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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He observed a few moments ago that the Conservative party is not trusted by pensioners on the subject of pensions. How, therefore, does he explain the fact that even at the 1997 general election, 44 per cent. of pensioners voted Conservative, only 34 per cent. voted Labour, and we cannot quite remember how poorly the Liberals did?
Mr. Webb: The hon. Gentleman underestimates pensioners by assuming that all they do is make a simple calculation of what their pensions will be. Pensioners look at a range of policies, not just pensions. Does the hon. Gentleman want to dispute the verdict of Saga Magazine readers on the Conservative pensions policy, which they rejected by an overwhelming majority when specifically asked about it a month or so ago?
The Conservative record is well known. We might have expected better from Labour. Many pensioners voted Labour in the hope of something better. In their manifesto, the Government set themselves the goal that pensioners would share fairly in the rising prosperity of the nation. How is that to be measured? Clearly, by the share of national income going from the Government to pensioners. One would not measure it narrowly,
Mr. Webb: I am well aware that the right hon. Gentleman is rattled by the local success of the Liberal Democrats and is nervous about the subject of the debate. Earlier this year, I moved a motion in the House condemning the 75p pension rise as inadequate. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman was elsewhere. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I supported the motion. The right hon. Gentleman and his party voted that the pension rise was adequate, and the Conservative party abstained. That is what happened this year.
The Labour promise was that pensioners would share fairly in the rise in national prosperity, so the least one would expect is that pensioners' share of national income from the Government would rise. For goodness' sake, doing better than the Tories is not much to ask, but they have not done so. Under this Government, the share of national income going to pensioners is lower than in the final year of the Conservative Government. No Labour- supporting pensioner who voted for this Government can have expected that to be the outcome.
There is plenty more evidence of the disappointment caused by the Government on pensions. The Government's own figures show that the number of pensioners living in poverty rose by 400,000 in the first two years of the Labour Government. The Government will say, "Since then, we have done A, B and C." Is it acceptable for two years to go by, with hundreds of thousands more pensioners living in poverty, before the Government get around to doing something as an election approaches?
Last December, we highlighted the figure for excess winter deaths--the number of deaths that exceed the expected figure. Those numbers are not large in much colder climates, but they reach extraordinary levels in this country. We have been trying to get the figures for last winter, but we are not being told them. My noble Friend Lord Russell asked for that information almost six weeks ago after one of our researchers phoned the Office for National Statistics and was told that the figures were ready but that we had to ask a parliamentary question to get them.
I tabled a question to the Treasury a couple of weeks ago and was given a named-day answer. I was told that we would get the figures soon. We phoned today and were told that they were still being "worked on". The Government want to get the figures off the political agenda. They want to announce a big pension increase before they receive the flak. They are sitting on the information, which should be before the House now.
One imagines that the figure for the national insurance fund balance was so huge that the Government had to get some different figures. That is the problem. There is key evidence for the Government's overflowing finances and the Government's record on pensions, but the Government are sitting on it--so much for freedom of information.
Mr. Webb: Yes. [Interruption.] I make no bones about it; yes is the answer to the question. I believe that the Government were sent a report, which did not provide the answers that they wanted. I hope that the Minister will explain the delay in making known the contents, given that he has had the report for approximately a month. What extra questions has he asked the Government Actuary? What was the bottom line? Perhaps the Minister will tell us now; he has seen the report. The Government Actuary knew the figures at the end of September; I hope that the Minister will give us the figures.
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): A little more than an hour ago, a journalist told me that the Department received the report on 6 October--the date it was expected--and that it would be published next Thursday. That is significant. That was the reason for a long point of order that you allowed me to make last week, Mr. Speaker. It is worrying that information crucial to deciding whether restoring the link is affordable has been kept from the House for a month.
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Does my hon. Friend know that he is describing common Government practice? My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and others have made the point that Governments publish independent reports only with their spin on them, rather than letting the public read and judge the reports, and responding to them alone. The freedom of information measure has not yet been amended at the other end of the building to deal with that because the Government continue to refuse to allow facts that are given to them to be free from Government constraint, and to insist that they should not be generally available.
A couple of administrative issues that relate to the way in which the Government have run pensions remain a shambles and are symptomatic of the lack of priority that is given to the needs of pensioners. The first is the infamous NIRS2 computer system. In the fourth year of the Parliament, the Government are still incapable of paying pensioners the right pension on the day that they are entitled to it. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) has pursued the issue in the House.
I raised the issue of delays in state pension payments in an Adjournment debate in July 1999. I was assured that the problem would be sorted out by Christmas. Which Christmas? When will the problem be sorted out? How long will pensioners have to wait?