Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I have to protect the main debate of the day, so I must appeal for short, single questions and short replies.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Is it not a blot on the country that so many pensioners are forced to live in acute poverty? Many of them are ex-service men who sometimes wonder--and ask me at my surgeries--who actually won the war. Is it not absolutely essential that they are assisted, having been betrayed by the Tory Government? In respect of the concessionary travel to be announced on Monday, I hope that my right hon. Friend will try her very best to see to it that there can be a reduction in the cost of TV licences, as that, too, would be helpful to many retired people.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend has been a long-standing advocate for pensioners in his constituency and throughout the country, and I warmly welcome his comments. I am sure that they will be borne in mind by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Surely what is important is not whether it is called a minimum income guarantee or income support, but how much extra money will be in the pockets of pensioners. What does it mean for the contributory principle? Is not the statement, with its narrow focus, rather like the dog who did not bark in the night? Why is there not more talk about how cuts in total welfare spending--as promised at the election--will finance increases in public spending on health and education? Is it not time to admit that welfare spending has risen remorselessly in all western countries in the past 40 years; that the bulk of welfare spending falls quite rightly on pensions, the disabled and child benefit; and that it is impossible for the Government to deliver their promise to cut the total welfare bill?

Ms Harman: We promised to cut the cost of social and economic failure. The reduction in benefit dependency allows us to prioritise our resources on our manifesto commitments in health and education. As we are not spending money on those who could be working, we are able to direct the resources to those who are not working because they are in retirement.

Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East): Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that receipt of the new guaranteed minimum income will not affect entitlement to income

17 Jul 1998 : Column 713

support? It would clearly be wrong to give increased pensions with one hand and take away entitlement to housing benefit and council tax rebate with the other. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that today's pensioners are demanding the restoration of the link with earnings and that, until that happens, her generation will not have redeemed their debt to them?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Many pensioners in Scotland are struggling to make ends meet. In fact, 156,000 pensioners do not have enough second pension or savings and depend on income support. However, we estimate that a further 100,000 pensioners in Scotland are entitled to income support but are not receiving it. My hon. Friend has been a long-standing advocate of our determination to tackle poverty and inequality. I am sure that he will agree that we should get help not only to the 156,000 who need a better standard of living, but to the 100,000 who are falling way behind. The guaranteed minimum income will ensure that all those pensioners will be much better off than they could ever have been with the previous rates of income support.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mon): Although I very much welcome her statement, I have noticed that on two occasions now the Secretary of State has refused to make a commitment to restore the link between pensionsand earnings. Given that, obviously, it is now the Government's position that the link will not be restored, will she recognise that, as hon. Members on both sides of the House have pointed out, the issue of concessionary payments will become even more important? Can she confirm, therefore, that the announcement that will be made on Monday on concessionary travel will mean that it will be available to all pensioners at the same level, wherever they live, and will she make it clear that the Government will reconsider the issue of concessionary TV licences?

Ms Harman: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will have to wait until Monday for confirmation of the details of the Deputy Prime Minister's statement. May I say, however, what an urgent issue the poverty of the poorest pensioners in Wales is? We estimate that probably more pensioners in Wales are entitled to income support and are not getting it than are entitled to income support and are getting it. As a result, of all those pensioners in Wales who fall below income support level, only about half receive income support. That is why I believe that the measures that we have announced today--a guaranteed minimum income for pensioners and an increase for all the poorest pensioners--will be especially important for pensioners in Wales.

Mr. Tony Colman (Putney): I thank the Secretary of State for her statement, which will be welcomed by the pensioners of Putney and, equally important, by my 87-year-old mother and her friends. However, no mention has been made of the scandal of excess winter deaths of pensioners. Will the Secretary of State outline her action plan to deal with that scandal?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend has raised an important issue--that of excess winter deaths. More people die in the winter than throughout the rest of the year. There are about 48,000 excess winter deaths among pensioners

17 Jul 1998 : Column 714

every year. If one compares that situation with that in countries where there is a much wider fluctuation of temperature, I am afraid that one can draw only one conclusion: pensioner poverty is contributing to the toll of deaths in the winter.

We were not prepared to stand by and allow that problem to continue growing when the prosperity of the country has increased in each of the past five years. The measures that we take today, which specifically focus extra help on the poorest pensioners, are urgently needed.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): The Secretary of State has made several references to a pledge to cut the costs of social and economic failure. With the number of unemployed people and those claiming benefit rising, we are actually witnessing an increase in the costs of the Government's economic failure. Will the Secretary of State answer the very simple question that was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith)? How many personal pension advisers will be employed, what will be the cost of employing them, and what will be the cost of the data-matching exercise, which presumably will be on-going, in order to obtain the names of those pensioners who should be approached by their personal pension adviser?

Ms Harman: The hon. Lady made two points--first, on the issue of the cost of social and economic failure, and secondly, on the issue of personal advisers and costs. The number of lone parents on income support was increasing under the Conservative Government. There was no programme to help them to return to work. Married women were returning to work, and it was obvious that it should have been possible for lone parents to do so too, especially once their youngest child had started school.

We have introduced the new deal for lone parents. The number of lone parents on income support has fallen below 1 million for the first time, as the Prime Minister told the House on Wednesday, and it is forecast to fall by a further 40,000 next year. That is not a target; it is a forecast. We hope to move things even further forward with the new deal for lone parents. We are cutting the cost of economic and social failure. The bill to keep lone parents on income support at a low standard of living, with their children being brought up in a workless household, was rising. Under the present Government, backed by our programme of action, which will be augmented by the child care and the working families tax credit, that bill, which is a cost of economic and social failure, will fall.

The hon. Lady also asked about the number of personal advisers. As I have said, we are piloting their introduction. Details of the numbers of personal advisers and the costs of the new technology will be available when we have finished and evaluated the pilot project.

Mr. Duncan Smith: When?

Ms Harman: When I announced our plans, I said that that would be early next year. We have no doubts that it is better to do things this way. We cannot help the poorest

17 Jul 1998 : Column 715

pensioners with pence; we must help them with pounds. The previous Government did nothing to tackle that problem.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): Will the Secretary of State tell us how pensioners are to cope with the twin problems that they currently face--a state pension that has been increased only in line with prices, not earnings, and is therefore £25 a week or more less than it should have been had that link been maintained; and the poverty trap in which many pensioners find themselves because they have a small secondary pension which takes them just above income support level and thus lose out on council tax and housing benefit entitlements? How will her proposals today affect those entitlements? Is she still considering a longer-term increase of the pension in line with earnings--the link that was so callously broken by the previous Tory Government?

Next Section

IndexHome Page