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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Atlantic by Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

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​The Great Spain Pension Robbery

The Great Spain Pension Robbery

I recently came across many pensioners protesting in the capital city of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. This protest was just one taking place in a hundred Spanish cities to raise the plight of pensioners in society. In the Canary Islands, hundreds of people took to the streets in La Laguna in Tenerife and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria to ask for support in their ongoing struggle to preserve the public pension system. Pensioners are protesting against the actions of the previous government, and complaining that it had raided the country’s pension funds in order to bail out the Spanish banks during the financial crisis.

Most Spanish pensioners complain that their pensions do not give them enough to live on. Average pensions in Spain are around 1100 euros each month, with the general pension at around 950 euros, which seems generous when compared to UK pensions. Crude comparisons between the two countries are unreliable, since the level of unemployment in Spain continues to be very high, whereas it is very low in the UK. As a result, many Spanish pensioners are responsible for supporting their families, as many of whom continue to live with their parents during troubled financial times. It is within this context that Spanish pensions are seen as necessary to support the wider family and not just a single person or a couple.

Incidents such as this often trigger memories from my childhood, and this encounter was no exception. My memory went back to returning home from primary school one day, and complaining bitterly to my mother about my pocket money. When compared to the amount that my friends told me they received, the amount I was given was miserly and I made my feelings very clear.

Overhearing the fuss that was going on, my elderly grandfather, who was staying with us at the time, quietly took me to one side and asked why I thought I deserved any pocket money at all. I remember giving him a list of reasons, which he carefully listened to, before telling me that he never received any pocket money. His father had died when he was very young and my grandfather had to work from a very young age in order to keep the family together. He remembered the sheer joy and appreciation when he received his very first “Old Age Pension”, as it was called at that time. The pension was five shillings each week, which for many pensioners meant the difference between basic survival or being forced to live in the workhouse. Lecture over, my grandfather patted me on the head, put his hand in his pocket and handed me some coins with his usual comment of “Don’t tell your mother”.

The first non-contributory British pension began in January 1909. The weekly pension was five shillings each week (25 pence) paid to all people over the age of 70, and 7 shillings and sixpence paid to married couples. Five shillings (25p) is about £20 in today's value, but measured by the increase in average earnings it is more like £112, which is less than the current basic state pension of around £130.00 weekly. UK Pensions were kept deliberately low in order to encourage people to make their own provision for old age. In order to be eligible, the applicant had to be of “good character”, earn less than 31 pounds ten shillings a year and have been a UK resident for at least 20 years. There were other conditions too, such as not being convicted of drunkenness, not held in prison or a ‘lunatic asylum’ or habitually out of work; they were harsh times.

Back to the protests in Spain, which were intended to remind everyone that the pensioners’ demands are everyone’s business. These protestors are highlighting the problems faced by pensioners in Spain, such as loss of purchasing power that leaves them feeling helpless. They were also asking for the repeal of reforms in the labour market, which they claim has led to unstable employment opportunities for young people. Government proposals to promote private pension funds are described as privatisation of the public pension system ‘by the back door’.

Looking after the well-being of older people is one of the elements that constitutes a civilised society. Although these issues are within different cultural contexts, the struggles by pensioners in both Spain and the UK have a similar resonance, which is fairness and a desire to be heard.


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An Appointment for an Appointment

An Appointment for an Appointment

I really don’t like August! It is not the excessive heat and accompanying high electricity bills for air conditioning that upset me, but the fact that nearly everyone seems to be on holiday. No, I do not begrudge hard working Spanish and Canarians some precious time off with their families, but the concept of holiday cover has never been invented in Spain. Post is rarely delivered during August, since our postman is climbing a mountain somewhere; we have learned never to order anything that needs delivering in August. Similarly, we try to avoid anything involving the bank, social security office, Town Hall or health centre that requires anything needing filling in, bonking with a rubber stamp or using the computer.

Over the years, we have learned the hard way, but sometimes things just crop up and have to be dealt with. The lack of holiday cover means that if someone is away at the bank or Town Hall, then that is just tough luck; you will have to wait until they return in September. Even the computers are on holiday in August and refuse to work until the temperature cools down …

It all came to a head this morning when I tried to replace a health card with one of the newly issued ones, for reasons that seem neither logical or sensible. I don’t usually fret too much about such changes, since when there is a change of government, health and other cards are often suddenly cancelled without due notice, but with Brexit approaching, one has to be prepared. I came across a newly invented phenomenon this week, which is the necessity to make an appointment in order to get an appointment at the health centre. This is the latest ploy to put off actually seeing anyone in August and (temporarily) does away with the need to employ additional staff. Mind you, the system falls to pieces a few weeks later, but I guess the hope is that patients will either have died, recovered or left the country, so I guess there is a form of logic in operation, which brings me nicely to the case of the woman with a leg attached to a broom handle.

Did you know that computers also suffer from the August holiday syndrome, and try to take some time off? I overheard a woman being told that she would have to return later in the week because the computers had slowed down due to the excessive heat in the office. Now this was no ordinary case, since the poor soul had one leg strapped to what looked like a broom handle; clearly, she was in some discomfort. The woman took it all in good part, nodded, and limped away. She had made the effort get to the health centre to make an appointment in order to get an appointment to book an appointment with a specialist… Now back to my replacement health card.

Since the wait for a real, plastic health card could well exceed the lifetime of many patients, the health centre has come up with a jolly good wheeze, which is to issue a temporary one on a sheet of paper; that is if both the computer and printer are working. In my case, both were having an August holiday and I was asked to return another day. Oh well, it is no more than I would expect.

Over the years as an expat living in Spain, I have got used to what I see as the quirkiness and sheer inefficiencies of many of the bureaucratic processes that this country copes with. If something isn’t working, the response is usually to invent something that will make it even worse and to employ more civil servants in the process. I have learned, as have many expats, to balance these minor irritations with the joys and advantages of other aspects of my life in Spain, so I usually grit my teeth and try to avoid thinking too much like a Brit.

I often try to explain and defend Spanish systems and lengthy bureaucratic processes to other expats on the basis that maybe they didn’t fully understand the language during their latest bureaucratic encounters, or maybe it is down to cultural differences and misunderstandings about the way that things are done. I am sure that if you ask a German or Polish expat trying to navigate the paperwork processes in the UK they would tell of similar experiences.

Did I get my new temporary health card? Well, yes and no. During a return visit to the health centre, by means of an appointment to get an appointment, I finally arrived once again to face the offending computer and printer. This time, both were having a good day and eventually spewed out the required document. The lady at the desk was also looking less flustered than when she had dealt with the leg woman, and kindly suggested that it would be a good idea to have the document laminated, since it may be many years before my real card arrived in the post. I took her advice, thanked her and headed to my local print shop.

At the print shop, the laminating machine was also having an August day. It greedily gobbled up my card, but refused to release it from the other end of the machine. There was a smell of burning and flames appeared from the centre of the laminating machine. After the fire was put out, the now worried looking operator got a screwdriver and gingerly opened the blackened machine. Inside were the charred remains of my new temporary health card. Ah well, such is life in August; I will return to the office to make an appointment for an appointment tomorrow and then we will start the game all over again.

In the end, I did manage to collect my new, shiny health card from a very helpful lady operating from a small, airless room marked ‘Resuscitation’. I now know why!

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