Terminally ill people are calling on the UK government to start paying their state pensions early so they can enjoy what is left of their lives and tackle a “cost of dying” crisis.
People of working age who are unlikely to survive long enough to claim their state pension say the change would cost little more than the amount lost each year to erroneous pension payouts by the Department for Work and Pensions.
Marie Curie, an end of life charity, has calculated the cost at £114m a year – a tenth of 1% of the annual state pension bill. Those of working age who die are twice as likely to spend their final year of life in poverty compared with people of pension age, it says.
“It’s logical [to pay out early],” said Victor Calver, 56, a former freight manager with terminal cancer, who said he did not expect to reach pension age. “Wouldn’t it be nice to go out with a smile on your face?”
He is among the terminally ill people whose incomes have collapsed. Mark Whittaker, whose wife Cheryl was diagnosed with terminal cancer said accessing the state pension early would “change everything … give us back some dignity [and] give us our independence”. They are facing soaring energy and laundry bills as Cheryl’s health declines.
“The oncologist basically said just go and enjoy the rest of your life together while you can, which was traumatic in itself,” he said. “Financially, things are just as distressing as the cancer; we are surviving on credit cards at the moment.”
A petition supporting the pension reform has attracted 164,000 signatures, and polls show that 75% of UK adults support the idea.
Marie Curie estimates most people of working age who die have paid more than 23 years of national insurance contributions.
“Extending that safeguard would prevent thousands of people living with terminal illness falling into poverty at the end of their lives,” said Mark Jackson, a senior policy and research manager at the charity. “It is the minimum of what a civilised society should expect to do for dying people.”
Audrey Buckham, whose husband Edward died aged 64 last summer, said she had to declare herself bankrupt as his earnings dried up and they faced additional costs to look after him. They could not afford even weekend breaks, she said.
“I don’t think it’s right that terminally ill people should worry about money at all,” she said. “It would have been nice for us to go away for a little weekend. He loved the fresh air on his face and the smell of the sea and it would have been nice to have done things like that and have happy memories.”
Helen Barnard, an associate director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and research and policy director at Pro Bono Economics, said: “It’s quite simply wrong that so many people are ending their lives in hardship. Families are forced to feel all the stress and guilt of being unable to make them comfortable, rather than being able to treasure the last few days, weeks or months with their loved ones.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “A terminal diagnosis is an unimaginable challenge, and our priority is providing people with financial support quickly and compassionately. Those nearing the end of their lives can get fast-track access to a range of benefits without needing a face-to-face assessment or waiting period, with the majority receiving the highest rate of those benefits.
“In 2022, we extended that support so thousands more people nearing end of life would be able to access these benefits earlier through special benefit rules. This change has already been implemented for employment and support allowance and universal credit and the government has recently passed an act which enables similar changes to personal independence payment, disability living allowance and attendance allowance.”