting better, but advances in medical science mean that many elderly people are living longer, with even less support than they previously had available. Michelle Mitchell, charity director of Age UK, has pointed out that "the number of pensioners in poverty remains at 1.8 million".

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) has repeatedly stated that the government needs to grasp the nettle of funding for care, condemning their reluctance to do so following the Dilnot Commission. BASW has for many months been concerned about news of cuts affecting both those working in, and being served by adult social care.

As recently as the end of March, the minister for care services Paul Burstow was claiming that over £1bn extra had been put into adult social care. BASW Manager Ruth Cartwright wonders where this money has gone, and goes as far as to accuse the government of being complicit in "a gigantic cover up of what we all (and particularly service users and their families) know to be the truth - that many of the most vulnerable people are suffering because of cuts to provision of care and support".

The truth is now out. A recent survey by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services reveals that £991m was slashed from care budgets last year, with a further £890m being cut this year, with more to come in future years, while demand and need for services increase.

As a press officer, I know only too well how difficult it can be to engage the media in positive stories about the elderly, unless they are stationed by a cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, but the government must resist road testing " elderly benefit scrounger" messages in The Sun and instead have a proper debate about where the additional funding will come from.

Equality for all should not mean all are equally abused by the media.

We are already in the ridiculous situation of disabled people having to defend themselves from accusations of being lazy, even if they are missing limbs. Single mums were slung in the stocks by politicians and journalists long ago. Our young people are troublesome and workshy. Students are spongers. Now OAPs are in the firing line. Who will be next?

Let us not forget the wise words of "First they came...", the famous statement attributed to pastor Martin Niemöller,

"Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me".

 

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