HC Deb 16 October 2003 vol 411 cc247-9
5. Bob Spink (Castle Point)

If he will make a statement on changes in the level of state pension in the last three years. [132058]

The Paymaster General (Dawn Primarolo)

The basic state pension has risen by £5.30 a week over inflation for single pensioners and by £8.50 a week for couples since 2000—a cash increase of nearly £10 a week for single pensioners and nearly £16 a week for couples. Increases over the last three years have given single pensioners £1.10 a week more than an earnings link would have given them, and £1.75 a week for couples.

Bob Spink

Means—testing has grown like Topsy—from 40 per cent. in 1997 to almost 60 per cent. today, with a Government target to take it to 80 per cent. What would the Paymaster General say to my constituent, Joan Spey of Age Concern in Castle Point, whose friends and colleagues in Age Concern are very proud people? They deeply resent the intolerable intrusion into their lives that means-testing brings. What would she say to those people?

Dawn Primarolo

The intolerable intrusion is the poverty created for pensioners under the previous Government. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, on the basis of a measure of absolute poverty, more than 1.5 million pensioners have been taken out of poverty since 1997. He also well knows that the fair way forward on pensions must have the basic state pension underpinning people's income in retirement while, at the same time, we target maximum support on the very poorest pensioners. He also knows that the proposals that he has put forward will not help poor pensioners and will not be sustainable. I am sure that Age Concern and his constituents understand those points very well.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

My right hon. Friend will be aware how grateful pensioners are for the many measures that the Government have taken on their behalf. However, she will also be aware that the problem of trying to address pensioner poverty by means-tested benefits is not just that every single representative pensioners organisation is against means-tested benefits. There is the problem of take-up. She will be aware that, after 10 years of take-up campaigns, substantial numbers of pensioners simply refuse to claim that to which they are entitled. Is she able to tell the House the latest statistics for the number of pensioners entitled to means-tested benefits who do not claim them?

Dawn Primarolo

I know that my hon. Friend follows these matters very closely. She is quite right to suggest that the huge challenge continues to be to make sure that those pensioners entitled to the pension credit or the minimum income guarantee receive that money alongside the fuel allowance and the free television licences. However, I can tell her that more than 2 million pensioners already receive the pension credit, which will give so much more to pensioners, and more than 1 million have contacted the Department. The Pension Service, which is directed particularly to pensioners, will do much to deal with the very points that she has made.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford)

The truth is that, despite the Paymaster General's warm words, more and more pensioners rely not on the state pension but on means-tested benefits. As hon. Members on both sides have said, those pensioners deeply resent the intrusion and complexity involved with them. Despite her words and the Chancellor's promise to end the means test for our elderly people", the Government's plans now seek 80 per cent. of pensioners to be means-tested. Perhaps the Paymaster General will answer the question that the Prime Minister failed to answer yesterday. How much will a typical pensioner couple now have to save over their lifetime in order to avoid a means test?

Dawn Primarolo

The hon. Gentleman knows full well that the question that has to be answered is how—

Hon. Members

Answer the question!

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let the right hon. Lady answer the question—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—in her own way.

Dawn Primarolo

I will, Mr. Speaker, if I can get more than half a dozen words out.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the first issue with regard to pension policy is how to ensure that those in poverty are raised out of poverty. The pension credit and other measures that have been introduced since 1997 ensure that the poorest third of pensioners are better off. The second set of issues that must be addressed—the issues are being addressed by consultation on the pensions Green Paper—is exactly how we combine ensuring that we target the poorest pensioners by giving the basic state pension as the foundation for retirement and assisting people to save for their retirement. All those matters are being addressed, and the pension credit will further assist that by encouraging people to save while still rewarding them.

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