BEHIND THE HEADLINES
1908: Old Age Pensions Act
In 1908, for the first time, the state made an agreement to pay a pension to the industrious, elderly poor – both men and women – without contributions. They simply had to have lived to the age of 70. The Old-Age Pensions Act was guided through the House of Commons by Lloyd George, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the pension became known as the ‘Lloyd George’, but in fact he had played no part in drafting the bill. The age for the pension would most sensibly have been set at 65, but the cost of provision would have been so high the Chancellor said it would be impossible, the measure was only an experimental ‘beginning’ in the new field of state action to redress poverty, and they had to proceed cautiously.
The Act provided for state-funded old-age pensions for people who would receive five shillings a week, with seven and sixpence for married couples. The level of benefit was deliberately set low to encourage workers to also make their own provision for retirement. Conservative leaders favoured a contributory benefit but many of their backbenchers voted for this Liberal measure.
In order to be eligible, people had to have an income of less than £31 and 10 shillings per year. They also had to pass a ‘character test’, which excluded many: those in receipt of poor relief; ‘lunatics’ residing in asylums; people who had been in prison (including imprisonment for drunkenness) – for ten years after their release; and any person who was guilty of ‘habitual failure to work’. Also ineligible were ‘aliens’ and their wives, thus excluding immigrants who had not taken out British citizenship.
A man filling out the forms to receive his first ‘old-age
p ension’ in a Post Office