§ 7. Mr. Skinner
To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security when he last met a group of pensioners' representatives to discuss the pensioners' charter; and if he will make a statement.
§ Mr. Skinner
The Minister will know that one of the demands made by pensioners is for the Government to restore the link between pensions and the prices and earnings index. The breaking of that link resulted in the Government stealing £12 per week from every pensioner. He will also be aware that pensioners want to abolish standing charges and prescription charges and to have free travel like Ministers who are carted all over the country. They also want to get rid of the poll tax. Why does not the Minister go down to her bunker in Downing street and tell her to get rid of it and get off the pensioners' backs?
§ Mr. Scott
The hon. Gentleman, who, as ever, is strong on rhetoric but short on facts, may remember that the last Labour Government failed to honour its obligation to uprate pensions annually in line with the RPI. Their record in allowing inflation to run rampant through the incomes of pensioners also let the pensioners down considerably. It comes ill from the mouths of Labour Members to criticise us on this.
§ Mrs. Margaret Ewing
Does the Minister accept that a major point of concern to all pensioners is the right to fuel and heating? Will he give serious consideration to the abolition of standing charges for gas and electricity supplies to pensioners and to the introduction of a cold climate allowance that is automatic and continuous?
§ Mr. Scott
I appreciate the hon. Lady's point, but I am not sure that the abolition of standing charges would necessarily help those most in need of assistance with heating. We incorporated the old heating allowances when we moved to the new system of income support. The case for the abolition of standing charges is not, in my view, convincing.
§ Mr. Barry Field
Has my right hon. Friend read the comment by the person to whom we may not refer in this House that the challenge facing the country is to find a more active role for pensioners? Does my right hon. Friend agree that many a nimble tune is played on an old fiddle? Will he consider my ten-minute Bill, which attempts to abolish age discrimination? Many pensioners are fed up with the emphasis placed on the quantity of life rather than the quality, as they have a real contribution to make to society.
§ Mr. Scott
I agree with my hon. Friend's sentiments, if not with the precise terms of his ten-minute Bill. Demography will encourage employers to take more 10 notice of the abilities that senior citizens can bring to our economy. By abolishing the earnings rule, we have taken a substantial step in encouraging pensioners to contribute.
§ Mr. Meacher
In the light of the Minister's first reply, does he accept that the basic pension rose by 20 per cent. in real terms after six years of Labour Government, but by only 2 per cent. after 11 years of Tory Government? Does he acknowledge that the decision by the European Court of Justice last Thursday concerning pension ages has implications for not only occupational pension schemes but the state retirement pension? Does he agree that aligning the pensionable ages of men and women need not be unduly costly if it is undertaken gradually and if the individual is given the choice between a lower retirement age or a higher pension? As the European Court judgment was made in respect of article 119 of the treaty, which is directly applicable in courts in the United Kingdom, will the Secretary of State act before he is forced to do so? If so, when and how?
§ Mr. Scott
As to the hon. Gentleman's first point, it is not the level of the basic pension but pensioners' total income that matters. Under the present Government, that has risen twice as fast as that of the population as a whole, by 31 per cent. or 3.5 per cent. per annum, compared with 0.6 per cent. per annum under the previous Labour Administration. We are studying the implications of the European Court's judgment and will announce our conclusions to the House in due course.