During his recent trip to Australia, Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, behaved like a cynical old roue paying a courtesy call on a discarded mistress. He reminisced about old times. He lamented Britain’s recent neglect of Australia.  Despite of the sado/masochistic nature of the relationship (all too obvious during Test matches), he called for more get-togethers.

Yet he left no tangible token of his alleged impatience to re-ignite the liaison; no bauble on the metaphorical dressing table. In fact, he made it plain that Britain has no intention of relieving Australia of one of the most bitterly resented and long-standing costs of the relationship: the UK’s long-standing “frozen pensions” policy.

This policy, which dates to the 1940s,  affects more than 500,000 expat Britons worldwide. But nearly half of those elderly expats are living in retirement in Australia. In accordance with the policy, their UK pensions have not been increased since they began to draw them here. In many cases that was 20 years ago when the basic weekly British pension was £52. That’s about half the current rate of £98 a week.

Tens of thousands of these expats have become dependent on a supplementary, partial Australian aged pension because of the ever-dwindling purchasing power of their long-frozen UK pensions. It costs Australia roughly $100 million a year to provide this CentreLink assistance.

Meanwhile, the penalised Poms continue their long fight to get their UK pensions defrosted and to win pension parity for themselves and everyone else who contributed to the UK’s mandatory National Insurance Fund pension scheme.

A major bone of contention is that the frozen pensions policy only penalises contributors to the fund who retire to Australia and most other Commonwealth and former Commonwealth nations.  It does not adversely affect those who retire to most non-Commonwealth countries.

Those penalised include Australians who contributed to the National Insurance Fund while working in the UK.

And the incumbent president of the British Australian Pensioner Association, Peter Morris, is an Australian currently working in the UK.

The association reports that many of its members claim that the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions has ruined their retirement years because it failed to warn them about the frozen pensions policy before they left the UK. Grateful as they are for their supplementary Australian pensions, they did not expect to find themselves forced to go cap-in-hand to Centrelink for  means-tested assistance.

Expat lobby groups point out on their websites that their members include British WWII veterans who contributed to the National Insurance Fund during postwar working lives in the UK that spanned more than 40 years.  Many also contributed to optional extra UK government pension schemes.  So imagine their despair and incredulity, post their departure from the UK, when they discovered that their state and optional extra pensions would not be indexed against inflation — and simply because they had decided to retire to Australia rather than, say, Clacton-on-Sea or Malibu.

This state of affairs has been condemned as blatant discrimination by the International Consortium of British Pensioners.  Yet the consortium, made up of lobby groups in Australia, Canada and South Africa, has failed to get the frozen pensions policy annulled in the courts.

The consortium’s claims of discrimination and breaches of the Human Rights Act have been dismissed, with costs, by the UK’s High Court, Appeal Court and House of Lords and more recently by the European Court of Human Rights’ and its appeal court. But then it was Australia’s own Sir John Kerr who warned against expecting justice from the law.

The consortium’s legal expenses were raised by subscriptions from frozen pensioners, although it’s rumoured that the Canadian and Australian governments did help out over the years with “research grants.”

When William Hague was tackled about the frozen pensions’ policy at a business lunch during his recent visit, he had the effrontery to announce that the British government has no intention of scrapping the policy because, in the current economic climate, it could not justify the multibillon pound cost to its taxpayers.  In other words, Australia will just have to continue picking up the tab — and he was talking soon after viewing the aftermath of the Brisbane floods.

Yet, Hague is a former British pensions minister.  He must know that the International Consortium of British Pensioners has never sought retrospectivity for its members, just current parity with the majority of British pensioners.  Surely, Hague must also be aware that a 2007 British parliamentary inquiry revealed that the cost of granting parity to all of Britain’s half-million or so frozen pensioners would be in the region of about £420 million a year.   Meanwhile, the UK continues to be saved the health and associated costs of his 500,000 expat frozen pensioners.

What a pity Julia Gillard didn’t publicly give Hague the rounds of the kitchen during his visit.

Former Liberal senator Amanda Vanstone certainly didn’t pull her punches. She repeatedly expressed her outrage at the UK’s arrogant disregard for victims of the policy and its cost to Australia. Time and again, she pointed out that Australia indexes the pensions of all its expats. But Vanstone could also be as lethally refined as any Whitehall mandarin. It’s widely believed that it was she who  proposed the legislation that will gradually relieve Australia of the costs involved.

Ten years ago, when she was John Howard’s minister in charge of the issue, legislation was introduced to prevent British pensioners who arrived here after March, 2001, from making any claim on the Australian taxpayer for 10 years. Simultaneously, increasingly strict immigration rules were introduced that now make it prohibitively expensive for British retirees to resettle in Australia.

As a result of these measures, the cost to Australia of providing supplementary pensions to impoverished Britons will lapse with the demise of the last of the frozen pensioners who arrived here before 2001.  Most of those retirees are now in their 80s and 90s.

UK magazine The Oldie notes in its current issue that the British people still don’t seem to appreciate the ramifications of their politicians’ intransigence about the issue. The door has been closed.

But there has never been much public sympathy for the frozen pensioners in the UK.  It seems they are widely envied and imagined to be endlessly sipping sundowners on golf club verandahs. Yet expat lobby groups report that most British retirees leave home reluctantly and only to be closer to immigrant children and grandchildren.