HC Deb 24 January 2002 vol 378 cc995-7
4. Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East)

If he will make a statement on Government policy on tackling pensioner poverty. [27554]

The Paymaster General (Dawn Primarolo)

The Government are committed to tackling pensioner poverty and helping those in greatest need. The Government introduced the minimum income guarantee and are committed to raising that in line with earnings throughout this Parliament. From 2003, the pension credit will ensure that those with a modest amount of savings stand to gain on average just over £400 a year.

Dr. Kumar

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Last week, I met the Cleveland pensioners convention forum. Pensioners told me that they support the Government strongly for all they are doing to tackle poverty among pensioners, but that they are concerned about one issue: nursing and personal care for the elderly. Given the recent decision by the Scottish Parliament to provide services free for the elderly, will my hon. Friend look at that issue again, so that my constituents can enjoy the same privileges as pensioners in Scotland?

Dawn Primarolo

I share, as I am sure do all hon. Members, the concern felt by my hon. Friend about the care of elderly people in our society. In England, the Government's key priority is to improve services for older people by promoting independence and minimising the need for institutional care. Overall, the Government will be making available an extra £1.4 billion a year for older people's services. That will emphasise the importance of maintaining the health and independence of older people, preventing unnecessary ill health, ensuring that health and social services are working in partnership and that older people have fair access to services, and making the funding fairer. The Government have decided that that is the best and quickest way to restore to older people the independence and the care that they say they so desperately want to be re-established.

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)

Is the Minister proud of the dramatic increase in the number of pensioners forced on to means-tested benefits since the Government came to power?

Dawn Primarolo

I am proud that the Government have introduced the minimum income guarantee, raised pensions and established the £200 fuel allowance for pensioners. We are now spending around £6 billion a year extra on pensioners, which includes £2.5 billion more being spent on the poorest third of pensioners in our society. As I said, the pension credit to be introduced in 2003 will further increase the resources going to the very poorest. That is the way to tackle the poverty among pensioners that we inherited from the Conservative Government.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

The Government's strategy to tackle pensioner poverty rests on the minimum income guarantee, which is a means-tested benefit. The widening use of such benefits is dubious enough anyway, but their use in relation to pensioners is especially doubtful. Successive Governments have found that, however much is spent on the take-up campaign, there will always be a substantial proportion of pensioners who are too proud to claim means-tested benefits. Does my hon. Friend agree that a strategy to counter pensioner poverty that rests on means-tested benefits always risks leaving a substantial number of pensioners in poverty?

Dawn Primarolo

As my hon. Friend will know, the Government are doing far more for pensioners in addition to the minimum income guarantee. The full state pension for a single pensioner will rise by £3 in April. That is on top of last year's increase of £5, £4.55 more than the normal inflation rise, and £2.10 more than the earnings link would have produced over those two years. In 2003, the annual basic state pension will rise by £100 for single pensioners. In the future, it will always increase by at least 2.5 per cent., even if the retail prices index is lower. I think that my hon. Friend would agree that, alongside the minimum income guarantee, the increase in the basic state pension that underpins our commitment to pensioners, and the annual £200 allowance to pensioners comprises the most effective, speedy and productive approach to ensuring that we tackle pensioner poverty.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

The Minister's final statistics will not wash with pensioners because the Government are busy increasing pensioner poverty by pushing up council tax by three times the rate of inflation. Does the Minister realise that more than 1 million pensioners now have to pay more than 10 per cent. of their disposable income in council tax? I hope that the Minister believes that fuel poverty is unacceptable, so why are the Government creating council tax poverty?

Dawn Primarolo

That is truly breathtaking from a member of a party that introduced the poll tax, forcing millions of pensioners into long-term poverty to pay it, put VAT on fuel for pensioners and denied decent rises in the basic state pension to every pensioner in the country. Pensioners are better off under the policies that the Government are pursuing and it is about time that the hon. Gentleman recognised that.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland)

The Minister will be aware that my constituency has one of the highest concentrations of people over 60 not only in the United Kingdom but in Europe. Nearly a third of the electorate is over the age of 60. Although we have the minimum income guarantee, pensions are going up and we are helping small pension holders, a great many elderly people in Glasgow, Anniesland do not have any pension other than the state pension. Is it not time for the Government to look forward and put in place a 21st century plan for pensioners?

Dawn Primarolo

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government have exactly that plan. In addition to the state pension, the minimum income guarantee and the pension credit, the introduction of the stakeholder pension will ensure that future pensioners have an income that will protect them. The Government are also supporting pensioners in a number of other ways.

It is a reproach to us all that there are pensioners living in poverty, inherited from the previous Government. It is our duty to put that right, and we will.

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