|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): Virtually all pensioners over the age of 75 have some income other than the basic state pension. Pension credit means that from 11 April, in a few days' time, no single pensioner need live on less then £109 a week. In 1997, that figure was just £69 a week. That is the difference between the Opposition and us. It will now be £167 for couples, with more for carers and disabled people. As at 31 December 2004, more than 2.6 million pensioner households were receiving pension credit, although updated that would be more like 2.7 million, including 5,000 in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.
Simon Hughes: The Minister's answers to my question and to earlier questions mean that, according to my calculations, at least 500,000 pensioners over 75 would not receive any more than the basic income, and certainly would not be claiming the minimum guarantee. If that is the case, and some of the poorest people in Britain today are receiving significantly below the poverty line, why have the Government not accepted their argument and ours that we should pay a decent basic pension, and if people are rich because of other income, tax it?
Malcolm Wicks: Because we are not sure how the Liberal Democrat proposals would be funded. Apparently, it would be done by abolishing the Department of Trade and Industry. In addition, although their proposals to focus financial help particularly on the over-75s recognise that the older elderly are the pooresta truth that we recognise with winter fuel payments and other helpthey have taken a trend and exaggerated it into a whole social policy. Those over 75 have incomes of about 90 per cent. of those below 75, and the distribution within the younger elderly and the older elderly is wider than that. In other words, the Liberal Democrats would penalise many poorer pensioners who have the temerity not to have had their 75th birthday card yet.
Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Is not the benefit that is least well taken up by pensioners not pension credit but council tax benefit? Would it be possible to encourage take-up by requiring local authorities to send every pensioner in their area a form for council tax benefit and for pension credit? Surely that is a way of ensuring that elderly people on low incomes receive the entitlements that the Government have made available to them, which are their right.
I thank my hon. Friend. We all know the sensitivities around council tax, which is why we are reviewing that area of policy, but meanwhile, with the recent winter fuel payments, we sent out a leaflet to every pensioner about council tax benefit, and we have also supplied from our Pension Service to local councils the names of all those who are claiming pension credit but do not appear to be claiming council tax benefit.
4 Apr 2005 : Column 1117
That is not enough and we need to do more, because my hon. Friend is absolutely right that, for obvious reasons, council tax benefit is becoming more important, and we must pursue a higher take-up rate. We are not complacent about this.
The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): I refer to my written statement issued this morning, in which I was pleased to confirm that we have published for consultation draft regulations setting out detailed proposals for the financial assistance scheme. The scheme will be a lifeline for thousands of people across the country, so it is essential to get it righthence the consultation. We have made provision for surviving spouses of scheme members who were within three years of their scheme pension age on 14 May 2004. I am pleased to announce that those people will be eligible to receive payments from the date of the death of the member, regardless of the survivor's age. The scheme will provide support at 50 per cent. of the member's level of assistance. We are also concerned to make sure that people who when they reach 65 have a long-term illness can receive the financial assistance as soon as possible, and we are working towards that end.
Mr. Tredinnick: But is it not a fact that the financial assistance scheme is payable only at the state pension age of 65, not at the scheme age? That affects thousands of people in the east and west midlands, including some in Hinckley in my constituency, who have early scheme ages. Is this not yet another case of the Government saying one thing and doing something else?
Malcolm Wicks: We are now in a position to have a proper conversationhence the consultationabout the details of a financial assistance scheme, because this Labour Government have said that we will have such a scheme. Similarly, we can discuss the fine details of the Pension Protection Fund. Why? Because despite opposition, we now have a Pension Protection Fund. We looked very carefully at having a financial assistance scheme funded by the taxpayer, and we thought on balance that it was right to have one specific age at which the money would be paid65. As for eligibility, we have said that those within three years of their scheme-specific retirement age will be eligible. It is a matter of judgment and balance, but I am pleased that we are now putting an end to the scandal whereby workers in this country who worked hard for their companies and families and contributed to their pension scheme saw it all go down the drain when a company went bust. We are putting an end to that, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support that endeavour.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)
(Lab): If the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) does not want his constituents to benefit from the scheme, please can that benefit be transferred to my constituents, who are absolutely delighted with the scheme? Will my hon. Friend ensure that there is some publicity at an early
4 Apr 2005 : Column 1118
date about contact points for people making technical queries about eligibility, because in some cases there has been a loss of information flow between the scheme and scheme members and their families?
Malcolm Wicks: Obviously, we have been in communication with hundreds of schemes. We also have a website where people can look up the current developments for themselves. It is important that we not only establish the financial assistance scheme, but publicise it, and we are doing that.
Does that not show that the Opposition have been right all along to say that the £400 million in the FAS is woefully inadequate and will be swallowed up by the 15,000 claimants who are at or near retirement? What reassurance can he give to the many thousands of other workers who have also lost their pension rights?
Malcolm Wicks: It would be nice to agree with the hon. Gentleman, but sadly I cannot do so. He was wrong when he advised his party not to give a Second Reading to the Pensions Bill. If people had listened, we would not have a Pension Protection Fund that is the long-run answer to this question. Sadly, he was wrong to be cynical, as was the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb), who said that there would never be a financial assistance scheme. We have set up that scheme and we are now working on the details. We thought that it was right to focus help on those approaching retirement age, and we will consider the finances in the next spending review.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Alan Johnson): Our active labour market policies and the help provided through Jobcentre Plus and the new deals have played a key role in delivering the record employment rates that we have today. We are building on this success by completing the Jobcentre Plus programme, thus ensuring that, across the country, people who can work can take advantage of the job opportunities available.
I, too, welcome the very large cuts in unemployment in my constituency, but as my right hon. Friend will be aware, there are still many people in my constituency and throughout Glasgow who are not economically active, but do want to work. They will require a lot of training and support to do that. Does he agree that, rather than cutting programmes and scrapping services, the Government must remain committed to focusing their policy on ensuring that those people are given the opportunity to enter the work force?
4 Apr 2005 : Column 1119
Alan Johnson: I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to do more, not less. We need to put in more resources, not fewer resources, and we need to ensure, for instance, that the measures set out by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in his Budget statement are taken forward. That was focused on 16 and 17-year-olds, whom we need to give a new offer based on the success of the education maintenance allowance, broadening the approach to ensure that, in this age group in particular, no young person does not have access to education or, if they are in work, to training and skills enhancement as part of their job. I agree with my hon. Friend that this is an area where we need to do much more.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|