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Elimination Of Poverty In Retirement

Volume 113: debated on Wednesday 25 March 1987

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3.33 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for old age pensions of a sufficient level to eliminate poverty in retirement; and to ensure that these are regularly increased in line with the average earnings of those in work.
The existing levels of old-age pension of £38.70 for a single person and £61.90 for a couple are a disgrace in a civilised society. Even with the increase in pensions proposed in April, they will still only be £39.50 for a single person and £63.25 for a couple. Those rates compare extremely unfavourably with any western European rates. The French pay £78 a week and Luxembourg pays £69 a week.

I propose this Bill to draw attention to the miserable life of many elderly people and ask the House to understand the increased costs faced by pensioners compared with the rest of the population. For example, every winter this House debates the problems of fuel poverty among elderly people. We wring our hands for a couple of months while the cold weather is here and then forget all about the pensioners. We fail to realise that, because of the low level of the pension and the need for pensioners to keep their homes warmer in winter than the homes of the rest of the population, they spend on average 10 per cent. of their income on heating, compared with rather less than 6 per cent. spent by the rest of the population.

The same applies when purchasing goods, because younger, wealthier people are able to buy in greater bulk than pensioners. Any comparison of the normal retail prices index with the retail prices index for pensioners would show that the so-called drop in the consumer prices index that the Government keep telling us about is irrelevant when talking about small consumers such as old-age pensioners. Pensions should at least have some regard to the retail prices index as it affects pensioners.

My Bill also seeks to draw attention to the problems of bad health that elderly people suffer. We have discussed, particularly during the cold weather spell, the serious problem of deaths from hypothermia. It is not a disease in the sense of cancer, pneumonia, bronchitis or anything like that: it is a disease that is solely the fault of badly designed and badly built houses, too low an old-age pension and too many pensioners living in too much cold throughout the miseries of winter.

There were 166 recorded deaths from hypothermia in the first quarter of 1983 in England and Wales. In 1984, there were 205; in 1985, 363; and in 1986, 355. In the case of Scotland, the figure is proportionately higher, from 116 in the first quarter of 1983 rising to 135 in the first quarter of 1986. That does not include the figure of deaths from hypothermia through the miseries of last winter, when even the increases in heating allowances that the Government promised have been eaten up by standing charges and high fuel bills.

We have observed, when looking at the condition of pensioners, that they often wait a long time for hospital treatment. Because of the lack of sufficient old people's accommodation provided by local government, geriatric patients often spill over to general wards, thus exacerbating the problem of hospital waiting lists. While the Government will tell us that they have a target figure for many services that should be provided for the elderly, in the case of the Health Service or in local government, very infrequently are these targets met.

I have before me an excellent report produced by my union, the National Union of Public Employees, entitled, "Time for Justice". It is a report on care for the elderly and it is produced by people who work day in day out caring for the elderly, and who have analysed the problems of Health Service provision and local government provision. It gives as an example the provision of home helps per thousand of population aged over 65. Of the 108 local authorities, only 18 are above the target figure recommended by the Government. Worst is the council of the Isle of Wight, which provides only 2·67 home helps per thousand of population. The highest, other than the City of London, which is an exception in itself, is Newcastle, with a provision of 16. Most authorities are unable to meet the target, and it is not always the fault of the local autorities either, because central Government rate capping and expenditure policies mean that these services have often been badly cut.

In every area, the provision of services for the elderly is inadequate and insufficient. Demand, as reported in the recent edition of "Social Trends", has increased considerably, for example in the number of people treated by home nurses and chiropody services. In no way does the increase in the services meet the increased needs of the elderly population. My Bill seeks to draw attention to some of these problems.

The first thing we propose is that the pension level should be dramatically increased. In 1980, the Government broke the relationship of the old-age pension to earnings, and that means that pensioners are worse off. A single pensioner is worse off by £7·20 and a married couple by £11·40 a week, compared with when the Government came into office eight years ago. My Bill proposes that in future the level of pensions should be linked, as a minimum, to that of the average industrial earnings. That was the proposal of the National Pensioners Convention which lobbied the House on 5 March. I wonder how many hon. Members, particularly Conservative Members, met people who came on that lobby and said, "What a good idea. How well we understand you and we go along with your proposal." At the same time, they support the Government that have done nothing about that but have increased and exacerbated poverty among the elderly.

If the Bill passes into law, as I hope it will, under the National Pensioners Convention demand, the married couple pension would increase to £86·57 and the single pension to £57 a week. That is still comparable only to the level provided by other western European countries, so is not an awful lot to look at. The Government have recently altered the tax thresholds. If the single person's pension was merely increased to the level of the single person's tax allowance, the single person would be better off by £371 per year. That is an indication of the poverty in which many elderly people live.

The other simple but important proposals in the Bill are that each local authority should be asked to report once a year the condition of the elderly people within its area, the effectiveness of the provisions of its services and how near it is to meeting Government targets. The report should include the provision of home helps, occupational therapists, chiropody services where appropriate for local government, and, above all, the provision of housing accommodation and what research has been done into the design of housing for the elderly.

The Bill also requires local health authorities to do exactly the same. As in the case of local government, health authorities have guidelines on the provision of geriatric beds but very seldom are those guidelines adhered to or the targets met. Again, it is not always the fault of the health authority. If one lives in an area such as mine, where the health authority is having, in real terms, a cut of 15 per cent. in expenditure this decade, it is hardly surprising that the provision of health care for the elderly suffers as a result.

The final proposal is that, instead of wringing their hands and saying that the problem of the elderly is somebody else's problem, the Government should appoint one Minister responsible for co-ordinating all aspects of policy in respect of the care of the elderly, including transport, housing and health. That Minister should present an annual report to the House which would show the deprivation and poverty in which many people in this country are forced to live.

When the Government introduced their so-called social security reforms last year, they announced that in future they would have to encourage private pension arrangements because this country could no longer afford a high level of basic old age pension. It is a scandal that they should say that, and it is nonsense.

What I am arguing in the Bill, and what other hon. Members who support the Bill are arguing, is that the country must afford to look after its elderly in a decent manner. It must afford to ensure that they are properly cared for throughout their retirement and that proper services are provided. It is no good merely encouraging City spivs to make a killing out of private pension plans, while in real terms reducing the level of the old age pension. This Bill provides an opportunity to give some decency in retirement to the elderly people of Britain who are forgotten for most of the year.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Don Dixon, Ms. Jo Richardson, Mr. Harry Cohen, Miss Joan Maynard, Mr. Bob Clay, Mr. Dennis Canavan, Mr. Dennis Skinner, Mr. Tony Banks, Mr. Bill Michie, Mr. Chris Smith and Mr. Tony Benn.

Elimination Of Poverty In Retirement

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn accordingly presented a Bill to provide for old age pensions of a sufficient level to eliminate poverty in retirement; and to ensure that these are regularly increased in line with the average earnings of those in work. And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 1 May and to be printed. [Bill 125.]