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Women Pensioners

Volume 492: debated on Monday 11 May 2009

7. What recent assessment he has made of levels of poverty among women pensioners aged over 74; and if he will make a statement. (273489)

Through targeted support, and more than £13 billion-worth of extra funding, the number of pensioners in relative low income has fallen by 900,000 since 1997. Since 1997, the number of female pensioners aged 75 and over in relative low income has fallen by 300,000.

I thank the Minister for that answer. However, she will be aware that there is a great deal of poverty among older pensioners, particularly women. For example, Age Concern and Help the Aged estimate that only 30 per cent. of women retire with a full basic state pension. I am aware of the other things that they can claim for, but the fact that they are a lot older often means that they do not do so, and that they live in poverty, particularly the older they get. Is there anything else that the Government can do to address that particular issue?

We have made changes in reducing the number of qualifying years for women so that they will be able to get easier entitlement to state pension. We are also bringing in carers credits and grandparents credits so that they can claim national insurance credit. As a result of those changes, by 2025 more than 90 per cent. of women reaching state pension age will be entitled to the full basic state pension compared with under half today. At the same time, it is important that we ensure that people take up their full entitlements to things such as pension credit.

I thank my right hon. Friend, on behalf of my 92-year-old mother and all the Yorkshire pensioners, for the advances that have been made since 1997. Unfortunately, we had one of the worst records, but now we have had the greatest decrease in pensioner poverty throughout the whole of the English regions. I thank the Government on behalf of all the pensioners of Yorkshire.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, once again, to say that in 1997 some 32 per cent. of pensioners in Yorkshire and the Humber were living in poverty. The most recent figures show that that has fallen by 14 percentage points, which is the biggest percentage decrease of all the regions. At the same time, I am sure that he will look to the future and endorse what has been said from the Government Front Bench—that the implications of abolishing the national minimum wage would be enormous for future pensioners, who would then be reduced to poverty.

Numerous pensioners aged 74 and over caught up in the Equitable Life disaster would wish to have their pensions at a fair and reasonable level. Since Ann Abraham concluded last week that the scheme that the Government have set up is not what she had in mind, will they now consider fairly compensating those pensioners so that they do not find themselves with low incomes?

As the hon. Lady will know, the Government have responded to this matter. The most recent announcements were made by the Treasury, and she will know about the ex gratia payments with regard to the Equitable Life pensioners.

We have certainly made enormous progress in this Government’s first 11 years, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported last year on the higher inflation rates that affected the poorest pensioners, with a higher average impact than on the rest of the population. As a result, 800 pensioners per day were passing unseen and unheard into the official definition of poverty, making the total number 2.5 million. What does the Minister project will happen in April 2010, when the basic state pension will go up by £2.40 a week but the prices of food and fuel, two of the core items of expenditure for the poorest pensioners, will no doubt be soaring away at a rate much greater than that?

My hon. Friend is quite right to point to the IFS report, which also stated that in the longer term pensioners were no more likely than other sections of the population to be affected by the increases in food and fuel prices. However, those rises are exactly why this year we have increased winter fuel payments, increased the Christmas bonus allowance by £60 and tripled cold weather payments. There were also a number of measures in the Budget—for example, to take pensioners out of paying tax. In the round, we have certainly made an effort to respond to rising food and fuel prices. As some of those prices decrease, pensioners will feel the effect to their benefit.

In the round, as the Minister puts it, Help the Aged states that 4.5 million pensioners who are entitled to means-tested benefit are not getting it, simply because it is so complicated to apply for it. What can the Government do to ensure that people who are not entitled to benefits do not get them, while at the same time ensuring that weak, elderly, vulnerable people who are entitled to such benefits can receive them easily and promptly?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. As I said, we are now spending £13 billion more than we would have been spending had we pursued the policies of the previous Administration, and we are particularly targeting that extra spending on the most vulnerable pensioners. Problems with the take-up of benefits apply often not just to pension credit but to housing and council tax benefits, for which people do not necessarily apply, and that is why we have made a key change so that, from October, by making one telephone call pensioners will be able to get not only their basic state pension credit but council tax and housing benefits. That will make things simpler in exactly the way that the hon. Gentleman outlines.