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Mrs. Lait: I am very pleased to have the average figure. We knew that the letters were still going out. However, more significantly, only 10 per cent. of people are replying at present. As anyone in marketing knows, 10 per cent. is a jolly good return. I congratulate the Government on attracting replies from 10 per cent. of people; a marketing company would consider 1 per cent. a very good return. However, 10 per cent. is still scandalously low, and I hope that more people will be able to claim that to which they are entitled.
People are losing out in other ways as well. We heard that a million people are still waiting for winter fuel payments. The Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), said:
It is worth stating that the length of time taken to deal with the problem has increased. However, the then Pensions Minister, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms), predicted that, by the end of the year,
Mrs. Lait: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I accept that the word "stable" does not mean 100 per cent. accuracy, but I take that to mean that, of the new pensioners who can claim SERPS payments, approximately 2,300 a month are new cases. It is useful to have that information on the record. Taking into account all such matters--NIRS2, MIG and the winter fuel payment--it is interesting that 2.5 million people are awaiting the pleasure of the older person's champion, otherwise known as the Secretary of State. To add insult to injury, it now appears, from coverage in Pensions Week, that the reorganisation at the Department of Social Security has led to a shortage of pensions advisers, so much so that the Department has asked the National Association of Pension Funds to do its work for it.
We, and all other hon. Members, await with interest the Chancellor's statement on Wednesday, although I assume that information on the pensioners credit will be given on Thursday. We hope that the consultation document will be published on Wednesday, so that we have time to study it before Thursday's statement and can provide a relatively reasoned response, which we may otherwise not be able to give. I congratulate the Government on the fact that, unusually for them, they have so far failed to leak what is in that document or, indeed, to spin it.
Precise details about the pensioners credit are scarce, but I cannot understand how a pensioners credit and the transitional arrangements could be introduced without some sort of means test. Thousands of pensioners may have to fill in tax forms, as opposed to income support forms, but that still constitutes a means test.
Mrs. Lait: The pensioners credit has a great similarity to the working families tax credit and, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the tax credit is merely income support provided by another Department, and the pensioners credit will, in effect, be the same--hence a means test will be involved.
We shall make our own judgment of the Government's proposals when they are produced on Wednesday and Thursday, and so will the pensioners of the United Kingdom. To date, they and we are unimpressed by the Government's treatment of them.
Mr. Eddie O'Hara (Knowsley, South): Our debate so far has been combative. As the chairman of the all-party group on ageing and older people, I shall refrain from making party-political points. Clearly, other hon. Members in the Chamber will make enough of them.
I am pleased by the increase in the threshold for payments of the minimum income guarantee and the pension credit for pensioners with second pensions and modest savings. Those measures go some way towards addressing my concerns, which I have expressed on several occasions in the Chamber, about those pensioners who are just above the income support and minimum income guarantee thresholds, of whom there are many in my constituency. They are typical blue-collar workers with a small occupational pension from, for example, Plessey or British Insulated Calendar Cables.
On the other hand, I want to discuss several areas in which the Government have not yet quite got their approach right and to urge them to do so in future. My right hon. Friend the Minister commented on the state earnings-related pension scheme, and I do not envy the Government their problem with SERPS. It was not of their devising, although they have the unenviable task of having to sort it out. I hope that my right hon. Friend was right to say that the onus of proof will lie with the Government. I have previously expressed to him my concerns about the fact that any system of remedying the mess that is based on justification is designed to be inequitable and perhaps to disfavour those in most need. We shall see.
The 75p uprating of pensions in line with inflation last year will be discussed extensively in this debate. It was entirely logical to those in the Treasury who crunch numbers in the abstract, but it was psychologically crazy to anyone who knows and cares about real pensioners. On previous occasions, I referred to the prism--it might be a distorting mirror--through which pensioners will continue to view the Government's pensions policy. That is sad, in view of the fact that their policy contains many generous provisions.
The argument about whether pensions should be uprated in line with earnings is complex. The Government maintain that that would be unsustainable in the medium to long term, and that the concept is outmoded because, for many pensioners, the state pension is not the main element of their retirement income. I understand the Government's concern that an increase across the board would put pension payments into the pockets of those who least need them. They are better targeted at those who need them most, but it is surely not beyond the wit of the Treasury to find a means to claw back some money from those who do not need it.
I disagree with the suggestion of the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) that clawing back through the tax system or the allowances system involves means-testing. It does not involve means-testing, as I understand it. Everyone who pays tax has to have an assessment, but those who pay large amounts in tax commonly have different reasons for being sensitive to means-testing than do those many pensioners who simply find it demeaning.
Mrs. Lait: The pensioners' credit is for people who have a small occupational pension and who do not already pay tax. Many of them will have to fill in some type of form--whether a tax or an income support form.
Pensioners regard the pension to which they have contributed not as a benefit or a handout but as an entitlement for which they have paid through their contributions. We are advised that there is a surplus in the national insurance fund that could provide an increase in line with earnings--at least in the medium term. However, in the absence of the Government Actuary's report, it is difficult to make a judgment on that matter, although I note the Minister's reasons for the delay in publishing the report.
Surely there is room for some policy improvement--on increasing pensions in line with earnings rather than with prices. The minimum income guarantee is the Government's own estimate of the minimum decent income for a pensioner. In the medium term, could we not at least move towards that as the acceptable amount for the basic pension? At the least, could we not have a discretionary increase in excess of inflation? I look forward to hearing good news on that in the autumn statement, although I realise that the Minister cannot be drawn on that at present.