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Poverty: Pensioners

Volume 708: debated on Monday 7 February 2022

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place in the House of Commons, and I welcome back the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan). It is good to see her back in her place—I am pleased to see that.

The practical truth is that pensioner poverty has reduced under this Government. This Government increased state pension by 2.5% in 2021-22 and will uprate it by 3.1% in 2022-23. We are also spending approximately £5 billion to support 1.4 million pensioners through pension credit.

Pensioners across North Shropshire and the rest of the country are falling into poverty. Last week, a retired couple from Ellesmere, in my constituency, contacted me to tell me that even though they live in a modest bungalow, because of the rising costs of their food and energy bills they have been put in the heartbreaking position of having to choose between heating and eating. That is a choice no one should ever have to make.

Rural communities are being hit hardest by the energy bill price hike, and they have higher numbers of pensioners hit by the suspension of the triple lock. In Shropshire, the Conservative-led council is pushing through the maximum council tax increase this spring. What steps can the Secretary of State or the Minister take to ensure that our retired residents are not put into this dreadful position of choosing between heating and eating?

I refer the hon. Lady to the specific points set out by the Chancellor last week, namely the £144 million-worth of discretionary funding, the non-repayable £150 cash rebate and the £200 smoothing rebate on energy bills for all households. Those are in addition to the ability to claim for pension credit, which is, of course, a passport to many different pension awards in many different situations.

This Government have a very good track record when it comes to protecting pensioners against poverty, not least through the state pension triple lock and the pension credit. However, will the Minister sit down with his colleagues the Employment Ministers and look at participation rates in the workforce among older workers? Some estimates suggest that there are now around 200,000 fewer older workers in the economy than there were pre pandemic. It is important that we bring out all the skills in the economy, not least to fill some of the employment gaps.

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point, as he should do, being a former Secretary of State and very wise on these issues. The Under-Secretary of state, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), has set out the “50 PLUS: Choices” programme and the amazing package of work that is available to people over the age of 50 who wish to return to the workplace. I am certain that if my right hon. Friend was to sit down with her, and other colleagues, there would be much that we can do in this particular space.

Before I start, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very moving, very personal and very brave tribute to our friend Jack Dromey last week. It is hugely appreciated across the House.

I disagree with the Minister: pensioner poverty is increasing. As we have heard, many pensioners are facing an impossible choice between heating and eating. Pension credit and the basic state pension are being cut in real terms today. He mentioned the package the Chancellor announced. A million pensioners are on the council tax benefit reduction. Will those million pensioners who do not pay council tax get the £150 rebate automatically or will they have to apply for it? If they have to apply, will he guarantee that 100% of pensioners will get that money this April?

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. I wanted him to stop there, but I fully understood why he did not. On his specific point, I understand that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is publishing guidance on that today.

Can my hon. Friend the Minister confirm that before this Government came into office in 2009-10, the state pension was £95 a week and that this year it will rise to £185 a week? Does he agree that this explains why there are over 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty than there were a decade ago?

Under the coalition and the Conservative Government there has been a record increase in the state pension. We have never spent as much as we now spend on the state pension—£105 billion. It has almost doubled compared with under the last Labour Government. The practical reality is that there is £129 billion when all the other benefits are added in. As I say, it has never been a larger figure. My hon. Friend is right: there are 200,000 fewer pensioners in poverty than there were previously.

Despite what the Minister said at the Dispatch Box earlier, his Government’s statistics show that even before the effects of the £700 energy cap kick in, pensioner poverty is at a 15-year high, with 2.1 million pensioners classed as living in poverty. The Red Book also shows that the removal of the pension triple lock is going to take £30 billion out of the pockets of pensioners over the lifetime of this Parliament. What impact assessment have the Government undertaken on the removal of the triple lock, and how many more pensioners are going to be plunged into poverty?

The hon. Gentleman will know that there are 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty than in 2009-10. Through the triple lock and the work that the coalition Government did and this Conservative Government have done, we have never paid pensioners more. There are also the three matters set out by the Chancellor previously. I spent some of the weekend reading “Scotland’s Future” and I see that the SNP has now abandoned its previous position on the state pension—a question that SNP Members did not want to raise today, I conclude.

Will the Minister ensure that supporting our pensioners remains a top priority across Government? What is he doing personally to ensure that as many pensioners as possible benefit from the Chancellor’s support package on energy prices?

Yes, of course, is the short answer. We are doing a huge amount, particularly on pension credit, which addresses the situation of low-income pensioners. We are working with the BBC, various energy companies, Age UK and many other organisations to get greater take-up of pension credit. It is a cross-departmental initiative to ensure that there is take-up of the various things that are available, as announced by the Chancellor last week.