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In regulation 14 (A) of the Income Support (Transitional) Regulations 1987, after the word "claimant" there shall be inserted the words "or an up- rating order under section 63 of the Social Security Act 1986 comes into force".'.-- [Mrs. Beckett.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the clause be read a Second time.- - [Mrs. Beckett.]
Mr. Robin Cook : A fortnight ago the House debated a motion on a Labour Supply day calling for the uprating of all claimants' benefits. That motion was specifically addressed to those people who, this April, found that they had not an extra penny in their benefit of whom there were 570,000 pensioners and other claimants. The reason why they found that they did not get an extra penny in their pension or their benefit was that they were locked into the politely termed "transitional protection", which might be more accurately described as a deep freeze.
A fortnight ago I attempted to get the House to agree to extend the uprating to embrace those 570,000 people. I failed and tonight I do not propose to reopen the case for uprating benefits for all 570,000 people in the current year. I want to address the mind of the House to next year's uprating. Virtually none of those 570,000 will get the full uprating next year either. All of them will find that next year's uprating, whatever it might be, will be reduced by the amount that they currently receive in transitional protection. A number will receive nothing in next's year's uprating, again because their transitional protection will exceed the total amount of next year's uprating. We have an idea about how many of such people there might be. In March the Government replied to a parliamentary question in which they put the number of people in that
Column 734group at 140,000. That slightly understates the number who, next April, will receive nothing, because that 140,000 is measured at the mid-point of the year. At the beginning of the year there will be rather more. It might be helpful if the Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State could tell the House how many there will be in April who will not receive a penny in next year's uprating.
Even though the figure affected turned out to be only 140,000, that is bad enough. We are talking about a large population who will not have received any increase in 1988, who have received no increase in 1989 and who are, under the existing rules, fated to receive no increase next year.
For some of those affected the story does not stop next year. Some who are receiving rather more than £2 or £3 in transitional protection can expect to get no increase for years to come. I have received a letter from a pensioner from Christchurch who now knows that he will not receive an increase in uprating until 1992. As he says :
"Like many others I am below the breadline and yet I face even worse conditions".
What makes that letter particularly moving is that that pensioner is 81. It must be an open question whether he will live to claim any increase in his benefits. I received a letter from a disabled woman in Putney who has worked out that she does not qualify for any uprating at present rates of inflation until 1994--four years from now. She says in her letter :
"This just about finishes me."
She is registered disabled, but, by definition, all those 140,000 people experience some form of disability and some form of chronic sickness. They are among the most vulnerable and the most frail people in Britain. After all, that is why they got the extra allowances that were abolished last year. Those allowances were to help them with the extra cost of laundry if they were incontinent, to help them with the extra cost of diet if they had special health needs for a particular diet or to help them with the extra cost of bathing if they required daily bathing. Such people are still disabled, they are still chronically sick and they still have the same health needs, but they are no longer able to afford to do anything to meet those needs.
So far the defence of the Government--the Parliamentary Under-Secretary has boldly and trenchantly made that defence on other occasions--is that to extend uprating to such people would be unfair to other claimants in identical circumstances who have claimed since April and who never got the allowances--therefore they never had the allowances to lose--and who are even worse off than those whose benefit was frozen last April. I concede that point to the Minister before he makes it. It is true that people who have come on to benefit since last April are getting even less than the people to whom I have referred. I am surprised, however, that Ministers are anxious to draw that to the attention of the House because what they are drawing attention to is how much lower benefits are as a result of the April cuts and how badly disabled people fare under the new system of benefits.
There is one reason why I believe that the Government should distinguish in favour of claimants who were on benefit before last April and have found their benefit frozen since. The longer one has to subsist on social security income, the deeper one is likely to find oneself in poverty. By definition, all those who find themselves on transitional protection will have been on benefit for a
Column 735minimum of three years by next April--most of them for much longer. God knows, the real value of their benefit was little enough in April 1987, the last time they received any uprating. By next April their benefit will have been cut by one fifth in real terms. In the past two years it has already been cut by 12 per cent. It must be difficult for any of us in the House, necessarily and by definition receiving reasonably comfortable salaries, to imagine what a 12 per cent. or 20 per cent. cut means to people living at the margins of existence.
A single person on transitional protection--no increase this year and no increase next year--could be on an income of just under £50 a week. Where is there room for a cut of one fifth in real terms in that standard of living? Which of us gathered in this Chamber tonight could manage to achieve a cut of a fifth in such an income? Leaving aside the hardship that such a cut causes and the risks and the danger to the health of frail and disabled people, there is an appalling mental stress from having constantly to juggle to balance the budget.
I have with me a long letter from a lady from Lancashire, a pensioner, who has sought to express to me what life is like living on the fixed income on which she and her husband must subsist. That income has now not increased for two years. She says :
"It is a day and night worry you cannot escape. You are isolated with it. It dominates your life. Nothing else matters (apart from other people's tragedies). If you wake in the night, it is your first thought and you cannot go back to sleep. I often have to get up at 4 am and 5 am as I cannot stay in bed. I have never told anyone this before I have to try to keep my invalid husband happy, but I cannot keep such problems from him".
It is not just the financial hardship and not just the difficulty of making ends meet ; it is the humiliation that accompanies the daily struggle of trying to make the budget stretch through the day that is so difficult.
The last of the letters to which I shall refer is from Abingdon, Oxfordshire. Many of the letters that I have received come from Conservative-held constituencies. This is not a problem that affects merely Labour constituencies; it also affects the constituents of Conservative Members. It is a matter of regret that, given the importance of this debate, there are so few Conservative Members present to represent their constituents who are so affected. The letter from Abingdon states :
"this morning I have received through the post a demand for my electric bill or I will be cut off I just cannot pay it out of the £26 I have left each week, I still have the water and the sewerage to come. I just cannot take any more. I have been up to the dustbins at Gateways and found half a pound of butter dated for 10 April"-- two days before the letter was sent to me--
"and one or two rashers which will be my dinner today. Most days I can find six eggs if I am willing to get in the skip."
That is the reality of life on the breadline for a pensioner who finds that her pension is not only modest and meagre but has been cut, in real terms, since April 1987. Some pensioners will receive an increase of £2.50 by October. I welcome the fact that the Government will provide that increase to those on transitional protection. However, lest the Minister raise that matter in defence of the Government, I point out that the two letters to which I have referred are from pensioners much younger than 75 who will receive no extra help in October but will be stuck on a level of benefit that is not only meagre but is declining and will continue to decline as inflation rises.
Column 736Last Wednesday night, at a single sitting, I read more than 100 such letters that had been preserved for me by my office. I confess that I had not intended to read all of them and that I had prepared a standard reply, as that seemed the only way to deal with the large volume of letters I had received from pensioners since the publicity a fortnight ago about the forthcoming debate. However, having started reading, I found I could not stop and I read every single one of those 100 letters. By the time I had finished, I was left not in a state of anger at the situation but feeling deeply humble at the poverty that those who had written to me had to cope with. I also felt humbled by my inability, given the present majorities in this Parliament, to do anything material to assist them in their poverty. Many of them described heroic sacrifices that they had made in their lives. I particularly recall a letter from one widow who had nursed her disabled bed-ridden husband for 28 years. For the past 16 years he could not even speak. The reward she has received from society for that immense personal sacrifice and dedication is to be left with a frozen pension on which, she wrote to me, she was unable to afford cereals.
What comes from all those letters is a sense of bewilderment. People are bewildered as to how they can cope on a declining pension. They are also bewildered at how any Government or Minister with knowledge of their circumstances could choose to deny benefits to them. The letters are marked, too, by a bleak despair felt by those correspondents who now realise that next year, too, there will be no relief for them.
Let me acquit the present Ministers and the Department of Social Security of the responsibility for inventing the rules of transitional protection. They did not invent the rules--they inherited them from their predecessors, who were sensible enough to make good their escape before the reality hit the claimants. I do not blame the present generation of Ministers for the problem, but I will blame them if they do not act now to remedy the problem with which they must be as familiar as I am, because many of the letters I read last Wednesday were copies of letters addressed to the Secretary of State and the Minister of State. Therefore, it is for them, knowing the problem and the desperate extent of the poverty, to start tonight by giving these pensioners an assurance that their pensions will keep pace with inflation. They should tell the House that they accept the compelling evidence of poverty among those whose benefits were frozen last year and that, next year, the Government will do them the elementary justice of bringing them in from the cold.
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) : I support the amendment for basically the same reasons put forward by the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) in a measured speech that will repay careful study. The situation regarding pensioners is now fairly untenable. I have said before in this place that those of us who served on the 1986 Standing Committee that dealt with the legislation with which, essentially, we are now dealing--the Social Security Act 1986--predicted that the present situation would come about and that this House would have to return to debating the difficulties brought about by the 1986 Act. It is unreasonable to expect people who are affected by the withdrawal of transitional protection to suffer an increase in costs of 12 per cent. this year, adding up to 20 per cent. next year, if they do not also enjoy a cash benefit increase in the uprating in April 1990.
Column 737The disabled are particularly badly hit. I, too, receive letters, probably the same copy letters as referred to by the hon. Member for Livingston ; letters addressed primarily to the Secretary of State and the Department. I suppose that as the Parliamentary Under- Secretary is the most junior Minister in the Social Security team, these letters are pushed to him to read. I do not want to suggest that the Minister of State or the Secretary of State are uncaring, but I presume that they have other things to do and that the Parliamentary Under- Secretary picks up all the time consuming jobs, amongst which must be the reading of some of these letters. Ministers may be too busy to read some of these letters themselves. When did the Parliamentary Under-Secretary last take some time--an hour or so would be enough--to get the flavour of these letters, as reported by the hon. Member for Livingston? I know that Ministers have little spare time, but I would like the Parliamentary Under- Secretary to say when he was last able to find the time specifically to read some of the letters and to see what is being said about the financial hardships being occasioned by the withdrawal of transitional protection? Anyone who reads the letters cannot help but be moved.
The letters come from constituencies represented by sitting Conservative Members. They are pleas from the heart from genuine people, not from rabble -rousers or troublemakers. The information in the letters shows that the writers are deeply hurt and aggrieved. The level of morale and the psychological state exhibited by the writers of the letters shows that they feel that life is no longer worth living.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this point, because I would like an answer, too. As my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) made clear, these letters are also written to Conservative Members, and I would like to know why they do not appear to move those hon. Members. I remember that last week we had a debate on an SDP motion on the Health Service. The British Broadcasting Corporation's "Yesterday in Parliament" programme said that only one Labour Member of Parliament was present. In that case there was merely a debate taking place, whereas tonight we can actually vote, but how many Tony Members are present? The Minister, the Parliamentary Private Secretary and the Whip are here. Why are the Tory Members not moved by the experiences to which I have referred? I hope that the Tory Members, when they come back from the restaurants or wherever else they have gone, will be asked why they are not moved by the letters they must be receiving.
Mr. Kirkwood : What the hon. Gentleman has said illustrates and develops my point. I do Conservative Members the justice of saying that I believe that they probably ask for official ministerial replies on this subject. I get official ministerial replies as well. The civil servants put a slant on these matters, and this may be a trap into which the Parliamentary Under-Secretary is prone to fall as well. Prima facie, such replies can be fairly plausible, because they do not actually look at the question raised and because of the tone in which they are given. Therefore, even if Conservative Members are getting the Department to respond to constituents, hon. Members are not looking
Column 738behind what the ministerial replies are saying. A matching of the original requests with the replies from the Department shows that they are miles apart.
Compared with the circumstances of the claimants who write these letters, the Department is living in the financial stratosphere. The word-processed replies to these letters are glib and plausible to anybody who gives them a cursory glance but, when looked at in detail and against the background of the personal suffering shown by those who write in, they are completely inadequate. I am left humbled and frustrated, and feel completely helpless in dealing with the cases of constituents and others who complain about transitional protection. 8.30 pm
The Government cannot go on in this way because the problem will become more acute. The number of claimants may decrease as transitional protection fades away, but the problem for those caught in the trap will become worse and worse. For the foreseeable future, and at least for the rest of this Parliament, we shall return to this issue year in and year out. If the Government think that they can face down these representations, the Under- Secretary has a harder heart than I had credited him with.
The Government do not have huge sums of money, but help could be given in different ways. During the time between now and the Autumn Statement, when the upratings for next year will be made, will the Minister settle down and read some of these letters himself and cause some empirical research to be carried out into this subject? He has time and could get some experts to look at the suffering and hardship that this is causing. If he did that, it would become clear that there are ways to alleviate this problem, and they should be adopted.
As a direct result of studying the representations that have come from my constituency, I believe that the Under-Secretary has a moral duty, if not a legal duty, to take time now to advise people who are likely to lose, in cash terms, next April that transitional protection and the cash increase.
One of the most heartbreaking things this year is that people did not see this happening. I am not surprised by that, because even those who study these matters find them technically difficult to comprehend. Disabled people and others who have suffered this year, who did not expect to have to forgo a cash increase, must have found the problem even worse. Their budgets are carefully calculated under the established social security upratings system and in many cases they report to me that they did not expect to suffer this, to them, swingeing loss. Some do not know whether it will happen again next year. What, if anything, are the Government doing to prepare those who may be in that situation this year and, to a greater or lesser extent, next year? The Government have a duty to do something. I have less to complain about than other hon. Members, who did not serve on the Committee examining the Social Security Act 1986. I underscore and support wholeheartedly the approach that the hon. Member for Livingston took. I do not complain as stridently as some other Opposition Members about social security issues or indulge in the trench warfare that sometimes breaks out. However, I can say to the Under-Secretary, hand on heart, that I think that this is a duff deal--unfair and unjust. In the next 12 months, something must be done to prevent such terrible cases happening again.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : The new clause, so ably moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), deals with the poorest pensioners--those who count every penny and who live a life of poverty that should concern us all. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) in his intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood). Across the Chamber on the Government Benches I can see only the junior Minister, the duty Whip, and the Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary. There is no other Tory in the Chamber.
Mr. Winnick : My right hon. Friend is right. The Government are responsible for this legislation and in half an hour or less Tory Members will be voting in their hundreds for the Government's case. I have received a number of letters from my constituents and I shall read out one or two of them, although I shall not identify the people concerned. One lady wrote :
"I have had a reduction in my money. I am a widow living alone with no other income at all. I am 68 years old and have some difficulty in getting about, so, as you will understand, Sir I am in no position to relieve the situation myself."
She has received no increase in income. I took the matter up with the local DSS office. Like every other DSS office, it is bound of course by Government regulations. The manager said :
"I realise that this will be a disappointing reply, but I hope that it explains the reasons behind the decision not to increase her benefit."
In all these cases, like other hon. Members, I take the matter up either locally or nationally. I think it only right and proper that I do so, although I have no illusions that my intervention in such cases can help to improve the situation locally. These are the rules, and the rules are decided by the Government.
Another constituent, a lady, wrote to me :
"Last year, I was given a transitional allowance, bringing my pension to £47.86 with my late husband's and my own credits. I had a letter from the DHSS saying my extra money had to go down, and when I received my new book and look up the sum I was going to be paid"-- she found that she was to receive the same £47.86 that she had received before. She goes on :
"Why are they allowed to do this? Food is going up all the time. I have to watch what I eat--no red meat, no other extras. There are a lot of things I can't have because of my low income."
I make no apology for reading these letters. As Members of Parliament, our responsibility is to reflect here on the Floor of the House, not just through correspondence, the hardship and deprivation suffered by our constituents, the elderly among them.
Another letter, this time from a male pensioner, says : "I am 75 years of age. I have been on income support. I get a bit extra as a result of a work pension. There was about £3 a week. It was just over the limit. I live in my home and they have now stopped everything for me, apart from the pension."
He has a stomach difficulty and worse. He continues :
"I have been down to the DSS and they have stopped all my allowances. I do not know how long I am going to carry on." As the House will understand, in some cases constituents do not always write the most coherent letters, but they certainly make the valid points that we must and do understand.
Column 740I received a reply from the local DSS office, which explained to me that everything was in order and that these are the Government's regulations. The manager says that he is sorry, and I am sure that he is genuinely sorry. However, he has no alternative. He says : "In connection with your constituent being diabetic"--
the Minister should listen carefully to this--
"you are probably aware that under the income support there are no additions for special circumstances and therefore no extra benefit can be paid."
That is one constituent who has certainly suffered as a result of the change from supplementary benefit to income support.
I have another letter which runs :
"Our joint pensions have increased to £72.02 from £71.79 making a grand total of 23p increase The rates have increased 49p this week making a shortfall of 26p and as you know the MEB have increased charges 9 per cent. However, I have lost my income support grant." Perhaps the Minister will be interested in another sentence in the same letter which reads :
"Is this the thanks that we pensioners are receiving after the sacrifices made during the 1939-45 conflict? If this is so, thank this corrupt Government will you please?"
The constituent then writes that he hopes to see me at my surgery this coming Saturday.
That illustrates how pensioners who have written to me have expressed their deep concern about the way in which they have been treated. We have all said that if one person is wronged, that is a matter of concern to the House. I understand, however, that there are at least 800 cases in my constituency alone and the same is likely to be true all over the country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston said that some people in Conservative-held constituencies have written to him. Tory Members are not here now, but have they written to the Minister? It might be said that they do not want to embarrass the Government. That is hardly a justification. If my party were in office and treating pensioners like this, I would be making the same kind of speech here and at the party meetings upstairs--
Mr. Winnick : The Minister smiles. Perhaps he does not believe me, but I can assure him that we would not be Labour politicians if we would not take our own Government to task if we disagreed with them on such matters as this.
I doubt whether, when constituents write to Tory Members on these issues, much representation is made on their behalf. If there is, what impact does it have on the Secretary of State and the Cabinet? I do not blame the junior Minister, although that is easy, as, in some respects, he is no more responsible than I am except that it might be said that he could resign. The decisions are made by the Cabinet. He carries out his duties as a Minister--he does not consider it appropriate to resign. That is a matter for him. I do not blame him--I blame the Cabinet.
People who claim transitional protection in regard to housing benefit have lost out too. Those who have applied to the Glasgow unit of the DSS have already lost £2 a week this month. No doubt another £2 or more will be taken next year, until the transitional benefit is phased out.
The retirement pension has not been increased as it should have been. That makes the case even worse. If retirement pensions had been increased in line with earnings, as was the case under Labour, the Library informs me that a retired married couple would now be
Column 741£17.55 a week better off, and a single pensioner would be £11.10 better off. That is money that they have been cheated of as a result of the Government's decision in 1979-80 to increase pensions only in line with prices.
My constituents ask about electricity, gas and water charges. It is interesting to note that the retail prices index has increased by 110 per cent. since the Government have been in office. It could be argued that that is not a great victory in the battle against inflation. The price of gas has increased by 146 per cent., electricity has increased by 123 per cent. and water charges have gone up by 183 per cent. in the past 10 years.
Pensioners, including the poorest, have got to pay for gas, electricity and water out of a pittance. As a result of what has happened some pensioners have received no increase, or a pittance--23p just as I have pointed out. What are they to do about gas, electricity and water charges? What are they to do about food, the price of which constantly goes up? That is the background to new clause 5.
I understand that Tory Members have been asked to give £10 to celebrate the Prime Minister's being in office for 10 years. I do not know whether there is a three-line Whip on it. It is thought that the money will buy an appropriate present for the Prime Minister, who will have been in No. 10 for 10 years on 3 May.
What are the feelings of pensioners, such as the four whose letters I have quoted, about the past 10 years? They are in a far worse position than they would have been. They live in conditions which no retired person should endure in an advanced industrial society. They have to suffer the misery and humiliation of poverty. They are unlikely to agree that the Prime Minister's 10th anniversary in office should occasion celebration.
Nothing can be done about this year, but the damage could be limited if new clause 5 were accepted. We all know what will happen to new clause 5. If there was any justice or any feeling of fairness, the Government would ensure that the poorest pensioners never again had no increase, or just a pittance. The new clause reflects the feeling of pensioners who are adversely affected and the large majority of people who, however they vote, know that it is wrong and unjust to penalise and harm pensioners as the Government are.
Mr. Tony Banks : I support new clause 5. Like others, I feel frustration and disbelief when Ministers and Conservative Members allow circumstances such as these to develop and to continue once they know they exist.
I hold my advice surgery every Friday and I am invariably left on Friday evenings with a feeling of wonderment that people can exist from day to day. Of course, we may see the most extreme cases. We do not see the generality, but it is those extreme cases who should concern us most. They exist in some number. We do not whip ourselves up into some synthetic anger on this issue. We do not delude ourselves. This is not propaganda which
Column 742has been dreamed up to embarrass the Government. These are real cases involving real people. It is the reality of everyday life in the London borough of Newham.
Many hon. Members are not here tonight. Many are having good dinners. I do not begrudge anybody a good dinner. What I resent is the fact that people who are having such good dinners will come in and use their votes to deny good dinners to others.
I am not trying to score cheap party political points by pointing out how few Conservative Members are present. There should be more Opposition Members present, but we can point the finger at the Government because they take the decisions. Conservative Members are responsible for the situation in our constituencies and they allow it to persist. That is why we have the right to point the finger at the Conservative Benches and ask "Where are they? Why are they not here to defend their own constituencies?" If they disagree with us, think that we are alarmist, misleading the House or making it up, or if they can say, "On the contrary, in my constituency everyone is absolutely delighted with the new benefit regime and no one is any the worse off under the new system"--if they can put their hands up and say that that is an honest statement of the truth we shall listen to them. But they are not here. Perhaps many of them are absent because they do not want to hear the facts. They want to keep their consciences clear and do not want to hear about the realities of life for so many millions of our fellow citizens in Britain today. That is why I have drawn attention to the absence of Conservative Members. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security is a decent man, and that perplexes me. He cordially received me and some people from the actors' union Equity so that we could explain a particular problem that actors are experiencing because of the change in the legislation and he courteously listened to what we had to say. I have no animus against the Minister, but I want to know whether he reads letters from individuals, and whether those letters touch his heart. They certainly touch our hearts, but the difference between us and the Government for the time being is that the Government can do something about it. All we can do is fulminate and say to the Government, "Surely you must realise how much suffering you are causing", and ask Ministers and Conservative Members to do something about it.
I feel that I am speaking in great hope but with no real expectation. When the Division is called, they will all come back from the bars, the dinners they are being bought outside, or the dinners that they are buying here and they will vote without knowing or being interested in what the arguments were, and the suffering in my constituency and in constituencies represented by Labour and Conservative Members will continue. Unlike the Conservative party, the Opposition are at least prepared to do something about it.
Mr. Battle : The contrast between the debate on new clause 5 and the previous debate is the absence of Conservative Members who are prepared to tell us how wealthy everyone is in Britain. It may be that they do not wish to hear the other side, but during the debate about child benefit they were keen to defend the tax cuts and the illusion that everyone on benefit was well protected. But that is not the reality.
One element that has been neglected in the debate is the time gap--the fact that the upratings are worked out in the Autumn Statement and the pension levels are set months
Column 743ahead of the March Budget statement when the taxes are changed. There is a six-month lag, so this year the benefits were uprated taking into account the rate of inflation of the previous October-- 5.9 per cent. When the pensioners receive the money from this April, inflation is 7.9 per cent., so pensioners lose out from the first week simply because of the inflation figure. If anyone feels that that is not important, they should remember that it means that a single pensioner loses 43p a week and a pensioner couple lose 71p a week. As my hon. Friends have reminded the House, I am sure that we are all aware that people on very low incomes keep account of every penny because they have to make ends meet. Because they have to pay the price for the cuts, they can certainly do the arithmetic. They know that their income is reducing because when they go to the shops they cannot get what they could get the previous week, and that should be taken into account before Conservative Members simply suggest that the average figure should be used to work out incomes and everyone is doing fine under the benefit system.
As was made clear in the reply to a parliamentary question that I tabled, had pensions been increased every year in line with earnings, as was done before the present Government came to office, a single pensioner would receive £49.30 a week and a pensioner couple would receive £79 a week. Before this year's uprating, pensioners had already suffered two hidden losses. After the uprating a single pensioner receives £43.60, yet it is interesting to compare that figure with what the Government consider pensioners should receive, as expressed in the income support applicable amounts--£48.60, or £5 more than the basic pension. In other words, in their calculation of benefit figures, the Government accept that the pension is underpaid.
One million pensioners live below the poverty line, a further 2 million live at the minimum level of income support and a further 3 million live only 40 per cent. above that minimum level. A total of some 6 million pensioners--three fifths of all British pensioners--live on or near the margins of poverty. It is no wonder that many pensioners are now writing to Members of Parliament and demanding a fair deal.
If Conservative Members are convinced that we are drawing attention to hard cases that do not bear any relation to the structure of the benefits system, will the Minister spell out how many pensioners living on or below the poverty line would benefit from an uprating in line with inflation? I do not apologise for citing a case. A pensioner in my constituency--I shall refer to her as Mrs. J--receives a total weekly income of £51.24, and it has been at that level since November 1987 due to a payment of transitional allowance in April 1988 of £7.19 to protect the additional allowance she had been receiving due to her diabetes. This year, although her bills have gone up, her money remains the same as she loses the £2.04 from her transitional addition. When we take up constituency cases we write to the Department of Social Security, and I received the following reply :
"Thank you for your letter Mrs. J is currently receiving a combined payment of Retirement Pension and Income Support amounting to £51.24 per week, calculated as follows :
------------------------------------ Personal Allowance |£33.40 Pensioner Premium |£10.65 Transitional Addition |£7.19 |--- |£51.24
... Expenses like a special diabetic diet are no longer separately itemised and added to an individual claimant's benefit, and I am afraid Mrs. J will not be entitled to any additional benefit even though she now has to pay for special foodstuffs."
The letter goes on to explain how the transitional addition was a temporary cushion to which she is no longer entitled.
At the end of the letter is the statement :
"I hope this explains the situation to your satisfaction ; I am sorry my reply could not be more favourable to Mrs. J."
Will the Under-Secretary tell us how long the phrase
"I am sorry my reply could not be more favourable"
will be logged into the word processor used to reply to the letters sent to him week after week? Hundreds of our constituents come to us spelling out in fine detail how much income they have lost per week. The person at the DSS may be sorry about it, but our constituents have to make do. They have to visit the same shops and purchase their goods with less money. For those claiming housing benefit the problems are the same. A total of 40 per cent. of those claiming the transitional addition lost out on 10 April this year.
There is a gentleman in my constituency who spends about 20 per cent. of his working hours trying to tackle forms and write to the Glasgow unit. He was asked to fill in and return a form for his pension increase even before the social security office could work out what he was entitled to. Therefore, he missed out because he missed the deadline. He lost a further £2 last week but was told that he could receive £2.05 for an original loss of £6.50 if he filled in another form. The people I represent are tired of filling in complicated forms to try to keep their incomes at the same level. The Minister may say that Opposition Members have again quoted from a few letters and that they are isolated, difficult cases, but we could quote from such letters thousands of times. Taken together, they demonstrate the flaws in the structure of the social security system put together by the Government. A structural fault is pricing many pensioners down into poverty. The holes in the safety net are so large that thousands of pensioners are sinking through it. In the previous debate Conservative Members suggested that there is a trickle down of wealth to everyone at the bottom. That is not so. It is not the case that, as one Conservative Member suggested, the average wage will pull everybody up. The incomes of those most in need of protection are falling behind weekly. Tonight we have an opportunity to do something about that for next year. We have an opportunity to ensure that those in need receive some basic justice. 9 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lloyd) : I know that there is concern among hon. Members that not all their constituents will have received an increase in benefits at this uprating. I also realise that there are understandable worries about hard cases such as those that hon. Members have used to illustrate their arguments.