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UK Government blamed as more pensioners sink into poverty
By Edna Fernandes
LONDON (Reuters) Prime Minister Tony Blair's battered government came under fire from pensioners on Thursday as a report showed more old people sinking into poverty despite a booming economy.
The government's annual poverty report said despite efforts to target help at the least well-off, 100,000 more pensioners were living on less than 60 percent of the average household income in 1998/99.
The total number of pensioners living in poverty is around two million.
With pensioners representing one in four British voters, the National Pensioners Convention said the government had to act now or pay a heavy price at the election due by May 2002.
»It's an astonishing growth in pensioner poverty 100,000 more people. We say the basic state pension has to be increased in line with earnings,« said the Convention's Gary Kitchen.
»This is no time for small gestures. That will only make pensioners more angry. I think this will be a central issue at the next election.«
ANGRY PENSIONERS TARGET BLAIR
The state pension has risen up the political agenda this year after the government outraged supporters by announcing a 75 pence weekly increase dismissed by pensioners as »insulting«.
It also looks set to be a major embarrassment for Blair at next week's Labour Party conference in Brighton where he hopes to end his worst period in power, triggered by fuel blockades which paralysed the nation last week.
The rise in pensioner poverty is sure to add weight to conference demands next week for restoring a costly link between the state pension and average earnings.
That will be the key message at a pensioners rally on Monday, where around 500 elderly people are expected to lobby Blair for more money.
Government ministers denied sidelining poor pensioners on Thursday. A spokeswoman for the Department of Social Security said the figures did not take into account a new top-up benefit, or minimum income guarantee, introduced in April 1999.
That extra cash has been given to 1.6 million pensioners so far. The government has introduced free eye tests plus television licences for the over-75s and bumped up a winter fuel allowance.
»That means the average pensioner is eight pounds a week better off, or 10 pounds a week better off in the case of older (over 75-year-old) pensioners,« said the spokeswoman.
But the »grey« lobby warned it was not enough and said many old people were insulted by having to apply for hand-outs.
The weekly state pension of 67.50 pounds is currently linked to inflation which remains around record lows.