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Pensioners (Charter)

Volume 164: debated on Monday 8 January 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what recent meetings he has had with pensioners' representatives to discuss the pensioners' charter; and if he will make a statement.


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is his policy towards the pensioners' charter; and if he will make a statement.

While I am not aware of any current request for such a meeting, our policies will continue to reflect our concern with pensioners' needs—as was clearly shown, for example, by the extra help given last October to some 2·5 million of the disabled or older pensioners who are least well off.

Yes, and a lot of those people have written to hon. Members, particularly Opposition Members, to tell them that they did not get a penny piece out of those so-called improvements. Why does not the Secretary of State do something about the pensioners' charter? There is all this waffle and talk about the social charter. Let us give the pensioners a square deal by abolishing standing charges and introducing concessionary fares for all pensioners. Why does the right hon. Gentleman not repay the £12 a week that has been stolen from every single pensioner in the land by this Tory Government in the past 10 years?

Many hon. Members will recognise that what most effectively damages pensioners is a roaring rate of inflation such as we had during the latter part of the 1970s. Opposition Members cannot disguise the extent to which pensioners' average real incomes have risen faster under this Government than under the previous Labour Government, principally because the rate of inflation has been so much lower.

Why does not the Secretary of State understand the bitter resentment felt by so many pensioners at the way in which they are treated? Is it not the case that if pensions had been increased in line with earnings—an arrangement which was discontinued in 1980—married pensioners would be almost £21 a week better off and single pensioners £13 a week better off next April? Why should Britain's pensioners be among the poorest in the Common Market?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's proposition for reasons that relate to the absurd experience of what happened when the previous Labour Government pursued those policies. At the same time, and partly as a result of those policies, they generated a rate of inflation which seriously damaged pensioners and which meant that their incomes rose less fast in real terms than they have under the present Government.

I am glad that my right hon. Friend mentioned that point. Many retired people in my constituency and in the constituencies of my hon. Friends face difficulty, because they thought that they had made provision for their retirement through savings or modest occupational pension schemes. They found that inflation in the 1970s, under a Labour Government who could not even keep the promises that they made to pensioners, destroyed those savings. I hope that my right hon. Friend will continue his efforts to ensure that pensioners, particularly those in need, continue to receive better benefits.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. His point is encapsulated in the fact, which is becoming increasingly well known, that whereas pensioners' income from savings has risen by 64 per cent. under the present Government, it fell by 16 per cent. under the previous Labour Government. Not all pensioners have the advantage of having savings. It is precisely for that reason that last October we directed so much additional help to the older and more disabled pensioners who are least well off.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that when the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) reach retirement age, they will be entitled, like the majority of people who have employment pensions provided for them, to a generous pension? Does he agree that by concentrating some £200 million last October on the poorer pensioners, the Government are tackling the problem the right way rather than trying to give everyone, including the fairly well off, a much smaller amount?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I am grateful for the way in which he put his point.

The Secretary of State mentioned his genuine concern for pensioners. Does he accept that many elderly and handicapped people still face the choice between heating and eating? Would not one way forward be for the Government to provide an allowance for the heating needs of the elderly during the winter months rather than rely on the strange system that we have now, which does not have a good level of uptake?

Perhaps the hon. Lady has forgotten that when the changes were made to the old supplementary benefit system and when the current income support system was introduced, the value of heating additions was much reflected in the premiums paid to precisely those groups of pensioners about which she is rightly concerned. In other words, they are reflected in the regular weekly payment of benefit in the form of premiums for pensioners and disabled people.

Why is it that the 2 million poorest pensioners who depend solely on state benefits have had a zero real increase in their pensions under this Government in the Thatcher decade, while the parliamentary pay of Cabinet Ministers has been increased in real terms by no less than 79 per cent? Why is it that Cabinet Ministers have looked after themselves so handsomely, while reneging on their commitment to enable the poorest of pensioners to keep pace with rising living standards?

I do not accept for a moment the way in which the hon. Gentleman advanced his argument. He knows well that we have adhered faithfully to our commitment to increase the basic retirement pension in line with prices year in, year out, and we shall do it again next April. As I have said at least twice in this exchange, we acted last October to give significant extra help to about 2·5 million of the older and more disabled pensioners who are least well off. That reflects our concern and determination to continue doing whatever we can to help.