§ Malcolm Wicks
The Government are committed to putting in place policies that will help older people play their full part in our society. A wide range of measures have already been introduced to tackle social exclusion among older people, a multi-dimensional problem, requiring a multi-agency response. Initiatives so far have included targeted service improvements as well as targeted benefit improvements.
One of our key measures in reducing social exclusion among older people is tackling pensioner poverty.
The Government will be spending around £7.5 billion extra on pensioners in 2003–04 as a result of the measures introduced since 1997. This includes around £3.5 billion on the poorest third of pensioners—the very people who need help most. This is almost six times as much as an earnings link to the basic state pension since 1998 would have given them. From April 2003, basic state pension will be £77.45 for singles—(£123.80 for couples). An increase of £100 a year for single people and £160 a year for couples. In future years the basic state pension will increase by 2.5 per cent. or the level of the September RPI, whichever is higher. Nearly four million households with someone aged 75 or over will benefit from free TV licences, worth around £116 per year.
We also recognised that we have to do something for the poorest pensioners; that is why we introduced the minimum income guarantee (MIG). As a result, nearly two million people are benefiting from MIG and the take up campaign has put an average £20 a week extra in the pockets of around 149,000 people who would not have received it otherwise.
We are now going a step further and introducing pension credit from October 2003 which will reward not penalise saving. It will be easy to apply for and will remove the indignity of the intrusive and bureaucratic weekly means test.
As a consequence of this change, those pensioners in receipt of pension credit will receive an average extra income of £400 a year—and at last the savings of those who are just above the MIG level are being recognised.
Following the Spending Review 2002, a Public Service Agreement target is now in place to pay pension credit to at least three million pensioner households by 2006. We have carefully devised a strategy to ensure maximum take-up of pension credit.
Winter fuel payments (WFP) are an important strand of the Fuel Poverty Strategy. Around 7.9 million households and 11.3 million individuals have benefited from the £200 WFP to each eligible household in 2002–03. The Home Energy Efficiency Scheme will have helped around 480,000 vulnerable pensioner households, by 2004. Further measures include a reduced level of VAT on fuel and on the installation of energy saving materials so that people can more easily afford to keep warm.93W
But social exclusion is not just about tackling poverty, we are also actively promoting more engagement and participation of older people in public life and the community through our support for the Better Government for Older People Network. This has established partnerships across Government and is contributing to improvements in the delivery of services for older people at a local level. In addition, the Older People Advisory Group is becoming established at a basis for national, regional and local engagement with older people.
In the health and social care field we have introduced a National Service Framework for Older People setting clear national standards to ensure that older people receive the care, priority and attention that they should, root out age discrimination and promote health and active living among older people. In public transport, we have introduced for pensioners a free bus pass with a minimum half fare on local bus services. Recognising it plays a vital role in helping them remain active members of our communities, as well as keeping them in touch with friends and relatives.
In combating crime we are targeting crime against older people. The Distraction Burglary Task Force has brought together a wide range of organisations including the police, voluntary organisations, the utility companies, banks and local authorities, to gather data, publicise good practice, raise awareness and provide guidance for victims and those at risk of this type of burglary.
Providing opportunities to work are also key to tackling social exclusion. We have launched the Age Positive campaign aimed at employers and individuals to raise awareness of best practice and the business benefits of an age diverse workforce, using the Code of Practice on Age Diversity. The Experience Corps is aimed at encouraging older people to become involved in their communities through volunteering. The Learning and Skills Council is helping to increase participation of older people in adult and further education and the UK online centres are improving access to the Internet and new technologies—the over 55s make up almost one quarter of the total learners in these centres.