HC Deb 10 May 1988 vol 133 cc137-8
7. Mrs. Fyfe

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Services what information he has as to the levels of state pensions in each of the member states of the European Community, taking account of the cost of living in each country; and if he will place in the Library a copy of a league table based on those figures.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Michael Portillo)

Only three countries in the European Community—the United Kingdom, Denmark and Ireland—have flat-rate pensions payable to most pensioners. Earnings-related pensions in the other countries are linked to the individual's own earnings, and there is no fixed pension level. Spending on programmes for the elderly in the United Kingdom as a share of gross domestic product is the third highest in Europe.

Mrs. Fyfe

Does the Minister agree that it is a deplorable state of affairs when old-age pensioners visit our advice surgeries driven to tears because they do not know how they will cope with the harsh change in their circumstances that has arisen in the past three weeks? Does he agree that this country has a moral obligation to ensure some dignity and comfort in old age and not to squander the nation's money, turning the rich into the super-rich?

Mr. Portillo

That is why I am happy to tell the hon. Lady that we are spending 9.6 per cent. of our gross domestic product on services and benefits to the elderly and that that is the third highest figure in Europe. I hope that she will be well content with that. She will be aware that only a small minority of pensioners were losers under the reforms, and that measures were taken on 27 April to provide further transitional protection to many of those groups.

Mr. Sayeed

Does my hon. Friend agree that to produce that league table would be misleading because it would ignore the fact that there are benefits available to the elderly in this country that are not available anywhere else in the world?

Mr. Portillo

That is indeed the case. Last year the Leader of the Opposition and Lady Castle provided a league table that was discussed with the European Community's statistical office. That office stated that the comparison between the United Kingdom and other countries appeared to have been carelessly done because it was not accompanied by any comment on the fundamental differences between various social protection systems. That same letter of 27 April 1987 went on to say that the only statement that the office could back was that made by my predecessor, my hon. and learned Friend the member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), that the third highest proportion of GDP spent on the elderly was spent in this country.

Mr. Madden

What European example are the British Government following by cutting the pension of a 74-year-old constituent of mine by the amount of industrial death benefit that she receives in respect of her husband who died 22 years ago? Does the Minister agree that it is disgraceful that 30,000 widows should be handicapped because they are in receipt of industrial death benefit and that the Government have not honoured a commitment that they made some time ago that existing recipients would not be harmed by the changes?

Mr. Portillo

We are almost alone among European countries in paying additions to men's benefits in respect of their wives. That is a major feature of our benefit system.

In addition, our supplementary benefit rates for pensioner couples are about 20 per cent. higher than, for example, those in Germany, after taking account of the differences in the cost of living. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to go into European comparisons, I am happy to do battle with him.

Forward to