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I believe that life's experiences shape our character. People where I came from would find it difficult to compare their lives with people's experiences in the House of Commons. As a youngster, I was brought up in a tenement close. We had two rooms and a kitchen. There were five in the family. My mother waited for my elder sister to come in to get the tips so that she could feed us the next day. I experienced poverty at first hand. I was fortunate because I was the youngest in the family, which meant that I was able to serve my time as an apprentice toolmaker. That gave me a skilled trade, but I could achieve that only because of my family background and the fact that people were willing to support the family unit.
Hon. Members have expressed a very negative view of the proposition. It is possible to look at something and see it as being either half full or half empty. If two thirds of the people who will benefit from the pension credit manage to improve their standard of living, that is substantial progress. Like everyone else, I am concerned about the take-up, but the best way to deal with that problem is to stop talking about means-testing. Means-testing was used in the 1930s to ensure that people stayed poor. The new test will ensure that they qualify for additional benefit. That is an important distinction.
The Bill is part of the crusade on which the Government have embarked. There have been some interesting comments on what direction we should take and what we should do. The Leader of the Opposition said:
We must remember the beneficiaries when we discuss in a forum such as the House of Commons whether the academic debate is too complex or how a proposal can be implemented. It is important to support the Bill. It is a step forward. I ask hon. Members to recognise that there is poverty in this nation and that the Bill will improve the standard of living for more than 5 million people. If we achieve that, Parliament will have done its job.
James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): There are two points on which I should like the Committee to scrutinise the Bill. The first concerns foster carers who, as we know, provide a vital service for children in this country, many of whom have faced the worst that life can throw at a child todaysexual abuse, dysfunctional families, poverty and abandonment. However, foster carers do not get credit towards their basic state pension as they would if they were looking after their own children. If they take time off work to fulfil their fostering duties, they do not receive home responsibilities protection as they would if they were caring for their own children. I urge Ministers to look at that anomaly because it is unfair to an important sector of society.
Secondly, although I very much welcome what the Secretary of State said about the treatment of earnings, at the moment the amount of earnings that will be entirely disregarded is just £5. If we want to encourage people to have an active retirement, it is at least worth considering whether we should disregard a slightly higher level of income so that people could work for, say, a day a week after age 65 and keep all that income.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) has returned to the Chamber because I am slightly mystified by his reasoned amendment and I am trying to understand the motivation behind it. I have noticed over the past few weeks that he is trying to position the Conservative party on the side of the poor. Of course the Opposition would say that they are on the side of the poor, but we have to ask ourselves what they would do if they were in government. To establish that, it is worth trying to remember what they did when they were in government.
Between 1979 and 1983 the Conservatives ended the link between earnings and the basic state pension and viciously cut benefits, while their monetary policy unnecessarily forced 3 million people on to the dole. Where was the hon. Gentleman when all that was happening? In the run-up to the 1979 election, he was advising Nigel Lawson, who was centrally involved in taking those decisions even though the policies were not mentioned in the manifesto. During that first term, the hon. Gentleman was in the Treasury, where he was private secretary to Nigel Lawson and an official advising on monetary policy, so he bears a direct responsibility for those policies.
After that first term, SERPS was cut, benefits for widows were halved, £10 billion was taken out of overall pension income and housing benefit was slashed by nearly 50 per cent. The result of all that was that on estates such as Easterhouse people could not afford to take jobs because they were trapped on benefit rates that meant that they would be worse off if they were employed. Where was the hon. Gentleman when all that was happening? First, he was in Mrs. Thatcher's policy unit, advising her on social security policy, and after that he was running her favourite think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, and acting as a part-time adviser to her.
It is worth remembering all that because although I welcome the Damascene conversion of the Leader of the Opposition and the hon. Member for Havant after their visit to Easterhouse, the rest of us know estates such as that and have been working on them for years. While the hon. Gentleman was driving past those estates on the motorway on the way to seminars with the hard right during the 1980s, the people there were being thrown into poverty and out of jobs by the monetary policy that he advised on and having their benefits cut by the Ministers whom he advised.
Those estates did not magically appear in 2001; they were the direct result of the unnecessary viciousness of Conservative economic policy and of the housing policy that turned them into sink estates. The poor on our estates have been suffering from those policies for the past 20 years. Where was the hon. Gentleman? At every single stage from 1979 to 1992, a time during which the income of the bottom 10 per cent. fell by nearly a fifth, he was advising on and constructing those policieshe was in the vanguard of those policies. Indeed, if one believes the biographies, the policies would have been even more severe if his views had been completely heeded.
I welcome the Bill because it will help the poor pensioners in my constituency. If the Opposition had any self-respect, they would apologise for what they did in those years before espousing the cause of the poor.
Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): I support the Bill. I do not want to be as unkind to Opposition Members as my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell), but I am a bit disappointed that they will not be joining us in the Lobby tonight. We heard over the weekend about their new-found concern for the vulnerableno doubt that is why they have taken the Liberal Democrats under their wing tonight. Like Victor Meldrew discovering the delights of skateboarding, the Tory party has discovered a passion for helping the poor.
I had therefore assumed not only that the Tories would support the Bill, but that they would utter a few words of apology for the £10 billion that they lifted from pensioner incomes during their 18 years in government. One reason why they might want to support the Bill is that it provides an opportunity to give back at least a fifth of the amount that they took away. Much of the remainder has been returned through other measures that the Labour Government have introducedmeasures that even this evening the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) again described as "gimmicks".
Earlier I asked the hon. Gentleman whether he could give financial advice to my nine-year-old on how much she would have to invest each year between now and her retirement to achieve what the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) described as a funded basic state pension, but he did not have the answer to hand. In fact, she would have to start now investing £10 a week until her retirement to achieve such a pension.
Many hon. Members spoke about means-testing. I am not enthusiastic about means-testing, not least because of its traditional impact in terms of stigma and loss of dignity. However, I have never been against targeting to ensure that those who are most in need receive the help they deserve. The proposals in the Bill provide an effective targeting mechanism, minimising stigma and maximising take-up wherever possible. They include the five-year assessment, simpler claim forms, help through the pension service to complete the application, and making use of information already available to make an assessment without requiring new forms to be filled out. All those measures mean that we will be able to target resources without imposing the traditional stigma associated with means-testing. For that reason, I support the proposals.
The decisions we make tonight are about long-term pensions policy. We have to make sure that the policies that we put in place can last the test of time. I am extremely disappointed to hear that the Opposition parties will not join us in a consensus to ensure not only that today's pensioners have a decent income, but that we provide some security for future pensioners.