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Pensioner Poverty (North Belfast)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Gillian Merron.]

10.34 pm

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): I am grateful for the opportunity to draw attention to the important issue of senior citizens and poverty in north Belfast.

My constituency has one of the highest numbers of senior citizens in Northern Ireland. Levels of long-term illness, disability and poverty are also among the highest in Northern Ireland constituencies. The problems of poverty and deprivation that afflict senior citizens and pensioners in my area are common to senior citizens throughout Northern Ireland, but they are, if anything, felt more acutely in my constituency. I therefore urge the Minister to bring some hope of relief to a significant section of the community that has made an enormous contribution to our society. It has brought us through some dark, difficult and challenging days in our history. Even today it contributes massively to the richness of our community, especially in north Belfast.

The Government will say that people over 75 benefit from free television licences, winter fuel payments, home security measures, free prescriptions and so forth. In Northern Ireland, pensioners can also avail themselves of free public transport—courtesy of Democratic Unionist party Ministers in the old devolved Assembly. No doubt the Government will also say that older people are identified as a priority under the Promoting Social Inclusion initiative, among other measures. It appears to me, however, that in north Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland there is no joined-up approach in Government or among statutory bodies and funders, to tackling issues of concern to senior citizens.

Let me give an example. The north Belfast senior citizens forum does enormously good work under the sterling leadership of its chairperson Meg Holmes. It is an umbrella organisation formed from some 30 older people's groups in north Belfast that are dedicated to promoting the welfare of older people and contributing to the relief of poverty, sickness and disability among senior citizens on both sides of the community—for the forum is a truly cross-community organisation. It gives older people a voice through lobbying and advocacy, but also gives them practical help through an outreach advice service—a handy persons scheme. It is a valuable source of information. It has been instrumental in raising concern about the safety and wellbeing of older citizens, and has played a leading role as a founder member of the north Belfast older people's community safety partnership.

The forum is part of a thriving voluntary and community senior citizens sector in Northern Ireland. Age Concern Northern Ireland and Help the Aged (Northern Ireland) are the best-known organisations of this kind, but consortiums of older people's organisations such as the north Belfast senior citizens forum and the Northern Ireland pensioners convention are working hard in their local areas. However, the forum and other groups now face a funding crisis. I recently brought together a number of statutory organisations and funders to meet the forum. I urge the
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Minister to become involved not only in helping the forum but in bringing together statutory bodies, Departments and funders in a joined-up approach to the financing and resourcing of such groups, so that there is a coherent strategy in all parts of the Province.

I was told at the meeting that a group in the Newry area was receiving substantial funding—up to £100,000—from the local health trust. Yet the North and West Belfast Health and Social Services Trust is not giving anywhere near such help and resources to the group in my area. Indeed, in other parts of the Province no help whatsoever has been given, so there is clearly an inconsistent approach. There needs to be more joined-up thinking and a much more coherent approach to funding these groups, which are doing sterling work in their local areas.

Many of my older constituents suffer from long-standing illnesses. Research indicates that in Northern Ireland, 19 per cent. of people aged over 50 have mobility problems, compared with 10 per cent. of the population as a whole. Some 64 per cent. of people aged 65 or over have long-standing illnesses or disability. The fact that 6 per cent. of those aged over 75 still live, in this day and age, in unfit dwellings is part of the problem. Many older people in particular still live in inadequate housing that is not suitable for their needs. Service providers must address the provision of advice and information, and the links between housing, health care and support.

One issue that constituents frequently raise with me in my advice surgeries is what will happen to them when they fall ill in their old age, and what services they will be able to avail themselves of in Belfast, North—a point that applies across the board. They are concerned about how they will provide for themselves and how they will be cared for. People with dementia and their carers comprise an especially marginalised group of mostly older people.

A major issue affecting the quality of older people's lives is long-term care. The royal commission dealing with this subject recommended that both nursing and personal care should be free, based on an assessment of need. Indeed, during the lifetime of the old Assembly, a number of colleagues and I had the pleasure of presenting a motion to that Assembly, urging the introduction of free nursing and personal care in Northern Ireland. It was adopted unanimously.

In a written parliamentary reply to me in July of this year, the Minister with responsibility for health matters in Northern Ireland said that he had asked officials to update the interdepartmental group's report on personal care, which had been submitted to the Northern Ireland Executive on 8 August 2002. I urge the Government to make progress in this area. People are looking for a response, and it will not be good enough for the Government to adopt the line that they will await making a decision until the possible restoration of the Assembly. They do not adopt the same attitude when it comes to pressing ahead in other areas, notably the education sector. We are looking for answers.

Recent announcements by the Government have increased concern among my constituents that the level of poverty among pensioners will increase. We in Northern Ireland are familiar enough with the problems of fuel poverty. Tragically, many pensioners have had to
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make a choice between heating and eating. But we now have the real prospect of tens of thousands of people, many of them pensioners, being plunged into water poverty.

I accept that Northern Ireland's water service requires substantial sustained investment in its infrastructure. However, underfunding by successive Governments in the past 30 years has deprived it of the investment that is needed to replace and update much of a system that has served Northern Ireland for more than a century. The Government have determined that the only solution is to make the water service self-funding by charging consumers for the service provided. It is clear to me and to many in Northern Ireland that the introduction of water charges fulfils a key objective of this Government: to increase significantly the level of local taxation paid by households in Northern Ireland.

I do not wish to get into a general debate on water charges this evening, except to say that the argument that Northern Ireland needs to be brought into line with the rest of the United Kingdom in that regard would carry more weight if the same argument were applied across the board. It does not take into account the fact that Northern Ireland average household income levels are some 19 per cent. lower than in the rest of the UK, or that almost a quarter of those aged 60 or older in Northern Ireland are in receipt of income support compared to 13.5 per cent. in England and Wales. It does not take into account the fact that household essentials, such as energy and fuel, are much more expensive.

The proposed water charges, coupled with massive rises in the regional rate, with which I shall deal in a few moments, will place an extremely heavy burden—an intolerable burden, in my view—on older people. It will worsen the position for pensioner households that are already in poverty and it will add to the numbers of households and people in poverty overall.

The Government state that they are committed to eliminating pensioner poverty, but it seems to me to be totally at variance with that objective for them to impose what I regard as such a regressive tax. The age sector reference group in Northern Ireland highlighted the lack of proper consultation with older people or of proper analysis of the consequences of the introduction of water charges, especially for older people.

The original proposal for a 25 per cent. discount for those in receipt of housing benefit rent rebate was totally inadequate. I welcome the fact that the Government have delayed the introduction of water charges, but they must radically reassess the position. The report of Paddy Hillyard and Fiona Scullion of Queen's university demonstrated that the highest risk of water poverty will be experienced by pensioner households. It also concluded that the scheme will have an adverse effect on the poorest sections of the community in Northern Ireland. Those are reasons enough to make the Government reassess their whole approach to this matter.

Senior citizens in my constituency have spoken to me not just with anxiety, but with real fear about what the future holds for them, when they are faced with the prospect of having to make water charge payments as well as paying higher fuel prices, higher rates bills and having to survive on an inadequate pension.
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I mentioned fuel poverty earlier. It is defined as a spend of more than 10 per cent. of income, excluding housing costs, on heating, lighting and various appliance uses. The Department for Social Development has estimated that 170,000 households are at risk of fuel poverty. Given that the income of a pensioner household is estimated to be only a third of that of households that are in work, fuel poverty clearly affects older people badly. Figures indicate that 50 per cent. of fuel-poor households are aged 60 or more and 22 per cent. aged 75 or more.

The rate of excess winter deaths among people in my constituency and across Northern Ireland is totally unacceptable. Despite the various energy efficiency schemes and the introduction of winter fuel payments, 1,300 older people died from cold-related illnesses in 2002, accounting for over two thirds of all winter deaths. Those deaths could and should have been avoided. It is, quite frankly, a scandal that in this day and age we should be talking about figures like that. There must be proper resourcing and targets to eliminate fuel poverty.

I welcome the launch of the fuel poverty strategy for Northern Ireland and I welcome the warm homes scheme, which was introduced when Democratic Unionist party Ministers were in office in the old Assembly, but it needs to be extended and more resources need to be put into it. I recognise the fact that the Minister has taken a personal interest in this issue, but more needs to be done, particularly in respect of more resources. The scheme should not be restricted to older people who are in receipt of qualifying benefits such as pension credit, since many do not claim it, even though they are entitled to it.

The decision to increase the regional rate by 19 per cent. represents a double whammy for people in Northern Ireland, but particularly for our senior citizens. Looming on the horizon is the reform of the domestic rating system, and there is much concern about the impact that that will have on older and vulnerable people.

No one is under any illusion about the great difficulties involved in reforming the current rate system, but there are real concerns about the suggestion that the capital value of a person's home is broadly linked to that householder's economic resources. Groups working with older people in my constituency point out that a large proportion of them live in properties that they bought 30 or 40 years ago. Although the value of properties may have rocketed thanks to their location and the natural rise in house prices, it is not right to assume that their owners have a lot of disposable income as a result. One pensioner in four lives in poverty, and 74 per cent. of older people between 60 and 74 years of age live in privately owned homes. The reform of the domestic rating system will have an enormous impact on them.

I accept that housing benefit is one way to alleviate the difficulties experienced by people in paying their rates bill. However, many people do not apply for it, either because they are not aware that they are entitled to it or because they are put off by the complex administration procedure and the stigma attached to means-testing.

Means-testing remains a major problem. For example, it is estimated that tens of thousands of eligible pensioners do not receive pension credit. Older people
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find means-testing demeaning, stigmatising and intrusive, and believe that it is complex, bureaucratic and inaccessible. We will not tackle the problem of pensioner poverty in north Belfast or Northern Ireland—or anywhere in the country—until we accept that means-testing benefits is not the way to proceed. Alternatives to means-testing must be found but, in the meantime, targets must be set to ensure the full take-up of benefits and reliefs.

I note that the reform of the council tax system in England has been put on hold, but I wonder why the Government are in such a pressing rush to go ahead with the reform of the rates system in Northern Ireland, given that it will have the effects—especially on senior citizens—that I have already outlined.

The overriding issue for older people in my constituency and throughout Northern Ireland is the need for a decent pension that lifts them out of poverty. Average pensioner income in Northern Ireland is 10 per cent. lower than in the UK as a whole. In 2002–03, gross income for pensioner couples in Northern Ireland was £346 a month, compared with £387 for the UK as a whole. In the same year, one fifth of pensioners in Northern Ireland had incomes below the most commonly used poverty threshold. Means-testing the benefits that make up the difference is not working for pensioners in my constituency and across Northern Ireland. More needs to be done to tackle that problem.

I conclude by drawing particular attention to the position of women in relation to pensions. Recently, a lady visited my advice centre who had worked for a considerable period of her life but who was facing the prospect of real poverty in her retirement because she had not accumulated enough pension benefits when she was in work. That problem needs to be tackled. Women remain more likely to be in part-time work, or to stay outside the work force altogether. The problem is exacerbated in Northern Ireland because female participation in the work force is lower than in the rest of the UK.

Given that, on average, women's earnings remain substantially lower than men's, the Government risk condemning generations of women to an old age of poverty. There needs to be a change in pensions policy, so that the future for older women is secured. The Turner commission is due to report soon, and we need to tackle the problem that I have described as part of that debate.

North Belfast has many older residents and the Minister will know the deprivation there from his visits to the area and the work that he has done. My constituency contains wards and areas that are among the most deprived in Northern Ireland and in the country as a whole. It is essential that the problems that I have set out are tackled and I look forward to his response.

10.54 pm

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