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4 Jun 2008 : Column 866

The pension credit has been very successful, and it has helped several thousand pensioners in my constituency. It can make a difference of up to £30 or £40 a week, which is a substantial amount for someone on a low income. I accept some of the comments about the forms being complex and the take-up rate. We need to improve that; much more needs to be done. I listened to people from the Pension Service go through telephone calls with pensioners, and I have to say that what they did was very good. They took a lot of time, and some of those people are dedicated; they take pride and pleasure in helping pensioners claim the money to which they are rightly entitled.

We come to the winter fuel allowance—another success for this Government. It is interesting that it appears that the Conservatives intend to scrap it.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con) indicated dissent.

Geraldine Smith: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. Will he say that the Conservatives will retain the winter fuel allowance and that it will be part of their manifesto?

Andrew Selous: I can reassure the hon. Lady that we have no plans to scrap the winter fuel allowance.

Geraldine Smith: I am very pleased to hear that. Perhaps we can go through a few of the other measures. Will the Conservatives keep free transport for the elderly? My constituency is in a scenic area—we have Morcambe bay and the Lake district quite close at hand. It is great that pensioners can have days out—they have so much more freedom to get out of the house now.

Mr. Winnick: To revert to the winter fuel allowance, when the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), opening for the Opposition, was asked by me whether a Tory Government would keep the winter fuel allowance, he said that there were no commitments to be made. What has happened between his reply two hours ago and the intervention that we have just heard from the other Tory Front-Bench spokesman?

Geraldine Smith: I think it is a case of flip-flopping around. It will be interesting when the Conservatives have to start stating what their policies actually are. That is when we may see a change in fortunes and in the opinion polls. It is easy to be critical of what goes wrong with a Government, but at some point they will have to say what they will do to put it right. The British people are not stupid, and nor are pensioners—they will remember the Conservatives’ record.

As well as free transport for pensioners, this Government have introduced free television licences for the over-75s—another very welcome measure. We have already heard about the Warm Front scheme, under which people can claim up to £4,000. That helps to ensure that pensioners’ homes have proper central heating and people can keep warm.

We have touched only briefly today on the national health service, which is used mainly by pensioners. I have seen tremendous strides forward in the NHS. I remember, when the Conservative Government were in power, an old man—a Labour party member—who
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had to wait several years for a cataract operation. That man was practically blind; his poverty of life was appalling. Now, such operations take place within a matter of months or weeks. There has been a huge improvement. I have seen knee replacement operations going ahead in our local hospital, again within a matter of weeks. Before, people were not having those operations—they were dying before they could have them. In winter, old people lay on trolleys—

Mr. Walker: MRSA. C. difficile. People lying in their own vomit.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman knows the rules of debate.

Geraldine Smith: People were dying on hospital trolleys. As I have said, the British people are not stupid. When they come to choose a Government, they will remember those things.

Another welcome measure introduced by this Government is the financial assistance scheme to support people who were cruelly robbed of their pension—quite right, too. Now, we have said that we will restore the link with earnings. The Conservatives conveniently forget that it was they who abolished it. It is incredible. There is an old northern saying, “You would stand clogging.” They have absolutely no shame.

John Barrett: I take the hon. Lady’s point about the importance of the link. Why does she think it has not been reintroduced in the 11 years of the Labour Government?

Geraldine Smith: The Government have said that they will restore that link and we await an announcement. The Conservatives have not given a clear commitment on when they would restore the link with earnings. Perhaps we might have an announcement on that. Are they going to restore the link with earnings? Will that be part of their manifesto and their pledges to the British people? [ Interruption. ] Was that a no? No answer. Okay.

There are things that the Government need to do something about. Council tax has been mentioned a few times today. The Government seriously need to address that. I would go so far as to say that it should be scrapped. A new, fairer tax should be implemented because the council tax is unfair.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) talked about drop-in centres for the elderly. It is important that elderly people are not left lonely in their own homes and can get out and socialise. In the Rainbow centre in my constituency, people do a fantastic job. They are often elderly people, who look after those who are more vulnerable, and ensure that there are meals on wheels services and that people can come to the centre and participate in a variety of activities. Much good is therefore happening in the community.

Of course, much more needs to be done to help pensioners—we should never get complacent. Those people remember the war, took part in it and fought for their country. They should be able to live out their lives with dignity and in comfort. We owe them a debt and
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we must ensure that we keep moving in the right direction and do more and more for the older people of this country.

6.11 pm

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): I want to pick up on some of the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) made in his opening speech. It is worth beginning by agreeing that the Government have done an impressive job of working on long-term pensioner poverty. They have taken some important steps, supported on a cross-party basis and by many people outside this place, to try to alleviate the systematic problems in the existing pensions system. We should acknowledge and celebrate that as an important piece of institutional workmanship, which, I hope, will stand the test of time and provide a solid foundation for reducing pensioner poverty in the long term. It is important to have cross-party consensus on that, and it is worth therefore celebrating the fact that there are reforms to the state pension in the works, including a vital measure on personal accounts, which is currently being considered in Parliament.

Restoring the earnings link from 2012 or 2015 is tremendously welcome, although we can argue about the timing. Reforms to the arrangements for carers’ and women’s pensions have also been mentioned. All those matters are vital and will make a material difference. However, the current problem is to do not with those long-term arrangements, which are impressive, but with a point that the committee of the Weston-super-Mare Senior Citizens Forum made to me. I encourage the Under-Secretary to visit it if he needs a refresher course because it is a feisty and well educated group, whose members will be delighted to discuss some of the problems with him at length.

Those pensioners say that it is all very well trying to put things in place for tomorrow’s pensioners, but ask what the Government are doing—and why they are not doing more—for today’s pensioners. They feel that the progress on long-term pensioner poverty alleviation is not matched to anything like the same extent by that on current pensioner poverty. That is a crucial point.

The earnings link will not be restored until 2012 at the earliest. As my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) said, because average earnings will continue rising higher than the state pension in the next few years, the state pension will continue to decline as a percentage of average earnings relative to people in work. That makes it more affordable for the Government, if they delay reintroducing the link until 2012 or 2015, but it also means continual increases in the number of pensioners on means-tested benefits between now and the date when the link is reintroduced. Clearly, we will start from an even worse position than we are in today.

The problems of fuel poverty have already been mentioned. The Government’s moves, while welcome, will not be enough to make a significant difference to sufficient pensioners, especially as the cost of fuel skyrockets. Therefore, there is a wider issue of inflation for pensioners increasing much faster than the average figure for the economy as a whole.

That is partly to do with council tax, but it is also worth while pointing out that, as several hon. Members
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have mentioned, the take-up of means-tested benefits is appallingly low. That is to do with the design of those benefits, as much as the complexity of the forms. I have already mentioned the pension credit form, at 17 pages, but it is worth while mentioning the housing benefit and council tax benefit form, too. That form is 29 pages long and the explanatory notes are six pages long. Although it is true that plenty of people are available to help pensioners to fill in those forms, that does not help with the fact that pensioners find them intrusive and demeaning. It must surely be better to reduce the low take-up rates by redesigning those benefits in a way that does not mean just simplifying the forms, but redesigning the complexity out of the system. That is the only way in which the Government will make progress on improving take-up rates.

The Government have, I fear, faced a significant problem in improving take-up rates and have already admitted defeat. They have been trying to persuade pensioners to parade their poverty by filling in all the forms, but have failed to improve take-up rates dramatically, as a result of those difficulties. A much more fundamental change needs to be introduced.

Why has the Government’s progress on current pensioner poverty not been as impressive as the longer-term arrangements that they have put in place? My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree put his finger on it when he said, “It’s all to do with money.” The Government’s finances are tighter than they have ever been and their three fiscal tests are under severe pressure. In fact, if we include the figures for Northern Rock, which the Government tend to forget, they have broken one of their fiscal rules. The Government faced problems over the 10p tax fiasco, which meant a one-off fix for this year, which will create additional fiscal pressures next year. As my hon. Friend said, the result is a series of short-term measures that do not allow pensioners to plan for the future or to be certain about their financial arrangements.

As the shadow Chancellor has said, the fundamental problem is that, fiscally, the Government failed to mend the roof when the sun was shining. The Under-Secretary will not be able to say this in public, but I am sure that he knows that there should be an opportunity to improve current pensioner poverty; indeed, there would be such an opportunity if there were more money in the Government’s coffers, but there is not. Improving pensioner poverty would surely be at the top of this or any Conservative Government’s priority list, but that opportunity will be lost, because of the financial constraints that the Government are currently under. I know that the Under-Secretary knows that that is a tremendous missed opportunity, which I am sure he would prefer not to have to face.

There are, however, two things, which I hope the Under-Secretary will point to, that will help without costing too much money. One of them, which should be fiscally neutral, is to improve the take-up of the key pension benefits that I have mentioned. I am assuming—I hope that he will reassure the House about this in his winding-up speech—that there is a contingency in the Government’s budgets for an improvement in those key take-up ratios. On the assumption that there is, and that the Government
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therefore have the money ready, redesigning those benefits and forms, and improving the take-up rate will make a tremendous difference, particularly to those pensioners in the severest poverty, 60 per cent. of whom are not claiming the benefits to which they are entitled, according to the Government’s figures. If the Government have the money in their budget, that fix, although not simple, would be tremendously effective and would not put the Government’s finances under additional pressure.

The second thing that the Government could do—it would not cost a penny—is to ensure that the scandal of age-related discrimination is finished once and for all. I was particularly pleased to hear questions about that earlier today, in Prime Minister’s questions. Perhaps I was being a little over-optimistic, but I hope that I heard from both the Prime Minister and the Minister for Pensions Reform, in his opening remarks in this debate, that there is a commitment to include measures to abolish age-related discrimination in the upcoming legislation that the Government are preparing. I hope that the Under-Secretary will reassure us on that point.

Those two measures alone would not put the Government’s finances under any greater pressure, but would make a material difference, promptly and practically, to the problem of pensioner poverty today, not just in the long term.

6.19 pm

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Thank you for calling me to speak towards the tail end of the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I listened closely to the speech of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), who made a number of telling points. The first was that the old will always be with us. Of course they will. It is incumbent on politicians—yes, we are politicians with differing views—to ensure that, more often than not, we get it right when looking after those who in the main have given a huge amount to society throughout their working lives.

We can have political differences over how that is done, but there is not a single politician in the House—on the Government, Conservative or Liberal Democrat Benches—whether in government or in opposition, who does not have at the core of their beliefs a desire to improve the outlook for pensioners. Therefore, I am not going to be partisan in this brief contribution.

Without doubt, pensioners face serious problems right now. In the main, that has to do with problems afflicting the global economy. Fuel prices are going up. A large amount of pensioners’ income is spent on fuel, so that increase is hitting them in the pocket right now. Fuel prices are going up, so the cost of food production is going up. That means that food prices are going up, which is also hitting pensioners in the pocket right now. This is not something that will happen in a year’s time; it is ongoing and it is causing financial hardship. We in the House need to come up with a range of ideas to alleviate the immediate pressure on pensioners.

There is also the issue with the council tax. One could be a little more political about how the council tax has risen so far in excess of inflation, but I do not
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want to be political. We need to consider how the council tax impacts on pensioners.

The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) and the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton also referred to the fact that poverty goes beyond income. It is about a range of other, connected issues. As politicians, we need to examine them in the round.

Many elderly people are carers. In my constituency and in many others, elderly people are looking after loved ones who suffer from Alzheimer’s. That puts a huge strain on them emotionally and physically. We need to ensure that that strain is recognised and, wherever possible, alleviated.

One problem at local authority level is the ring-fencing of funds. Funds delivered to local authorities have to be spent in specific project areas. I would like far more local democracy to be introduced to local government, so that local government would live or die according to how it spent its money. For example, if the elderly population in Hertfordshire, the county in which I have a seat, were growing and more money needed to be spent on the elderly, and local politicians took the view that that is what needed to happen, the money could be found within existing budgets—I am not asking for more—and the argument could be made to redirect it towards alleviating the issues created around caring for people with Alzheimer’s.

There also needs to be far better co-operation between the NHS and local authorities on providing integrated support services. The NHS is often quick to push people off its books and out of its beds, back on to the local authority. Again, costing pressures are created, which need to be addressed urgently.

More generally, pensioner poverty can be linked to access to health care. Pensioners tend to have less access to cars. When a partner, husband or wife is taken into hospital, the distances that pensioners have to travel to see that person might be extremely large and expensive to cover, and pensioners may have to rely on either taxis, which, as we know, can cost a lot of money, or public transport, which may run infrequently. If they are lucky enough to have a car, often when they get to the hospital, they have to pay parking charges.

We need to consider how we deliver health care to our elderly, but also how the people who care for them when they are in hospital—for example, their children, husbands or partners—can visit them in a cost-effective and reasonable way.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman has omitted to mention one way of conveying elderly people to hospital to visit wives and other loved ones: community transport. In my area, where the general hospitals are in remote parts of Derby, Leicester and Burton, there are plenty of buses run by community transport schemes, at least part of whose purpose is to take elderly people to hospital for appointments or to visit friends or family. Perhaps Governments could do more to underpin such provision.

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