The government could stop tens of thousands of people dying in poverty. So why hasn't it?

Giving dying people early access to the state pension is a popular policy that would cost relatively little

January 18, 2023
Research for Marie Curie revealed 90,000 people die in poverty each year. Photo: Avpics / Alamy Stock Photo
Research for Marie Curie revealed 90,000 people die in poverty each year. Photo: Avpics / Alamy Stock Photo

Is 2023 a year of recovery, a return to calmer waters; or another year of turmoil? Either way, it is a year in which we are asking big questions about the kind of country we want to be in the coming decade.  

People on left and right are asking whether the NHS is sustainable in its current form, as it experiences an unprecedented crisis and mounting pressures from an ageing and increasingly unhealthy society. The fabric of the UK is under threat, with both Scottish Independence and the breakdown of the Northern Ireland peace settlement seeming possible. Our economic future is deeply uncertain. The route to post-Brexit prosperity remains elusive and the UK’s recovery is hamstrung by a shortage of workers, driven by early retirement and ill-health, challenges to which there are no easy solutions. Fixing social care, childcare and planning are urgent priorities, but strewn with the skeletons of past promises and mayfly proposals that live for a day before collapsing on first contact with either the public or the Treasury.  A truly shocking level of deep poverty has spread across the country, with seven million households going without essentials last year. 

Just last week, the Resolution Foundation published their annual Living Standards report, which included the staggering finding that food insecurity has more than tripled in the UK in just a couple of years. A fifth of single parent families (18 per cent) and families with three or more children (21 per cent), as well as nearly a quarter (23 per cent) of all those on benefits, face severe food insecurity—regularly running out of food or having to go for several days in a month without eating properly. This represents a breakdown in the fundamental social contract underpinning our society.

Political parties are shaping their manifestos as we hurtle towards the next election, most likely to take place in 2024. They will have to come up with answers to each of these big questions, and those are rarely straightforward. They almost always involve trade-offs, uncertainties, hard choices about money or public support and balancing the interests of different groups. Last week, however, the end of life charity Marie Curie has brought forward an unusually pure moral choice for both the current government and those pitching to replace it. 

Research for Marie Curie by Loughborough University revealed about 90,000 people die in poverty each year. This risk of poverty is especially concentrated among working age people with a terminal illness, who are twice as likely to face poverty compared to pensioners in the same situation. The reason is simple: pensioners can rely on a social security system that offers far greater protection than that provided by working age benefits. The government recently introduced fast-track access to benefits for people expected to die within 12 months. That change is helpful, but the level of support offered by those benefits is woefully inadequate. 

Imagine receiving the worst news of your life: you have a terminal illness and only a few months left with your loved ones. The doctor advises you to just enjoy your last months together. Instead, you spend that precious time worrying about money. Unable to pay the bills. Racking up debt. Your partner not only has to cope with grief but contemplate bankruptcy. This is the situation facing thousands of people in the UK, but it is totally unnecessary.

The government could halve poverty among this most vulnerable group at a stroke, by giving them early access to the state pension. Most have contributed to the system through tax and national insurance but will miss out on the benefits because they have the misfortune to die early. Marie Curie’s campaign to give dying people early access to their state pension has substantial public support—polls suggest 75 per cent of adults support it, and more than 160,000 have signed the petition.  The policy is eminently affordable, costing just 0.1 per cent of the annual state pension bill—£114.4m a year. 

The government therefore has an unusually straightforward choice. It doesn’t have to grapple with common barriers of cost, implementation problems or public support. The solution is obvious, popular and affordable. The decision is essentially moral: will we be a country which ensures people can die with dignity, or will we stand by while people die in unnecessary pain and leave their loved ones in debt?