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Poor Pensioners

5. Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): If she will make a statement on Government actions to assist the poorest pensioners during the last year. [38481]

The Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women (Ms Harriet Harman): We have taken steps to help today's poorest pensioners, and want to ensure that all pensioners share fairly in rising national prosperity. Our pensions review is looking at how we can meet that objective.

Mrs. Williams: My right hon. Friend will be aware of the plight of pensioners and the problems that they face. I am sure that she is also aware of unnecessary worry caused to them by some inaccurate press reports, particularly over Christmas. Will she confirm that the basic state pension will remain the bedrock of future pension provision under this Government?

Ms Harman: I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. The basic state pension will remain the foundation of income in retirement. We promised that in our manifesto; that is yet another of the promises that we are keeping. We also said that we would uprate the basic state pension at least in line with prices--and we have kept that promise, too. We have gone further than that to help pensioners with their income. We have cut VAT on gas and electricity, helped all pensioners with the cost of their winter fuel and, in particular, given extra to the poorest pensioners on income support. I know that one of the reasons why my hon. Friend is concerned about the matter is that about 80 per cent. of the poorest pensioners are women. She has been very concerned about that, in her constituency and in Wales.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): The right hon. Lady has talked about the reduction in the cost of domestic fuel. Will she confirm that poorer pensioners--indeed, all people--have received far more help not so much from the reduction in VAT on domestic fuel, which I reckon to be in the order of a third of 8 per cent., but from the significant decreases in gas and electricity prices since the privatisation of those industries?

Ms Harman: With the abolition of the gas levy, we have reduced costs even further. I should expect someone who wanted to increase VAT on gas and electricity to 17.5 per cent.--as the hon. Gentleman did--simply to brush to one side the problem many pensioners have with paying their fuel bills. One of the big problems is not fuel bills, but pensioners not having enough money in their pockets--even money to which they are entitled. As you will know from your work with your constituents, Madam Speaker, many pensioners who are entitled to income support do not claim it because they find the 35-page form too complicated, or because they are too proud to fill it in. We are also making progress in helping pensioners with their costs by ensuring that, at the very least, they get the income to which they are entitled.

Ms Claire Ward (Watford): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although she has outlined important measures, many pensioners in this country, and in my constituency in particular, are concerned about the basic state pension

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and want security now, and not just in the future, because they are living from day to day? When will the pensions review be completed? Will it provide for pensioners today, and not just for those of tomorrow?

Ms Harman: I set up the pensions review--a manifesto promise--in July, and it has been proceeding. The voice of pensioners has been at the heart of the review, and we have consulted with Jack Jones of the National Pensioners Convention and many other pensioners' organisations.

I am happy to confirm that today's pensioners are never off our agenda. We are not only keeping our commitment to uprating the state pension, but are looking at other ways in which we can help pensioners make ends meet. We are concerned about today's pensioners, and we reaffirm our commitment to the basic state pension. For the future, we want to be sure that people do not retire into poverty--as too many have done--when retirement means having to ask for benefits, rather than simply receiving the good pension to which everyone is entitled.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): The Secretary of State said that a number of pensioners are not claiming the income support to which they are entitled. Does that number include a large number of our most elderly pensioners? Would not the best way to help the poorest pensioners be to take up the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) that an extra amount should be paid to the most elderly pensioners--those over 75, perhaps? Will the hints that we have been given by Ministers that the Government have this in mind come to fruition; if so, when?

Ms Harman: The hon. Member for Northavon(Mr. Webb) has played an important part and has made constructive proposals about how we can best target our help at those who need it most without giving people a sense of stigmatisation. The issue of the oldest pensioners--those who did not have a good occupational pension, or whose occupational pension has run out--is a problem which we are bearing in mind in our research project. We have set up nine pilot projects to discover which pensioners are not claiming their income support and how we can best get help to them. Focusing extra help on people when they reach a certain age is very much on the agenda.

Having looked at the 35-page form which pensioners of all ages are required to fill in to receive income support, I am amazed that as many as 1.5 million pensioners do claim income support. It should not be a case of asking people to put out their hands to prove that they are poor. Retired people feel that they are entitled to a decent income and that they should not have to prove that they are poor to get a decent standard of living. That is why we have the pilot projects; to get more automatic help to the poorest pensioners.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): The Secretary of State has acknowledged the low take-up by some of the poorest pensioners of income support to which they are entitled. Does that not illustrate the problems of means-testing in the welfare system; not only do many people who need extra money not get it,

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but it encourages fraud and stigmatisation? Should we not be moving away from means-testing in the benefits system?

Ms Harman: We should be moving away from stigmatisation. People will not claim what they are entitled to if they feel that that will be embarrassing or humiliating and that they will have to go through hurdles and hoops. We are considering more automatic ways--which would avoid the stigmatisation of the means test--in which to help the poorest pensioners.

The Benefits Agency, the Contributions Agency, local authorities and the Department of Social Security have much data about people, but we have never put them together to ask how we can help the poorest pensioners. Using information technology and all the data that are stored, we can ask who is falling through the net and how we can help them without making them feel stigmatised. People should be entitled to the payments automatically; they should not have to jump all the hurdles. We may be able to achieve the objective, which I share with my hon. Friend, of getting more help to the poorest pensioners without stigmatising them.

Mr. John Swinney (North Tayside): In response tothe question asked by the hon. Member for Watford(Ms Ward), the Secretary of State said that the needs of today's pensioners were never far from her mind. Did her Department make any representations to the Treasury before the March Budget to increase the basic state pension beyond the commitment to link it with prices?

Ms Harman: Hardly a day--no, an hour--passes without my Department making representations to, and holding discussions with, the Treasury.

Mr. Phil Hope (Corby): When the Green Paper on pensions reform is published, will there be the widest possible consultation on its findings? When the Government took office nearly a year ago, they discovered that 1 million pensioners had been abandoned--they were not claiming their pensions--by the previous Government, who had failed to provide a decent pension. Taking into account the cut in VAT on fuel and the extra winter fuel payments, have we not done more in the past 12 months than the previous Administration did in 18 years?

Ms Harman: We have already received 2,000 responses to the pensions review, which will be drawn together in a Green Paper. The publication of that Green Paper will signal an important round of consultation, which we intend to hold with hon. Members from both sides of the House and organisations outside the House.

Pensions reform cannot be done on the back of an envelope--it is a long-term issue. One of the problems that we inherited was that pensioners felt insecure--today's pensioners feel insecure and, because of the pensions mis-selling scandal, people who are still at work feel uncertain that their pensions will be sufficient to help them in retirement. We shall welcome constructive proposals from all sides, and consultation will be as full as possible, so that we can arrive at a proper settlement for welfare reform on pensions.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Given the right hon. Lady's comments on income

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support, measuring poverty and the means test, will she now--finally--take this opportunity to say whether the Government will means-test the basic state pension, regardless of whether it is universal?

Ms Harman: We said in our manifesto that the basic state pension would remain universal--it would remain the foundation of income in retirement for all. Therefore, it will be not means-tested, but uprated at least in line with prices. The hon. Gentleman constantly creates scares. Pensioners lost out by up to £20 a week as a result of the way in which Conservatives treated the basic state pension. We want to tackle the legacy of poverty and inequality.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Given that answer, will the right hon. Lady say whether she agrees with the Minister for Welfare Reform, who said, as recently as last week, that the attempts of Labour Members before and after the election to link poverty to take-up figures for income support were "cheap and futile"? Does she believe that she falls into that category?

Ms Harman: My right hon. Friend the Minister for Welfare Reform said neither thing. In his work on the Select Committee on Social Security when he was in opposition, he pointed out the number of pensioners who were falling through the net--we, too, highlighted that when we were in opposition. We shall proceed by ensuring a universal basic state pension and focusing more help on the poorest in retirement--that is what people think fair.

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