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The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling): Our objective is to end pensioner poverty and reward thrift, and our policies will continue to do that. By 2005, as a result of our policies, more than half Britain's pensioners will have gained.
Mr. Bercow: I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment and, indeed, on his new title. Given that the Chancellor of the Exchequer told the 1993 Labour party conference that he wanted to see an end to the means test for our elderly people, but that the proportion of pensioners on means-tested benefits is set to increase from 39 per cent. in 1997 to 57 per cent. in two years, why does the Secretary of State not accept that the Government have broken their promise and that, far from being the sworn enemy of dependency, they are in fact its closest friend?
Mr. Darling: At the last election, and at the 1997 general election, we made a clear promise to do two things. First, we wanted to help all pensioners share in the country's national wealth. Secondly, and critically, we wanted to begin to tackle pensioner poverty which had increased in the previous years. The minimum income guarantee is now benefiting more than 2 million pensioners, 100,000 of whom took it up because of the campaign that we ran earlier this year. We now need to
The position of the hon. Gentleman--and, I understand, the rest of the Conservative party, at least at the moment--is to oppose the pension credit. The Conservatives should turn their minds for one moment not to the election of two weeks ago, but to the election that they will be fighting in four or five years. If they oppose what we are doing, they will have to explain to 5 million pensioners why they are going to cut their incomes as a result of what their policy now appears to be.
Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): Pensioners in my constituency are very pleased at the increase in income that they have received recently, but there is growing concern about the disparity in the value of means-tested benefit as compared with the basic state pension. Last year's Labour party conference was very clear about what should be done about that, passing the resolution to restore the link between pensions and earnings. When will the Government implement Labour party policy?
Mr. Darling: As my hon. Friend will know, I studied that resolution with great interest and it did not say that at all. However, I will give her--at least at this stage of the Parliament--that it was open to a number of interpretations. The position at the general election, which my hon. Friend and I have just finished fighting, was clear. We want to introduce the pension credit because a universal, across-the-board increase would not do anything to address the pensioner inequality that we inherited.
The incomes of the pensioners with the highest incomes went up by some 80 per cent. in the past 20 years. Those pensioners at the other end of the income scale saw their incomes increase by only 30 per cent. To me, it does not seem right in terms of social justice to perpetuate that inequality, so I must disagree with my hon. Friend on that point. The majority of pensioners in this country want two things: first, that pensioner poverty is ended, which is why we introduced the minimum income guarantee, and secondly, that those pensioners who have saved a little bit of money should be rewarded for their thrift. People who live on the basic state pension alone will automatically qualify for the minimum income guarantee. Most people in this country have two pensions: their basic state pension and an occupational one. We want to increase the level of the occupational pension.
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): The Secretary of State has acknowledged that people will not receive pension credit if they are in receipt of housing benefit, and said that the Government will look at that. Will he confirm also that those who are in long-term care will not receive the pension credit and, as a result, will be penalised for their thrift? Should not the Government consider the pensions of those in long-term care?
Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman will know that, in the last Parliament, we introduced measures to benefit people in long-term care with regard to their nursing care. I appreciate that he wants us to do more and, no doubt, the penny on income tax will pay for that, as well as for everything else that the Liberals promised at the last
The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown): We are keen to encourage innovation and a locally targeted approach to the delivery of Employment Service business, for example through employment zones and action teams for jobs. The area covered by the action team in Nottingham is being greatly expanded and tenders are being invited at present for an area comprising 11 wards. Four additional wards will become part of the action team area from July 1, including Bulwell, East and West in my hon. Friend's constituency.
We are also harnessing new technology to open up access to information about jobs and training. Details of almost half a million jobs are available on the Employment Service website. The Worktrain website combines those details with training opportunities.
Mr. Allen: I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position. In many ways, he will be a victim of the Government's success in getting so many of the unemployed back to work, but there is a law of diminishing returns, in that it is more difficult to get those who are still unemployed back to work. Will my right hon. Friend therefore be ever more creative and inventive in looking at the structure of the Employment Service so that pilot schemes such as the ones in my constituency on the Broxtowe estate and in the Bestwood Park area, where Employment Service personnel are based on estates, are taken further? At present, those schemes are often put together voluntarily, using small pockets of money. Will my right hon. Friend look at the structure of the Employment Service so that there can be a more formal devolution to attack such remaining high pockets of unemployment?
Mr. Brown: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words, and welcome and largely agree with his general approach. It is true that in our country there are now more people in work than ever before. That does not mean that we, as a society, should condemn anyone of working age to the evils and sustained low income of unemployment. It is right that the service should work proactively with those who are currently excluded from the labour market to get them into work--and into fulfilling work--so that their incomes and their lives are enhanced.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): The Government are committed to eradicating age discrimination in employment, and will legislate by 2006. Meanwhile, our code of practice on age diversity is showing results upon which we can build.
Simon Hughes: I know that as a result of last year's European Union directive, 2006 is the date by which we are committed to legislate not simply against age discrimination but against discrimination on the grounds of disability. Can the Government be more ambitious than aiming at the latest possible date allowed for in Europe? Given that their manifesto did not contain a commitment to end age discrimination, will the Government introduce early legislation, or support private Members who do so, to outlaw age discrimination and allow people to go on working without regard to age if they are competent to do so?
Maria Eagle: I hope that the hon. Gentleman heard me say that we will be introducing legislation. He knows as well as I do that it is important to take employers with us. There has to be a balanced approach in making sure that rights are introduced and that those who have to implement them and abide by them know about them and are on board. That is what we will do. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that, although he seems a bit churlish.
David Winnick (Walsall, North): Without wishing to be churlish, and as someone who tried to introduce a private Member's Bill on this subject in 1996, may I ask why, if it is right to outlaw race, gender and disability discrimination, the same should not apply to age discrimination? Although I recognise that such a law will come into being at some point, would it not be best for the many people who find themselves discriminated against on the grounds of age, not in their late 50s or early 60s but in their early 40s, to introduce a law earlier than the date mentioned by my hon. Friend?
Maria Eagle: I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend's position, and know of his interest in this respect. We have not been sitting doing nothing--our code of practice on age diversity has started to show results. For example, it is now much less usual to see employment advertisements using age as a criterion, which is a welcome advance. As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), we need to take a balanced approach and ensure that we take everybody with us, and that is what we are doing.