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Mr. Webb: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

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Mr. Darling: Yes, why not? The hon. Gentleman is determined to make his speech through interventions, so as it is Christmas I shall help him out for once.

Mr. Webb: I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. My question is straightforward and factual. Will he confirm that, next year, he plans to cut the winter fuel payment to £150?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman is well aware that the Government make their proposals for pensions annually; we shall continue to do so as appropriate.

The hon. Gentleman might have been good enough to acknowledge the fact that the Government have gone a long way towards tackling the problem of fuel poverty--especially among older people--which he periodically raises in the House. We have cut VAT to the lowest permissible amount and we have also increased the winter fuel payment; that is making a real difference to many pensioners.

As for next year and the years after that, the hon. Gentleman will just have to wait. However, when people look back over the past three years at what the Government have done for pensioners, they will realise that we have done exactly what we promised--we have tackled pensioner poverty and ensured that all pensioners are able to share fairly in the rising prosperity of our country. In fact, we have done far more than the Liberals ever promised to do. The hon. Gentleman sometimes gives the impression that he has never read the manifesto on which he stood for election, but I remind him that the Liberals never promised to do even half of what we are doing.

As well as the changes to which I have referred, we have introduced free television licences for the over-75s; that is worth a further £2 a week.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Given the European judgment on the payment of the winter fuel allowance to 60-year-old men, will that payment be made regardless of whether such men are in full-time work? Will it continue without affecting their tax and benefit in any way? Will my right hon. Friend clarify those points?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right. Following the judgment in the Taylor case last year, the Government announced that they would make payments to men aged over 60 and who were under the age of 65. All those who applied before the beginning of November should have received their payment. It is open to them to apply whenever they want and they will receive their payment as soon as it can be processed.

The advantage of the winter fuel payment and the free television licence--to which I am about to return--is that they are tax free and benefit free; if they were consolidated into the basic state pension, that would not be so.

When we debate these matters, it never ceases to amaze me that the Conservatives now oppose winter fuel payments and free television licences. Someone kindly reminded me of a private Member's Bill that had escaped my attention. It was introduced at the beginning of this Parliament and would have given free television licences to the over-75s. I was surprised to find that its promoter was the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs

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(Mr. Flight) and that its sponsors included the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley); the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury no less--the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin); the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), who, I think, also holds a Front-Bench position; the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), who was sitting on the Front Bench this morning before she left to pursue other activities; and the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who, I think, has something to do with the Tory manifesto.

In 1997, all those Members were in favour of giving free television licences to the over-75s. Surprise, surprise: the bandwagon is now running in a different direction and they are all against it. I look forward to hearing, when the shadow Secretary of State for Social Security gets to his feet, how he squares what his colleagues, now on the Front Bench, said three years ago with what they say now. He will no doubt explain it to the additional Conservative Member who has now appeared in the Chamber since this debate began, bringing us to a grand total of four.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Is my right hon. Friend aware that before he became a Member of Parliament, virtually all his present Cabinet colleagues then in Parliament--including the Prime Minister--were good enough to vote for my private Member's Bill, the Free Television Licences for Pensioners Bill, on 16 January 1987? It was defeated on a Friday by strenuous Tory whipping. Have not our Cabinet colleagues honoured what they voted for then by starting the process of giving free television licences to the over-75s?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right to remind the House of that. It took a little longer than we hoped to deliver our promise. Unfortunately, 10 further years were to elapse before we were elected to government.

The crucial point is to recognise the significant problem of pensioner poverty in this country. It is scandalous that in this country, the fourth largest economy in the world, there are pensioners living in poverty. That is why we introduced the minimum income guarantee, the winter fuel payments, and free television licences to help the oldest pensioners.

In total during this Parliament, we are spending £8.5 billion more on pensioners than the previous Government planned to do. We can do that only because we are delivering stable economic growth and reforming the welfare state, so we can make the necessary funds available to tackle these problems.

Earlier this year, I set out our plans to reward pensioners for saving and to take the next steps towards the integration of the tax and benefits system for pensioners. From 2003, the new pension credit will mean that, for the first time ever, pensioners will be rewarded for their thrift. That credit, which is opposed by the Conservatives, will help 5.5 million pensioners--half of all the pensioner households in this country. The message is clear: it will always pay to save.

As part of the transition to the pension credit, the order would double the lower capital limit for the minimum income guarantee from £3,000 to £6,000 and increase the higher limit from £8,000 to £12,000. As a result, half a million pensioners will gain.

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We shall go on to abolish the capital limits completely when the pension credit is introduced from 2003. At that time we shall also abolish the tariff income, which assumes an extraordinarily high rate of return, which many pensioners find difficult to understand.

I believe that the pension credit, which is the third stage in our pension reforms, will mark a sea change in the way in which the social security system operates. For the first time, we will have removed the disincentive to save. That will ensure that, when pensioners do what successive Governments tell them to do, they will see the gain resulting from it. I find it extraordinary that the Conservatives should oppose, to coin a phrase, a common-sense measure.

We are able to spend more money on pensioners, families, people with disabilities and their carers only because of the measures that we have taken over the past three years. No doubt, in a few minutes' time, we shall hear the usual complaints from the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), who speaks for the Conservative party, but he must explain how he will be able to achieve anything like the measures that we have announced today, when his party is committed to £16 billion of spending cuts.

Regarding social security alone, we know that the Conservatives do not support the earnings-related minimum income guarantee. They are opposed to pension credit. They want to keep a system that penalises thrift. We know that they want to begin the process of privatising the basic state pension, scrap the new deal for lone parents and take £90 million out of the social fund, which will hit some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in this country.

We also know that the Conservatives want to get rid of industrial injuries benefit, which will impose a jobs tax on employers. We also know the Conservatives would axe the winter fuel payment, the Christmas bonus and the free television licences for pensioners. That is some manifesto. The best that they can offer pensioners is a mere 42p a week instead, and that is before tax and benefits. Of course, 2.5 million pensioners do not get the full pension, or even any pension at all, and men aged 60 to 65 will all lose out completely under the Tory policy--all because there is no new money. It is almost tempting to go canvassing with a Conservative to find out how that goes down on the doorsteps.

We know that there is no new money because the shadow Chancellor has said so, and he should know. It is becoming increasingly obvious to those of us who attend Prime Minister's Question Time and note that the shadow Chancellor sits one step further away from the Leader of the Opposition each time, that he is becoming acutely aware of the problem that he faces: £16 billion-worth of cuts to find, and more and more spending commitments being made here, there and everywhere. He knows that his sums do not add up.

We know that the Conservatives are dedicated to cutting public expenditure because of the policies to which they have committed themselves. So there would be no extra money to look after pensioners, disabled people and carers, just as there was no money to do so during the 18 years in which the Tories were in power. We know what they would do--there would be no new money for pensioners, for children, for families and for people with disabilities or their carers.

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There is a clear choice to be made between us and the Conservative party. That choice is becoming clearer day by day. Poverty, inequality and division do not happen by accident. They happened as a result of the deliberate decisions that the Tories took over 18 years, and if they got the chance, they would do exactly the same again.

We will tackle poverty and inequality because not doing so is indefensible in the 21st century. We believe in opportunity for everyone--a fair and more just society. The measures that I have announced today will help deliver that promise. I commend the proposals to the House.

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