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We must give early access to pensions to the terminally ill

Dave Doogan MP
April 25, 2024

It is both my privilege and responsibility as MP for Angus to campaign on issues of importance to my constituents – none less so than challenging the UK Government to provide sufficient financial support for people diagnosed with terminal illness.

It is a harrowing reality of the UK that more than a quarter of working-age people with a terminal illness live and die in poverty. Here in Angus this figure is 24%.

This is clearly an unforgiveable situation which requires urgent remedy – and one immediate and affordable solution would be for the UK Government to permit early access to State Pension for terminally ill people. This is the chief recommendation of the ‘Dying in Poverty’ campaign promoted by end-of-life charity, Marie Curie, following research undertaken by Loughborough University.

Since its introduction in 1948, the State Pension has played a vital role in supporting us towards the end of life when we are less capable or incapable of work. Given the egregious reality that 1 in 4 working-aged people with terminal illness die in poverty, extending this provision to people with terminal illness who are also usually unable to work, is sensible, logical and the right thing to do.

1 in 4 working-aged people with terminal illness die in poverty Quote

This policy would cost the government £114.4 million per year. This may sound a hefty sum but is in fact only 0.1% of the annual State Pension bill – a small price to pay to ensure so many do not spend their final days in poverty. Notably, in countries including France, Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy and Spain, similar policies are already in place for people with terminal illness or disabilities.

Meanwhile, in the UK, no person is entitled to receive any part of their State Pension before they reach the age of 66 (rising to 67 in 2026). The result is that many terminally ill people die in poverty without seeing a penny of their State Pension. This is despite the vast majority having diligently paid into the system their entire working lives. Shockingly, this also includes people who have paid the full 35 years of National Insurance contributions.

While financial provisions for terminally ill people exist in the current benefit system, the statistics show these clearly do not go far enough – and many are forced to jump through hoops just to access the most basic help.

It is unquestionable that a terminal diagnosis is extremely challenging for the individual and their loved ones, but those of us fortunate enough not to have experienced this situation first hand may be unaware of the significant accompanying financial costs. Research shows the cost of terminal illness can reach up to £16,000 annually. This is due to a requirement for energy-intensive specialist medical care in the home and the need to keep the home warm, which can see energy bills skyrocket.

Here in Scotland, using their limited devolved powers, the Scottish Government is actively working to mitigate the financial and bureaucratic pressures facing terminally ill people including by introducing an extra costs disability assistance benefit and changing the definition of “terminal illness” to include all terminally ill people, not just the 12-month special-rule definition used by the UK Government. This allows people to be fast-tracked to receive the highest rate of payment as quickly as possible, and for longer.

While these changes are welcome and do much to alleviate the financial difficulties facing terminally ill people, it is clear more substantive measures are needed. Tellingly, both the leading end-of-life charity and experts in the field recommend the best way to do this is by providing terminally ill people with their State Pension – the most effective safeguard against poverty in our social security system.

To further this ambition, I have twice now submitted Early Day Motions in the UK Parliament and sought support from MPs across the House. I also last year led for the SNP in a Westminster Hall debate where I urged the UK Government to do the right thing and implement this change.

The attending UK Government Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions, Laura Trott MP, advised it would not be “appropriate” to grant early access to State Pension for terminally ill people. But I hardly think it is “appropriate” for the UK Government to let terminally ill people die in poverty, which is why I continue to campaign on this issue.

This is not by any measure a controversial proposal. Every one of us has known someone with terminal illness, and we must all agree that their end of life should be spent, as far as possible, in comfort and dignity.

Dave Doogan Portrait

Dave Doogan is the Scottish National Party MP for Angus. He has been the SNP's Energy Security and Net Zero Spokesperson since September 2023.

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