HC Deb 08 June 1998 vol 313 cc699-702
10. Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

What assessment she has made of the extent of pensioner poverty. [42937]

13. Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

If she will make a statement on Government action in respect of assistance for the poorest pensioners. [42940]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. John Denham)

For today's pensioners, the policies of the previous Administration created growing inequality and widespread insecurity. One in four pensioners are forced to depend on income support, or fail to receive it. We have commissioned research to find out why those people do not make a claim and we are running pilots in nine areas to find the best ways of getting more automatic help to them. The introduction of pension sharing on divorce, on which we have published draft clauses today, will also help to ensure that women are able to enjoy their fair share of pension income in retirement.

Mr. Blizzard

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that that answer implies that people simply cannot live on the basic state pension alone? Indeed, last week's Ross report told us that 2.5 million pensioner households are on less than a third of average earnings. Is he aware that, in my constituency, 30 per cent. of the population are of pensionable age and that, having seen the new deal for the young, the long-term unemployed, lone parents, disabled people and schools, many of those pensioners are looking to the pensions review to provide a new deal for today's pensioners?

Mr. Denham

My hon. Friend is right: most people who enjoy security in retirement have two sources of pension income—the basic state pension and a second pension. That is why we want to extend the range of those people who can enjoy access to a good, value-for-money, second pension. The position of pensioners, on which we have already taken action through the cut on value added tax on fuel, the increase in the basic state pension and the introduction of winter fuel payments, is, of course, a key part of the pensions review, and my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to it.

Mr. Quinn

I do not know whether the Minister realises this, but, in the county of North Yorkshire, some 14,000 people over 60 are failing to get the extra support that income support offers them. I find many times at my surgery that people from more rural and sparsely populated parts of my constituency of Scarborough and Whitby are failing to realise that those benefits are available to them.

On the pilot studies that the Minister mentioned earlier, I wonder whether some consideration might be given to those rural constituents, to find out whether they can have extra help in understanding what their entitlement is.

Mr. Denham

I can assure my hon. Friend that the pilot project areas cover a range of urban, suburban and rural areas and that we are working with local authorities to find the best ways of getting more automatic help to those pensioners. We are particularly keen to use the information that is already available to the Benefits Agency or local authorities, and the information that exists on retirement pensions, to identify those older people who are most likely to be entitled to income support and to find the best ways of approaching them to encourage them to make a claim for that income support.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Does the Minister recall seeing the headline in The Independent on Friday, saying that millions face poverty because of pensions inadequacy? Does he accept that part of that problem was caused by the Chancellor's raid on pension funds? What will the Minister do to alert pensioners to the need to add much more to their pension provision to receive the same return that they would have had before the Chancellor's raid? Will he also bear in mind the predicament of the Secretary of State for Social Security, who is being widely leaked against as likely to be pensioned off by the end of the summer?

Mr. Denham

I believe that I am right in saying that Friday's newspaper headlines were reporting the conclusions of the pensions review group, which showed clearly what a pensions problem we face because of the policies of the previous Government. That includes the many people who were mis-sold personal pensions because the previous Government got it so badly wrong. The group also confirms that we are right to attach the importance that we do to introducing a new framework for second-tier pensions and stakeholder pensions, and the measures that we have announced today on pension sharing on divorce, as ways of tackling under-provision.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)

When the statistics for the first year of the new Labour Government become available, does the Minister believe that they will show that pensioner poverty has risen or fallen?

Mr. Denham

People will look at the record of our first year and will recognise that the basic state pension was put up by more than the previous Government had provided for; that for the first time a Government made winter fuel payments—10 million of them to 7 million households; and that for the first time a Government have set about practical action to tackle the problems of pensioners who do not claim income support, to find the best way of getting more automatic help to them. That is a record of which we can be proud.

Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North)

Does the Minister agree that some of the poorest pensioners are those who, during their working lives, gave up their careers to care for members of their families—perhaps a spouse with dementia or an elderly relative? As this is the start of Carers Week, can the Minister reassure the House that the Government will have regard to the pension rights of Britain's carers, so that some of our most responsible citizens no longer have to pay a penalty in poverty?

Mr. Denham

I begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend's work in introducing the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995 during the previous Parliament; it represented a major step forward in recognising the rights of carers. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to this issue. We, in turn, are right to explore ways of establishing a citizenship pension for carers, to enable those of them who are unable to contribute to a second pension to avoid being on means-tested benefits in retirement.

We are also right to introduce pension sharing on divorce. That will ensure that women—it is generally women—who do not build up their own pension rights because of family responsibilities can share fairly in the pension rights that the household builds up while they support a family at home.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

I am afraid that the Minister has already given the House a rather disingenuous response. It is not true that the Government have put up the state retirement pension by more than the Conservative Government would have done. The Conservative Government would have put it up according to increases in prices, and the Labour Government have done exactly the same—despite pretending, when in opposition, that they would restore the earnings link.

Is it not correct that the proposed stakeholder pension will do absolutely nothing for the poorer pensioners who, according to the Government's own pension provision group report last Thursday, will continue to depend on state means-tested benefits?

Mr. Denham

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench, although he has already had a few dry runs in previous debates.

The Government have honoured their manifesto commitment to raise the basic state pension at least in line with prices. It is a matter of fact that we had to find substantially more resources to meet that commitment than the previous Administration had budgeted for.

We believe that stakeholder pensions will provide an opportunity for millions of people on modest incomes and for those with intermittent working patterns to obtain value for money via a flexible second pension. They cannot do that at the moment, either because they do not have an occupational pension, or because personal pensions can be inflexible and subject to high charges. Of course we recognise, as the Secretary of State did last Thursday, that there are those who will continue to need the support and help of the state if they are to avoid poverty in retirement—we have always recognised that.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

I congratulate my colleague on the work he is doing to bring about pension fairness for people on low incomes. We should take no lessons from the Conservatives; it was the Tories who cut the link between wages and pensions, thereby costing a single person about £22 a week.

Will the Minister seriously consider resuming the link between wages and pensions? The gap between them needs to be examined to put right the damage done to many pensioners by the Tory Government.

Mr. Denham

Of course, the future uprating of the basic state pension is one of the critical issues for the pensions review. I hope that everybody in the House and outside will carefully read and study the report by the pension provision group chaired by Tom Ross, which was published last Thursday. It is the first time a Government have set out clearly an independent analysis of the pensions challenge that we face.

The decisions that need to be taken in the pensions review, which will be published later this year, on issues such as the uprating of the basic state pension, will have to take into account the conclusions of the Ross report.