HC Deb 23 February 1998 vol 307 cc1-4
1. Mr. Stringer

If she will make a statement on progress being made on the Government's pensions review. [29074]

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

The pensions review that I announced on 17 July last year fulfilled our manifesto commitment. We have received more than 2,000 responses and we aim to publish our proposals for change in the first half of this year.

Mr. Stringer

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does she agree that the impact of the television licence on pensioners is analogous to the impact of the poll tax? Does she agree also that any review of pensions should take that into account either through direct compensation in the form of a £2 increase in pensions or by ensuring that pensioners do not have to pay the television licence fee?

Ms Harman

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Television is very important to pensioners, and we are concerned to take action on all matters affecting pensioners' quality of life. The cost of the television licence will be considered further by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. The value of the basic state pension is part of the pensions review, but our manifesto commitment is to maintain it as the foundation of income in retirement and to uprate it at least in line with prices.

Mr. Quentin Davies

May I give the Government yet another chance to give a straight answer to a straight question—which they have declined to do until now? Will they calm the serious anxieties and anguish felt by millions of people in this country by stating quite clearly that they have no intention of means-testing or affluence-testing the standard state retirement pension?

Ms Harman

We have made a commitment in our manifesto that we will keep the basic state pension and increase it in line with prices. I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me another opportunity today to confirm that we will stick to our manifesto promise. We are certainly concerned to do what the previous Government never did: provide extra help for the poorest pensioners. We are doing that through winter fuel payments and by ensuring that those who are entitled to income support receive that benefit.

Mr. Winnick

What the Government have done to help pensioners since last May is, of course, appreciated by pensioners and by Labour Members. However, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the earlier point about concessionary television licences? Pensioners' finances would be improved considerably if they did not have to pay television licence fees. In view of the rumours that are floating about, which have been mentioned in the press, will my right hon. Friend do whatever she can to ensure that pensioners receive justice as quickly as possible? Pensioners should no longer have to pay the television licence fee or the fee should at least be halved for pensioners.

Ms Harman

My hon. Friend has repeated those points very strongly. Television licence fees are important when considering pensioners' quality of life and cost of living. My hon. Friend's points are well taken by me, but, more importantly, I am sure that they will be noted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Mr. Webb

The pensions review is concerned, among other things, with ensuring that people of modest means save more. The Treasury has undertaken an individual savings account review that is also designed to encourage people of modest means to save more. Will the Secretary of State explain the relationship between those two reviews? Why are they being conducted at the same time, involving different people and different time scales? How will she ensure that the two reviews reach consistent conclusions?

Ms Harman

The reviews certainly will be consistent and will reach consistent conclusions. The two reviews are designed to complement each other and to have different purposes. The stakeholder pension, which we are consulting about, will ensure that people on low or intermittent earnings have the opportunity to save for their retirement so that they may retire not only on the basic state pension, but on a good, value-for-money second pension.

Mrs. Humble

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the pensions review and, indeed, the delivery of welfare benefits depend on well-motivated staff? Will either she or one of her Ministers meet me and other hon. Members who represent Fylde-coast constituencies to discuss recent suggestions, which are causing grave concern, that up to 200 jobs will be lost in the major Department of Social Security centres along the Fylde coast?

Ms Harman

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. The motivation of staff is critical to the quality of service and to its improvement, which we want to deliver. My hon. Friend asked for a meeting; I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Minister for Welfare Reform whether he is prepared to meet her and her colleagues from the area. My ministerial team and I regularly meet the DSS unions to ensure that they have a good working partnership with the Department, which was never done previously.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Last year, the Chancellor of the Exchequer devalued pensions through his actions in the Budget. That was made clear by the Government Actuary, who advised the Government to change the rebate to the state earnings-related pension scheme to avoid creating problems for those who had opted out. Why did the Government not accept and implement in full the Government Actuary's report, rather than slash occupational pensions?

Ms Harman

The Chancellor acted to ensure long-term investment, which is good for the economy, for pension schemes and for people with second pensions. I sought the advice of the Government Actuary, who regularly advises the Government. He gave his advice and we acted on it—everything remains completely in order.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The Government clearly did not act on the Government Actuary's advice; they did not implement the changes to occupational pensions that he advised. As a result, those with occupational pensions will now have to pay much more than before to stay out of SERPS. That goes against the Government manifesto commitment to support and strengthen the framework for occupational pensions. Why has the right hon. Lady decided to slash occupational pensions?

Ms Harman

As I explained to the House previously—I take this opportunity to explain it again—I sought the Government Actuary's advice, which I considered and on which I acted. The previous Government left hundreds of thousands of people without compensation for the mis-selling of second pensions. We have acted promptly and appropriately, and we are also trying to sort out the mess that the previous Government left in relation to second pensions.