Pensioners' Equality

– in the House of Commons at 3:40 pm on 13th July 1993.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North 3:40 pm, 13th July 1993

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to harmonise the retirement age at 60 for both women and men; to provide for the state retirement pension to be linked to average earnings and to be universally available; and for connected purposes. It is my pleasure to seek leave to bring in the Pensioners' Equality Bill, which is a very short and simple Bill. It is very timely because there is a great debate raging about the future of the state old-age pension and, indeed, of the welfare state itself. My concern is that this debate is increasingly being conducted on late night television shows and in the pages of the newspaper broadsheets between experts of varying degree, all of whom fundamentally agree that there should be a reduction in the level of state expenditure on the old-age pension and an increase in private provision.

My Bill moves in exactly the opposite direction. It is not about privatisation or reduction; it is fundamentally about decency in a civilised society. To my mind, that means looking at the very serious degree of poverty in which many elderly people in this country have to live at the present time. There is something deeply humiliating about people who have spent a lifetime at work, in an office, in a factory, on a farm or at home having to wait around in a supermarket to get the cheap bread at five o'clock on a Saturday afternoon, or to queue at the greengrocers for the mouldy vegetables that are sold off at the end of the working day. There is something fundamentally immoral about that.

The Secretary of State for Social Security and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are both dealing with the problem of the £50 billion Government borrowing requirement. That borrowing requirement, I hasten to add, has been brought about by a Conservative Government since 1979. It has been brought about by the deindustrialisation of the economy, by the enormous tax handout of over £20 billion to those earning more than £40,000 a year, and, in my view, also by the horrendous level of arms expenditure, including expenditure on nuclear weapons.

These issues have to be faced, but we are expected, as a country, to face them by cutting the welfare benefits of the poorest in our society. My Bill deals exclusively with the problems of pensioners, but I am sure that other hon. Members will want to bring forward similar Bills in relation to child benefit and other universal benefits.

The Secretary of State for Social Security, in his Mais lecture in the City of London, waxed long and lyrical about the problem of the aging population and the growing burden on those at work of the elderly population. He does not seem to understand that the word "burden" and the way in which he describes the growing problem of the elderly cause fear among many pensioners in this country who are forced to try to live on the state pension, plus housing benefits and any other odd benefits that they may be able to get.

The fact that there is a demographic argument is surely something that we should be pleased about. It shows the success of the welfare state and, in particular, of the national health service in increasing the longevity of so many people.

The Government's policy is a culmination of their 1985 White Paper, introduced by the present chairman of the Conservative party and piloted through the House by the current Prime Minister. The Bill which followed the White Paper reduced the value of the state earnings-related pension scheme and encouraged people to put money into private pension schemes. That has cost the national insurance fund £2 billion. In the Government's view, it has increased flexibility. Above all, however, it has compounded the breaking of the rise in the state old-age pension each year in line with earnings and put in its place a rise that is in line with the retail prices index, which has cost every pensioner at least £19 a week.

Those who believe that the solution to all the so-called problems that we face is to encourage private pension funds ought to look at the investigations carried out by the Select Committee on Social Security and the large-scale fraud that has hit a large number of pension funds. The Maxwell pension fund is the greatest of those frauds, but there are many others. I am concerned about the lack of democracy in running pension funds. I am also concerned about the promotion of private portable pension schemes. There is no democracy whatsoever when it comes to the running of such funds.

What is needed is an understanding that in a civilised society it is the duty of the state to provide a decent standard of living for those who have reached retirement age, which I believe should be reduced to 60. The Government claim that there has been a 34 per cent. rise in the real income levels of those over 65. They have calculated that figure by taking the income of all people over the age of 65, including the super-rich who made huge gains because of the way that the stock market performed, and adding it to occupational pension schemes. Therefore, the Government say that everyone over the age of 65 is better off.

The pensioners I meet at meetings of pensioners' organisations all over this country, as well as in Wales and Scotland, do not share that view. It also masks the fact that women tend not to be members of occupational pension schemes and that older women pensioners are by far the worst off, particularly those over the age of 75 who are living in real poverty.

Hypothermia is a totally preventable and avoidable condition, yet many pensioners die of it each winter. All the codes of practice that have been introduced to protect the elderly from cut-offs have been completely eliminated by the introduction of rechargeable meter keys by the electricity companies. There is now self-disconnection by many elderly people who cannot afford to get the key recharged so that the supply of electricity to their homes can continue.

In addition, cuts in health care and local authority services hit the elderly particularly hard. Two weeks ago there was an enormous rally in Central hall, Westminster, followed by an enormous lobby in this building. More than 5,000 supporters of the National Federation of Retirement Pensions Associations attended Central hall, Westminster, and heard inspirational speeches from Jack Jones and many others. Jack Jones was condemned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer as being politically motivated—I am not quite sure what the Chancellor of the Exchequer is. At that rally there was a demand for decency in retirement. There was also a call for parity with the European average for the state old-age pension and for an end to the indignities that so many people have to suffer in retirement.

It is a condemnation of the television and radio channels and of most newspapers that not one of them saw fit to report anything whatsoever to do with that very important rally and lobby by people who, at great expense, had travelled to London to take part in it.

My proposals would cost a great deal of money. I do not flinch from that. I do not deny it. I am not ashamed to say it. I am also not ashamed to say where I think that money should come from. It should come from restoring the levels of taxation on the very rich which have been done away with by the Government since 1979. It should also come from cutting European Community payments, fraudulently obtained, and from reductions in the enormous level of arms expenditure. My Bill would do a lot to make life a bit more bearable for many people.

Why is that this country and a number of other countries throughout Europe are discussing raising the age at which the state retirement pension should be paid to 67, and in some cases to 70? There is a conspiracy to do that all across Europe. The retired population of Europe and of this country do not want to take part in that conspiracy. We want the retirement age to be harmonised downwards to 60. It is often very unfair that one of a couple living together should have to retire five years earlier than the other. It can be quite a miserable existence for the first waiting for the second—the male partner—to retire at 65. It is only sensible and logical that we should lower the retirement age to 60 and, thereby, bring a great deal of happiness and not a little civilisation to society.

Restoration of the link with earnings, so brutally and crudely broken in 1980, would make every pensioner £19 per week better off. I consider that money to have been stolen from the pensioners.

Finally, I am concerned that, at the moment, the Government are putting forward ideas to target the old-age pension. The word "target" sends a frisson down my spine—a feeling shared by millions of people whose experience of targeting is the indignity of the means test and a reduction in the real standards of living of many poor people. The state pension is a contributory benefit, paid for through taxation and national insurance contributions during a working life, and should be for all time and for ever—and guaranteed so to be—available universally. At the height of the 1970s, when a Labour Government were in office, the state pension was 25 per cent. of average male earnings for a couple. It is now considerably less—just over 15 per cent. That is an indictment of the way in which the Conservative Government have treated the elderly.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

Who will prepare and bring in the Bill?

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North

There were many who wanted to bring in the Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Alan Simpson, Mr. Harry Cohen, Mr. Dennis Skinner, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mr. Ken Livingstone, Mr. Bob Cryer, Ms Mildred Gordon, Mr. Malcolm Chisholm, Mr. Max Madden, Mr. Dennis Canavan and Mr. Bernie Grant.