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Martina Devlin: Yes, pensioners deserve apology but not a free ride

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We need some perspective on the subject of senior citizens. On the one hand is the view that they eke out a Dickensian existence, surviving on jam sandwiches and wearing fingerless gloves over their arthritic fingers in damp basements.

On the other hand, we can see some pensioners have an enviable lifestyle. Part of it hinges on that valuable benefit, leisure; but the disposable income possessed by a number of them, greasing the wheels of their free time, is also an asset.

A proportion of our golden oldies live in relatively comfortable circumstances -- after all, while they have health fears (understandably) the mortgage monkey is off their backs. This debt has been repaid by personal endeavour, I hasten to add.

We tiptoe around the subject of pensioners' allowances as if it was something shameful; as if taking anything off them was like mugging grannies to feed their coins into slot machines.

There is nothing base, ignoble or dastardly about requiring seniors in receipt of both state and private pensions to pay tax on the private one, in line with tax policy. Nor is it unreasonable to expect them to realise they must do so.

However, where people inadvertently failed to pay -- perhaps because a wife inherited her husband's private pension and presumed Revenue knew, since the left hand ought to have an idea what the right hand is doing -- these people should be treated with respect and tact.

You don't represent them as tax cheats. You don't send in the shock troops. Save the commando tax officials for genuine evaders, and use a public information exercise to reach the rest.

It's a safe bet most of the 115,000 pensioners identified were accidental tax evaders.

Hopefully the lesson has been learned. Revenue Commissioners' chairwoman Josephine Feehily had the good sense to apologise for the distress and confusion caused, before an Oireachtas committee yesterday.

However, setting aside the blitzkrieg approach, the question of how much senior citizens might contribute to the national recovery is a timely one. Even though many -- especially politicians fearful of electoral backlash -- prefer to duck it.

Pensioners are not particularly at risk from poverty in our society. It is children who are most exposed. Last September, the Government published a Comprehensive Review of Expenditure, and its section on poverty presents a picture at odds with general perceptions.

It found children "face the highest rate of persistent poverty ... at 1.6 times the norm" and "represent a large share (42pc) of the population in consistent poverty". This carries a legacy that continues into adulthood.

The report also noted that collectively the unemployed account for almost a quarter of those defined as living in poverty. But the poverty rate of older people is the lowest, at 2pc of the total population. Yes, the lowest.

Obviously pensioners are more likely to feel vulnerable, but as a group they are in reasonable shape. This is partly due to their entitlements, many of them distributed automatically without means testing.

Apart from the fairly generous state pension, there is free travel -- a perk cherished by seniors -- with no limits on travel times, plus free TV licences and subsidised electricity or gas. Medical card eligibility is set at a bountiful rate: a couple can have income of €72,000 and a single person €36,000 before disqualification. Look north, or across the water to Britain with its considerably larger tax base, and it is clear how liberal these pensions and allowances are.

Not means-testing benefits is just plain daft. Why give a free TV licence to someone who won't notice the loss of €160 a year? Set the bar at a reasonable level, but we must have some cut-off point. It is cloud cuckoo economics to give everyone a free ride.

Seniors argue they contributed disproportionately in the bad old days of the '80s, and should not be called up a second time. To which I say: it's lunacy to dish out freebies to anyone defined as wealthy. And some pensioners do fit that category.

IT was a considerate gesture to use excess revenue to add some gilding to the golden years when we had it. But the coffers are empty now. And we need to recognise this, rather than take the appealing liberal course of saying 'hands off our grannies'.

Granted, our seniors are subject to all the other increases imposed on the population, from the VAT rise to water and household charges. Of course, it is unfair that we are all beggared because €64bn was spent bailing out the banks. But it is also inequitable to expect only working people to shoulder the burden of debt repayment.

I'm not opposed to benefits for seniors. In principle, I wish we could continue to distribute them in an open-handed manner. Take the free travel: better for an elderly retired person to feel part of the hustle and bustle than sit at home alone.

And if they are out and about, they are spending. I also think it right that the non-contributory state pension has been left uncut, and is not subject to tax.

But cash is tight and we must spread it cannily. I don't want to see libraries and other services shut because we distribute electricity handouts to people in no need of the largesse.

Most politicians have left Revenue to clean up this mess. Those who intervened look foolish -- or worse -- because they are suggesting Revenue should not implement tax policy. Where does that leave the compliant?

Mind you, senior ministers can't mimic Pontius Pilate because they were in the loop about the broad thrust of Revenue's exercise: they knew how much was to be raised. Revenue anticipates an extra €55m a year yield -- the same ballpark figure used by the Finance Minister in his Budget provision mentioning additional revenue generation.

What's long overdue is a new approach. People should be asked to apply for benefits they may be entitled to, stating their income, rather than continue with this careless business of ladling them out to all and sundry.

This is not suggested with a view to penalising pensioners -- it's common sense.

Let's continue to be unselfish toward those who need it, but failing to means-test benefits is not generosity. It's financial madness.

Irish Independent