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Question put forthwith ( Standing Order No. 31 (2) ), That the proposed words be there added.

Question agreed to.

The Deputy Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (Standing Order No. 31(2) ) .

Resolved,

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I have now to announce the result of the Division deferred from a previous day. On the question relating to the East Midlands Regional Grand Committee, the Ayes were 277 and the Noes were 180, so the Question was agreed to.

[ The Division list is published at the end of today's debates.]


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Caring for the Elderly

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I advise the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.25 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): I beg to move,

Prior to their election in 1997, the Government made three hugely important promises to our older citizens. First, the current Prime Minister said:

Labour also promised in its 1997 manifesto that

At the 1997 Labour party conference, Tony Blair said:

children-

On all those promises, Labour has comprehensively failed to deliver for older people. Means-testing now affects nearly half of all pensioners. Some £5 billion a year in benefits goes unclaimed by pensioners. As for increased prosperity, there are now some 2.5 million pensioners living in poverty. Even before the economic downturn began to bite, research for Age Concern and Help the Aged showed that 60 per cent. of low-income pensioners were struggling to get by and were finding it hard to manage, two thirds were cutting back on gas and electricity, more than half were buying less or poorer quality food, and one in 12 pensioners said that they had built up debt as a result of increases in the cost of living. As for long-term care, some 45,000 people a year are still being forced to sell their homes to pay for care costs. Not much of a record, is it?

What are Ministers doing, as this Government head for the buffers? They publish more discussion documents. In the last few days alone, they have produced two
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such documents. What do they have in common? Is it the fact that they serve only to underline this Government's record of inaction and failure when it comes to the needs and concerns of older people?

First we had "Building a Society for All Ages". After 12 years, it appears that Ministers have finally woken up to the challenges of an ageing society. Of course, we can agree that increased longevity is phenomenal. If my speech were to last an hour, Madam Deputy Speaker-I promise you that it will not, although it may seem like it-your life expectancy on average would increase by about 12 minutes during that hour. Indeed, in the foreword to that document, the Prime Minister is good enough to refer to my erstwhile constituent Henry Allingham, who at 113 is now the oldest man-but not the oldest person-in the world.

The best Labour can offer us is a "grandparents summit" in the autumn and an earlier review of the default retirement age, plus a ragbag of existing initiatives, empty self-congratulation and some vague aspirations for the future. There are to be refresher courses for older drivers. It is all jam tomorrow while hard-pressed pensioners bear the brunt of the recession.

The document promises to bring forward to next year the review of the default retirement age. It rightly points out that more than 1 million people are already working beyond state pension age-mainly, I suspect, through harsh economic necessity. It sets out the financial and social benefits of working longer, but for many people, continuing to work may be the only way of repairing their finances for retirement. Indeed we have already legislated to raise the state pension age to 68. But the Opposition have been saying for several years that retirement should be less an event and more a process. Flexibility is what older workers need. However, the document is bizarrely free of any opinion from Ministers as to whether they support a default retirement age. This is the very point to be decided by a High Court judge very soon. Perhaps in her response the Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society could give us some clue about the Government's thinking on the subject, or even just tell us what she thinks. The Government also make much of the Equality Bill as a vehicle to tackle age discrimination, yet although that Bill includes wide powers to bring in exemptions relating to older people, the detail of the exemptions is not yet available.

The document is also guilty of spin when it deals with pensioner poverty. It asserts:

That is also a favourite mantra for Ministers, but it is based on statistics after housing costs. If we take the figures before housing costs, the story is very different.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that in their latest proposals the Government talk about a £20,000 tax on prudent pensioners-if they still have a pension left. That will be a £10 billion-plus a year tax on the very people who have saved to look after their future. Is that not a disgrace, and does it not sum up the Labour approach to poverty in old age? They want more people to be poor, because they want to tax them more.


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Mr. Waterson: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who makes a powerful point. The people who should always beware of the Government's Green Papers and White Papers are, of course, those who have taken the precaution of saving for their old age.

I was talking about Government spin on pensioner poverty. The truth is that 2.5 million pensioners are living in official poverty. A recent OECD report put the UK at the bottom-Ministers should listen to this-of a league table of 17 industrialised countries for its state pension provision. Another example of spin is the oft-repeated mantra by Ministers-indeed, it makes another appearance today in the amendment-that they are spending £x billion more than if pre-1997 policies had been maintained. That is, of course, grossly misleading because it assumes that if there had been a Conservative Government in the intervening years not a penny extra would have been spent on our pensioners.

Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that the desperate plight of the elderly is being raised on the doorsteps in the Norwich, North by-election. People have had enough of the inaction of this Government. Does he agree that that will be shown in the voting pattern at the election next week?

Mr. Waterson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes an excellent point. As someone who has also encountered older people's tangible anger with this Government on the doorsteps of Norwich, I am sure that his prediction is absolutely right.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman was in the very early 1980s when, in one of the meanest acts of the Thatcher Government, pensions were detached from average pay in the economy. If he was in this place at that time, did he vote for that? If he was not in this place, did he support it? That was one of the accelerators of pensioner poverty in the 1980s and 1990s.

Mr. Waterson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. In fairness, he assiduously attends these debates on pensions issues. I might have a slightly lived-in look, but I certainly was not a Member of this House in the early 1980s. We could go into the prehistory of 1980 and the decision to break the link at that point-again, curiously, as history repeats itself, the then Government had inherited a disastrous financial situation from a previous Labour Government, but we will not go down that route-but this Government have had 12 long years to restore the link and they have done nothing about it.

Perhaps the most unfairly treated of all are those pensioners to whom I referred a moment ago, who did the right thing all their lives. They saved while they were working so that they could supplement their pension when they retired. About three quarters of pensioner households receive income from savings and investment, and in recent times they have seen those savings rendered almost worthless. The interest that they receive, thanks to the economic mess that this Government have caused, is pitiful or even non-existent. To make matters worse, the Treasury assumes that they are getting 10 per cent. on those savings when it comes to calculating entitlement to benefits. Will the Minister now undertake to review the tariff income rule that causes such blatant unfairness?


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In this year's Budget, we called on the Government to increase age-related personal allowances for those aged 65 or above by £2,000, which would have benefited them by up to £400 a year. We pressed Ministers to scrap income tax on savings for basic rate taxpayers. Instead, the Government increased taxes on pensions. Ministers have even refused our proposal that the compulsory annuitisation rules be temporarily suspended during the financial turmoil. As a result, many people who prudently saved for their retirement have been forced to fix their income for the rest of their lives at the worst possible moment. We Conservatives believe that Governments should encourage saving, not penalise it. We would introduce measures that would help everyone, but particularly older people, such as the two-year council tax freeze, which is worth more than £200 to the typical family, and energy-efficiency improvements for every household, saving energy and reducing bills.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman proposes fixing council tax for two years, which will result in councils having less money to spend. Does he not appreciate that councils are responsible for the adult social care budget, which is the only part of their budget that is not ring-fenced, and that they will therefore look to that budget for savings?

Mr. Waterson: The hon. Gentleman assumes that all councils will go down the route taken by some Labour and Liberal Democrat councils of cutting front-line services, instead of achieving efficiencies and savings in back-room operations, but I can tell him from my experience not only in my constituency but on the doorsteps in Norwich that the two-year council tax freeze is extremely popular, not least with pensioners, who bear the brunt of council tax rises.

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that even better than a council tax freeze would be a local income tax, which would link people's ability to pay with what they actually pay for local services?

Mr. Waterson: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. I would be happy to have a completely separate debate on that topic, because when the Liberal Democrats were pushing that policy in my constituency, it turned out that most people would end up paying more.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree with me that now is the perfect time for the Government to do the right thing by the Equitable Life pensioners, who are demanding justice? The parliamentary ombudsman has ruled on their behalf, but the Government have flagrantly ignored that ruling and refused to give justice to so many pensioners.

Mr. Waterson: I can only agree with my hon. Friend. The blatant way in which the Government are attempting to put off the evil day, while more and more Equitable Life victims sadly pass away, is outrageous. There seems to have been a campaign of delay and dithering, as on so many other things.

The Government's record on pensions is no better. A report produced by the Department for Work and Pensions concluded that 51 per cent. of people would not trust the Government to act in their best interests on pensions.
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Although we passed the necessary legislation some time ago, Ministers will still not say exactly when they will restore the link between the uprating of the state pension and the growth in average earnings. May I please press the Minister on that again today?

The Government have tested to destruction the notion that mass means-testing can deliver help to those most in need. As I said, each year more than £5 billion of benefits goes unclaimed by needy pensioners and some 1.7 million people never claim the pension credit to which they are entitled. Other benefits have even worse take-up, the best example being council tax benefit. Why will Ministers not support the British Legion and Age Concern campaign to change the name of the benefit to council tax rebate, so that people can see that it is theirs as of right?

The Government have also presided over a huge retreat from private and occupational pensions. More than 70,000 occupational schemes have wound up or begun winding up since Labour took office in 1997-no wonder, when one of the Government's first acts was their tax raid on pensions, which is estimated to have cost pension funds up to £150 billion since 1997. They have continued to heap extra costs and red tape on those employers who, for all the right reasons, continue to sponsor defined-benefit schemes for their work force. The latest estimate puts the funding shortfall for UK defined-benefit schemes at more than £200 billion-a staggering 88 per cent. of the country's DB schemes face a shortfall. The pensions regulator has warned of "severe pressures" on employers and pension fund trustees and members, and pensions expert Dr. Ros Altmann has said that we are

In contrast, we will simplify pensions rules and do everything possible to encourage responsible employers to make generous workplace provision. The new system of personal accounts may auto-enrol many thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of workers, who may be no better off or even worse off because of the effect of the means-tested benefits system. Even worse, personal accounts could actually hasten the demise of more generous existing schemes-a phenomenon called levelling down.

Yesterday, the long-awaited Green Paper on care and support was published-another one with a chatty foreword by the Prime Minister. He seems to think that we need "a major debate" on the issues. We do not need another debate; we need a decision. Is that really the best that Labour can do after 12 years in government, and 10 years since the Sutherland report-more dithering, more options to debate, and a menu without prices?

Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North) (Lab): Given that the serious question of how we care for a growing number of frail, elderly people did not suddenly arise in 1997, and given that for 25 years or more, Governments have dodged that serious social question, left over from the Beveridge reforms, will the hon. Gentleman engage, as I think he says he will, in the serious debate on the subject that was kicked off by the Secretary of State? As part of that serious debate, will the hon. Gentleman tell us now what the answer is, according to Conservative Members?


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Mr. Waterson: I was happy to give way to a distinguished former Pensions Minister. He is right about the dodging point; I do not know whether he was in the Chamber when I quoted Tony Blair saying that he did not want children brought up in a country where the only way that people could pay for long-term care was by selling their homes. I am sorry, but it was absolutely no good the Secretary of State's saying yesterday that he was kicking off a debate. Where has the right hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks) been? We have certainly been debating the subject for more than 12 years.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): If the hon. Gentleman has been debating the issue, what are his party's proposals? We have not seen them. When will his party tell the British people of its policies, or does it not have any?

Mr. Waterson: I am sorry to disabuse the hon. Lady, but we have to have the small formality of a general election before we can start doing something.

Christopher Fraser: The Secretary of State said yesterday:


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