§ 5. Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)
What progress is being made to eradicate pensioner poverty. 
§ The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling)
About 2 million of the poorest pensioner households are now at least £15 a week, or £800 a year, better off in real terms as a result of Government measures introduced since the last election. The Pension Service, which I am announcing today, will also help the Government's drive to eradicate pensioner poverty.
§ Maria Eagle
Does my right hon. Friend know how much the winter fuel payment is appreciated in my south Liverpool constituency? Unlike Conservative Members, pensioners there view it not as a gimmick or as window dressing, but as a guarantee of warmth without worry during the winter months. What assurance can my right hon. Friend give that a Labour Government will retain and build on that payment—unlike the Conservatives, who, if they were returned to power, would sneer at it and abolish it?
§ Mr. Darling
My hon. Friend is right: even this afternoon, the Conservatives have reminded us that they regard such measures as "window dressing" or gimmicks.
The fact is that 11 million winter fuel payments have been made this year. The payment has proved immensely popular, which is presumably why the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), the Conservative spokesman on social security, had to revise his policy sharply. He is now in the unhappy position of finding that the pensions policy that he announced last May is in tatters, and instead is offering us a bureaucratic nightmare that would require every pensioner household to seek an accountant's advice before deciding whether to take the winter fuel payment in cash or to have it consolidated.
We have made it clear that eradicating pensioner poverty, and dealing with pensioner fuel poverty, is of the utmost importance. That is why we introduced the winter fuel payment. I think people are pretty clear about what the Tories really think of the payment, and what would happen to it if they were returned to power.
§ Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) called on the Secretary of State to build on the winter fuel payment. Will he confirm that his departmental expenditure plans show that spending on the payment will fall by a quarter next winter, because it will be cut from £200 to £150? Is that what he means by "building on it"?
§ Mr. Darling
I never cease to be amazed by the Liberal Democrats' views on these matters. We have delivered far more for pensioners than the Liberal Democrats have ever promised, even with the extra penny on income tax that was to be spent on this, that and the other.
The hon. Gentleman will know that every autumn we announce the uprating for pensioners, and at the same time announce the amount of the winter fuel payment. I have every confidence that pensioners who support us will have their faith in us amply rewarded yet again.
§ Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)
My right hon. Friend knows only too well how many pensioners in my constituency have been helped by the Government's initiatives, but he also knows of my concern about pensioners who are not claiming their full entitlement. How does his Department propose to ensure that there is clear, easily understood information, so that pensioners can claim what is right for them—which is an entitlement and not, as the Conservatives would suggest, a handout?
§ Mr. Darling
The new Pension Service, which will be a dedicated service for pensioners, will, among other things, focus on how better to get across to people what is their entitlement. As a first step, the minimum income guarantee claim form, which was more than 40 pages long when originally introduced, has now been shortened to just 10 pages. Pensioners can also claim their entitlement by telephoning, and in future will be able to do so by other means as well.
We are anxious for two things to happen: we want pensioners to receive their entitlement, and we want that entitlement to be there in the first place. We will ensure that both the minimum income guarantee and the winter fuel payment, as well as other measures, are available to boost pensioners' incomes in retirement. That is crucial not just to Labour Members but, I believe, to the country as a whole.
§ Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)
The Government introduced stakeholder pensions to try to eradicate future pensioner poverty. Has the Secretary of State seen the Prudential's estimate that 46,000 employers are not planning to offer such pensions? What methods of persuasion does he plan to use—or will he rely entirely on the fines of up to £50,000 that would bring the Treasury between £2.3 billion and £4 billion, representing about 2p on the basic rate of tax? Who will be responsible for enforcing the fines: the Department, the Benefits Agency or the Revenue? Is this the friendly face to business of the Labour Government or is it the overweening arrogance of the state?
§ Mr. Darling
The hon. Lady was right on one point: stakeholder pensions will help to reduce the number of pensioners dependent on means-tested benefits at or near to retirement. I hope that she can find it in her heart to support stakeholder pensions, because they provide a very good option for people who do not at present have a funded pension option.
The hon. Lady asked what we were doing to ensure that employers are aware of their obligations. Their obligation is straightforward: if they employ five or more people, they simply have to designate a stakeholder pension scheme. The Government have written to people and advertised, and companies have pointed out to employers the advantages of providing good-quality pension schemes. The combination of all those actions will have an effect, but the best way of selling any pensions product is for people to see that it works. As stakeholder pensions begin to be sold and people become more aware of their advantages, many more employers will want to ensure that their employees get the benefit of them.