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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): The Liberal Democrat spokesman highlighted one or two cases in which older people had had their human rights breached, which often takes place in a care setting. Does the Minister agree that sometimes older people find it difficult to defend and promote their rights? Is it not about time that they had a human rights commissioner who could work on such breaches, as I suggested to his ministerial colleague a week or two ago?

Malcolm Wicks: In terms of the broad agenda, I shall focus mainly on incomes and pensions, while the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), will address other issues. We are all sensitive to the fact that when people who may be in their final years of life need to move to various kinds of institutions to be cared for, often by strangers, potential breaches of human rights come very much to the fore. I am sure that that unites all hon. Members, whatever our policy positions. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is very mindful of the issue.

Mr. Bercow: Given that higher take-up of pensioners' benefits demands greater simplicity in the system, does it in any way trouble the Minister that, as was said of the Schleswig-Holstein question, only three people have ever understood the complexities of Government pension policy, one of whom is dead, while the second is mad and the third has forgotten the answer?

Malcolm Wicks: I think that I personally knew all three. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's point. I shall talk about pension credit, which he may have in mind, in a few moments.

One of the issues involved in rights is that of outlawing age discrimination. It is extraordinary that at the very time that, demographically speaking, more of our citizens are elders, there remains absurd discrimination against older workers that bars people from the work force. We have several programmes to deal with that, and we are going to outlaw age discrimination. That will come into force in October 2006.

Mr. Burstow: Will the Minister take the opportunity to confirm on the record that when he says that the Government are committed to dealing with age discrimination, he means that they are focused only on the workplace and will not tackle—in other words, they will tolerate—discrimination against older people in welfare and health services and in many other aspects of their lives?

Malcolm Wicks: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not pay tribute to the fact that we are the first Government to outlaw age discrimination. In a range of arenas in the private, voluntary and public sectors, we need to be on guard against such discrimination—not least in the national health service, where we have taken major steps in that respect.

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Our strategy for older people involves a number of strands, but I would emphasise the need for all pensioners to have a decent and secure income in retirement, opportunities to remain active in later life—there is a role for employment, of course, but also for education, lifelong learning and community activity—and a better and more co-ordinated health and care system to promote the independence of old people. It is also important at central level—even more so at local level—that we involve older people themselves in running and consulting on such services.

I turn to incomes and pensions. That is my brief, and it is extremely significant to the debate. We are tackling pensioner poverty and will continue to do so. Our approach strikes a balance between providing a solid foundation of support for all, looking after the needs of all older people through pensions while targeting support at those who need it most. We make no apology for targeting the poorest pensioners. Income support through the minimum income guarantee introduced improvements, which have increased in line with earnings since 1999. Current rates are £102.10 for single pensioners and £155.80 for couples. The winter fuel payment benefits all older people, providing an additional £200 a year for around 11 million pensioners. From this winter, there will be an extra £100 for households containing someone aged 80 or over, benefiting an estimated 1.9 million people. In addition, free TV licences are available for all those aged 75 or over, without any income test.

In 2003–04, the Government will spend around £8 billion extra a year on pensioners as a result of policies introduced since 1997. Although much of that benefits all pensioners, as I have been at pains to emphasise, it includes £3.75 billion more on the poorest third of pensioners. It is a matter for debate in this House as to whether Opposition parties agree with our determination to target extra resources on the poorest, but we think that that is right in terms of social justice. That figure amounts to almost six times more than would have been provided by an earnings link to the basic state pension since 1998. Those who argue simply for the re-indexing of the pension with earnings must recognise that that would deny extra help to the poorest. As a result of our measures, the poorest third of our elders will be approximately £1,600 a year better off.

Rightly, it has been noted that many of the poorest among our elderly population are women. There are two reasons for that—women's increasing life expectancy and, more importantly, the fact that their work patterns mean that they are less likely than men to have occupational pensions and their savings may have diminished. About two thirds of pension credit beneficiaries will be women. We need to highlight that in our campaigns on take-up.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon) rose—

Annabelle Ewing (Perth) rose—

Malcolm Wicks: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman first, because I am not a sexist, then to the hon. Lady.

Mr. Webb: Can the Minister confirm that his statistics on the average gain for poorer pensioners are based on

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his Department's simulation models, which assume, incorrectly, that every pensioner takes up all his or her entitlement?

Malcolm Wicks: I will deal with the methodology of the statistics in a note to the hon. Gentleman, if that is satisfactory.

Annabelle Ewing: On the crucial issue of take-up, I want to ask the Minister a question that I asked in a previous debate, when I am afraid that I did not get an answer. Will a specific take-up target for pension credit be set for Scotland, and if not, why not?

Malcolm Wicks: We have estimated figures on the numbers of people who are entitled to pension credit in Scotland, as well as in the regions of England and Wales. I am coming to the issue of take-up. I hope that even those who oppose the introduction of pension credit will help us in the campaign, and that all people who are entitled to the benefit will claim it.

Pension credit will be introduced from October this year. For the first time in the history of the welfare state, the Government will ensure that it pays to have saved above the foundation of the basic state pension. Pension credit will reward people aged 65 and over for some of the savings and incomes that they have built up for their retirement. In the past, those who managed to save a little were left no better off than those who had not saved at all. People with capital of £12,000 or more could get no help at all, however low their income. That is the historical situation; no doubt the Conservative spokesman will seek to defend it.

Pension credit is less complex, less intrusive and less bureaucratic, and will give people more. Around half of all pensioner households will be eligible and stand to gain, on average, some £400 a year. The application process has been designed to be straightforward. It involves a simple telephone call on a free phone number. People are sent a form to check, sign and return to the Pension Service. I say to old people who, despite our best efforts to design a simple form, understandably find form-filling difficult, as many of us do, "Throw it in the bin and make the telephone call. In a 20-minute call, one of our trained staff will fill in the form for you. You simply have to verify it."

From the age of 65, most pensioners will have their entitlement fixed for five years, during which they need to report only major life events. We are thus doing away with the weekly means test. We need to communicate to elderly people that the pension credit does not mean an old-style means test. Since April, we have issued mail shots to approximately 1.3 million pensioner households and we shall write to remaining households in the next nine months. I hope that hon. Members understand that that is a colossal exercise and it would be wrong to try to write to all pensioners in the same week or even the same month; we do not want to gum up the administrative works. We are therefore undertaking the work gradually and sensibly for public administration.

People who apply at any time up to October next year will have their credit backdated to this year so that no one will lose out. Of those who have already been through the process—mainly people on the existing

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minimum income guarantee who have been transferred to pension credit, but also others—we estimate that, even at this early stage, more than 1 million will get more money than they received previously.


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