HC Deb 02 April 2001 vol 366 cc1-3
1. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

If he will make a statement on changes to the proportion of benefits subject to means-testing since 1997. [154858]

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling)

The proportion of spending on income-related benefits amounted to 17 per cent. in 1979. By 1996–97, it had more than doubled to 35 per cent. of benefit expenditure. This year, we expect it to be 29 per cent.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Nevertheless, will he concede that more than 50 per cent. of pensioner households depend on means-tested state benefits for three quarters of their income? Does he accept that the position is getting substantially worse? What does he intend to do about it?

Mr. Darling

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman may have expected a different answer. The proportion of means-tested benefits is lower than it was when we took office four years ago. He asked about the pension credit. I make no apology for the fact that the credit means that, for the first time, pensioners who have saved a little money or have a modest occupational or works pension will be rewarded by the state instead of punished under the current system. I cannot understand why Conservative Members want to maintain that system, which is a disincentive to saving. We should encourage people to save for their retirement. The pension credit will ensure that those who do so are rewarded.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Have not this Government done more than any previous Government to ensure that the poorest people who are in need of most help receive it? They have done more than any previous Government to ensure that those who are entitled to benefits receive them. Is not that a good record of achievement for the Labour Government?

Mr. Darling

My hon. Friend is quite right. When Conservative Members say that they are against means-testing, they mean that they oppose giving more money to the people who need it most. From next week, about 2 million of the poorest pensioners will be at least £15 a week—nearly £800 a year—better off in real terms than in 1997. We should be proud of that record. We are on the way to eradicating pensioner poverty. We are rewarding saving and helping all pensioners through the benefits and tax systems.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

That is all window dressing. This week, the Government's brand new means test for incapacity benefit against occupational pensions income begins. Will the Secretary of State confirm that it will hit up to 100,000 vulnerable people? Does not he also believe that it will send a deplorable signal to those who contemplate prudently making provision for their future?

Mr. Darling

No, I do not. People who retire on occupational pension incomes of more than £85 a week should make a contribution towards their incomes if they have to retire early. The hon. Gentleman described the measures that I outlined to help pensioners as window dressing. That speaks volumes for the Conservative party's attitude. Does he believe that the minimum income guarantee, which gives £15 more a week to nearly 2 million pensioners, is window dressing? The winter fuel payment of £200 is paid to every pensioner household. Is that window dressing? People can see the shape of things to come. If the Conservatives were ever re-elected, they would get rid of the minimum income guarantee, the winter fuel payment and many other measures that benefit millions of pensioner households.