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Pensioner Poverty

Volume 476: debated on Monday 2 June 2008

In 1996-97, 2.9 million pensioners were living in relative poverty, after housing costs. Measures such as pension credit have helped reduce that number by over a million to 1.8 million in 2005-06. I have today placed in the Library a fact sheet containing projections of entitlement to pension credit and other income-related benefits, up to 2050.

The Government have said that a small but important inaccuracy in the 2006-07 data is the reason for the delay in publishing the statistics for the percentage of pensioners who are living in poverty. Will the Minister enlarge upon that small inaccuracy and take the opportunity to refute firmly and absolutely the scurrilous suggestions that the figures could have been delayed because of the local elections, the mayoral elections and the Crewe and Nantwich by-election?

It is a matter for the hon. Gentleman whether he wishes to describe as scurrilous the views of those on his own Front Bench. The DWP statisticians identified an inaccuracy in the statistical framework that led to some of the headline statistics being somewhat inaccurate. That was verified by the independent quality assessment of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and was looked at by Karen Dunnell, the national statistician. The view was taken that the inaccuracy had to be corrected. The new figures will be released on 10 June.

It is always essential constantly and regularly to improve the situation of pensioners, but will my hon. and learned Friend compare the situation now with that before the introduction of the winter fuel payment, which the Conservatives derided, of the free television licences and of pension credit? Will he remember the words of Aneurin Bevan, whose National Health Service Act the Conservatives voted against, “Why look into the crystal when you can read the book”?

My right hon. Friend is entirely right. When we came into office, tens of thousands of pensioners were trying to scrape by on £69 a week. Not only that, the then Government had sought to double the VAT on fuel, which would have hit pensioners even harder. That is the record that we inherited and we have turned it around, taking more than 1 million pensioners out of poverty. The percentage of pensioners in absolute poverty has fallen by three quarters, from 32 per cent. in 1997 to 8 per cent. in 2005-06. I suspect that most people would regard that as a very good record compared with that of the previous Conservative Government.

If the situation is as marvellous as the Minister says, why has the number of pensioners going bankrupt gone up from 900 five years ago to 7,900 this year? Is not one of the reasons why those most in need of help are not getting it through the pension credit—as we warned at the time of its introduction—the fact that it is an over-complex system introduced by a Chancellor who is now the Prime Minister and is still getting it wrong?

Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people in this country, and many in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, are in receipt of pension credit and are very grateful for the fact that rather than having to live on the £69 a week that he voted to support they are now able to get a minimum of £124 to ensure that they are not in dire poverty. We are the Government who have looked after pensioners while the Government supported by the hon. Gentleman not only wanted to double VAT on fuel, but kept large numbers of pensioners in poverty.

The Minister is right to take no lessons on pensioner poverty from the Conservatives but given that fuel prices have a disproportionate impact on pensioners, could he say a little more about weekend newspaper reports that measures are to be brought in to give extra help, through winter fuel payments, to the poorest pensioners?

It is certainly the case that the Government need to take steps to get energy companies to help the vulnerable with rising fuel bills this winter. Energy companies offered to increase funding on their social tariffs to £225 million over three years. We want to move quickly to help people with their fuel bills—that is a priority for us. The Government have made an offer to the fuel companies: to send out a mailshot or voucher for the energy suppliers to all people who are on pension credit, letting them know how they can get on to the lower social tariff and, thus, lower their fuel bills. We also want to ensure that pensioners get access to better insulation grants, and that, in the long-term, they can help to lower their fuel bills by fitting proper insulation. We are offering that facility, but we are also offering fuel companies the option to share our data on who is in deprivation—that would be done through a trusted intermediary, so that those data are secure—and, in that way, fuel companies can ensure that their social tariff is directed to those most in need.

Can the Minister confirm that he has quietly dropped the target originally set by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor for maximising the take-up of pension credit? What estimate has the Minister made of the additional number of pensioners who will be thrown into poverty as a result of that decision? Is it not adding insult to injury for hard-pressed UK pensioners, who live in one of the EU countries where pensioners are most likely to fall into poverty?

As a result of the steps that we have taken, particularly on pension credit, this country’s pensioners are, on balance, less likely to be in poverty either than they were under the hon. Gentleman’s Government or in respect of any other proportion of the population at the moment.

News of the removal of this target bizarrely appeared in today’s The Daily Telegraph, but the measure was announced in 2006 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) and it has been raised several times in Select Committee—this is so old that it is not even old news, as the targets changed some time ago. Four out of five of those entitled to guaranteed credit are now receiving it, and this Government are committed to getting more people on to pension credit. Our new target on pension credit, which has been recently increased, focuses on successful applications, instead of case load.