HC Deb 13 November 2003 vol 413 cc154-5WH
9. Tony Cunningham (Workington)

What assessment has been made of the effect of Government policy on the incomes of (a) all pensioners and (b) the poorest pensioners. [137449]

The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks)

At the heart of the Government's policy is our concern to get the appropriate balance between helping all elderly people and focusing extra support on the hard-pressed and the poorest. As a result, pensioner households will be some £1,250 a year better off in real terms compared with 1997, whereas the poorest one third of pensioner households will have gained some £1,600 a year in real terms. I hope that that demonstrates that we are getting the balance right.

Tony Cunningham

I thank the Minister for that reply. I recognise and applaud both the fall in pensioner poverty and the huge sums of money that have been targeted at the poorest pensioners.

A few people have mentioned the Sunday Mirror "Respect our Seniors" campaign. Incomes are not the only aspect of respect for our older people. I have lived in Africa, and I have been to many developing countries in which income is not great but there is huge respect for older people, their knowledge and experience. Many of our older people want to remain active but have problems with using buses, cashpoints and supermarkets. What are the Government doing to co-ordinate across Departments to ensure that our senior citizens get the respect that they richly deserve?

Malcolm Wicks

We work closely with other Departments—most obviously with the Department of Health, but with others such as the Department for Education and Skills—to develop a co-ordinated strategy. That is important, and I hope to say more about it in due course.

I, too, welcome the Sunday Mirror campaign. The fact that we tend to refer to older people as pensioners is extraordinary in a way. When my wife and I received child benefit, I did not think of myself primarily as a child-benefit recipient. Perhaps language is important. We need to develop the concept of seniors and senior citizens.

Our analysis of need should be about not just dependency and disability but the commitments and contributions of many old people. Many of the younger elderly are carers—often of the older elderly. Many are active citizens and may be school governors or justices of the peace. At 60 or 65, many want to remain in work, or to take up new training and IT opportunities. We need to develop that vision and match it with concrete policies. We are moving in the right direction, but our society has a long way to go to recognise the challenge of an ageing community in a positive rather than pessimistic way, and to recognise that many 21st century Britons will have retirements lasting 20, 25, 30 or more years. We need a revolution in our attitudes, as my hon. Friend suggested.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

One of the issues that impacts on the income of pensioners is the uprating of pensions. British pensioners moving abroad may or may not receive an uprating. For example, my mother, moving to France, did receive one, but a former constituent who moved to Australia did not. Pensioners who move to Canada do not receive an uprating either, but those who move to America, Israel or Jamaica do. When the Minister receives my letter on the subject, could he look favourably at extending reciprocal social security agreements to countries such as Australia, so that British pensioners do not have their pensions eroded?

Malcolm Wicks

I always look favourably at my hon. Friend's letters, even though the replies sometimes do not find favour with her. We have agreements on that serious and complex issue with certain countries, and the situation in the European Union is different from elsewhere. Some difficult choices must be made, and this Government and previous Governments have judged that the costs of giving those pension rights in countries such as Australia and Canada are considerable—we are talking about several hundreds of millions of pounds. Notwithstanding those reciprocal agreements, our priority must primarily be to elderly people living in our own country.