Previous SectionIndexHome Page

David Cairns: I ask my hon. Friend to take account of constituents who are suffering from asbestosis and asbestos-related illnesses. Thanks to the excellent decision in another place, many of my constituents will receive the compensation that my hon. Friend mentioned. That is extremely important for shipbuilding constituencies such as mine and former mining constituencies such as that of my hon. Friend. We want the Minister's reassurance about that.

John Mann: I endorse my hon. Friend's comments. Indeed, I was about to mention asbestosis and the landmark judgment, which has an impact on my constituency and many others throughout the country. Sadly, compensation for mesothelioma comes too late for many of my constituents. However, the principle is important, and it is vital for the families.

Although there is a disproportionate impact on some communities, the benefit should be perceived as a good thing. The money is owed and is due. It is due to negligence for various reasons, which include bad employer practice and lack of medical understanding of the issues in the past. Whatever the reasons, the money is due to those people and it would be grossly unfair if they lost any pension credit for receiving money that is long overdue.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is highly knowledgeable about such issues and I trust that he will give us some good news.

Mr. McCartney: The amendments would affect clause 15, which deals with the treatment of income and capital through credit income assessment. The details will be set out in regulations, which will be laid before the House in due course.

23 May 2002 : Column 466

In Committee I provided much detail about the treatment of income. I do not therefore want to go through that again, but I shall repeat some of it. The debate offers an opportunity to be even more explicit about some of our proposals. As Baroness Hollis said in another place last December, we propose to ignore completely compensation received for personal injury. No income from that, whether actual income or assumed income from the capital sum, will be taken into account.

A pensioner who is attacked and seriously injured need not fear that we will stop her pension credit when she receives compensation, as happens with income support at the moment. Nor will we withdraw pension credit from, say, a miner because he receives compensation for damage done to his health. I will come back to that in a moment. Our proposals go significantly further than the amendment does. That is not a criticism; this gives us an opportunity to open up the debate.

The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) mentioned my answer to a parliamentary question. I do not have the question here, but if I remember rightly it was in two parts, and said that 60 per cent. of all pensioners have less than £6,000 capital. Some of them have second pensions and other income. In fact, 85 per cent. of pensioners are entitled to the pension credit because they have less than £6,000. I think that I answered the hon. Gentleman's question on that basis. There is, therefore, not a chink of light between me and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State; nor am I saying one thing and my right hon. Friend another.

All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that that was a nice try, but in cricketing terms, it was a bit of a no ball. I promise my hon. Friends not to make any more cricket jokes. I was just trying to make the point that as a Scot, I know just as much about cricket as the English do. It is just a pity about the football team at the moment.

Amendment No. 3 relates to the earnings disregard. No one would disagree with the general sentiments of the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb). This country depends on older workers, and with demographic changes, that dependency will grow. Fifty per cent. of men and 25 per cent. of women aged 60 to 64 work. A further 800,000 people aged 65 and over are at work. This is not just about ensuring a steady flow of human resources. It is about experience, handing on skills, and promoting intergenerational understanding. For many pensioners, work is a key part of active ageing and social inclusion. We want to promote opportunities for older workers and allow them to be rewarded for earning.

Amendment No. 3 would disregard earnings by linking the disregard to the level of the national minimum wage. The hon. Member for Northavon wants to do this for everybody over the age of 60. A pensioner working one day a week could therefore expect a disregard of about £35, and an older worker or pensioner working a full week could expect a disregard of about £175. This would represent an added cost of £1 billion on the pension credit. Earlier, the hon. Gentleman committed something like £9.7 billion for another proposal. When we asked him how he was going to pay for that, we discovered that far from being a little short on detail, he refused to provide us with any at all. Now he has now clocked up a total of £10.7 billion.

In the Liberal Democrats' alternative Budget proposals they have further targeted arrangements for people over 75, which would cost an extra £1.2 billion.

23 May 2002 : Column 467

Those provisions, however, would end up giving the poorest pensioners an average increase of only £2 a week. Under their proposals, money is not being targeted or given directly to poor pensioners.

Mr. Webb: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. McCartney: I hope that if I give way to the hon. Gentleman, he will not try to give us the third way of explaining his pension policy. On at least two occasions during the debate, he changed both the policy and the track that he was taking, and never gave us an answer about how any of his proposals were to be funded. Nor did he acknowledge the very important point that his party will not accept the overwhelming evidence that poverty relates to income, not to whether someone is 60, 70, 75, 80 or 85. That is the major flaw in his proposals. I hope that when he talks to women who are approaching pension age, he does not tell them that he is going to do something for them, because they would have to wait until they were 75 to get even an extra penny out of the Liberals.

Mr. Webb: Will the Minister confirm that the figures that he has just quoted on the effects of our proposals are based on the assumption that 100 per cent. of those who are entitled to claim means-tested benefits will do so? Will he also confirm that that is a false assumption, and therefore a false assessment?

Mr. McCartney: The hon. Gentleman's argument is dead and buried. The assumption is not wrong—he merely wants to change it. I have costed his proposals for him. He refuses to do so not because he is incapable, but because he does not want the British people to know what he is up to. He wants to travel around Britain parading his conscience to pensioners, saying to every woman, "I am on your side, I am your saviour." However, the reality is that to get a penny off him, they would have to survive in poverty until the age of 75. It does not matter how we add it up: the people who will qualify under our proposals would get nothing under those of the Liberal Democrats, which would be a bitter pill and a bitter blow.

Having exposed such opportunism, I want to point out something else. In speaking to his amendments, the hon. Gentleman showed how clever he is. He is clever because he has done a lot of reading recently. He is both a campaigner and well and truly in opposition, and he has read the Liberal Democrat document entitled, "How to be an effective opposition: a guide for campaigners". It offers the following advice: to

[Hon. Members: "Ah!"] It continues:

Liberal Democrats have to act shamelessly and exaggerate in all circumstances. If they are talking to a Conservative voter, they are told to be anti-Labour, but if they are talking to a Labour voter, they should be anti-Tory.

There we have it. I have never read a better explanation of Liberal Democrat pension policy. It has been set out in the document, and in the hon. Gentleman's comments, so we shall not take him seriously—for the moment. I make those points because he is trying to con poor pensioners into believing that he is on their side. That is what we are taking seriously.

23 May 2002 : Column 468

It is unclear how the hon. Gentleman would fund his proposals, and he is not prepared to tell us. We believe that the working tax credit, the abolition from the pension credit of the rule excluding people from working more than 16 hours a week, the disregards, and the savings credit for those over 65, are the best way to promote active ageing and reward earnings. I shall give the hon. Gentleman just two examples of how that will work in practice, and illustrate the real gains.

Let us consider a single pensioner—"John", aged 67—who works one day a week at a local DIY store, receiving a minimum wage of £35. He has a full basic retirement pension of £77 and no other income. After taking into account the disregard, his relevant earnings are £30. John's combined income of £77 and £30 takes him above the guarantee credit level of £100. However, John is entitled to a savings credit, as his earnings count as qualifying income. His savings credit is £11. Under these proposals, John is therefore better off by £572 a year. That is not pie in the sky and invented figures; it is the reality of this Government's policies for such older people.

Let us consider the second example of a couple aged 68 and 65 respectively. The woman—"Sylvia"—works two days a week as a cleaner at the minimum wage, earning £65. They receive the full rate retirement pension of £123 and have no other income. They are entitled to a £10 disregard on Sylvia's earnings, so the sum of £55 is relevant to the pension credit assessment. Their combined income of £123 basic pension and £55 earnings takes them above the guarantee level of £154. However, they are entitled to a savings credit of £9, as Sylvia's earnings count as qualifying income. That additional £9 shows how we are providing basic benefits for couples, as well as individuals. These are not exaggerated figures; they are the combined effect of the Government's proposals.

Looking at amendment No. 14, I am encouraged that Opposition Members have found a new cause, but it intrigues me that it has come so late in the day. I can think of campaigns in which we have been involved over the years—not just in mining communities, but throughout the country—over the inequities that can occur when people, quite rightly, are compensated for injuries. They have to fight to get compensation in the first place; sometimes courts take it from them or affect their ability to claim compensation. I will not go into the recent House of Lords ruling that at least reversed a terrible decision that was made in the past. All Labour Members have been closely monitoring these issues, but I am pleased that the Opposition recognise that there is potential for doing something about the matter.

Next Section

IndexHome Page