HC Deb 09 February 2004 vol 417 cc1099-100
1. Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)

What estimate he has made of the number of retirement pensioners in the forthcoming year; and how many there were five years ago. [153170]

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

It is fitting that the hon. Gentleman is No. 1 in questions today, as I understand that last week he announced his prospective retirement from the House. I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House in paying tribute to his years of distinguished service and in wishing him all the very best for the future.

The number of people over state pension age in Great Britain is estimated to be 10.85 million, compared with 10.47 million five years ago. In the course of this year we expect 113,500 additional people to be above state pension age. Since we took office the number of pensioners has gone up by 4 per cent. The real value of spending on pensions and benefits for people over 60 has gone up by 24 per cent.

Sir Teddy Taylor

I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words, which I genuinely very much appreciate, but is he aware of the concern and alarm among 10 million pensioners about the pressure being put on them to give up their pension book and to use bank accounts instead, in anticipation of the abolition of pension books in 2005? Would he be willing to discuss with his Cabinet colleagues the fact that many pensioners enjoy having a pension book and are concerned about the linked effect, which will result in the closure of a huge number of post offices on which pensioners depend greatly for many services? I thank the Secretary of State for all that he has done, but will he discuss the issue with colleagues as it is genuinely serious and will affect a lot of elderly people—like me?

Mr. Smith

I certainly recognise the concerns of the hon. Gentleman and of those who have raised the matter with him. We should remember that the majority of pensioners choose to have their payments made directly. Moreover, the order book is vulnerable to fraud and theft; many pensioners are attacked and their order book stolen from them. We are honouring our pledge that pensioners will be able to continue to receive their pension in cash at the post office. An exceptions service will be in place for those for whom the Post Office card account is not suitable, to ensure that their needs are met.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the growth in the number not only of pensioners but also of people who are penalised by the transport lottery—the postcode lottery whereby some pensioners have free off-peak travel while others do not? What can be done to ensure that all pensioners are treated the same? Can they have better help through the pension system?

Mr. Smith

To the best of my knowledge, there is a national commitment to a concessionary scheme. I admit that that will mean that some local authorities will provide help over and above the national minimum, but there is always tension between the responsiveness and democratic accountability that we want in localities and the avoidance of a postcode lottery. However, the enormous investment that we are making in our public transport system is a certain factor in ensuring that transport is available in rural as well as in urban areas to meet the needs of pensioners as well as others.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)

May I press the Secretary of State further on the question about pension books asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor)? Will the right hon. Gentleman say a little more about the concerns of pensioners who have several carers? When their pension books go, there may be problems with the PINs if several carers are involved.

Mr. Smith

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have ensured that pensioners can nominate somebody to use a card on their behalf to collect their pension. Where they need to make arrangements involving a number of people, they can do so at present through the order book, but we shall have to ensure that the exceptions service also enables them to meet that need.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend is perfectly aware of the fact that to use a book in a post office requires a post office, and that plans for the urban reconstruction—or destruction—of post offices in my part of the world mean that no post offices or cash outlets will be available. Pensioners could use a free bus pass if the proposed buses were actually on a bus route, but they are not even on a bus route. How will he get the money to those people?

Mr. Smith

As I am sure my hon. Friend will recognise, we have put £2 billion into supporting the post office network, including more than £400 million in rural areas. It makes sense to plan locally to ensure better co-ordination between accessibility, which includes his point about public transport routes, and the availability of points where pensioners can collect their cash, whether at the post office or through alternative facilities.