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Wednesday November 20, 2013

Is the UK really turning its back on elderly British expats?

Over the last few months a growing number of mostly retired British expats, bubbling with rage and incredulity, have been in touch to express their unhappiness and disillusionment at the British government. Most of the correspondence is from British expats living in Europe but I’ve also been contacted by expats in Commonwealth countries who also have an axe to grind with the home country.

This is all very puzzling especially when a new survey commissioned by financial advisory group, deVere, showed that nearly 50 per cent of their 50 plus respondents felt tempted to leave Blighty or were seriously considering moving overseas in retirement. The main reasons cited for wanting to quit the UK were cost of living, standard of care for the elderly, quality of life and weather. The most desirable destination was Spain, followed by France and Italy. Still, if the 1,231 survey respondents read some of the simmering expat correspondence in my mailbag, they might think twice.

Of late the hot topic of winter fuel payments for British expat pensioners has raised its grisly head again. Iain Duncan Smith, secretary of state for work and pensions, appeared to be hopping mad that a decision was upheld in the European Court allowing 115,000 retired expats to claim £21.4m in fuel payouts of between £100 and £300. Furthermore the ruling allowed claims from anyone with a ‘genuine and sufficient link to the UK.’ Mr Duncan Smith described the ruling as ‘ridiculous’. But therein lies the rub because most of the British expats who’ve contacted me do not think it’s ridiculous at all. They feel aggrieved that having loyally paid their taxes to the British government all their working lives, they are now being penalised for choosing to retire overseas. Many of those living in France, Spain and other European countries where temperatures plummet during the winter months are indignant that Mr Duncan Smith appears to think – naively – that they live in perennial sunshine.

British retiree and campaigner Graham Richards recently wrote on a popular expat forum in France that ‘it would appear that the UK government quite simply just dislikes and hates its expats.’ He referred to the disenfranchising of British expats voting rights in the UK after 15 years, the freezing of state pensions in various non- EU countries, and the scrapping in 2015 of the winter fuel payment to expat pensioners living in – debatably – warmer countries. To rub further salt in the wound, British expats will also be barred from voting in the EU referendum in 2017.
Is the UK snubbing its elderly expats and if so why? If – harking back to the deVere survey – swathes of British pensioners want to jump ship and live abroad, surely the British government should be whooping with joy and rubbing its hands in glee? It would be able to offload thousands of its troublesome, pesky pensioners onto other countries, freeing up NHS beds and giving everyone left behind a bit more breathing space.

So is it fair for Mr Duncan Smith to deny elderly Britons who loyally paid into the British tax system and who now live on meagre pensions in countries with freezing temperatures during the winter – and yes, we’re talking parts of Spain and France too – their paltry UK winter fuel allowances? Perhaps instead of making assumptions, the good minister should get on a plane and visit Salamanca or better still the Jura mountains during the winter but with temperatures of -10c and -41c respectively, I hope he’ll bring his Uggs.

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