HC Deb 22 December 1988 vol 144 cc590-8 10.16 am
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I have on many occasions raised the immense difficulties and indeed misery suffered by pensioners on low incomes during the winter months. The acute problems arise basically because they have insufficient income to heat their accommodation adequately. On countless occasions Labour Members have also raised in the House and elsewhere the hardship of other low-income households which face similar difficulties with winter fuel bills. We believe much more should be done to increase the income of the low paid and ease the lot of the unemployed.

Any gain achieved by today's pensioners will benefit future generations of retired people—at least, I hope so. The Opposition have learnt to be suspicious of the Government. Ministers are keen to promote the myth that pensioners are now so much better off that they require less assistance from the state and less help with their fuel bills.

If my private Member's Bill had become law last year —I was the first in the ballot at the beginning of 1987—pensioners would have had extra financial resources because they would not have had to pay the full television licence fee. They would have had a free licence if my Bill had become law or, if it had been amended, which I was prepared to accept, they would have paid £5, £10 or £20 per year instead of the full sum.

What about the Government's view that pensioners are so much better off? According to the latest information available to the Library, one third of pensioners in Britain live on or below the income support level. Imagine what it must be like to live below the income support level. Such people include those who do not claim income support although they are eligible and those who are denied such support because of their modest—by today's standards —lifetime savings.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Is my hon. Friend aware that many pensioners who live at such a low standard because of their incomes are so severely and dangerously undernourished that it causes their early death?

Mr. Winnick

My hon. Friend is right and I shall refer to that aspect later.

Another one third of pensioners live just above income support level, with incomes of between 100 and 140 per cent. of that level. Therefore, virtually two thirds of the pensioners—millions of retired citizens—live in poverty or near poverty. None of us would wish to lead such a life and one can well understand the immense difficulties that so many of them face, especially during the winter months, in trying to keep their homes adequately heated.

Winter, of course, presents the greatest problem with heating bills, especially for those on low incomes. Fuel bills inevitably take a greater proportion of a low income. That is especially so for pensioners, in their 70s or older, who often are housebound during the winter months or have increasing difficulty in getting out during the coldest weather.

We know that under this Government pensions have been increased only in line with inflation. Over the past nine years, gas prices, especially, have been increased deliberately as a result of Government policy. They have increased by more than the rate of inflation. That obviously presents great difficulties for those on low incomes. If pensions had been increased in line with earnings in recent years—after a year or so in office the Government decided to break the link with earnings—the married couple's pension from April 1989 would have been £87.45—£17.65 more than they will receive. A single pensioner would have received from next April £54.75— £11.15 more than he or she will receive.

If pensioners were to receive next April the sums that I have mentioned instead of those that they will actually receive, the extra money would be of considerable help in paying fuel bills and they would be better able adequately to heat their accommodation.

The elderly are most at risk during the winter months. The risks for them are greater than for any other section of the community. We know of the dangers to the elderly of hypothermia. Many experts believe that the official figures represent a substantial understatement of the true number of those who die from hypothermia during the winter. It seems that some doctors take the view that to place the word "hypothermia" on a death certificate is rather like stamping it with the word "neglect", and accordingly are reluctant to do so. Where hypothermia was recorded as the cause of death in 1986 in England and Wales, 83 per cent. of the deceased were over the age of 65 years.

Cold-related deaths are far greater in number than the figures for hypothermia alone. There is some evidence that the percentage of the elderly who die during the winter months in Britain is higher than that in other advanced countries. The following questions must be asked. Are we taking less care of the elderly than do many other European countries? Is insufficient income the reason for the problem? Is there a lack of co-ordinated action, especially for the elderly who are most at risk? Those are worrying matters and should certainly preoccupy the House.

I am sure that everyone accepts that better and more effective insulation is extremely important. I pay tribute to Neighbourhood Energy Action, which has done a first-class job in many localities carrying out draught-proofing and insulation. I understand that such work has been done in about 350,000 homes. One wishes that such organisations had far greater financial resources at their disposal to carry out many other similar activities.

I agree that there is much more to be done to improve insulation and draughtproofing, but, first and foremost, there must be extra income provided for pensioners during the winter months. That is vital for elderly people on small incomes. The Minister, with whom I have no personal quarrel, will explain the Government's line on this issue, which he knows is entirely unsatisfactory to Opposition Members. He will say that provision is made for help with fuel bills during cold spells. He will refer to severe weather payments, which are increasingly seen, and not only by Labour Members, as a farce. Even newspapers that support the Tory cause—The Sunday Times, for example —have exposed effectively the number of pensioners who are in the greatest danger during cold spells. That was done during the last cold spell at the beginning of 1987. Attention was drawn to the fact that no extra payment was made available to those at risk.

For the severe weather payment to be triggered, there have to be seven consecutive days during which the average temperature has to fall to freezing point. The 63 weather stations are involved. That is the latest position after the recent changes; changes are made literally every year. Even when those conditions have been met, only pensioners who receive income support can apply for the payment. Moreover, they must have less than £500 of capital. The pensioner has to apply for the payment, and if all the conditions are met he or she will receive the princely sum of £5. I wonder how far £5 goes towards heating a home during a spell of freezing weather. We believe that the payments are a farce. They are inadequate and are nowhere near the amounts that should be available during cold spells.

Heating additions were abolished this year in the change from supplementary benefit to income support, and I have no doubt that the Minister will say that the additions have been replaced by various elements that make up income support. Heating additions, however, as a separate item in a pensioner's income, had the important function of showing clearly the amount that was being provided for heating alone. Such additions could be adjusted quickly if fuel prices increased.

On 8 November, west midlands Labour Members took to Downing street petitions that had been signed by thousands of pensioners calling for an extra £5 a week during the winter months, to be paid especially to pensioners in need. We did not have the pleasure, if that is the right expression, of seeing the Prime Minister at Downing street. The door was open for a few moments. We saw the Prime Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary, who courteously took the petitions. We have not heard anything further. None of us had the slightest illusion; we knew that the Government would not respond. We did not expect them to do so. Unfortunately, the Government do not show much interest in these problems.

We are about to adjourn for Christmas, and it is fortunate that large numbers of families and individuals have enough money to be able to enjoy the festivities. They will be able adequately to heat their accommodation. A minority may fall into debt, but for many it will be a Christmas without acute financial worry. However, other people in the community—the poorest and others whom I would describe as living at near poverty level, including two thirds of all pensioners as well as some of working age, such as the unemployed and low paid—will find Christmas a difficult period during which to keep warm. They will find it difficult enough to obtain the financial resources for the ordinary necessities of life, let alone any extra money for the holiday.

As I have said before, one of the House's responsibilities is to spotlight those of our fellow citizens who are in acute financial difficulties. Even if we were talking about a small minority, it would be our duty to spotlight their problems. But we are talking about millions of people and millions of pensioners who are in such financial difficulties.

It is a scandal that so many retired people, many of whom served in the war and helped to ensure that the country survived, face a bleak retirement. It is bleak, because they do not have sufficient income. Their state retirement pension is too low, they have not been able to save during their working life and their occupational pension, if they have one, is very small. I have received letters from ex-service men who ask what the sacrifice was for and whether they served only to be punished in retirement. The Government should have a guilty conscience about the way in which such pensioners are treated.

The Government have been generous to the richest and most prosperous. They were even more generous in this year's Budget. They have shown no reluctance to give to those who need it least, and the rich and the most prosperous should be grateful to the Government. As on other occasions, Opposition Members ask today why the Government cannot be as generous to those in great financial difficulties through no fault of their own.

10.33 am
Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield)

First, I pay tribute to my lion, Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) for applying for the debate and I congratulate him on his success in the ballot. However, I pay tribute to him most of all because of his activities on behalf of senior citizens in Britain. He has campaigned steadfastly for them on a range of issues for many years. It is a great pleasure and honour to support him once again in his endeavours on behalf of our elderly population.

The scale of the problem facing the elderly population can be seen in the recent figures that show how many pensioners there are in the nation. About 18.5 per cent. of the population of Britain is of pensionable age—over 10 million people are pensioners. In the next 40 years, the number of people aged 85 and over is expected to increase by about 80 per cent. An idea of what that means can be obtained if one examines the most recent census figures, which were published on 13 June 1987. One sees that there were 6.876 million women over 60 years of age. That averages out, on my calculations, at 10,578 women over 60 per parliamentary constituency.

There are 5,320,000 women and 3,494,000 men over 65, which works out at 13,560 pensioners per constituency. There are more than 6 million pensioners over the age of 70, which works out at 9,333 per constituency. There are 3.776 million pensioners over the age of 75, which is 5,809 per parliamentary constituency. That gives us some idea of the scale of concern that should be shown by all hon. Members.

I find it shameful that only five hon. Members are present, of whom three hold Government office. The Government have been lucky with the figures. The figures that I have quoted were published in June 1987, and we are lucky because they will remain constant for the next few years. The reason for that is the low birth rate in the 1920s, during the depression, which was caused, again, by Government economic policy. The other factor was that more than 1 million men died in the first world war, fighting to safeguard the nation's interests. That is why we are not faced with an even more horrific problem.

What has the Government's response been? The Opposition are worried by the Government's actions. They have removed the link with earnings or inflation—whichever was higher—which guaranteed pensioners a decent pension in old age. Let us consider the figures. A single person's pension is £41.15, whereas if the previous link had been retained it would be £50.94. The pension for a married couple is £65.90, whereas it should be £81.55. That is one of the disgraceful changes made since this Government came to office.

Another problem involves cold weather payments and the changes made to such payments under the Social Security Act 1988. The Government have retained the cold weather payment at the miserly amount of £5. That is inadequate, given the cost of fuel. The Government have also inflicted another extraordinarily harsh action on our senior citizens. I represent a coal mining area in which many pensioners are either the widows of coal miners or retired coal miners and they face severe difficulties. Many years ago, it was agreed in the industry that miners would give up a portion of their fuel allowance, which was given as part of their wages throughout the year. Out of their 12 loads of coal a year, two were put into a reserve, which supplied much-needed fuel to pensioners and to the widows of miners. That gift should not fall within the Government's prerogative. It was a gift from working people in the industry to those in need who were, for one reason or another, outside the industry. Through the changes in the supplementary benefit regulations, the Government have inflicted a system that treats that gift from people in work as earnings. As a result, a miner's widow in my constituency who receives winter fuel from the reserve has deductions made from her supplementary benefit. Those deductions accumulate because of the earnings band in which she falls, with the result that her "free" fuel actually costs her money. That is disgraceful.

I have shown that many of the Government's policies do not favour the elderly population. Without a shadow of a doubt, the Minister—like his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when confronted with these questions—will read out a set of facts and figures to show how well off pensioners are, but pensioners do not believe that they are well off, in my constituency or in any other. Many elderly people come to talk to me and they all tell me how badly off they are. The full extent of the problem is evident from the disastrous circumstances of the winter months. During the coming months, thousands of pensioners will die of cold or of illnesses related to it. This winter, at least 750,000—perhaps even 1 million—pensioners will be at risk. Yet the Government have taken no concerted action to try to reverse that dangerous state of affairs.

I should like the Minister to take some positive action today, because there is not much time. I do not expect him to announce that the Government will give free television licences to pensioners, having recognised that televisions are an important means of communication, which pensioners should have in their homes. I do not expect him to announce an enormous increase in pensions. It would be silly even to ask him to do that. Instead, I want him to say that before he and the Prime Minister go on their holidays he will send telexes to all the relevant Government agencies in the Department of Health and the Department of Social Security telling them to be aware of., and be ready to meet, the needs of pensioners during the holiday. I want him to urge the Prime Minister to make a statement before Christmas telling people that they should be aware of pensioners' needs. In that way, pensioners might at least have some comfort and people might be reminded that Christmas is a time of good will, and act accordingly during the holiday period.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North for allowing me to speak, and I urge the Minister to act in the best interests of our senior citizens.

10.43 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) on his good fortune in being drawn second in the ballot for this series of Adjournment debates and I congratulate the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) on his initiative in joining in.

I take issue with both hon. Members over their suggestion that pensioners have fared less well and been treated less fairly under this Government than under the Labour Government. The hon. Gentlemen confined their criticism largely to matters related to pensioners' ability to meet fuel costs during the winter, but the issues that they raised go far wider. It is simply not true that the Government have failed to understand or meet the needs of pensioners. Contrary to the suggestion of the hon. Member for Walsall, North, the average pensioner is better off, and help with fuel costs for those on the lowest incomes is substantially greater, than when the Labour party was in power.

The hon. Member for Mansfield cited statistics that he claimed showed how pensioners were worse off. He should compare those figures with the figures for 1979. The number of pensioners in the lowest 20 per cent. of incomes has fallen substantially. The average pensioner income as a proportion of the average wage fell under the Labour Government, but rose under this Government.

We have honoured our pledge—it was a pledge made before the election and not a change made afterwards—to protect the value of the basic state pension against inflation, despite the fact that 1 million new pensioners have come on to the scene since 1979. The basic pension provides a secure foundation for income in retirement, but more important to pensioners as a group is the value of their total income. During our first seven years in office, pensioners' average total net income has risen by 23 per cent. in real terms—much faster than it did under the Labour Government. Average income from savings—an important element and one of which we are very proud because it suggests the success of our policies and the progress of the economy—has risen by 64 per cent., and average income from occupational pensions has risen by 56 per cent.

The latest figures show that 80 per cent. of pensioners have a source of income other than state benefits, and 85 per cent. of recently retired pensioner couples have such a source of income. That reflects the growth in occupational pensions and savings, thanks to economic growth and the control of inflation. For retired people living on fixed incomes, nothing is worse than runaway inflation, which eats away remorselessly at the value of savings which it may have taken the whole of a working life to accumulate.

Under this Government, £23 billion is to go this year on benefits for the elderly—the basic pension, income support, the state earnings-related pension and the old graduated pension. That is virtually half of all social security spending, which is by far the biggest item of Government expenditure and has increased by one third since 1979. Under this Government, expenditure on benefits for the elderly has increased by 24 per cent. above the rate of inflation.

We recognise, however, that some pensioners have not shared fully in the increased prosperity of the past eight years or so. The hon. Member for Walsall, North knows that I cannot, I am afraid, make a new announcement today, but I remind him that on 24 November my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced an extra £200 million for the poorest pensioners—those on income support. Under those arrangements, 2.6 million elderly pensioners will gain. There are new premiums for pensioners aged 75 and over, for those aged 80 and over and for disabled people over 60. That will mean an extra £2.50 a week next winter for single pensioners and an extra £3.50 for couples, over and above the increases announced for next April.

Mr. Meale

The Government seem to be giving with one hand and taking away with the other. The Government gave guarantees that people of pensionable age would lose only £2.50 under the new housing benefit regulations, yet many millions of pensioners have lost considerable sums, and even the premiums announced go only a tiny part of the way to replacing what is being taken away from pensioners.

Mr. Lloyd

Some pensioners have lost, but the point about the changes is that sums of money are redirected to those who need it most. As we did when considering these reforms, the hon. Gentleman should think about the poorer pensioners. The new arrangements for housing benefits mean that those on income support will have 100 per cent. of their rents paid. That was not the case previously, because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, there were about six different tapers and many ways of calculating housing benefit which were unfair between pensioners on the same income. This time, we have ensured that those with the lowest incomes receive the fullest help, and that the help is greater for those with higher rents. The changes have achieved exactly what we intended. If the hon. Gentleman is interested in the lowest paid of the pensioners, he should be interested, too, in the help that we are giving. Those who have lost have, by definition, been those above the lowest limits.

Mr. Winnick

Not much above the lower limits.

Mr. Lloyd

They certainly have been above the lowest limits. The point of the exercise is to direct help to where it is most needed.

Hon. Members will, I am sure, be aware that extra help to those pensioners who receive income support is targeted, in recognition of the extra needs which pensioners have, through the pensioner premiums. I should stress—as the hon. Member for Mansfield did not —that the £417 million that we paid last year in the form of heating additions was all put into the pot when the income support rates and the additional premiums were determined. That £417 million was far greater in real terms than the amount spent by the Labour Government on heating allowances and additions for the elderly. It represents a real increase in care in terms of heating.

These basic benefit rates are designed to provide sufficient money to enable pensioners to pay for their heating costs during a normal winter. We have, however, as last year, provided for additional help to be given to pensioners on income support at times when the weather is especially cold. The new arrangements for making payments under the social fund cold weather payment regulations bring forward and extend a scheme which was operated successfuly under supplementary benefit last year, and was not matched by any scheme run by the Labour Government. This new assistance to those on lowest incomes is directed to those whose heating bills will be higher because of the cold weather in their areas.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North asked what the £5 would mean. It will mean that pensioners will receive £5, which is equivalent to nearly half of the average heating fuel costs of a family—not just of a single pensioner or of a small household, but of the average household. It is a significant addition when compared with fuel prices.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North mentioned huge increases in gas prices. In fact, the increase, when compared with the rate of inflation during the past five years, is a negative one. During that period, gas prices have not risen faster than inflation. I accept that, since 1979, they have risen by about 2.4 per cent., which is about the increase in the basic pension, but it is far below the increase in pensioner incomes of which I spoke earlier.

The new rules link entitlement to receipt of the income support pensioner premium—this is the improvement—thereby allowing men and women aged 60 to 64 to qualify for help for the first time. We have deliberately kept the new arrangements as simple as possible so that the rules are easy for people to understand and for our local offices to operate.

Mr. Meale

I said that £5 was paltry for a specific reason. We have already had a substantial increase in electricity prices and, undoubtedly, there will be further increases prior to the privatisation of that industry. Is the Minister serious in saying that £5 is generous? Many people of pensionable age in my constituency rely on coal and coke products to keep warm. Pensioners in my constituency are faced with debt or death. We want the Minister to accept that £5 a week is insufficient during the winter months.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. An intervention should be short at any time, but especially when debates are time-capped.

Mr. Lloyd

The hon. Member for Mansfield has again referred to the £5. All I can say is that there was no such scheme when his party was in power. It is £5 more than nothing, and that is a useful sum, especially—

Mr. Winnick

When will it be paid?

Mr. Lloyd

It will be paid in the week afterwards, before the bills come in. Last year, our system worked well administratively, because it was simple and straightforward.

Mr. Winnick

It must be freezing.

Mr. Lloyd

The temperature must drop to zero, but, as I have already made clear to the hon. Member for Walsall, North, the £417 million for heating additions paid by the Government last year—which was far higher than was paid at any time under the previous Labour Government —has all been redirected to the elderly in the pensioner premiums. The new regulations will allow non-householder pensioners for the first time to qualify for help.

We have made a change to the rules—this shows the simplicity and why there can be such speed of reaction —so that any period of seven consecutive days, when the temperature averages 0 deg C or below, may now be counted, rather than a fixed Sunday to Monday period being used as last year. We expect that all those changes will about double the potential for payments to be made to pensioners—and indeed to others entitled to such help—during the coming winter.

The hon. Member for Mansfield spoke about hypothermia and excess winter mortality, which the Government take seriously. However, the number of people suffering from hypothermia has hovered at about the same level—about 500—each year. It did reach a peak and, as the hon. Gentleman raised the matter, I shall tell him that the peak was in the winter of 1978–79, before this Government came into office. If the hon. Gentleman sees a connection between figures and Governments, let him make a connection there. A much more important indicator of the effects of cold weather on vulnerable groups is the extent to which overall mortality in the winter exceeds that in the summer. Those deaths are largely due to heart disease, strokes and chest infections, and during the past 35 years the underlying trend in excess winter mortality has been downward. Again, there was a blip in the figures—the line turned up—and that was between 1974 and 1979–80. Again, if the hon. Gentleman wishes to make a connection, that is one from which he may draw his conclusions.

To show how seriously we regard the matter, I can tell hon. Members that the Medical Research Council has set up a working group to consider carefully this issue and to tell the Government urgently where extra research needs to be carried out. We will then understand the problem more fully and be able to take the necessary action to deal with it far more effectively than the previous Labour Government did.

We have taken steps to protect pensioners' incomes and savings. We have also ensured that adequate provision is made through the benefits system for those dependent on income-related benefits so that all pensioners may face the coming months without the fear that they will be unable to keep themselves warm. We have taken trouble to launch an informative Keep Warm, Keep Well campaign. The Government's record in looking after poorer pensioners stands up to any scrutiny, and I am sure that the House will endorse that view.

It being Eleven o'clock, MR. SPEAKER interrupted proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 11.