HC Deb 09 February 2004 vol 417 cc1106-8
6. Mr. John MacDougall (Central Fife) (Lab)

What assessment he has made of the effect of Government policy on the incomes of (a) the poorest pensioners and (b) all pensioners. [153175]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith)

As a result of Government measures since 1997, including the introduction of pension credit, pensioner households are now, on average, £24 a week better off in real terms. The poorest third of pensioner households are —30 a week better off. I have today placed in the Library the latest figures for take-up of pension credit at a national and constituency level. They show that 2.18 million households, and 2.62 million individuals, are now in receipt of pension credit.

Mr. MacDougall

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Does he agree that, after many years of missed opportunities to redress the imbalance in terms of pensioners and their requirements, the introduction of the pension credit scheme is very welcome? For example, in my constituency of Central Fife, 3,091 pensioner households benefit on average by £39.36 a week, and I am sure that they appreciate that. The policy must be very welcome.

Mr. Smith

I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome for the progress that we are making on pension credit in his constituency and throughout the country. Much hard work is going in not only on the telephone lines, but on the 302,000 home visits that the Pension Service has made across the country. That reflects great credit on all the staff who are working to make a success of this important policy of countering pensioner poverty and rewarding pensioners with modest savings.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD)

The Secretary of State knows that on average the oldest pensioners tend to be the poorest pensioners. He also knows that his Department's statistics show that older pensioners are the least likely to claim his pension credit. The Government are right to target the winter fuel payment by giving extra money to older pensioners, and they are right to target free TV licences by giving them only to older pensioners. Why will he not be right again by targeting the basic state pension in the same way?

Mr. Smith

The hon. Gentleman acknowledges that a lot more is right with our policies than is wrong. I remember his conceding in a previous exchange that if we were to follow his advice it would mean giving less to poorer, younger pensioners in order to give more to better-off, older pensioners. It makes sense to combine universal entitlements with help especially targeted at the poorest in the pensions system. Thanks to those policies, we have helped 1.6 million pensioners out of absolute poverty and 400,000 pensioners out of relative poverty. We shall keep driving those policies forward to make a success of the war against poverty.

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab)

Can the Secretary of State explain why only half of the 5 million pensioners who are eligible for pension credit claim it? What is he going to do about that?

Mr. Smith

We are, of course, only part of the way through the campaign period to ensure maximum take-up of pension credit. We said that we would write to every pensioner household in the country by June. I am confident that we will achieve that target, and I hope that we will write to every pensioner household before then. I have already referred to the extensive outreach work, which includes more than 300,000 home visits, and there is also TV advertising, press advertising and word of mouth among pensioners, which is increasingly important. Pensioners commend the friendliness and responsiveness of the service, which is a point borne out by independent research.

Returning to older pensioners, as we try—as we must—to drive take-up higher, it is all the more important to work intensively in collaboration with social services and others to identify those older and frail pensioners who are least likely to claim and ensure that they do so.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

Since 1997, has the number of pensioners on means-tested benefits gone up or down?

Mr. Smith

Conservative Members keep dragging out the question of means-tested benefits. I am proud that so many more pensioners benefit from the pension credit than gained from the minimum income arrangements under the previous Government. Let us remember that poorer pensioners are getting substantially more than they were in 1997. The —30 more a week enables this Government to make progress in combating pensioner poverty that could only have been dreamt about when the Conservative party froze the real value of the pension year in, year out. The Conservative Government increased it only when they introduced VAT on fuel, which placed so many pensioners in poverty.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab)

May I add my welcome for the pension credit's impact on both poorer pensioners and those with small occupational pensions? Does the Secretary of State agree that pensions policies must mesh with our policies on occupational pensions if we are to get them right? Although the pensions Bill will certainly help, may I again draw his attention to the important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) about the need to tackle those pensioners who have lost through the failure of occupational pensions, which include not only ASW but firms such as Kalamazoo in my constituency?

Mr. Smith

I acknowledge my hon. Friend's important points about his constituents at Kalamazoo and the success of pension credit. The imminent pensions Bill—we are that much closer to it now my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has spoken—will set up a pension protection fund, which will ensure that in future a pensions promise made will be a pensions promise honoured.