HC Deb 26 February 1992 vol 204 cc969-71 3.40 pm
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require local authorities and health authorities to monitor the condition of their retired population; to eliminate standing charges on gas, electricity and water; to exempt pensioners from licence charges and telephone rental; to extend pensioners' concessionary fare schemes; to make provision for the calculation of old age pensions by reference to average earnings; and to appoint a Minister with responsibility for retired people. This is the eighth time that I have tried to introduce the Bill. On every occasion, I have been given permission to bring in the Bill, but it has been subsequently blocked by a Tory Whip muttering, "Object," in a guilty whisper, because the Government are not prepared to debate the issue.

The Bill would make life far better for the 10 million people in this country who are retired, who have made a great contribution to our society and who have given us the standard of living that we currently enjoy. We should treat them with dignity and respect in retirement, instead of the poverty in which so many of them must live.

The old-age pension was first introduced not by the munificence of the then Liberal Government but by the demands of trade unions and ordinary people that the state should provide a decent old-age pension for people who had given a lifetime of work, whether at home, in a factory or wherever else. Now, after 12 years of this Government, from 1 April the old-age pension will be £54.80 per week. It should be £71.80 per week. For a married couple, the pension will be £86.70 per week. It should be £114.70 a week. In other words, pensioners have had £17.65 a week stolen by the break of the link with earnings in 1980 and the substitution of the link with prices. Likewise, the married couple's pension has been reduced by £28 per week.

The Government claim that there has been a 36 per cent. increase in the incomes of pensioner families during their term of office. That is simply and absolutely untrue for the majority of pensioners. In 1979, only 14 per cent. of households were below 50 per cent. of average national income. By 1988, that figure had more than doubled, to 38 per cent. It is a measure of the Government's record that pensioners are getting historically low pensions, historically living in greater poverty and historically having greater difficulties surviving because the Government's strategy is continually to reduce the level of state benefit and state old-age pension in favour of private pension schemes and private insurance schemes.

From investigations into the scandal of the Maxwell and Mirror pension funds, one can see the security and safety of investing money in a casino economy when pensioners should be guaranteed a decent state pension in retirement and not have to rely on the vagaries of the stock market.

The link with retail prices introduced by the Government in 1980 is a double con. It is a con because retail prices have risen less quickly than earnings, but it is a double con because research shows that the index for pensioners is considerably different from the price index for the rest of the population. For example, in the third quarter of 1991 the Government told us that retail prices for all items increased by 4.8 per cent. However, the increase in prices paid by pensioner households, who tend to spend more on fuel and other such items, was 7.2 per cent. That is not reflected in the state old-age pension.

In other words, if we add up all the money that has been stolen from pensioners in the past 12 years, we find an annual theft of more than £5 billion from pensioner households. That has been handed out in tax relief to the very rich in our society. That is a measure of the contempt in which the Government hold those who served the community so well during their working life.

Likewise, the change in the system of the state earnings-related pension scheme has taken £2 billion from Government income. Again, that is money which has gone into the private sector. We want an understanding that people who have worked during their lives, be it in their home, their factory or wherever, deserve to be paid a decent state pension during retirement. [Interruption.] If that is more than Conservative Members can cope with, they are welcome to leave.

My Bill makes eight proposals in all. They are straightforward and simple. The first is an immediate restoration of the link between the state old-age pension and average earnings, which was broken in 1980. That will restore the money that has been stolen from pensioners in the past 12 years. The second is that, during the lifetime of a Parliament, we should make the state old-age pension half average earnings for a couple and a third for a single pensioner. That would be a considerable increase and would bring us roughly in line with the average rate of old-age pension in comparable industrial economies around the world.

If other countries can pay such levels of pension, it can be done in Britain. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may call out, "Where will the money come from?" I can think of an awful lot of sources. First, we could restore a fair system of taxation to replace the unfair system from which the rich have gained more than £25 billion in tax handouts in the past 12 years. The £24 billion-a-year arms bill would also be a useful source of money to increase the standard of living of old-age pensioners.

The third proposal is to ensure serious co-ordination of Government policy as it affects pensioners. There should be a Minister whose job is to co-ordinate that policy, because pensioners require not only a decent level of state old-age pension, but access to luncheon clubs and day centres. They require home carers, a decent health service, a decent transport service and access to facilities such as libraries and adult education. Retirement should not be the end of life. It should be a period of enjoyment and development, not the misery of worrying about how one is to make ends meet.

The fourth and fifth proposals of the Bill are that every health authority should be required to make a public annual report on what facilities it makes available to pensioner households within its district. I often feel that the health needs of pensioners, whether for chiropody services, stress clinics or other special services that pensioners might need, are often forgotten because pensioners are not so able and articulate a lobby as some of the more professional groups who represent the better-off in our community. Such a report would at least analyse what facilities were available. It would also analyse the causes of death and rates of death through hypothermia and all the other injustices that occur in our society.

My fifth proposal is that local authorities should likewise be required to produce an annual report on the services they provide for the elderly. It would show that, increasingly in the past few years, local authorities have sought to charge for home carers who come into pensioners' homes. They have done so because they have had to make financial cuts.

Local authorities have had to restrict library opening hours, cut the numbers going to luncheon clubs and cut adult education and many social facilities, including such crucial things as holidays.

An annual report would not solve all those problems, but at least it would force local authorities to recognise the importance of their services to pensioner households.

The sixth proposal will find general favour. It is generally recognised that a poll tax is an unfair form of taxation, and that is why the Government are abolishing it. The imposition of standing charges for gas, electricity, telephone, water, and television licences is unfair on pensioner households. I propose that they should be abolished so that such households would pay less for gas and electricity. There would be an absolute prohibition on the disconnection of services to those households. Last year, 370 deaths were recorded as a result of hypothermia. I think that that was an understatement of the case, because many coroners and doctors are reluctant to put hypothermia as the cause on death certificates.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) tried to introduce the seventh proposal early in 1987, but it was tragically defeated when the Government brought in the payroll vote. Its aim was to provide free television licences for pensioners. Television is normal, and I do not understand why pensioners should be expected to pay for such licences.

The final proposal is on concessionary fares and free-fare schemes. London pensioners enjoy free fares because the Greater London council introduced that scheme, and even this Government have been forced to maintain the system. I propose that such a scheme should be introduced throughout the country.

The Bill will dramatically improve the lot of pensioners, and I look forward to the support of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Dennis Skinner, Mr. Harry Barnes, Mr. David Winnick, Mr. Harry Cohen, Mr. Tony Benn, Mr. Dave Nellist, Mrs. Audrey Wise, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Ms. Dawn Primarolo, Mr. Tony Banks and Mr. Bernie Grant.