Many English expatriates are disappointed by Global Britain. These are pensioners who settled overseas and paid their Social Security contributions to UK from overseas, for the full “qualifying” period of 37 years.
Global Britain is the vision of the sunny uplands after Brexit. Let’s remember what was happening in the last half of the twentieth century as the British Empire morphed in the Commonwealth. This small archepelago off Europe had already sent surplus millions of its population to North America, to the countries that became dominions (Australia, New. Zealand, Canada, South Africa) and to colonies like Rhodesia and Kenya.
Because of the outreach of the former British Empire, there were sizable numbers of English expatriates in many other parts of the world. What were they doing? Although some were working in UK government paid jobs (diplomats, British Council, aid projects) many were also working for companies, in engineering projects, for mines or agricultural projects, in shippping, tourism, education etc. They were part of expanding British trade, underpinned by British investment.
The first year they retired they got the full pension, but in subsequent years they are not entitled to the increase in pension which is received by those in UK retirement. This “frozen” pension applies only to those living in the former dominion countries, but not to those in other countries such as USA, Israel, Mauritius and the Philippines.
For me, living in South Africa, 10 years into retirement, I was missing out on £2270 per year, compared to my contemporaries living in the UK, or in the “unfrozen” countries. Specifically, I was getting £91 per week, instead of £135. We were also the first victims of Brexit, as when the pound fell the day after the vote, my pension dropped by a fifth.
In 2011, the case against the UK Government by the deprived British pensioners finally came to the European Court of Human Rights, after nine years of fruitless due process through the UK courts. In the case of Carson and others, the ECHR judicial bench, by 11 to 6, ruled in favour of the UK government.
The main arguments of the UK government were that there is no guaranteed right to an increase in the basic pension, and residence abroad was a matter of personal choice, Age Concern and Help the Aged put forward the arguments that many pensioners are forced to live abroad to gain the help of the families residing in those frozen countries. It had been calculated that some 20% of affected pensioners were in that position.
For the year 2015-2016, some £89.3 billion was paid out in State pensions to British residents, while £3.7bn was paid out to residents abroad. Let’s do some rough sums: assuming two-thirds of these are frozen pensions = £2.5bn. Noting from the calculation above on my own pension deficit, that I was about a third under-paid, the deficit on £2.5bn would require less than £1bn to unfreeze (about £833 million), or about £26 per 2015 taxpayer, or 50p per week.
No way, you think, why should we pay more? There is so much else our taxes go to: NHS, the Navy, benefits for vulnerable UK residents, MPs, the police, the prisons, schools. Most people don’t follow too closely the relative costs of each, as the billions boggle the brain.
Furthermore, the numerous pensioners overseas trapped in frozen pensions were also saving all those NHS and social care costs. A campaign was quickly fired up to write in from the pension-deprived countries to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) announcing that we planned to return to UK, hoping that the Government would then do the sums. But no response was forthcoming.
I was well aware that our health costs in South Africa were mountng, and the private health insurance I had paid in to for years would not cover the diseases of older age. Better to return to the NHS. That is why the Government has to be so careful with EU negotiations: if they get wrong the reciprocal rights to health care, millions of UK pensioners living in the EU will start to head back to the UK for the NHS, to occupy all those new houses about to be built in the green and pleasant land.
The UK Government can afford to ignore the arguments of UK pensioners living abroad because many of them have been away so long they no longer have a vote. So there is no MP to take up their case. This is unlike many other countries (Italy, France, the US) where citizens never lose the right to vote from overseas.
Yet there are several matters decided by UK politics that deeply concern overseas residents, starting of course with the pension injustice, but also matters like the BBC overseas services, funding for the British Council, development aid, embassies abroad – matters which often do not loom large in UK resident voter priorities. To deny Brits abroad the vote weakens the internationalist voice in the British Parliament.
Back to the vision of Global Britain: the argument used in the Carson case that British retirees make a personal choice to live abroad undermines that vision. For centuries we have been an outward looking nation. In their youth, individuals make career or marriage choices that result in long residence overseas.
What they are doing there – developing infrastructure, schools, Universities, businesses that trade back to the UK – enhances and enlarges the UK economy.
Education, bringing foreign students to the UK, is worth some £20bn to the UK, supported by the vast array of English-language teaching throughout the world. The Anglosphere, as it is now called, underpins the soft power of the UK. Yet the UK Government still denies a full basic pension to those who have worked sometimes for decades to make it possible.
It is safer to confine your career and your residence to this tight little island.