HC Deb 15 December 1997 vol 303 cc3-5
2. Mr. Touhig

If she will make a statement on the Government's policy on raising the living standards of pensioners. [19058]

The Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women (Ms Harriet Harman)

We want today's and tomorrow's pensioners to enjoy security in retirement. In July, I fulfilled one of our manifesto commitments by announcing a wide-ranging review of all aspects of pension provision, but we shall not wait until the outcome of the pensions review to take action. We have already taken action—by increasing the basic state pension to over £100 for pensioner couples from April and by an extra winter fuel payment to all pensioner households, and two and a half times that amount to the poorest pensioners on income support. We have also taken action to tackle the problem of the 1 million pensioners who do not claim the income support to which they are entitled.

Mr. Touhig

I thank my right hon. Friend for her response; all pensioners will welcome what she has done to help them. Does she agree that no one in Britain will believe a Tory party now posing as the friend of the pensioner and of disabled people? Does she further agree that the scare stories we saw at the weekend will best be answered by the Government's comprehensive spending review, which will be governed by fairness and opportunity for all?

Ms Harman

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. No one will accept the Tories posing as the friend of pensioners or of disabled people—they know better. People know that the welfare state is failing many of those whom it should be helping. As the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) said in response to an earlier question, our is not a cuts-driven agenda. Our review will be judged on two clear objectives—getting the right support to people who want to work to enable to them to do so; and getting the right mix of cash and services to people who cannot work, but who need to be enabled to live independently and with dignity. No one is talking about taking away benefits from those who need them—of course we must not do that. That is what the Prime Minister said yesterday, and I am happy to repeat his words to the House today.

Mr. Burns

What assurances can the Secretary of State give to the many thousands of disabled pensioners who are confused and frightened by the leaks emanating from her Department that they face means-testing of, or cuts to, their benefits? I know that she is not that keen on answering straightforward questions, but could we have a yes or no answer? Will she confirm that there are no plans to cut or to tax disability benefits?

Ms Harman

I have already answered the question.

Mr. Burns

No, you have not.

Ms Harman

Yes, I have. Anticipating the hon. Gentleman's question, I said that no one is even talking about taking away benefits from those who need them, disabled or pensioner. That is what the Prime Minister said.

We recognise that we must improve the welfare state, as the status quo is not acceptable. Millions of people who want to work have been written off to a life of dependence on benefit. Many pensioners and people with disabilities who cannot work have not received the right support from the mix of cash and services to enable them to live with independence and dignity. People recognise that the welfare state has failed some of the most vulnerable and needy people. The status quo is not acceptable, and we shall improve the welfare state.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

My right hon. Friend will know that many pensioners receive housing benefit and that housing benefit relates to rents paid in a free market. Will she assure me that Ministers in her Department are liaising with Ministers from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions in considering the way in which the free market in rents totally distorts the benefits system of the United Kingdom?

Ms Harman

My hon. Friend makes an important point, with which I fully agree. It is long overdue for us to ensure that people who need rented accommodation can get affordable, high-quality accommodation. The housing benefit system is complex and provides some people with a disincentive to work. It is not an acceptable system, and it is very much a part of our comprehensive spending review. We are reviewing the system with Ministers from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to make sure that we get it right in terms of people who need the accommodation, our overall housing policy and the public purse. All those issues will be addressed as part of the review.

Mr. Quentin Davies

Instead of asking my intended question, I shall repeat the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), which the Secretary of State did not answer, because she must get in the habit of giving precise answers to precise questions, rather than trying to bamboozle the House with irrelevant generalities. Are the Government considering means-testing the basic old-age pension? Yes or no?

Ms Harman

The hon. Gentleman should read our manifesto, which says that the basic state pension will continue to be paid universally, as it is now, and to be uprated at least in line with prices. If he reflected, he would probably agree that the welfare state has denied opportunities to people who want to work. That is clearly the case. We must give people with disabilities those opportunities and take touch action to tackle discrimination against them, to ensure that they can work.

We shall ensure that no changes will be made without full consultation. Full consultation is part of our pensions review, and our approach to changing provision for people with disabilities will be exactly the same.

Mr. Winnick

The Tories, with their notorious record, should be the last people to give lectures about pensions and disability. Will my right hon. Friend bear it in mind, in any review, that disabled pensioners should not have their disability living allowance means-tested, taxed or worsened in any way? That should apply equally to anyone in the community who is disabled. The Prime Minister said that the disabled would be protected; that is what Labour Members want, and I am sure that that is what will happen. I hope that my right hon. Friend, along with Treasury Ministers, will bear that in mind.

Ms Harman

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend, and I shall certainly bear that in mind. Labour has always stood up for the interests of people with disabilities, unlike the previous Government, who blocked civil rights for disabled people. Labour has always stood up for the poorest and most vulnerable; in our comprehensive review to modernise the welfare state, those traditional concerns will remain at the heart of our agenda.

Forward to