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The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend, who I understand may well be retiring from the House sometime within the next 12 months. I pay tribute to his work for the people of Burnley.
Our own internal statistics suggest that there are now 2.7 million households in Great Britain, including about 5,000 households in Burnley, receiving pension credit. Estimates based on the family resources survey suggest that there are 3.8 million households entitled to pension credit in Great Britain in 200405. These figures come from different sources and are calculated differently, and comparisons are difficult. We plan to publish definitive national statistics on take-up and entitlement for the first six months of pension credit by the end of 2005.
I recognise that the Government have worked very hard to ensure that all older people receive all the benefits to which they are entitled. However, is there not an additional thing that they could do? Many people do not get the help that they need from social services. Has my hon. Friend any thoughts, or is there any intention within the Department, of ensuring that older people not only receive the benefits to which they are entitled, but that they are pointed in the right direction so that there are links to ensure that they get the help to which they are entitled from social services?
Malcolm Wicks: We recognise that often the local range of services and benefits can appear complex for the older person or their carer. That is why through the link-age programme we are developing the notion of joint teams. In 31 areas, social services and our local Pension Service are working together. Those teams will be developed throughout the country within the next year or so. In some areas other agencies, such as the primary care trust or even voluntary organisations such as Age Concern, are becoming part of the joint team. That must be the future in our care for older people.
Mr. David Willetts (Havant)
(Con): How many people receive pension credit in future will, of course, depend on how much they save now. Last week the Leader of the House said that the Government would introduce "major legislation" on pensions "sooner
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rather than later". He went further. Apparently, it will be "really strong, radical, fizzy" and it is "going to surprise people". What did he mean by that?
Malcolm Wicks: There are one or two things to get out of the way in the next few weeks before we anticipate what is in the Queen's Speech. [Interruption.] I am certainly not in the business of anticipating the Queen's Speechbut what I am in the business of anticipating is the fact that on Wednesday the Pension Protection Fund opens its doors for business. There will also be a new pensions regulator, with teeth, to protect the pension promise. That is a positive achievement by the Labour Government, and we are proud of it.
and he referred to pensions as a subject for one of those Bills. If the Government are re-elected, they plan to introduce a pensions Bill, and I would like to know what will be in it. Call me old-fashioned, but I thought that the idea was to announce one's policies before the election so that one could fight the election on them, not to keep them a secret and unveil a Bill after the election. Will the Minister at least rule out compelling people to save and then cutting the tax relief that they receive for their pension contributions?
Malcolm Wicks: I do not know where all that comes from, but I do know that the Opposition declined to give a Second Reading to the Pensions Bill, which set up the Pension Protection Fund and gave new protection and security to more than 10 million scheme members. We are proud of that, but I do not know whether the hon. Gentlemannot that I can ask him, on this occasionis proud of the fact that he tried to stop it.
Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I am delighted to be called to ask a supplementary question to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), who succeeded my father in Burnley. My hon. Friend is loved and respected in Burnley, and I have never said that before here, so I am grateful, Mr. Speaker, for this opportunity to do so.
Women are the major beneficiaries of the pension credit, which has lifted many of them out of poverty. How will it be developed in future, and is there a belief that equality should be a principal factor in determining the way in which women access the basic state pension?
The issue of gender equality is crucial to our thinking and our strategy, as the Secretary of State has made clear. The pension credit is particularly important for older women. Two out of three pension credit recipients are women, often those without an occupational pension or a state pension. We think that 90 per cent. of single women in the poorest category are taking up the credit, but we want to increase take-up, which is one way in which we can deliver greater equality to women who have served their families and the country so well.
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Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): In the west of England, water bills have risen by more than 10 per cent., and gas and electricity bills have undergone double-digit rises. If those bills are added to council tax rises, this week's basic state pension increase has already been completely wiped out. The best that the Government can offer is a £200 one-off payment, while stocks last, at Christmas. Those bills will carry on, but that one-off payment will not. Is it not time we had a decent pension?
Malcolm Wicks: As this Parliament wears to an end, I have given up trying to please the hon. Gentleman, because he is cynical about everything that we announce, including winter fuel paymentsnow at £300 for the over-80sfree television licences for the over-75s, and £200 to help with council tax. We are not cynical about tackling poverty. Absolute poverty among older people has fallen by two thirds. We are proud of that record, and we will continue our endeavours to tackle pensioner poverty in future.
The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): My hon. Friend has a great interest in this subject, not least as secretary of the all-party group on ageing and older people. Our strategy paper published recently, called "Opportunity AgeMeeting the challenges of ageing in the 21st century", confirmed our commitment to increasing the employment rate of older people, and our aspiration to move towards an 80 per cent. overall employment rate. Such an employment rate is an international ambition, and will include a million more older workers. In addition to our range of back-to-work help, which includes the new deal 50-plus, we are piloting special support through pathways to work for people claiming incapacity benefit, almost half of whom are over 50.
Linda Perham: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but are the Government prepared to bring in measures to enable people to defer their state pension and continue working? Many people would like that choice.
One of the challenges in the early part of this century is to do away with uniform retirement ages, which treat us all as a mass, rather than as individuals. Changes to state pension can help in that direction. In future, there will be a choice. At the right age people can choose to take their state pension there and then, and many will want to do that, but there is an improved accrual rate for state pension increments, which would mean that if one deferred for five years, one could choose an increase in state pension of around 50 per cent., which would take the full basic state pension to about £125 in current terms per week, or one could take a lump sum of around £25,000. That is the kind of choice that we need to bring into state pensions, and we are doing just that.
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Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Is it not the case that the Government do not like older workers very much? That was the message that was given clearly to public sector workers in the health service and in education, to the point that they were brought to the brink of a national strike two weeks ago. Will the Minister explain why the Government's much trumpeted, much vaunted new deal for the over-50s does not apply for the first six months, when it would do more good than at any other time?
Malcolm Wicks: Experience shows that in the first few months of being unemployed, people often find work themselves. Many of the new deals have to focus on those who have been out of work for a longer time. The good news is that the employment rate among those between 50 and state pension age is increasing, and at a faster rate than the overall employment ratebut we are not complacent. Too many people who want to work after 50 are not yet able to do so, and we are determined that they should be able to. That is one of the reasons why we will outlaw age discrimination for next yearwhich may be good news for some in the House.
Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): Most people can look forward to spending a third of their adult life over the age of 65, and therefore as pensioners. Is it not important that each and every one of them should have some dignity and financial security in their working life, so that they can work, receive a pension and undertake voluntary work and a range of other activities in that important one third of their adult life that they will probably spend as pensioners?
Malcolm Wicks: I recognise, sadly, that my hon. Friend too is about to retireI will not go on too much in this way, Mr. Speaker, or the cream cakes will come round and you will rule that out of order. However, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's service. We are seeing how demographic politics will increasingly become a feature of democratic politics. The changing life cyclewhereby people will be preparing for work for 20 or 25 years in education, and also be retired for 20 years, on average, but in some cases for 30 or more yearsis a challenge to the House. We need to make sure that that period of so-called old age and retirement is an active one, with educational opportunities, employment opportunities for those who want to move back to the labour market, and opportunities for service to the community.
Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab): What advice or assistance can my hon. Friend offer older workers whose employment is threatened simply for expressing a point of view that is inconsistent with that of their colleagues?
The rights of workers in that situation, and their choice ofto use a term from psychology"fight or flight", is crucial. We have always taken individual employment rights more seriously than have the Opposition, which is why, whatever we might say, some of us are feeling rather more secure than some colleagues on the Opposition Benches.
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