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Elderly Persons (Nottingham)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:11 pm on 25th March 1988.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen , Nottingham North 2:11 pm, 25th March 1988

It is a great stroke of fortune for any Back Bench Member to succeed in the ballot for Adjournment debates. I aim to add to that fortune the great privilege of speaking up on behalf of pensioners, and not only those in Nottingham, for much of what I say will, I hope, be relevant to pensioners throughout the country.

A civilised society should ensure that its elderly live an independent and secure life, enjoy the love of the community and receive whatever care they require, as a right rather than a privilege. By that standard, Britain is no longer a civilised society. Under the present Conservative Government, the elderly in Nottingham and throughout the country are not so much a respected and valued part of our community as a persecuted minority.

In a society that exalts greed and admires ruthlessness, the elderly are at best cast aside, and at worst treated as a captive market to be exploited by the new generation of Arthur Daleys created in the competitive climate of Thatcherite Britain. The treatment of our pensioners is a savage indictment of this Government. Let us examine their record on various issues in turn.

In 1980, the Government broke the link between pensions and earnings. If that link were restored today, the pension of a married couple would rise by £14·65 a week, and the single pension by £9·20 a week. Week in, week out, married pensioners are robbed of £14·65 through the callous, repetitive, inescapable mugging of the elderly by a Government who, in last week's Budget, gave their richest friends over £2 billion in tax handouts. In Nottingham, it has been received less as a Budget from Robin Hood than as one typical of King John at his worst.

Whatever else we do by way of concessions and additions whenever there is a change of Government, a decent pension will remain the cornerstone for older people, enabling them to choose for themselves how they wish to meet their needs. It is important to stress that fact, because this year is the 80th anniversary of the old-age pension — not the Lloyd George pension, but the pension created as a result of great pressure from charities, the trade union movement and the Labour movement. That mantle is being carried now by bodies such as Age Concern. I pay tribute to the work of Jack Jones in fighting for pensioners' rights. I hope that we will all be able to contribute to that work.

In my constituency, one third of pensioners live below the official poverty line. People who gave their lives to local pits, local textile, chemical, tobacco and cycle industries in Nottingham have been thrown on a scrap heap and draw a pension equal to only 17 per cent. of gross average earnings. That pension is one of the lowest in Europe. We frequently receive some of the garbage from Europe. It would be fitting if we now adopted a similar pension level to that in France where the level is set at half the average wage.

I also want to consider what the Government intend to do to pensioners on 1 April 1988 when the great counterrevolution of the welfare state takes place. Ten days ago the Government presented the Budget for the rich. On 1 April we will see the budget for the poor. Next week's budget for those on pensions and benefits will hit the elderly in particular. In common with many other hon. Members, I have already had a procession of desperate, anxious pensioners at my surgery, worried sick about their income after 1 April. I want to use two examples from my postbag and my surgery this week.

Mr. T of Strelley in Nottingham has discovered that his industrial disablement pension will henceforth be taken into account when his housing benefit is calculated. Previously it was disregarded. Mr. T worked for most of his life down the pit and he was injured in an accident in a pit in Nottingham. He receives industrial disablement pension which is currently discounted in calculating his £54·14 housing benefit. After I April without any change in Mr. T's means or circumstances he will discover that his housing benefit is reduced to £15·95 a fortnight. In other words, he will lose £38·19 a fortnight or £19 a week without receiving any additional income. He has committed no offence. He has not carried out a robbery or any outrage in society. On the contrary, he has contributed sweat and blood to this country for many years. On 1 April he will be fined £19 every single week that he remains alive.

My other example concerns a married couple, Mr. and Mrs. P who live in Cinderhill in my constituency. Mr. P suffered an industrial accident and completely lost his hearing. As a result, he was awarded the maximum industrial disablement pension of £67·70. Hitherto that was disregarded when calculating housing benefit. After 1 April it will be roped in with any other income that that pensioner couple has. They will totally lose their housing benefit. Every fortnight £32·59 —£16 a week—will be taken from that couple, despite no apparent change in their way of life. They will suffer a week-in, week-out fine of £16 a week for the rest of their lives. Just a few days before this decision, billions upon billions of pounds were given away in tax handouts to those who could well afford to do without that additional income. In addition, those people whom I have mentioned will have to pay, perhaps for the first time, at least 20 per cent. of their rates. They are just two examples of how the changes on 1 April will affect many of my constituents.

Those on housing benefit will have benefit reduced by £1 for every £250 over £3,000 that they have in the bank and no housing benefit will be payable if they have more than £6,000 put aside. We exhort people to make proper provision for their old age, yet those who can afford to put a little money aside will find that they have done so just to save the Government money. The Government through the local authorities, which they are subtly using as agents, will recoup a large amount of that money. One Conservative Member has proposed, as perhaps some sort of tax dodge, that these people should pay in advance for their funerals as a way of getting some of that money out of the bank. That sort of callous, hard-hearted attitude typifies the way in which the elderly are viewed.

Overall, the changes on 1 April will leave the average pensioners, aged 60 to 79, £1 a week worse off. In my constituency, notably in Bilborough, many pensioners are the unsung, unheard of victims of the right-to-buy policy introduced by the Conservative Government. They live in British Iron and Steel Federation houses which were owned by the city council and they are now stuck with those properties, unable to sell them because building societies will not lend money to prospective buyers, but the Government will not declare those properties defective.

Some people cannot get a mortgage to buy these properties and there are no grants available to bring them up to mortgageable standard.

The city council— a Conservative council—will not buy back the properties. On the contrary, it is continuing to sell properties that it well knows people will not be able to sell on. It may sound strange to some hon. Members, but many of these people are first-time buyers at the age of 60, 65 or older. They do not know the way in which the system works. Many are buying a pig in a poke which they are not able to sell. They could be the very people hit by the changes in the social fund on 1 April.

Social fund help for large one-off expenses such as roof repair — some roofs in Bilborough are thought to contain asbestos—will be given in the form of a loan or grant, and pensioners in particular will be worried about their ability to repay the loans. Equally, for people in that position, as a result of the Budget no tax relief will be available for home improvement grants. To add insult to injury, at the end of the equation, the Tory poll tax will mean that even pensioners on the lowest incomes will have to pay at least 20 per cent. of the full poll tax charges instead of getting the current rate rebates.

One of the most obvious, and most easily avoidable tragedies that could beset the elderly is death or discomfort through lack of proper heating. More pensioners die of cold in Britain than in Canada or the Nordic countries where winters are far more severe, yet the insulation programme, which could play such a vital part in easing that problem and saving old people's fuel bills as well as saving their lives, has been cut to one seventh of what it was in 1979, during its first full year after implementation by the Labour Government in 1978.

Standing charges for gas and electricity still bite a disproportionately large chunk out of the fuel bills of the elderly. The most contentious part of the old and the cold story is the confusing severe weather payments which miss many of the most vulnerable people. Last year, only one in 10 pensioners received any payment at all, and I understand that the average payment was just £10. That must be wrong. It must be replaced by a flat-rate winter heating allowance which is paid automatically when it is needed and not long afterwards when old people have decided not to switch on the heating because there are too many forms to fill and too much bureaucracy and they take the risk of dying of hypothermia, or at best suffering terrible unnecessary discomfort in the cold.

Another issue that has been raised with me on a local basis concerns television licences. This morning 1 had the privilege of presenting a petition to the House from Mrs. Hunt and 400 local pensioners who ask that the House consider bringing in concessionary television licences. The Labour party's position is clear and simple. We consider that all pensioners should be given free TV licences. We fought the last general election on that promise and I hope that we shall do so again until we can deliver.

The television is a friend and a comfort and a source of pleasure and entertainment to many elderly people, yet at £62·50 for a colour licence the price is prohibitive to most pensioners. However, when I raised this matter with the Minister of State, Home Office, he said that any scheme of concessionary licences would be expensive in terms of lost revenue. Indeed, it may, but when the Government hand out billions of pounds to their friends and to people who are not in need, surely some concession can be made to help the elderly when they get so much pleasure from such a small amount as would be provided to them through such concessionary licences. However, the Minister of State ruled out any changes.

I ask the Minister to consider the matter again and make representations to his colleagues at least to extend the system of 5p licences which currently applies to sheltered housing for all other pensioners in Britain.

In addition to the difficulties that pensioners experience because of Government policies, the elderly in Nottingham suffer the burden of an extremely dogmatic Tory council which tries to mimic, outdo, and impress its national mistress as if it were some sort of brainless lap dog. The clearest evidence of that ruthless approach has been the selling of the council's purpose-built houses for the elderly and disabled. As more homes are flogged off, there are fewer to go round because the council has stopped building such homes. A lengthening queue of people in pain and need—people who have the medical criteria necessary to be selected automatically for a purpose-built bungalow — cannot obtain such accommodation because the homes have been sold. That Tory local authority should be held in contempt by all right-minded Members on both sides of the House.

In the past week, Nottingham has been selected for the experimental selling-off—