HC Deb 02 June 1997 vol 295 cc4-7
4. Mr. Lawrie Quinn

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if she will make a statement on the Government's plans for pensioners. [878]

6. Sir Teddy Taylor

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if she will review the 25p per week additional payment for the over-80s and the £10 Christmas bonus to take account of rising costs since these amounts were fixed. [880]

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

The Government will tackle poverty in retirement, and are determined that all pensioners shall share fairly in rising national prosperity.

Mr. Quinn

On behalf of my constituents in Scarborough and Whitby, I welcome my right hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the work that needs to be done for pensioners throughout the country involves other Departments as well as hers? Should not all Departments pay due regard to the need for a national concessionary travel scheme for pensioners and the disabled? Certainly, one of the commitments that I made to the electorate in my constituency was that I would work in the House to bring about such a scheme and promote it.

Ms Harman

I welcome my hon. Friend to the House, where I know that he will be a champion of pensioners in Scarborough and Whitby. He has already made a number of proposals which my Department is considering, and I am happy to respond to his question about concessionary fares for pensioners on public transport.

Pensioners have retired from work, but they have not retired from life. It is important for all Departments to ensure that they have not only good incomes, but access to public transport. Many pensioners work for voluntary organisations and are an important part of the community, but they cannot perform such a role if they are isolated in their homes. Part of that isolation is due to inadequate incomes, and part is due to inability to travel—a subject that I am discussing with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson).

Sir Teddy Taylor

Is the Secretary of State aware that there will be serious disappointment in the pensioner community if early action is not taken to deal with the two specific anomalies to which I referred in Question 6? She should bear in mind that, during the general election, the impression was created that new Labour would be more sympathetic to elderly people

Does the Secretary of State realise that the cash that we spend every day, and send to Brussels every day to be spent on waste and extravagance, could make a significant difference to that absurd amount of 25p a week for the over-80s?

Ms Harman

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of the over-80s. He will know of our manifesto commitment to make it a priority to help the poorest pensioners, many of whom are women over 80, living alone, with no state earnings-related pensions, no occupational pensions, no savings, no nothing. They will be beneficiaries of our determination to secure income support for the poorest pensioners.

In the area covering the hon. Gentleman's constituency, some 9,000 pensioners are now dependent on income support and have to claim means-tested benefit. About 3,000 more are entitled to income support, but do not receive it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will work with us to ensure that the poorest pensioners in his constituency receive what they are entitled to.

Mr. Winnick

If there is a machine anywhere that keeps a record of our views and statements, I should be horrified if it did not record the fact that—like so many of my hon. Friends—I have campaigned for many years for an improvement in the lot of pensioners.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that pensioners are now asking for two things in particular, apart from any increase? First, they are asking to be given, during the winter months, the financial protection that they are undoubtedly denied at present. Many suffer misery and hardship during the coldest months. Secondly, will my right hon. Friend persuade her Cabinet colleague, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, to look again at the possibility of a concessionary television licence? The proposal for such a licence was defeated just over 10 years ago as a result of strenuous Tory opposition.

Ms Harman

I know that my hon. Friend has long been a champion of pensioners in the House, and will continue to be.

My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of cold weather payments. It is a scandal that, in Britain today, after a lifetime of working or caring for their families, pensioners should be among the poorest in the country, many having so little income that they must choose between heating and eating. Entitlement to cold weather payments is dependent on the claiming of income support, which means that the 1 million pensioners who do not claim income support receive no cold weather payments. They will benefit from our attempt to secure income support for the poorest pensioners. The Government have also pledged to cut value added tax on gas and electricity. That unfair tax is one of the factors that have deterred elderly people from ensuring that they have the heating that they need.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage will consider my hon. Friend's question about concessionary television licences; I shall draw it to his attention.

Mr. Webb

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, may I welcome the right hon. Lady and her ministerial team to the Dispatch Box. On welfare reform, does she agree with me that investment in affordable, quality child care is the only way to reduce the number of lone parents on income support, and that the spare change from the midweek lottery does not constitute such an investment?

Ms Harman

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He has a long and distinguished record of work on social security and welfare reform. I agree with him that lack of affordable, high-quality, accessible child care is one of the reasons why 1 million lone mothers have to bring up 2 million children on the breadline on income support. The National Council for One Parent Families—which I met—and the Daycare Trust will work with us to develop and implement a national child care strategy that will help lone mothers to do what they want to do: which is to get out and work instead of being dependent on benefits. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also work with us to achieve that.

Mr. Bennett

I welcome my right hon. Friend to her post. Does she appreciate that, when the Christmas bonus was introduced, it was equal to one week's pension? Cold logic might suggest that it should now be abolished, given its £10 value and the administrative costs. Does she realise that she would win the support of pensioners and would show the Labour Government's good intentions if she were to restore the bonus to its original value?

Ms Harman

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. We shall shortly announce a review of pensioners' incomes. For the first time, the voice of pensioners will be at the heart of government through the National Pensioners Convention. We shall hear their voice when we determine our policy. I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue of the Christmas bonus, which I am sure will be considered in the review.

Mr. Heald

In joining the general welcome to the right hon. Lady, may I ask her whether the review will include the expenditure totals for her Department? Does she stand by Labour's plan to equalise the state pension age at 60, with a reduced pension of £40 a week—Labour's pension cut? Will she finally apologise for Labour's scaring lie tactics during the general election campaign? The Labour party tried to scare frail, elderly pensioners with lies about them losing their pensions.

Ms Harman

The hon. Gentleman knows that there is no question of a cut in the basic state pension. We have made it absolutely clear that we shall keep the basic state pension, and it will be uprated in line with prices. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is as concerned as we are about the 5,000 pensioners in his constituency who have no second-tier pension and must depend on income support, and about the 1,500 pensioners in his constituency who are entitled to income support but live below the breadline because they do not receive it.

We want to be sure that the next generation of pensioners—today's working people—do not become dependent on means-tested benefit, so we shall review the position of second pensions, and ensure that everyone retires on not only a basic state pension but a good second pension as well. Unfortunately, the previous Government failed to do that.