HC Deb 23 April 1996 vol 276 cc180-2
3. Mr. Butler

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what percentage of the bottom tenth of incomes was accounted for by pensioners in 1979; and what is the equivalent figure for the latest year for which figures are available. [24671]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Oliver Heald)

In 1979, pensioners represented 31 per cent. of the bottom 10th of the income distribution, after housing costs. By 1992–93, that figure had fallen to 8 per cent.

Mr. Butler

That shows that not just in absolute, but in relative terms, under this Government, the treatment of pensioners has been far better than under the preceding Government and far better than pensioners could hope for under any succeeding Labour Government, were such a disaster to hit the elderly population again. When my hon. Friend and I come to draw our pensions, will they be funded substantially by private pension funds, which exist in Britain, but not elsewhere in Europe? Can he put a figure on that?

Mr. Heald

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making those points. The Government's policy is to maintain the basic state pension's value, to encourage the private sector and to target help on people most in need. The amount targeted has already increased by £1.2 billion since 1988. The number of pensioners with occupational pensions is up from 43 per cent. in 1979 to 66 per cent. among the recently retired, with an average £75 per week for that occupational pensioner. My hon. Friend can do the mathematics himself, but, on such a rate of increase, the Conservative Government have given pensioners a better future than they would have had under Labour

Mr. Frank Field

Which poor people have stepped into the shoes of pensioners who have left the lowest decile?

Mr. Heald

There are those who say that a pot is half full and those who say that it is half empty. These days, the hon. Gentleman is obviously putting himself in the latter category. That is rather a change of heart—he used to be a bit more optimistic. During the 1980s, pensioners have improved their position. Their average incomes are up by 50 per cent. That is an answer in itself. The pensioners have done better under the Conservatives.

Mr. Waterson

Does my hon. Friend agree with me that one of the greatest contributions that a Government can make to pensioners' real incomes is to keep prices low? Will he remind me at what point in recent years inflation reached a level of over 27 per cent?

Mr. Heald

I am happy to remind my hon. Friend that the last Labour Government put this country in that parlous position, robbing pensioners of their savings through high inflation. The Government have had the longest period of sustained inflation—[Interruption.] Sorry, low inflation—for 50 years. Opposition Members may laugh, but it would be the longest period of sustained inflation if they ever had a chance to run the country.

Ms Lynne

Is the Minister aware that approximately one third of eligible pensioners are not claiming income-related benefit to which they are entitled and that, of those, 114,000 are in the north-west? Will he join Age Concern and other pension organisations in an awareness campaign so that pensioners take up their rights?

Mr. Heald

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. This morning, I met Age Concern and was able to discuss that issue, among others. The Government are spending about £25 million on giving information about benefits. They are providing information to 80, 000 outlets about the benefits that are available to people. Obviously, it is important that the information on the new benefit payment cards is clear and helpful to pensioners. We discussed that. Taken together, the measures represent a substantial commitment to telling pensioners what benefits are available to them. The Government are committed to that.

Mr. Wicks

Is not the Minister deliberately ignoring the facts about the poorest people in Britain? Is it not true that in Tory Britain poverty now wears a young face, often a child's face? There are 3 million families with children—[Interruption.] I shall repeat; there are 3 million families with children in the bottom tenth of income distribution. Would the Minister care to bring up a child on income support levels? Why have the Government deliberately created mass child poverty?

Mr. Heald

The hon. Gentleman puts his argument at the most exaggerated level possible, but that is typical of the Labour party. Only the other day the shadow Chancellor explained his ideas about child benefit for 16-year-olds and said that 80 per cent. of the children of unskilled parents leave school at 16. That information is 20 years old. Under the Conservatives, 50 per cent. or more of those children go on to further education. That just shows that the Labour party does not get its facts right. On poverty, under Labour—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must be responsible for Government policy.

Mr. Heald

I was asked about poverty and the hon. Gentleman said that there was poverty in Britain. It is worth making the point that there is a difference between income support levels and absolute poverty. One of the points that is made constantly by Opposition spokesmen, as it was a moment ago, is that poverty can be measured against income support levels. That is ludicrous because it would mean that every time we increased income support, we increased poverty.