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I beg to move,
That this House
believes that this Government has failed to deliver fairness and security for older people;
is concerned that home care services for older people have been cut back and that the Government has presided over the collapse of the care home sector through botched regulations and underfunding;
condemns the Government for putting in place rules that allowed thousands of elderly people to be forced to give up their life savings and homes to fund their continuing healthcare;
believes that the Government has failed to tackle the pensions crisis both for current and future pensioners, putting in place a complex system of means-tests that fails to get help to the poorest pensioners, whilst heaping extra costs on pensioners by relying on the unfair Conservative council tax to fund local services;
is concerned that many pensioners will suffer as a result of the closure of local post offices, a problem made worse by the Government's plans to scrap the pension book and introduce direct payment;
and calls on the Government to stabilise the care home and home care sectors, offer security and real choice to older people, simplify the pension system, boost the basic state pension and abolish the council tax and replace it with a tax related to ability to pay.
Liberal Democrats have called this debate because we believe that the Government have failed to deliver fairness and security for older people in this country. It is convenient that we are debating this subject today, because many hundreds of our constituents from the National Pensioners Convention and many other pensioner organisations up and down the country are coming to this House to lobby Members of Parliament about their concerns. Their message and ours is that older people feel cheated by this Government—cheated out of their life savings to pay for their care, cheated out of a decent pension and cheated out of a reasonable standard of living by an unfair and ever-rising council tax.
A growing concern exists among older people that there is a crisis in our care system. Day after day, more and more care homes are closing their doors, but where are the extra home care services to make up the difference? As care homes close their doors, where are the provision in people's own homes and the staff to enable people to continue to live in their own homes?
Since the peak in 1996, some 74,000 care home places have been lost in this country. In the 15 months to April this year, a further 13,400 places have been lost. The prospects remain bleak. The number of new registrations of care homes is falling even faster than the number of closures is rising.
To underline my hon. Friend's point, is he aware that in Cornwall so many care homes have been closed that people have had to be transferred into our hospitals, taking up beds that are then blocked for those who should be there?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, to which I want to refer in a moment.
As a consequence of that lack of care home capacity in our communities—and the lack of foresight on the part of this Government that has allowed a shortage of supply to arise in more and more places—growing numbers of people are getting stuck in hospitals when they are ready to go to a care home.
In the 15 months to April this year just 96 new homes were registered for care of the elderly in this country. I repeat: 96 in 15 months. Since 1997, the number of people receiving home care has fallen by 110,000: almost a quarter of home care places have been axed in this country since 1997. Social services departments have always been gatekeepers of services, but increasingly the elderly are finding the gateway to those services firmly locked, and opened to them only when they are at death's door or in desperate straits. More and more councils are rationing services. Who picks up the pieces? It is the relatives, the husbands, the wives, the parents, the children—all of them carers. They find themselves asked to carry on that caring role for longer and longer because adequate provision of social care services is not available to support them in that role, and indeed when they can no longer carry on in that role.
At the same time, the Government have driven through half-baked plans to put a price on the head of every elderly person who is stuck in a hospital bed. Of course we want older people to receive the right care in the right place at the right time, but this Government's obsession with targets and fines runs a risk of more and more elderly people getting the wrong care in the wrong place at the wrong time. As the number of people labelled as bed blockers falls—and it is falling—the number of people returning to hospital as emergencies is rising. The Department of Health's own figures show that there has been a 23 per cent. increase in the numbers of elderly people over the age of 75 returning to hospital within less than 28 days of being sent home. That is a startling figure. Indeed, the last available set of figures for the whole of a single year show that 140,000 people over the age of 75 are now being put through the misery of being discharged prematurely only to return to hospital within 28 days of that discharge. That makes no sense at all. The research that has been done on emergency readmissions shows that two in five could have been avoided. The NHS must do more on that, and the Government, by their fixation on delayed discharge, are overlooking that problem and failing to tackle it.
Both the hon. Gentleman and I are parliamentary representatives on the Greater London Forum for the Elderly, as he will be aware. As he also knows, the forum is having a community awareness week in October, in which it hopes to bring out clearly the problem of care homes in London, which is particularly acute. I would be glad if he made note of that.
I certainly do make note of it, and in a minute I shall quote some examples from a report of the National Audit Office that demonstrate clearly that in London and the south-east we have gone beyond meltdown in the care home system. There is an excess of demand over supply when it comes to care home capacity. The NAO report states that
"for London and the south-east as a whole demand exceeds supply. There is a particular shortage of beds affordable to councils."
Increasingly, because the capital is funded to a higher level than elsewhere for social services, it can afford to poach places outside London. Increasingly in Kent and other parts of the home counties, London councils are competing with local councils for care home beds, and they are able to outbid local councils, making life even more difficult for many others outside London.
The problem of demand outstripping supply is not confined to the capital and the south-east. It is becoming a widespread issue. It is not only a matter of a growing shortage of places, for there is also a shortage of staff. Again, the NAO warned the Government earlier this year, when it said:
"Both residential and home care capacity are constrained by shortage of care assistants in the public and private sectors, who carry out many of the more basic but vital tasks. Potential applicants in some parts of the country are currently able to earn higher wages by working, for example, in supermarkets."
The reality is that in too many places care home owners fear the day that a new supermarket opens because they know that it will have an impact upon their ability to continue to provide a quality of care for the residents in their home.
A shortage of places and staff means less choice for older people. It leaves families struggling to find a good care home on their doorstep. For many, the choice is simple: sending granny or granddad miles away or topping up what the council is willing to pay to get into what they hope will be a better home. Not only do the Government expect the elderly to spend their life savings and to sell their homes to pay for care. It seems that they are now content to stand idly by while the children of older people also pay for their parents to be in the right care home. No wonder these people feel that the system is unfair. No wonder so many of them feel insecure.
The hon. Gentleman knows that £4.5 billion of private money is spent on residential care, which is equivalent to 1.4p on income tax. Is his party saying that it would pay that private money? If the hon. Gentleman and his party are not going to fund it, he should shut up and move on to something else.
So the hon. Gentleman is telling me that a debate about the future of older people and their security should not include care homes and should not pinpoint the key reasons why care homes are going out of business. Is that what he is telling us? Many people outside the Chamber would be appalled to hear that that is what the hon. Gentleman is saying.
Is my hon. Friend aware that in my constituency two care homes have closed recently? A constituent told me last week that having moved her grandmother to the Gatehouse care home in Dawlish, only for it to be closed six months ago, she then moved her to the Kiniver care home in Teignmouth last week, only to discover that it is closing. Is it not the cost of the Government policy that elderly people are moved from care home to care home at a time in their life when they are least able to cope?
Sadly, what my hon. Friend has described is all too often now the reality for people in care homes. People can be given notice of no more than four weeks that their care home is about to be closed. The trauma of being evicted from a care home can shorten lives and result in people losing their lives. My hon. Friend is right to highlight that concern. There is a fundamental lack of security of tenure, which means that people can easily be passed from pillar to post in the way that he rightly describes.
I have said that the Government are presiding over a back-door tax on the frail and elderly and their families. As the gap between care home fees and what councils are willing to pay widens, more and more families are forced to choose between eviction or topping up the care home fees. It is no wonder that so many older people feel betrayed by the Government.
As more care homes close and demand outstrips supply, the problem can only grow. The plain and simple fact is that the market for care homes is still in freefall. Fee levels are at the heart of the matter. Councils cannot or will not pay a fair rate for care. Yet fees must rise if care homes closures are to be halted. That is not only my view, and it is not only the view of a number of organisations from Age Concern and Help the Aged to the King's Fund, as well as many others. It is also the finding of the Government's research last year. The research states:
"An increase in care home fees paid by local authorities was the change that might have prevented home closures identified most often by providers."
That was one of the findings of research commissioned by the Government from the Personal Social Services Research Unit. It seems that that finding has not yet landed on Ministers' desks. It certainly has not impacted upon their consciousness to the extent that they have acted to make a real difference.
Have fees risen enough to make a difference? Earlier this year I received a letter from the National Care Homes Association, which said:
"This year . . . Local Authorities have awarded a fee increase of between two and five per cent. These fee increases came into effect in April. At the same time care homes have had to face additional 'on costs' imposed by the Government."
The association goes on to list the 6 per cent. increase in the national minimum wage, the 20 per cent. increase in the fees that care homes must pay to be inspected by the National Care Standards Commission and the 130 per cent. increase in charges for criminal record checks for new employees. None of these increases is wrong in itself, and none of the services is wrong in itself. But for all of them to have been overlooked by the Government in their funding settlements, which means that councils cannot passport the money through to cover the extra costs, means that care homes are increasingly working with a bottom line that does not make any sense to the owners or their bank managers.
This means increasingly—certainly in my constituency—that those running care homes look at property values and judge that they have been in the business long enough and that it is time for them to retire. They close their care homes and realise a profit by selling them for something else. The victims are the people who, as a result, get passed from pillar to post, having been told that they must move from one home to another.
I want to make it clear that, for us, the issue is not about the livelihoods of care home owners; it is all about the lives of care home residents. A care home can close in just four weeks. A resident has no security of tenure. As I have said, it is a traumatic experience to be told that a home that you have lived in, possibly for many years, is suddenly to be denied to you. That experience can be terrible. It can shorten lives, and in some cases it has cost lives.
Most of those deaths—those tragedies—go unnoticed and unreported. However, earlier this year two cases widely highlighted the plight of the frail elderly. These were the tragic deaths of Winnifred Humphrey and Violet Townsend in different parts of the country, Kent and Gloucestershire. Winnifred Humphrey was forced to move home because her council was not willing to pay the home's latest care home fees. She died 16 days after her move. Violet Townsend was forced to move when the home she had lived in for eight years stopped subsidising council-funded places.
The question of charitably run care homes subsidising state-funded placements is a big issue. Two years ago, the charitable sector was having to find more than £184 million a year to plug the gap between what councils were paying and what was necessary to provide a decent quality of care for older people in care homes. As a consequence of being forced to move, Violet Townsend died five days afterwards. I hope that the Minister responsible for these matters at Westminster has had the opportunity to study the report commissioned by Gloucestershire. It was a local inquiry into the events surrounding Violet's tragic death. I shall quote the report's conclusions. It said:
"The funding required to support the provision of residential and nursing care beds has not kept pace with the growth in the market resulting from improved healthcare and subsequent changes in demography including longer life expectancy. National research and local experience shows that funding initiatives tied to current government priorities do little to address the underlying weakness in the funding structure. When seeking to supplement a shortfall in resources for residential and nursing care, the Council is obliged to balance the risk to its other social care responsibilities, notably in services to children.
Market forces including recruitment and retention problems, increased care standards and rising expectations are resulting in a shrinking care home industry. The Council, working in partnership with the care home industry, is seeking to secure future provision by developing a mutually acceptable contract strategy. In the longer term the Council may be priced out of the market unless additional funds are available to pay the level of fees required to attract private capital investment in new build provision that is compliant with the improved care standards."
What will the Government's response be to that report and to many others like it?
I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and accept what he is saying about the tragedy of those two cases. However, care homes close for various reasons—not just because of lack of funds, but often because they do not come up to the new care standards. I would expect the hon. Gentleman from his political perspective to accept that that is quite right. However, what is the solution to the difficulties caused by the closure of care homes that simply do not come up to the standards that we expect in a modern care service?
The hon. Lady makes an entirely fair point. At the moment, care home residents have less security of tenure than a council tenant or a private tenant. We are arguing that they need greater security, and we need a procedure for care home closures—there will be closures, because there are bad care homes that should be closed—that is slow-paced and meets the needs of the individuals. It should not be rushed to meet the needs of the social services budget or care home owners' priorities in selling their care homes. That is what we want, as it is not standard practice everywhere. The findings of the inquiry in Gloucestershire show that there are lessons to be learned from the way in which the tragic circumstances of Violet's death were handled, and changes in procedure will be required in future.
The Government's response to the problem is apparent in their amendment—it is simply to pat themselves on the back and to say what a wonderful job they are doing and that everything in the garden is rosy. Good regulations and higher care standards are something that we all want, but the Government, in fact, have managed to pull off a double whammy of botched regulations and, as a consequence of their botched introduction, poor standards. The care standards that were introduced in April 2002, only to be ditched in July 2002, were for many care home owners the final straw. During the passage of the legislation in 2000, the Government said that better standards would be cost-neutral. Larger rooms, wider doors, lifts and many other physical changes are required to bring homes up to standard so that that they are fit not only for today but for future generations. The Minister has stuck to the line that that need not cost more, which was nonsense in 2000 when the legislation went through the House. When the penny finally dropped with Health Ministers, they ran away from higher standards and the higher costs of meeting them, and waved away the physical standard requirements for the care home sector. The standards for care homes for disabled children and adults are in practice and detail higher than the standards that will apply to the care of the elderly. What happens to an adult in a care home who makes the transition to an older persons' home? Suddenly, they are told that they have to start sharing again because standards do not require the provision of single rooms in a care home for the elderly. Such changes are the result of the Government's ill-thought-out approach. Yet again, elderly people face discrimination solely on the basis of age.
Discrimination does not end there. In February this year, the health service ombudsman published a highly critical report on long-term care. She found that the NHS had adopted unfair, even unlawful, rules for deciding who was entitled to fully funded continuing health care. Despite court judgments and the ombudsman's rulings, the Government have done next to nothing to put that injustice right. They remain in denial about the fact that they have done anything wrong at all. However, the guidance issued by the Department of Health under this Government's watch has served only to obscure the legal position and left the NHS locally to draw up its own rules. Those rules amount to age-based rationing of health care. Once assessed—and thousands never even get that far—people who are turned down are directed to social services and are means-tested. It is a scandal that for so long the sick elderly in need of health care have been forced to sell their homes to pay for services that they thought throughout their working and taxpaying lives they would receive free when they needed them.
We are not talking about personal care or the recommendations of the royal commission on long-term care. We are talking about the law of the land, dating back to the institution of the national health service and the principle that health care is free on the basis of need. For far too many elderly people, that is not the practical everyday reality—they are denied that right and are charged for going into a care home. In too many cases, the rules mean that people only qualify for NHS funding when they are at death's door, yet no law was ever passed to draw the line between what is free and what is paid for. It has been done instead by poorly drafted guidance and neglect. Ever since the ombudsman reported in February, Ministers have stonewalled on the Government's response. I hope that when the Minister stands at the Dispatch Box today, he will offer a sincere apology to the families who have had to battle for so long to get their rights recognised and who had only the ombudsman to rely on to get change and recompense for what they have lost.
The problem is not just unfairness and insecurity in care—the same goes for pensions. The withering away of the basic state pension started under the previous Government, but it has continued under this one. Today's basic pension is a weak foundation on which to build security in old age. Women do particularly badly, and their relative position in the past decade has not improved. The basic pension should be a strong foundation for income in old age. The oldest pensioners, as we know—indeed, even the Chancellor now accepts this—are the poorest pensioners. We believe that they should receive much more as part of their basic state pension.
I shall now come on to the questions asked by Geraint Davies. If the money that the Government are ploughing into mass means tests for the pension credit were spent on a better basic pension, the figure that my hon. Friend Mr. Webb reported to the House a while ago would be of great interest. The over-75s would receive an extra £19 week in their basic pension—no questions asked, no forms to fill out. Even the Government accept that the basic state pension is not enough, which is why they are introducing the state second pension. I had the doubtful pleasure of serving on the Committee that considered the legislation introducing that pension. The trouble with that measure is that, after 40 years of making contributions, someone retiring on a full basic pension and a full second pension will be so poor that they will immediately have to apply for means-tested support.
The basic pension and the state second pension both leave pensioners in poverty, so the Government are introducing the pension credit to fill the gap. However, they have introduced more complication and confusion in the system. Complication and means testing lead to lower take-up. The Government think that 3.8 million pensioner households should be entitled to the pensioner credit, but the reality is that by next year Ministers expect just 2.8 million of them to be receiving it—1 million pensioners will, on the Government's own figures, be living below the Government's pensioner poverty line.
What the hon. Gentleman is saying is at odds with my own experience. Thousands of pensioners in my community are accessing the Pension Service, and I have repeatedly been told that it is as easy as picking up a phone—the work is done for claimants, and they get returns within days. If that is not the hon. Gentleman's experience in his area, may I suggest that he ask some questions, as that service is available in many other parts of the country?
The Minister may be able to deal with that puzzle in a minute, because the Government's own figures are based on the assumption that they will fail to get 1 million pensioners into the pension credit. It is for the Government to explain why there is such a difference between what the hon. Lady has been led to believe is happening on the ground and the Government's expectations. Our experience of the system leads us to believe that it will require regular reviews, which means that in reality it will be complicated.
May I bolster the point that the hon. Gentleman is making by pointing out that as recently as this morning the Secretary of State himself gave evidence to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions? He accepted my figure when I suggested that 1 million pensioners entitled to the pension credit would not be claiming it, and he expressed a blithe confidence that, despite all the problems with tax credits and the Child Support Agency computer problems, things would be done seamlessly and efficiently when the day dawned in October.
The hon. Gentleman has made a useful point in demonstrating the Minister's acceptance of the figure that I have given. I hope that when Ministers respond to our debate they will do more to allay the concern of many Members about the way in which the pension credit system will operate.
Is the hon. Gentleman arguing that, by next year, 2.8 million pensioner households will be better off as a result of the introduction of the state pension credit—a measure introduced by the Government which his party opposed? Is that what he is saying?
What I am saying is that I am more ambitious than this Government. I do not believe that 1 million households should be left in poverty, but the Government seem to be complacent about that and prepared to accept it. They are complacent about the situation even in 2006, as they expect 800,000 of our pensioner households to continue to live in pensioner poverty.
I have been generous in giving way and I have given way to the hon. Lady, so I wish to make some progress.
That poverty is made worse by huge council tax increases. The most recent Government figures show that the poorest 20 per cent. of pensioners pay almost four times as much of their income, even after benefits, on council tax as the top 20 per cent. Council tax has a disproportionate impact on the poorest.
I support what my hon. Friend is saying about council tax. In May, I presented a petition on behalf of 5,000 residents in Weston-super-Mare who were concerned about the existing rates. We are now talking about next year, when there will be a further whammy. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that people are very concerned about fairness and ability to pay?
My hon. Friend is right to underscore something that many outside the House feel—council tax has now become the unfairest tax in Britain. It really does hit hardest the poorest and most vulnerable. That is why during the Budget process in this place, we argued that there should be a £100 across-the-board cut in this year's council tax as a way of beginning to alleviate and ameliorate the impact of council tax rises. It is also why the Liberal Democrats still believe that what we need is a fair income tax-based solution to raising local taxes. The Government say in their amendment simply that they are reviewing council tax. Six years after coming into office, they are still reviewing. While they do so, pensioners are getting poorer.
Our motion also addresses the concern felt by many pensioners about the loss of their pension books and the introduction of what the Government confusingly call direct payments. We now have direct payments in the Department of Health and the Department for Work and Pensions. They are totally different and confusing on the ground. Payments into banks, building societies and post office card accounts may make sense for some people, but the option of keeping the pension book should not be discarded so casually. The Government are introducing the post office card account, but it is difficult to apply for. People have to go through six separate stages to make an application, and the account is difficult to use in practice. For example, my hon. Friend Dr. Cable found back in July that only one in 10 post office card account applications had been processed. Let us hope that the Government have been able to speed that up.
Even now, it is not clear what happens to pensioners who have an account who fall ill suddenly and have not made any prior arrangements allowing someone else to use their personal identification number. Indeed, if someone else uses their PIN, they will lose their eligibility for a card account.
I am afraid that I shall not give way at this point.
The same point applies to those who are relying on a number of different carers. We are still waiting for the Government to spell out the details of their exception scheme. If pensioners feel that the pension book suits their needs, they should be allowed to keep it.
We initiated this debate because those are the issues and concerns that are on our constituents' minds. They are on the minds of those who are lobbying Members of this House today. On the ground, people are seeing care homes closing, and confronting the difficulties of finding a good care home for their loved ones. People are forking out a fortune to pay for what they believed was free health care and struggling to make ends meet while coping with a meagre pension and huge council tax rises. This Government have had six years to start to deal with those issues. As a result of their failure, thousands—indeed, millions—of pensioners in this country still feel insecure and feel that this Government are not giving them a fair deal.
I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
"welcomes that from 2004–05 Government will be spending £9.2 billion extra per year in real terms on pensioners compared with the 1997 system;
notes this is £5.7 billion more than if the basic state pension had been linked to earnings;
recognises that the poorest third of pensioners will be £1,600 a year better off in real terms compared with the 1997 system;
applauds Government action for older people on health and social care, fuel poverty, transport and lifelong learning;
approves of action to stabilise the care home sector by increasing resources available to councils to increase care home fees where required;
supports the Government's commitment to increase resources available for social services by on average six per cent. a year in real terms over the next three years, the expansion of intensive home care support, and the largest ever sustained increase in funding for the NHS;
welcomes the real terms increase of 25 per cent. in grant to local authorities since 1997, and the review of the balance of funding between central and local government;
further welcomes the successful introduction of universal banking services, giving Post Office access through a number of current accounts, basic bank accounts and the Post Office card account;
congratulates Government on its intention to bring in Pension Credit from October;
notes eligible households stand to gain on average £400 a year;
and applauds the actions of the Government which result in over 1 million people being ready to receive Pension Credit who will gain more money than they had before."
We very much welcome this debate on fairness and security in old age. Clearly, the ageing of the population is one of the major challenges for societies such as ours. Indeed, it is the major factor behind what I might term the rise of demographic politics, although low birth rates across Europe and much of the western world are another major factor behind demographic politics. We face serious challenges and there are some serious questions to be asked and answered.
Mr. Burstow raised many such questions, and many of them have huge resource implications. In debating these matters, however, we must avoid two dangers. The first is an excessive negativism and pessimism about the ageing of our population. Let me turn to the words of a former tutor of mine, Professor Richard Titmuss of the London School of Economics:
"Viewed historically, it is difficult to understand why the gradual emergence in Britain of a more balanced age structure should be regarded as a 'problem of ageing'".
I think that that is a text for our times, although the book was published in 1963. Let us avoid pessimism about ageing. The second danger is any temptation to suggest that there is some conflict between different generations or that they are in a battle for resources. Incidentally, I am not accusing the hon. Gentleman of falling into either of those traps, but trying to make two broad points.
In looking at the demography of ageing, we need to address two trends. First, there are many ways in which we can paint a statistical picture of the general ageing of our population. Back in 1901, a few years before Lloyd George introduced the old-age pension at the generous rate of five shillings, the 65-plus population represented some 5 per cent. of the overall population. Those aged 65 and over now represent approximately 16 per cent. By the middle of this century, 2051, that level will rise to 24 per cent. However, there is another trend that we need to understand—the ageing of the elderly population itself and the rise in the number of people in their 70s and 80s. Back in 1901, only 61,000 people were over 85, but the figure is now 1.1 million and it will be 3 million by 2051. The ageing of the population has major implications for pensions issues and the ageing of the elderly population has particular implications for the social and health care issues that the hon. Gentleman raised.
To give another bit of broad context, we also need to recognise the life cycle of the typical 21st century Briton. The Briton of the 21st century may well spend 20 or even 25 years in education and training, preparing for economic activity. That hugely contrasts with the situation of their grandparents and great grandparents, who would have left school at 14. Of course, although when people retire—we all hope that they will be able to retire later if they wish to do so—they may currently face retirements lasting 20 years, as the century progresses, they may last 25, 30 or more years.
I mention those facts because, in terms of such demography, we need to ask serious questions, as we are doing, about how we will afford education for a long period at the start of people's lives and decent retirements at the end. Although we often have separate debates about those issues, they are linked in terms of resources and life cycles.
We should also avoid generalisations about "the old". We all fall into that trap, and I shall probably do so today. However, when we consider groups of elderly people—some now talk about ageing starting at 50, which I can hardly believe—we are clearly talking, in the light of the fact that some people are now surviving as centenarians, about different cohorts of people with different needs, and about different financial and social circumstances. Such cohorts have different interests and may not agree with each other about the allocation of resources, and we should recognise that.
While much of our debate is perfectly properly about the rights of elderly people to decent health and social care, and decent retirement pensions, let us also remember and pay tribute to the fact that this generation takes very seriously not only its rights, but its duties and responsibilities. It takes its responsibilities seriously in terms of volunteering. Many of our volunteer army are the younger old, who are often looking after the older old. Many are carers of spouses with dementia or children with serious conditions. We need to recognise the responsibilities taken on by the old, as well as their rights, and obviously we need to combat age discrimination.
The Liberal Democrat spokesman highlighted one or two cases in which older people had had their human rights breached, which often takes place in a care setting. Does the Minister agree that sometimes older people find it difficult to defend and promote their rights? Is it not about time that they had a human rights commissioner who could work on such breaches, as I suggested to his ministerial colleague a week or two ago?
In terms of the broad agenda, I shall focus mainly on incomes and pensions, while the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend Dr. Ladyman, will address other issues. We are all sensitive to the fact that when people who may be in their final years of life need to move to various kinds of institutions to be cared for, often by strangers, potential breaches of human rights come very much to the fore. I am sure that that unites all hon. Members, whatever our policy positions. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is very mindful of the issue.
Given that higher take-up of pensioners' benefits demands greater simplicity in the system, does it in any way trouble the Minister that, as was said of the Schleswig-Holstein question, only three people have ever understood the complexities of Government pension policy, one of whom is dead, while the second is mad and the third has forgotten the answer?
I think that I personally knew all three. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's point. I shall talk about pension credit, which he may have in mind, in a few moments.
One of the issues involved in rights is that of outlawing age discrimination. It is extraordinary that at the very time that, demographically speaking, more of our citizens are elders, there remains absurd discrimination against older workers that bars people from the work force. We have several programmes to deal with that, and we are going to outlaw age discrimination. That will come into force in October 2006.
Will the Minister take the opportunity to confirm on the record that when he says that the Government are committed to dealing with age discrimination, he means that they are focused only on the workplace and will not tackle—in other words, they will tolerate—discrimination against older people in welfare and health services and in many other aspects of their lives?
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not pay tribute to the fact that we are the first Government to outlaw age discrimination. In a range of arenas in the private, voluntary and public sectors, we need to be on guard against such discrimination—not least in the national health service, where we have taken major steps in that respect.
Our strategy for older people involves a number of strands, but I would emphasise the need for all pensioners to have a decent and secure income in retirement, opportunities to remain active in later life—there is a role for employment, of course, but also for education, lifelong learning and community activity—and a better and more co-ordinated health and care system to promote the independence of old people. It is also important at central level—even more so at local level—that we involve older people themselves in running and consulting on such services.
I turn to incomes and pensions. That is my brief, and it is extremely significant to the debate. We are tackling pensioner poverty and will continue to do so. Our approach strikes a balance between providing a solid foundation of support for all, looking after the needs of all older people through pensions while targeting support at those who need it most. We make no apology for targeting the poorest pensioners. Income support through the minimum income guarantee introduced improvements, which have increased in line with earnings since 1999. Current rates are £102.10 for single pensioners and £155.80 for couples. The winter fuel payment benefits all older people, providing an additional £200 a year for around 11 million pensioners. From this winter, there will be an extra £100 for households containing someone aged 80 or over, benefiting an estimated 1.9 million people. In addition, free TV licences are available for all those aged 75 or over, without any income test.
In 2003–04, the Government will spend around £8 billion extra a year on pensioners as a result of policies introduced since 1997. Although much of that benefits all pensioners, as I have been at pains to emphasise, it includes £3.75 billion more on the poorest third of pensioners. It is a matter for debate in this House as to whether Opposition parties agree with our determination to target extra resources on the poorest, but we think that that is right in terms of social justice. That figure amounts to almost six times more than would have been provided by an earnings link to the basic state pension since 1998. Those who argue simply for the re-indexing of the pension with earnings must recognise that that would deny extra help to the poorest. As a result of our measures, the poorest third of our elders will be approximately £1,600 a year better off.
Rightly, it has been noted that many of the poorest among our elderly population are women. There are two reasons for that—women's increasing life expectancy and, more importantly, the fact that their work patterns mean that they are less likely than men to have occupational pensions and their savings may have diminished. About two thirds of pension credit beneficiaries will be women. We need to highlight that in our campaigns on take-up.
Can the Minister confirm that his statistics on the average gain for poorer pensioners are based on his Department's simulation models, which assume, incorrectly, that every pensioner takes up all his or her entitlement?
We have estimated figures on the numbers of people who are entitled to pension credit in Scotland, as well as in the regions of England and Wales. I am coming to the issue of take-up. I hope that even those who oppose the introduction of pension credit will help us in the campaign, and that all people who are entitled to the benefit will claim it.
Pension credit will be introduced from October this year. For the first time in the history of the welfare state, the Government will ensure that it pays to have saved above the foundation of the basic state pension. Pension credit will reward people aged 65 and over for some of the savings and incomes that they have built up for their retirement. In the past, those who managed to save a little were left no better off than those who had not saved at all. People with capital of £12,000 or more could get no help at all, however low their income. That is the historical situation; no doubt the Conservative spokesman will seek to defend it.
Pension credit is less complex, less intrusive and less bureaucratic, and will give people more. Around half of all pensioner households will be eligible and stand to gain, on average, some £400 a year. The application process has been designed to be straightforward. It involves a simple telephone call on a free phone number. People are sent a form to check, sign and return to the Pension Service. I say to old people who, despite our best efforts to design a simple form, understandably find form-filling difficult, as many of us do, "Throw it in the bin and make the telephone call. In a 20-minute call, one of our trained staff will fill in the form for you. You simply have to verify it."
From the age of 65, most pensioners will have their entitlement fixed for five years, during which they need to report only major life events. We are thus doing away with the weekly means test. We need to communicate to elderly people that the pension credit does not mean an old-style means test. Since April, we have issued mail shots to approximately 1.3 million pensioner households and we shall write to remaining households in the next nine months. I hope that hon. Members understand that that is a colossal exercise and it would be wrong to try to write to all pensioners in the same week or even the same month; we do not want to gum up the administrative works. We are therefore undertaking the work gradually and sensibly for public administration.
People who apply at any time up to October next year will have their credit backdated to this year so that no one will lose out. Of those who have already been through the process—mainly people on the existing minimum income guarantee who have been transferred to pension credit, but also others—we estimate that, even at this early stage, more than 1 million will get more money than they received previously.
No, I do not. The hon. Gentleman does not appear to understand that the fact that people do not have to fill in the form and that one of our experts can fill it in during a 20-minute phone call—people have only to verify the details—is a major step from old-style means-testing.
I welcome the Liberal Democrats' choice of pension credit for the debate because they have an interesting track record that should be understood. They opposed its introduction. When Mr. Webb was not examining statistical methodologies, he stated on
"The savings credit neither rewards those who save today nor encourages people to save for tomorrow, and I urge the House to reject it outright."—[Hansard, 25 March 2002; Vol. 382, c. 629.]
The hon. Gentleman clearly stands by his comments, since he judges them to be perceptive. I am glad that someone does.
If we follow the hon. Gentleman's advice and spend all our pension credit money on increasing the basic state pension, we could increase the maximum rate from £77.45 to approximately £90. However, that would mean losses of around £30 a week for households that receive pension credit. The Liberal Democrats need to explain that to older and poorer people: if the Government foolishly followed their advice, the poorest would be denied £30 or more a week.
Although I do not agree with the Liberal Democrats' approach, I at least respect it and understand their position. However, it is curious to compare their opposition to pension credit with their comments in the Brent, East by-election campaign. I have a piece of paper which is so interesting that I shall subscribe to future editions. It is called "Focus on Pensions" and discusses pension credit. Since we are considering "honourable gentlemen" in the House and outside, I assumed that the headline might read "Scrap Pension Credit" or possibly "Take Away £30 from the Poorest Pensioners". However, it is: "Are You Missing Out?" The article states that "local Lib Dem"—they call themselves Lib Dems—campaigner Sarah Teather
"has launched a major campaign to urge all local pensioners to apply for the new Pension Credit".
"I want to make sure that all pensioners in our area who are entitled to the new Pension Credit actually claim it."
Once again, we understand that being a Liberal Democrat means never having to be consistent. What hypocrisy! I hope that the hon. Member for Northavon or his colleagues will say whether they are for or against the pension credit, and whether they would back or scrap it. Answer came there none. Liberal Democrat Members opposed the pension credit in Parliament, campaigned for its success at the hustings and soon they will doubtless claim that they thought of it.
The Minister has been generous in giving way. I promise not to try to intervene on his speech again, unless provoked.
The virus is spreading, because in my constituency the Liberals are writing to pensioners extolling the virtues of the pension credit and demanding to know whether they will take it up. I am pleased that there is no by-election in my constituency, but I gather that in Brent, East the "local Lib Dem campaigner"—how that phrase rolls off the printing presses—lives in Islington.
The hon. Gentleman is looking very well, doubtless with the benefit of a summer holiday, and I am sure that a by-election will be much delayed.
A major part of the discussion must focus on not only today's but tomorrow's pensioners. The Green Paper and our response to it are crucial to the pensions agenda.
Unlike the Liberal Democrats, I strongly support the pension credit. I am pleased that such a policy has emerged from the demand in constituencies such as mine that were let down because small occupational pensions or savings were not properly taken into account. My supporters will deliver 35,000 leaflets to urge my constituents to apply for the pension credit.
However, having stressed the good points, I wish to raise a technical matter. When I was first elected to Parliament and means-tested benefits were examined, I was upset by the assumption that every £250 in savings resulted in an income of £1 a week. That has been changed and savings of £500 result in a notional income of £1 under the proposed pension credit. I believe that the figure remains excessive—
That was an important and complex question. I welcome my hon. Friend's support for the pension credit. The Liberals are in some difficulties if they are honest on the pavement—a rare sight—and say that they are urging people to claim a credit that they would abolish if they came to power. However, that is a conundrum for them. The first £6,000 of savings are not taken into account. We estimate that 85 per cent. of those eligible for the pension credit will not have to bother us with details about savings. As he acknowledges, the withdrawal rate is more generous than it was in the past. We suspect that approximately half of all pensioners will qualify for pension credit, so there must be a cut-off point.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam made some rather negative remarks about payment modernisation and direct payments. There are important reasons why the changes are happening. Order books and girocheques are vulnerable to fraud and theft; about £80 million is lost in the postal system and elsewhere every year. Sadly, on average, about 100 pensioners a week have their order book stolen, and some are mugged and seriously assaulted on their way to the post office.
It is vital that we recognise the importance of the post office network. The Government are putting a great deal of resource into the network: some £2 billion over the next five years, including £450 million earmarked to support the rural post office network. It is not for our Department, or, indeed, the Government, to ensure the future of every post office, but ensuring that the Post Office becomes a modern banking service offering Post Office card accounts and facilities that allow people to draw out their cash using other bank and building society accounts—as I do at our local post office here in the House, using my own bank account—will stop people walking away from the postal service. If we look at the statistics for before the change was introduced, we see that almost six out of 10 people in the newer group of pensioners—those who have retired in the last year or two—had their pension paid into a bank or building society account. That is why we had to transform the system.
To hear the Liberal Democrats whinge and moan about this issue, one might assume that applying for a Post Office card account was so difficult that only a few dozen people were doing it. In fact, I am advised that 1 million people have applied for one, and our working assumption is that some 3 million people will have them, although there may be more. It is up to the elderly person herself, not the Government, Ministers or the Post Office, to choose. I am sure that the new system will be a success. We are talking to the representative groups and listening to the issues as they arise. For those who find it impossible to access their money through a Post Office card account, or a bank or building society account, there will be a cheque-based exceptions service. We are working on its details, but I would like to assure the House that it will be there.
The Government's amendment to our motion refers to
"giving Post Office access through a number of current accounts".
May I draw the Minister's attention to the situation in Scotland, where the current accounts of the three main Scottish banks cannot be accessed at the post office? What are the Government doing to reach an agreement with the Scottish banks so that Scottish pensioners may have the same rights of access to their bank accounts at the post office as other pensioners?
I recognise that issue, and discussions with banks are proceeding.
Given that I am the Minister for Pensions, I have understandably focused on pensions issues, but it is important for us to recognise, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam did, that there is a wider agenda. A specific issue that is close to my heart is the need to attack fuel poverty. As a young researcher, I worked on the appalling problem of hypothermia, which became known as the "old and cold" problem. It is a scandal that people die in the winter simply because they are too cold to live.
I am proud of the way in which we are tackling the problem. There is still some way to go, but the UK fuel poverty strategy, published in November 2001, was the first of its kind in the world. It set out a coherent programme to end the blight of fuel poverty for vulnerable households by 2010. What have we done so far? In England, the home energy efficiency scheme—now marketed as warm front—has assisted more than 600,000 households, and more than 30,000 new gas central heating systems have been installed. Grants have been increased to £2,500 for the over-60s. I am sure that all hon. Members who have visited elderly people benefiting from the scheme and seen the joy on their faces as they realised that they could now live in a warm home will back the project. The scandal of fuel poverty must be eradicated; it is a 19th century problem that should not have lingered on into the 21st century.
In terms of a healthier old age—which will be dealt with by the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet—the extra resources that we are putting into the national health service are absolutely vital, as are the extra resources that we are putting into social services. My hon. Friend will also deal with some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam in that regard.
We have set out programmes to improve the health and well-being of older people in the national service framework, which was published in March 2001. The framework delivers the commitments to older people made in the NHS plan. It tackles the differing levels of access to services and is rooting out age discrimination in the national health service. The framework will raise the quality and standards of health and social care for older people.
I wonder whether the Minister feels any frustration towards the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, in so far as the pensioners who are here protesting and lobbying today are concerned about the rise in council tax, which is a consequence of decisions made by the ODPM. The increase in Devon was 28 per cent. this year, and is likely to be 11 per cent. next year. Does that not undermine what the Minister is trying to do? Is it not time for him to say to the Deputy Prime Minister that one of the best ways to help pensioners is to axe the tax?
It is, rightly, not the job of central Government to set the level of local council taxes. We all want to see more localism. It is, however, the task of central Government to fund local government adequately. In real terms, we have put in an extra £9 billion since 1997, and this year's expenditure settlement was above the level of inflation. These are issues that citizens have to talk to their local councillors about. That is why we have local government. Our job is to fund local government as best we can—I believe that we are doing that—and, in terms of old people's incomes, to pursue the programmes that I outlined earlier.
When I ask the many elderly people I know about the issues that count, they talk about safety, antisocial behaviour and the fear of crime. I talked to many people in my constituency over the summer about what was on their mind. It is always salutary to talk to people in the real world, as opposed to the world that some of us inhabit for too many months of the year here in Westminster. The issues out there are not always the same as those we discuss here; indeed, they are often very different. I have been struck by people's concern about crime and antisocial behaviour. We know that, among old people, the fear of crime is a major issue.
We are doing many things to address the problem. Eighty-five neighbourhood warden schemes have been developed or extended, working in communities to tackle the fear of crime. There are more police officers across the country. Schemes such as "locks for pensioners" have provided security upgrades for pensioners on low incomes who live in areas where the burglary rate is above average. We are investing £170 million in 683 closed-circuit television schemes across England and Wales to make our towns safer. These things are important. Transport is important, too. Access to public transport is absolutely vital, as are the half-fare discounts that we have introduced since June 2001, which have helped some 7 million older and disabled people in England.
In regard to adopting a positive approach to ageing, I would place an emphasis on education and lifelong learning opportunities. I once had the honour of being the Minister for Lifelong Learning, and I always recognised, as many elderly people do, that retirement is the new learning zone. Education is not just about younger people.
The hon. Gentleman has a lot of learning to do, if I may say so. A good way to do that is to listen.
To illustrate the point that education is not just for the young, we once held a competition to find England's oldest learner. We found Mr. Fred Moore, who was then aged 107. Those of us who have been to online computer centres, to Learn Direct and to adult education institutions often find that the people sitting in front of the computers are our senior citizens. Why are they doing it? They are doing it to help them run their businesses, to pursue their hobbies as secretaries of various associations or community bodies, or simply to find out how to get into e-mail contact with their grandchildren or great-grandchildren who might live in the Antipodes or in Canada.
Education is vital if we are to take a positive approach to ageing, and an important component is to recognise that all age groups contain people who do not have basic literacy and numeracy skills. One of my happiest moments as a Minister was visiting an elderly lady of about 73, who, through community opportunities, had learned to read and write for the first time. She had become literate—an opportunity denied her at school and in her working life. Her delight that she could write—she was writing essays and so on—was a wonder to behold. Retirement as the new learning zone is an important theme.
This is a formidable agenda. Ageing is not a crisis facing societies, but it is a challenge and the Government are facing up to it.
I shall address my remarks to post office closures, as they are particularly apposite to what the Minister said about not being pessimistic about ageing. I intend to show that I am not pessimistic about ageing. I want older people to be able to exert their independence for as long as possible.
So far, three post office closures have affected my constituency: two in the constituency itself, in Fir road in Bramhall and in Grove lane in Cheadle Hulme, and one just outside the constituency in Grosvenor road in Cheadle. We have just passed the so-called consultation period for the closure of Cheadle road post office. My colleagues, local councillors and I invited local people to tell us about their circumstances and to say how the closures would affect them. There was only a short month in which to conduct the investigation, but we did so. Some of the messages we received were poignant. As we suspected, we found that we were dealing with real people living in real, linked, identifiable communities, based around local shopping parades at the heart of which is often the post office—not urban sprawl, as the Post Office terms it.
In other cases of possible closure, I have had occasion to speak with representatives of the Post Office about their so-called visits to the areas involved to get to know their characteristics. On close questioning and as a result of frequent letter writing, I found that their visits to local areas are based on geographic information systems. Those visits were conducted via computers; they were two-dimensional visits looking at streets and roads, with communities marked as grey shading around roads. Those representatives did not actually visit the area. That is not good enough; it certainly does not allow them to know what truly forms a community.
The present public consultation is a sham, as the postmaster has already made it clear that he has decided to close one post office, and in the other cases we have heard that he intends to do so. We are not quite holding our breath but we are waiting to see whether we will receive the same standard letter about the closure of Cheadle road post office as was sent about all the other closures.
We have received more than 100 individual replies about the matter, and many more have written to the Post Office team, and Stockport metropolitan borough council has also responded. The key point people made was that the distances quoted by the Post Office when they engage in consultation are as the crow flies, post office to post office; they do not take into account the additional distances that people often have to travel. The distance to alternative offices from more distant areas of my constituency, such as the lower parts of Buckingham road in Cheadle Hulme, Grange avenue and Warwick close, are much greater than the 0.7 miles quoted by the Post Office in the consultation.
The distances quoted do not take into account the particular circumstances when the alternatives are examined. The alternative Mellor road post office in Cheadle Hulme may be accessible once people get there, but people in wheelchairs and elderly, infirm people cannot cope with the steep climb up the road to get to it in the first place. It is therefore impractical, and there are no alternatives to get to that post office by bus.
Older and younger people recognised the valuable contribution that sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses make to the community, and the impossible position that the Government and the Post Office have created for them. My constituents, like everyone else, use the post office for drawing their pensions, withdrawing money, buying stamps, paying bills by giro and using their council swipe cards, which the council introduced to make it easier for people to pay their council bills, and for posting parcels.
Elderly people told us what a difference it will make to their lives if they cannot access the post office. For example, Mrs. Menges of 2 Rosthernmere road can walk to the post office now; she would have to drive to Turves road and Mellor road post offices, where the parking is inadequate; Mrs. Wright, who also lives in Rosthernmere road, has a walking disability, so although she walks to the Cheadle road post office she could not walk to the others; Mr. Ford, of 35 Farley court is an 80-year-old who can walk to Cheadle road post office but would not be able to get to the alternatives; Mrs. H. Scott, aged 92, and Mrs. M. Jones, who is 89, both walk to Cheadle road post office in spite of disabilities, but they cannot be expected to get on the bus to go to the other post offices.
Dr. Al-Hassani can walk to Cheadle road post office in spite of having a disability but he, too, could not walk to the alternatives; Miss Holloway, who is 86, finds it hard to walk even to Cheadle road post office and certainly could not do so to the alternatives. Mrs. McDonagh of 105 Buckingham road suffers from chronic asthma, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis and is being treated for breast cancer. She could not reach the alternatives except by taxi, which she cannot afford. Mrs. Wellings is 86 years old and suffers from Parkinson's disease. Mr. Bean of flat 10, Regency Court is a younger person who is wheelchair bound and is looked after by his parents, who are in their 80s. They could not wheel him to alternative post offices, nor cope with getting him in and out of a car.
I could go on. Mr. Masters who, in spite of being 91 and blind still manages to get to the post office—
Before the hon. Lady moves on, I hope she will recognise that decisions on consultation on post office closures or changes are matters for the Post Office. Does she accept that the Government share her understanding of the importance of local post offices to local communities, and especially to older people? Will she also accept, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions said, that that is why we are putting £2 billion into the Post Office network, including £450 million for rural post offices, and why we welcome Post Office discussions with the banking sector to ensure that we can underpin the viability of the post office network by allowing it to offer banking services?
I am extremely grateful for the Minister's intervention, because I hope that such thinking will go into the decision on Cheadle road post office. If it does, that post office will undoubtedly be saved or some alternative arrangements will be made. Unfortunately, that has not been the pattern so far in my constituency, and we await the results of the so-called consultation any day now, which we are concerned will affect real people in real communities. The fact that they do not live in a rural area but, according to the Post Office, in a so-called urban sprawl, means that they do not get as much consideration as people who live in rural areas.
We should maintain old people's independence, and ensure that they do not lose their links with the community. I tried the House's patience by reading out all those names, but there are dozens more people in the same position. If this post office closes—and I have no reason to suppose that it will be treated differently from the others—the cost of social services and health care will rise as all those people become isolated and dependent on others. I am delighted that they want to remain independent in their 80s and 90s. I glory in their desire to do so. The post office makes that possible, and motivates them to go out and collect their pensions by whatever means they choose. There is no local bank, and if the post office is taken away many of them will be unable to make the journey on their own. Along with local shops, the post office is central to their independence.
If the closure is really necessary, what will be done to promote and maintain that independence? It is not sufficient to say that more will be spent on social care and health, for these are people who want to live without those services. Could not post offices, with the Government's encouragement, form an association with supermarkets? Could there not be mobile post offices? They would be a valuable accessory to the mobile library in Stockport, which has made a real difference, although Stockport is an urban area surrounded by suburbs.
It is simply not right to say that the council tax is applied fairly. In my constituency, which is considered to be affluent, its application takes no account of the fact that 51 per cent. of people in the borough are receiving either pensions or benefits.
What concerns pensioners particularly is that while the state pension is the same throughout the country, council tax levels differ from mile to mile, and do not reflect the level of services. Some people pay less council tax than my constituents although they have free transport. Is there not a case for equal treatment?
My hon. Friend makes my point for me. People in their 80s tell me that they cannot afford to live much longer because the council tax keeps going up. They can cope with everything else, but the council tax is becoming too great a burden. It is not fair to expect older people to retire having made what they thought was reasonable provision, and then find that the council tax is the biggest cost that they must meet each year.
The Government have a responsibility to communities, not just in regard to decisions on how much grant areas should receive and how much they should raise for themselves. The Government also have a responsibility when it comes to post offices and other small local services. The one thing of which I can be sure is that if those services are allowed to disappear, the Government and local communities will pay more in the long run.
Mrs. Calton ended by talking about the council tax. It seems to me that the Liberal Democrats are again being somewhat two-faced on the question of whether they want decentralisation or centralisation in the context of equality of services throughout the country. I am in favour of equality, but I am also in favour of decentralisation. I hope that the Liberal Democrats will forgive me if I am wrong, but I do not think I have heard them talk about council tax benefit today. They talk about ability to pay, but that is what council tax benefit is there for.
The difficulties that exist throughout the country this year, especially in the south-east, have been caused by councils' unrealistic views over the years on the level at which they should set their taxes. In my area of Wolverhampton, in the west midlands, we have had no such problems, because the Government's new formula redresses the historic imbalance affecting the rate support grant—now the formula spending share—that the city council used to receive.
Let me give an example to bolster my assertion that there was an historic imbalance in England. When I entered Parliament two and a half years ago, I moved into a property in the London borough of Lambeth. Like the property in which I have lived for many years in my constituency, it is in band D. I found that the council tax in London was considerably lower than that in Wolverhampton—not because Wolverhampton council is much more inefficient than Lambeth, as hon. Members probably realise, and not, as far as I can deduce, because the services provided for Lambeth residents are much worse than those provided in Wolverhampton. Given the considerably higher cost of conducting council business in London, I think the differential can only be explained by the historic imbalance of moneys from central Government. The adjustments that have been made surely redress that imbalance, as you may agree, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The house in Wigan that I have lived in for some time is in band C, but I pay exactly the same council tax as I pay in London, where my property is in band E. Does that not reinforce my hon. Friend's point?
Indeed, and we as a Government are now working out how to redress the imbalance. That has caused difficulties in the past year, but it would have been wrong of the Government to back away.
Should the Government allocate the additional £9.2 billion that they are providing to all pensioners, or only to the neediest? That question has caused a key political division between the parties. Not surprisingly, I support the Government. As a socialist I have always wanted to focus resources on the neediest in society, and that means applying the modern means-testing regime that we are introducing to pension credit and the Government's minimum income guarantee.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned pension credit and council tax credit. Can he confirm that council tax credit is reduced by the award of pension credit, and that therefore the Government are effectively giving with one hand and taking away with the other?
I do not believe that council tax benefit, as it is called, will have that effect, and nor will housing benefit, but I stand to be corrected by the expert Ministers present.
On targeting money on the neediest, figures from the House of Commons Library, which got them from the Department for Work and Pensions, show that expenditure on the minimum income guarantee for the financial year just ended—2002–03—was about £4.5 billion, at this year's prices. The projected expenditure on the pension credit for the next financial year—2004–05—is about £5.3 billion. There are 7.2 million single-pensioner households in the United Kingdom, and 2.8 million couple-pensioner households in which at least one of the couple is a pensioner. That totals about 12 million pensioners. If that pension credit money—the minimum income guarantee and the pension credit, totalling some £9.2 billion—were evenly divided, each pensioner would get £16 a week. That would take the basic state pension for a single pensioner from £77.45 a week to £93.45 a week—in contradistinction to the single pensioner with the minimum income guarantee, who gets £102.10 a week. In round terms, that is £9 a week more for the neediest pensioners. I salute and support the Government for doing that.
The hon. Gentleman, who is a member of the relevant Select Committee, is thoughtful and knowledgeable, and I have been following his argument with care. How does he reconcile the figure he has just given of £9 a week less for the poorest pensioners, if this money were spread evenly, with the absurd figure of £30 that the Minister quoted?
I go by my own figures, although I always stand to be corrected. [Interruption.] I heard the Minister say £30 a week, but I go by my own figures. As the hon. Gentleman will agree, there would still be a considerable gap, even if his party's policy of introducing such a provision across the board were adopted. That is the key political divide, and it is one of the divides that we are debating today.
I want to move on to something that rarely gets mentioned in terms of this Government's provision for pensioners: the massive increase in spending on the NHS. Two thirds of NHS spending goes on older people, and I support that. Again, that is supporting the neediest, with provision free at the point of use. So, in examining what this Government have tried to do to assist pensioners, we should not overlook that magnificent investment in the NHS, two thirds of which is rightly benefiting pensioners.
I want to turn to the "pensions crisis", as the Liberal Democrat motion describes it. That phrase is very overworked and does not illuminate what is happening with pensions. In terms of pensioners' average incomes and the average amounts saved by prospective pensioners, there is no crisis whatever. Rather, as ever, there is an imbalance between poorer and better-off pensioners, which this Government are seeking to redress.
The difficulties for prospective pensioners and for certain recently retired pensioners in company schemes have been highlighted—if not made transparent—by the Government putting forward the financial accounting standard FRS 17 and by the minimum funding requirements for pension funds, which disclosed under-provision in some private companies' works pension schemes. Those difficulties came about partly because the stock market came down, but principally because many private companies—not all—would not put their hands in their pockets to make up shortfalls in private pension schemes arising from pension contribution holidays that they had taken when times were better. In other words, they took the money out in the good times, but did not put it in during the bad times.
There is also the scandal whereby managers of companies with company pension schemes suddenly retire when the company is about to go bust. They become pensioners three months later, when the company finally goes bust, and are thereby a different category of claimant from the poor working stiff who does not see the writing on the wall or have the inside information, is still employed and gets treated differently, in terms of their prospective pension, from the managers who have jumped ship.
The final salary scheme debate has been used by companies as an excuse to cut their pension contributions. When companies move to a money purchase scheme for new entrants, they cut their pension contributions greatly—on average, by about half the employers' pension contribution to the works pension scheme. Companies have used this as an excuse to lessen the pension emolument that they pay to their employees. Given what we have experienced in the past three or four years, in the medium term, final salary schemes in the private sector will wither and die, particularly for new pensioners. Such schemes were designed to provide security. People who worked for a company for 40 years, say, knew what pension they would get. If it was an eightieth-based scheme, they would get 40 eightieths on retirement—in other words, a half-pension. Every year they would clock up an eightieth and get a half-pension if they stayed with the company for 40 years.
However, the countervailing security is whether there is any money in the kitty to pay people out when they have done the 40 years. Those chickens have come home to roost, and in the medium term the work force, whether unionised—as they should be—or not, will not stand for a lack of security, whereby it is uncertain whether there will be any fund at all, or whether it will come anywhere near meeting promises that were made when in employment. Final salary schemes will be able to continue in the public sector because Government backing will be there to top up local authority schemes, for example, if necessary, but that will not happen in the private sector. We must look at this issue, because it is a question of how we view the term "security".
When we as a society focus, as we should, on the under-provision of pensions for women in particular, we must note that final salary schemes often discriminate against the low paid, many of whom are women. A cleaner, for example, who has been in a local authority final salary scheme for 30 years, doing the same job and paying the same contributions, would get 30 eightieths, but if they were a cleaner for 20 years and worked for the final 10 as a supervisor, they would get the 30 eightieths at a much higher rate, even though they had paid only 10 years' worth of higher-rate contributions. So, although there is often sex discrimination, overall we are talking about discrimination against the low paid.
The hon. Gentleman is normally a fair man in these matters, but he has come perilously close in the past few minutes to suggesting that such schemes are closing because of the wicked, feckless actions of the bosses, who are grinding the faces of their poorer workers. He will agree that that is not so. Many of these schemes are closing for proper, prudent financial management reasons, rather than for the reasons he came close to suggesting.
As a former Select Committee member and a former Minister in the predecessor Department, the hon. Gentleman is very knowledgeable about these matters. However, some schemes have indeed ripped off members, and the employers have been, to use his word, feckless. As he points out, other schemes are closing because it is financially prudent to do so, but what constitutes financial prudence in a given climate depends on how one got there and on how much money is in the kitty. Before he seeks to intervene on me again, I should remind him that I did mention the fact that part of the current difficulty with private pension schemes—but only part—is the downturn in the stock market. However, the stock market, like capitalism, is cyclical, and as I said, some companies that took pensions contribution holidays will not now put their hands in their pockets when times are bad. Instead, they are closing the scheme, which is despicable to say the least.
The Government are doing what they can in the current climate. We are in a transition phase, in that pensions have moved up the political and social agenda, which is a good thing. The Government are seeking to address some of the historical difficulties that have arisen under Governments of both political colours since the second world war.
A major step forward is the pension protection fund, which will be designed to help workers who are ripped off and find that their pension scheme has gone bust or is significantly underfunded. Sometimes they find this out very much toward the end of their careers. If a company scheme goes bust, there will be a 90 per cent. kick-in from the insurance. I am delighted to say that the pension protection fund will have a cap regarding the salaries of high earners. Solvent employers—this touches on the issue raised by Mr. Mitchell—who choose to wind up their pension schemes, as they are legally entitled to do, will be required to meet their promises to that pension fund in full, and that will be policed.
It is a step forward that the Government are looking at the priority order that applies on company insolvency, which has had particularly adverse effects on long-serving members who are nearing retirement and may have decided to work an extra five years, perhaps because their children are in university; but that is another debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. However, if the person at the next desk or bench decides to go and, two years later, the company scheme goes bust, the person who already receives the pension but who may have shorter service and may be slightly younger gets much better protection than the person who has worked there longer.
Finally, I am delighted that the Government are at last making serious noises about the situation for workers when their employment is transferred. Every Member knows that under the acquired rights directive and the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981, as amended, pensions are excluded. The EU made a mistake on that and the UK Government made a mistake in continuing that exclusion when we did not need to after the acquired rights directive was translated into domestic legislation in the UK. The Government addressing that issue is long overdue, and I hope that they do so to ensure that someone whose job is being transferred has protection for their pension as well as for their pay and conditions of work.
I fear that I could not possibly bring myself to congratulate the Liberal Democrats on their motion today, but they have done the House a service in following the example of Her Majesty's Opposition yesterday and raising an important bread and butter issue that is of huge concern to our constituents. It is noteworthy that the Westminster village spends its time being obsessed by issues around the Hutton inquiry. However, there are many important issues in education, health, transport and taxation that are of great importance to our constituents on a daily basis, and I am glad to be able to take part in this debate today.
I agree with the Minister for Pensions, who said that excessive negativism should be avoided. He was irritatingly reasonable throughout most of his speech; not something we usually get from Ministers in this rotten Government. It remains to be seen how the Under-Secretary of State for Health, Dr. Ladyman, winds up the debate.
The Minister for Pensions is right to inveigh against excessive negativism, to point to the fact that we are all now, thank goodness, living longer and to state that better medicine is keeping us alive and in a better condition for much longer. That is a good thing. I agreed also with the Minister when he set out the Government's policy on age discrimination. As someone already in his mid-40s, I recognise that this is an increasingly important agenda and I approve of what the Government are doing in that respect.
I want to raise three issues. The first is the crisis in our care homes in Birmingham, a matter that I have raised in the House before and which remains extremely important and worrying. Secondly, I want to follow Rob Marris in his analysis of where the pensions crisis for existing and future pensioners now rests. Thirdly, I want to refer to an important point that was touched on briefly by the Minister—the effect of crime on the security of our old folk.
Sutton Coldfield, for local government purposes, is a part of Birmingham. I have watched with great concern the way in which the crisis in our care homes has unfolded and the apparent inability of Birmingham's Labour council or the Labour Government to do anything about it.
The issues behind care home closures were well set out by Mr. Burstow, who touched on the bed-blocking crisis, which is not directly associated with the problem but is close to it. He referred also to the fiasco of the Government's implementation and consequent withdrawal of the national minimum environmental standards for existing care homes, which caused great distress and anger across the country.
We know that demand for elderly care is growing. Between 2005 and 2020, over 130,000 more people each year will require residential care than currently receive it, an increase of 25 per cent. The number of people receiving domiciliary care has fallen by almost 100,000 since 1997, a fall of over 20 per cent. The number of care home beds available has dropped by 13 per cent. since 1997, a loss of 70,000 long-term care places.
According to the latest data published by Laing and Buisson in July 2003, 13,400 elderly care places were lost in the 15 months to April 2003 alone. A net 11,000 places were lost in the independent sector—often small, privately operated and voluntary care homes—in the 15 months to April 2003, an increase on the 9,600 places lost in the same time frame in the previous calendar year. A further 900 places in local authority-run residential homes were lost, along with an estimated 700 continuing care places in NHS hospitals. As a result of this capacity loss, supply has reached dangerously low levels; across the country, the average is 5.7 care home places per 100 people over 65. In the northern home counties, the supply ratio has dropped to 4.6, and in London it has fallen to as low as 3.8, one third lower than the average.
Despite frequent warnings from industry bodies and the Conservative party, the availability of care continues to decline. Sometimes closure is inevitable, and several speakers have referred to the huge human cost of those closures. The closure of care homes not only causes disruption to vulnerable residents; on the Government's own reckoning, as many as 1,000 people every year may be dying as a result of care home closures. In general, over-prescriptive, expensive and bureaucratic regulation has greatly exacerbated the crisis in the sector and has driven many recent closures, including those of some high-quality homes.
Hon. Members will recall the early-day motion tabled by me and my hon. Friends in respect of the Birmingham care homes crisis, which said:
"That this House expresses its grave concern about the crisis in care for the elderly in Birmingham and elsewhere in England; is alarmed that over 80 care homes have closed in Birmingham over the last 18 months; recognises that a main contributory factor to this crisis is the decision by Birmingham Social Services to pay substantially less than the real cost of providing care for the elderly in care homes and that this practice is threatening to force good quality independent care homes out of business, causing grave distress and confusion to vulnerable, frail and elderly residents in Birmingham."
That remains the case. I have said that I am appalled that Birmingham social services paid private care homes substantially less than the real cost of providing care for the elderly in care homes, a practice that led, obviously, to the closure of many more care homes.
Mike Gimson, the spokesman for the Birmingham care consortium, which represents care home owners in the city, said that the consortium had been warning the council about the escalating closures. He said that the figures
"prove what we have been saying. It is a disgrace and there is worse to come as the pressure increases. We are now facing the under-provision of beds in Birmingham."
Birmingham has been particularly hard hit because of the action of local authorities that have discriminated against the private sector by paying fees way below the levels that they are prepared to pay to their own homes. Birmingham city council pays £570 per resident per week for its own social service places, but for private homes it is prepared to pay between £300 and £310 per week, and for nursing homes only £398 per week. That is an absolute disgrace. Approximately 100 private homes have closed within the past two years and last year Birmingham city council spent some £17 million on agency staff for social services. At the very least, that is indicative of the demoralisation of the department and its inability to recruit and retain staff.
Even the social services inspectorate has acknowledged that there is a problem with care in Birmingham. The city is officially designated weak and is zero-starred. The Government pump money into social services, but except for domiciliary care and sheltered housing, the money is not ring-fenced. The result is a huge underspent budget for domiciliary and sheltered housing, and money intended for residential care is diverted elsewhere. The situation in Birmingham cannot be allowed to go on. It is an abuse of council tax payers' money and an absolute disgrace. Today I call once again on the Government to take steps to resolve the problem.
My party has come up with a six-point plan for long-term care, which I have no doubt will be further elucidated by the Front Bench. One point was missing from the proposer's speech. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam accurately described much of the problem in the sector, but he did not go on to explain precisely what Liberal policy would do about it. Our six-point plan will reverse the decline in the number of care homes and remove unnecessary regulation, which is costly and often does not improve care. It will break down the rigid divide between health and social care, and lead to the greater integration of funding streams from health and social services. It will recognise the sacrifice of those who provide for their own long-term care, and make it easier for people to care for their elderly relatives in the home or in their own homes.
My second theme is the pensions crisis. Nothing could more accurately exemplify how the Government have been caught in the headlights of the pensions crisis than the fact that for a considerable period the Prime Minister did not even deign to appoint a Minister for Pensions. Let us first consider the crisis for those who are already receiving pensions. In spite of the Minister's warm words about his intention to reduce the gap between the richest and the poorest in the pensions sector, that gap has increased—not decreased—by 16 per cent. since 1997.
Let us examine the gross domestic product figures on how much we as a country spend on pensioners. Ten years ago we spent 6.2 per cent. of our GDP on pensioners, and we are now spending 6 per cent. Above all, perhaps millions of people are dependent on means tests. Soon many more will be dependent on them as a result of the pension credit. In 1997 some 37 per cent. of pensioners were means-tested; the figure now is 60 per cent., and it will not be long before it rises to 75 per cent.
Of course I acknowledge the need for some means-testing—that is right—but not up to 75 per cent. One has only to listen to the words of a former Minister with responsibility for pensions, Mr. Field, who has warned about the debilitating way in which means-testing undermines dignity, when people feel that they have to go cap in hand to the state. Means-testing is unwise and should, where possible, be avoided. I believe that a system in which 75 per cent. of people stand to be means-tested is bizarre.
We have heard much discussion of the pension credit today, but I warn Ministers that they will find it extremely difficult to implement successfully. They have the example of the tax credit system to warn them of the dangers of implementing such new systems. I thought that the Minister might have been succumbing to the disease that afflicts Ministers of all parties in the social security sector, recalling what the previous Department was called—being persuaded by their brilliant officials that systems introduced through form filling and case management are essential in their complexity, but will work and be easily understood. History is littered with Ministers who believed that, but found to their cost that it was not true.
On the long-term crisis in pensions, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West was quick to say that he did not believe that there was one. He and I have debated in the Select Committee whether "crisis" is an accurate term. I persist in believing that it is. The Government have as yet failed to respond adequately to the scale of the crisis. They have been advised by the CBI, the TUC and, indeed, the Select Committee, as well as numerous other lobby bodies on the importance of taking action, but, like rabbits caught in the headlights, they appear to find it difficult to know what to do.
Much talk has gone on in the House about the £5 billion per annum raid on pension funds, but I do not propose—important though it is—to rehash it today. More could have been done to prevent some schemes from closing, but even the stakeholder policy—one of the flagships of the Government's attempts to increase the amount of funded pensions—has been a lamentable flop. Practically no one in the target group has taken up the stakeholder pension, and the company schemes, which must be set up by law, have received very few takers indeed. Perhaps one bright spot for the Government is that they have at least had the wisdom to appoint someone of the calibre of Adair Turner as their pensions tsar. I hope that they will listen carefully to what he has to say when he reports to them.
The funded pensions policy, which was bequeathed by the last Conservative Government to the present Government, was a great success. At one point we had more funded pensions in this country than all the rest of Europe put together. It is crucial for the Government to produce a sensible policy for future pensioners who will be retiring. They have not yet done so, and it is a travesty that it is now nearly two years since we last had a debate on pensions in Government time. Such debates that have taken place have been on Opposition days.
Finally, I want to quote the right hon. Member for Birkenhead from an article in The Sunday Telegraph, and I hope that the Government will listen. The right hon. Gentleman said:
"All too many families stand on the brink of financial disaster as they see their pensions snatched away from them. Failure to act will be punished by voters as surely as markets punish cuts in dividends. Government cannot continue to hide behind the claim it is consulting; it has been doing that for the past 6 years. What is now desperately required is action."
The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right.
My third point is about the way in which elderly people suffer disproportionately from crime in our society. As many hon. Members do, I conducted a survey on crime and related issues throughout my constituency. I was surprised by the massive response that I received, and particularly impressed by the emphasis on the debilitating effect of fear of crime. Fear of crime can have a massive effect on the quality of life of elderly people. It leads to exclusion from other activities in the community and a sense of isolation, and it certainly has an effect on health. A comparatively minor crime can have a disproportionate effect on elderly people and can be extremely traumatic for victims. The average age of victims of distraction burglary is 81, and it is a significantly under-reported crime because of the embarrassment that elderly people feel—wrongly—at being victims of it.
We need to see more police on the streets. The popular view that a policeman on the beat stops a crime only once every 33 years misses the point. Having police on the street is reassuring to our communities. The lessons from New York about the success of more precinct policing must be evident to everyone and they are certainly now evident to the Mayor of London. I greatly welcome the decision by my party to pledge to increase the number of police by 40,000, if we are successful at the next election. It is pleasing to know that in that happy event, 2,600 more police would come to the west midlands.
I have some experience in this subject because of the previous job of my boss and because I have just had to do some work for my mother. I certainly do not recognise the picture painted by Mr. Burstow. My mother had to move from her home in Carlisle to the Wigan area, to be nearer to me, and I did much of the work involved. I found plenty of choice of residential homes and I managed to get her into a good one. It was brand new and around half full.
Wigan does not have problems with bed blocking, because many of our old people are cared for at home by our excellent social services department. That may be the answer: we have an excellent Labour-run council, as confirmed by the comprehensive performance review performed by the independent district auditor. The Sutton and Cheam local authority, of course, is not as good.
I also did not recognise what the hon. Gentleman—or Mr. Mitchell—said about pension credit. I applied for the minimum income guarantee, as it then was, on behalf of my mother.
She wanted me to do it because she has problems with her hearing. I was happy to do it and it took about 10 minutes. There were no byzantine forms to fill in and the only difficulty was trying to find out her national insurance number. The payment came through in about a fortnight and was backdated. The difficulties outlined by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam do not exist. The form-filling and other obstacles that he described do not happen for the majority of pensioners. They may arise in the Pension Service, but not for the person making the application.
I apologise if I sounded defensive when I asked why the hon. Gentleman's mother did not apply herself. My point was that she had the advantage of having an able and articulate son to deal with the system for her, because she did not feel able to deal with it herself. Had the money been added to the pension, the process would not have been necessary.
I shall deal with that point shortly. My experience is shared by hundreds of thousands of people. Most pensioners in my constituency find the system fairly easy, once they overcome the perception—promoted especially by the Liberal Democrats—that the scheme is difficult. It is not, and it puts people off when they are told that they have to fill in 40 pages of complicated forms.
My mother was notified a couple of weeks ago of how much she would receive from the pension credit, and it is significantly different from what she would have got had we followed the Liberal Democrats' proposals. According to the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam, those over 75 would receive an extra £19 a week to add to the single person's pension of £77.45, so she would have received £96.45. She currently receives £102.50 under the pension credit. So according to the Liberal Democrats, my 90-odd year old mother should have her pension reduced by £6 a week. Others would benefit from their proposals. For example, Baroness Thatcher would get an extra £19 a week, and I am sure that she would find a good use for it. However, the Liberal Democrats will have great difficulty explaining to the people of Brent, East, let alone anyone else, why their proposal would mean that the poorest pensioners would lose more than £6, while those who are better off would gain £19 a week.
Pension credit is important in getting extra money to the very poorest. That is a socialist principle that I am happy to support. It is allied to the recognition that people who have small savings or a small pension should be rewarded for their thrift, not penalised, as in the past.
We must also face the problem mentioned by Mr. Webb, which is the difficulty that some people have in accessing various services for pensioners. That is why we have made huge changes to the way in which the Pension Service operates. A fortnight ago, I held a forum for pensioners' groups in the Wigan constituency. Members of the Pension Service staff came along to answer questions and give details of the pension credit, including the relevant telephone numbers. I shall visit the town centre again soon with staff from the Pension Service to ensure that people understand the pension credit and how to apply for it.
The whole point of setting up the Pension Service is so that it can play a much wider role. Far too often, pensioners are passed from one agency to another, from a local authority to the NHS and back again, or from one voluntary body or council department to another. It is a bureaucratic merry-go-round that can be debilitating for pensioners. The Pension Service is designed to be a one-stop shop to ensure that services for pensioners, be they public or voluntary, can be much more easily accessed. Pensioners can also obtain advice about the services to which they are entitled. People with difficulties hearing, such as my mother, seeing or understanding the forms will be able to contact the Pension Service and receive the help they need, perhaps including a home visit. It is important that the Pension Service be seen as part of an overall package with the pension credit to ensure that pensioners get their entitlements.
I applaud the Government's advances on pensions. We introduced the minimum income guarantee early to tackle pensioner poverty. We have also introduced the winter fuel allowance, free eye tests and free television licences. In real terms, £3 billion has been given to pensioners over and above what they would have received if the pension had been increased in line with inflation. The pension credit will mean an additional £2 billion from October.
I also welcome the introduction of the Pension Service to ensure that people can access services more readily and obtain the help that, all too often, they need. I welcome the help that the Government have given to future pensioners. We sorted out the problems with the state earnings-related pension, left by the previous Government. We also sorted out the problems with the financial services industry after the desperate mis-selling of private pensions, which left so many people high and dry with the loss of pounds and pounds a week. We have also introduced the state secondary pension, with the recognition that it gives to carers and the help it will give them in the future. Of course, we have also introduced stakeholder pensions. Despite what the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said, people are taking them up, as they allow those who would not otherwise have a pension to have access to a pension for their future.
Most important in respect of the immediate future is the pension protection fund. It will guarantee that people whose company pension schemes have gone bust will get protection in the future.
I shall be happy to support the Government amendment and to oppose the motion.
It is always a pleasure to follow Mr. Turner in these debates. One thing to have emerged from the debate is that, whereas Sutton and Cheam is clearly a near hell hole for older people's services, Wigan is a veritable garden of Eden. It is a place in which we should all aspire to grow old, under the hon. Gentleman's benign leadership.
I am told that I should begin by declaring an interest, in that I have some private pension provision of my own. This is my first outing, if that is the right word, as the newly appointed official Opposition spokesperson on older people's issues. In modern jargon, my brief is crosscutting, and although there have not been many signs of joined-up government in the debate so far, I can promise joined-up opposition on these issues.
Lots of important issues have been covered in the debate. I cannot do them all justice, but I shall start with the issue of care homes, which is close to my heart. There are many good care homes in my constituency, and they make up a significant part of Eastbourne's local economy. However, a number of very good ones have closed recently, as a direct result of Government policy. The Government were told—by us, by the Liberal Democrats and by everyone outside the House who knows anything about care homes—that they were making a massive error with their legislation on the matter. However, they blundered on and insisted on their proposals and, as we have heard, the latest figures show that 13,400 care home places disappeared in the 15 months to April this year.
My hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell explained very graphically the particular problem in Birmingham. However, the problem is replicated up and down the country, with many good private care homes being forced to close. All too often, councils insist on paying themselves much more than they pay the private sector, even though the accommodation that they provide is relatively poor.
In collaboration with the Liberal Democrats, the Opposition attempted not that long ago to increase pensions significantly for older pensioners. We know that older pensioners are those most likely to be living in poverty. I am sorry to say that our attempt was defeated.
We have heard a great deal about funded pensions. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield reminded us that they are a great British success story, but they are seriously threatened by a combination of factors. My hon. Friend Mr. Willetts has rightly likened the matter to the film called "The Perfect Storm". The stock market has fallen, and people now live longer—although that greater longevity is of course welcome. However, other matters are within the Government's control, such as the Chancellor's £5 billion annual raid on pension funds.
There has been an apparent lack of urgency when it comes to tackling the problems. Another Green Paper has been published, but the Government could and should do a lot more to increase and restore confidence in funded pensions. At least one fifth of company pension schemes have closed in the past 12 months. That is all the more worrying, as the Watson Wyatt survey on which that information is based predates the extra burdens likely to be placed on companies by the Government's pension protection scheme.
The Government's stated aim is to restore confidence in funded pensions, which is vital. A whole generation of young people cannot be persuaded that putting money into pensions is the smart thing to do, because they see stories about problems with pensions every time they open a newspaper.
The TUC, for example, has spoken about the erosion of the notion of shared responsibility, and has noted the decline of the mixed-economy approach to pension provision. Rob Marris outlined an even more dramatic problem that arises when companies go bust and take the pension fund down with them.
There is a great deal of work to be done. A policy of compulsion appears to be developing through the mists of Liberal Democrat thinking, but the Conservative party does not believe in compelling people to make particular pension provision. However, we believe that the forces of inertia should be harnessed, so that people have to opt out of that sort of provision for their futures.
That brings me neatly to the issue of pension credit. As I noted in an earlier intervention, we on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions were privileged to have the Secretary of State appear before us as a witness this morning. When I put it to him, he readily conceded that, even on the Government's projections, a million pensioners will not receive pension credit even though, on the face of it, they are entitled to it.
Two fundamental matters wholly undermine the Government's approach to the policy, and the crucial one is take-up. As with so many of these benefits, take-up is limited.
The Government have been very dismissive about criticisms of this flagship policy. Only recently, the Department criticised Mr. Mervyn Kohler, head of public affairs at Help the Aged, for his comments on the system. Clearly unbowed, he said:
"I'm afraid I rather upset them. It seems ministers are very tender at the moment. But it is not my fault if they design a system which is so Byzantine that no one can understand it."
That is going to be the reality.
The Secretary of State was almost alarmingly upbeat about the other matter that I put to him—whether the system can cope. The Child Support Agency offers an example of what happens when an old formula combines with a new technology, and now we have a possibly even more potent combination—a new formula and an old technology. It remains to be seen whether the fiasco of the tax credits, which caused our mailbags to be so full in recent months, will be replicated.
Some of the claims in the Government's advertising campaign for pension credit are simply wrong and untrue. The central claim—that every pensioner will now enjoy a minimum income of £102.10—is simply untrue. The guaranteed income will be a mixture of existing pensions, savings income and, where necessary, a pension credit top-up. However, any savings will be assumed to generate a notional income of 10 per cent. a year. That is not bad; I wish that I could plug into that sort of return, rather than the more realistic 3 per cent.
Has the hon. Gentleman checked that point? As I understand it, the imputed income of a certain percentage applies only when a pensioner has savings of more than £5,000—
I thank my hon. Friend. The basic savings level is £6,000. The imputed income applies for every £500 on top of that. Overall, that does not work out at a return of 10 per cent. on the savings total. That is important for people who might be thinking of claiming.
The hon. Lady merely serves to show how complex the new system is for our constituents. I am sure that many hon. Members will be wondering what it will be like when their surgeries fill up with people who do not know whether they are entitled to make a claim.
Well, the hon. Lady has a good degree from a good university, but not everybody is as privileged—[Interruption.] She suggests that I might be able to understand it, but whether everyone will is another matter.
I said that there were two issues. The second is means-testing. My party believes that the entire system is moving in the wrong direction. In 1997, only 37 per cent. of claimants were on means-tested benefits. This year, with the introduction of the pension credit, that figure could reach almost 60 per cent., and it is projected to grow to 73 per cent. by 2025. There are thus two extremely worrying aspects: take-up and means-testing, which promote a cap-in-hand approach for poorer pensioners.
I shall touch on some of the other issues, especially those raised by the Liberal Democrat spokesman. We can all testify to the fact that big council tax rises are extremely regressive, especially for older people. In my constituency, the local council—sadly, it is controlled by the Liberal Democrats—put up its share by 38 per cent. this year, a staggering amount. No wonder the Liberal Democrats are dusting off their old proposals for local income tax, on the basis of "Please stop me before I do it again". If a local council, such as Eastbourne, can make such an increase under the current system, imagine what it could do if it could charge a local income tax, quite apart from the Liberal proposals for an energy tax, which would be even more regressive because utility bills are often painful for pensioners, for regional taxes, more taxes through the European Union and the Liberal version of a new inheritance tax.
The hon. Gentleman may be aware that Devon, which is run by a four-party coalition, was led by the Conservatives last year when council tax was increased by 28 per cent., as proposed by the Conservative leader, Christine Channon. He may also be aware that, in her speech, Christine outlined the injustice of the council tax; she said that it should be abolished and replaced by a fairer taxation system.
I should like to hear Christine's views on the matter, but that does not alter the fact that many Liberal Democrat councils, and those in which they participate, are making sharp increases in council tax.
I endorse some of the comments that have been made about post office closures. All hon. Members should beware: the Post Office has embarked on a scheme to consider closures on a constituency basis. Eastbourne is privileged to be one of the first and the Post Office has come up with five closures in my constituency, so some time soon: "This is coming to a post office near you".
I feel strongly about age discrimination. The Government have reneged on their pre-1997 promise to legislate on age discrimination. The EU has finally forced them to do so by 2006.
We hear much from the Liberal Democrats about free personal care for the elderly, despite the fact that it seems to be bankrupting several local authorities in Scotland. Furthermore, some councils run by the Liberal Democrats charge substantial fees, up to £5,000 a year, for care services for the elderly.
As on so many things, the Liberals are the "Do as I say, not as I do" party. They voted for greater bureaucracy for care homes, causing many homes to close.
No, we did not.
Liberal Democrat councils charge heavily for care services for older people. They jack up council tax mercilessly and, in the case of my council, sack older workers merely because they turn 65—turning their birth certificate into their P45. Outside this place, in Brent, and indeed in Eastbourne, Liberal Democrats extol the virtues of the pension credit, but in the House, they say that they want to scrap it. They certainly do not mention the means-testing that is at the heart of its approach to poorer pensioners.
I hope that the voters of Brent will have taken some of these points on board. Advice from the booklet for Liberal Democrat campaigners is that they should "act shamelessly, stir endlessly" and not "be afraid to exaggerate". That is how they operate throughout the country.
I urge the Liberals to make the difficult journey from piety to reality and not to mislead people, especially vulnerable pensioners. They should drop their empty rhetoric and their hypocrisy. I shall not urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the motion both for those reasons and because the motion makes the ritual attack on the Conservative record in government. I invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to abstain on the motion but to vote against the Government amendment, which is astounding in its complacency, even by the standards of this Government.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Waterson. I congratulate him on his appointment. I am glad to see that some of his colleagues have joined him on the Opposition Benches; for a while he seemed to be offering not so much joined-up opposition as a one-man band, which did not say much for the Conservative Opposition's commitment to older people, or for their support for a colleague on his first appearance in his new position.
I agreed with the hon. Gentleman on one point. Although the Liberal Democrats did us a great service in bringing the issue to the House, some of the ways in which they presented their arguments did not help to tease out the important factors. They presented us with a catch-all set of grievances. There are real pressures and problems facing pensioners and they require long-term solutions, which must be agreed and maintained over time. What we put in place will, we hope, benefit pensioners for many years to come.
My hon. Friend Mr. Turner offered us an example. Giving everybody a flat-rate increase of £19 week sounds nice, but we would need to explain two things. First, it would mean taking money away from the poorest pensioners, who would receive only £96 instead £102; and, secondly, because the Liberal Democrats are talking about changing from council tax, which is property based, to a local income tax, it would increase the burden of taxation for pensioners. Rather than going for cheap slogans, we should carefully examine the problems for pensioners.
My constituency is in a "middle England" area and many pensioners do not fall into the poorest income ranges. However, there are specific historical reasons for pensioner poverty in the region. People worked for companies that have disappeared, such as those in the boot and shoe industry, which is in the process of change. A large number of women have broken employment records, because they took a break for family reasons. A phenomenally high percentage of women worked part-time and had no pension entitlement in their own right. In later life, they have been caught in poverty.
People think that middle England is extremely affluent, but it is not. Northampton has a high number of people on low incomes. Even if they contributed to an occupational or second pension scheme, those pensions and their savings are now extremely low. I asked a group of pensioners, who were here for the lobby this afternoon, about the rate of their second pensions. They told me what I had heard before—[Interruption.] Mr. Webb is nodding. I am sure that he knows the figures: about £15 a week, or £50 month. That is not much, yet people receiving those amounts will not qualify for some of the benefits designed to help extremely poor pensioners. We need to help pensioners who are in that poverty trap and do not have enough to live comfortably.
The Government have done wonders in systematically considering what has made pensioners' lives so uncomfortable. I am sure that everyone will say, "Well, she would say that", but the Government have put in place very good programmes to tackle the real causes and symptoms of pensioner poverty. First, they have introduced the minimum income guarantee, which deals with the terrible problem of absolute hardship and destitution that existed among an awful lot of pensioners when we first took office in 1997. I am sure that all hon. Members had pensioners coming to their advice surgeries in dire straits because they simply did not have enough money.
Targeted measures have dealt with some of the pressure points in pensioners' lives. The winter fuel allowance is absolutely wonderful. It has made a real difference and has tackled the problem of fuel poverty among pensioners, who used to get so cold during the winter. Pensioners now enjoy free television licences. Concessionary fares have worked better in some areas than in others. They have worked best in Labour areas, where Labour councils top them up and provide free transport for all pensioners, which is wonderful. Free eye tests are now available. One of the cruellest things that the Conservative Government did was to hit pensioners at a point when they were particularly susceptible.
Measures have also been taken to ease the burden of income tax on pensioners, such as increasing personal tax allowances and introducing the new starting rate of tax. Pensioners will say that everyone on low incomes will get that, but those measures are really important when we consider how many pensioners are on low incomes. I know that many pensioners do not like to pay tax, but they have special tax protection, which I very much welcome.
My hon. Friend Mr. Turner mentioned national health service measures, but I want to say a few words about the pension credit. The hon. Member for Eastbourne was quite wrong in his proposals, because the pension credit is an incredibly important benefit for those areas, such as mine, where a lot of pensioners are caught in the poverty trap: they have too much to be entitled to state benefits designed for the very poor, but they still do not have comfortable lives. It is important that those people at least feel that they will be comfortable if they claim the credit, and that if they do make a claim they do not feel intimidated; otherwise what the hon. Gentleman says about the numbers not claiming will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The hon. Gentleman's point about savings and the interest rate was wrong. I agree that there is an assumption about earnings on savings. Some people might think about such things and say, "If only", but people can get help with making claims. If they do not have statements of interest from their banks or building societies, assumed amounts may be included in the booklets. Of course, as they can use assumed interest, they do not have to dip into their capital. They can keep their capital, which is very important for pensioners because it means that they can keep their nest eggs to pay for their funerals and save for other expenses in their very old age.
It is quite wrong to frighten people by saying that they will be means-tested, because the system will be much more like filling in a tax form. People will not have to keep claiming, as they do with housing benefit and other benefits. I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but people will have to submit a claim only when their circumstances change—otherwise, there will be a reassessment in five years' time—so the pension credit is not like an ordinary benefit.
People can phone up, and someone on the end of the line can complete the form and send it to them for signing. I have been running a campaign about that in my constituency. Before doing so, I asked a couple of people to test the phone number, and it works; it is user-friendly service. I congratulate the Pension Service on doing some very good outreach work. People are going out to help those who do not have phones. The benefit has been designed in the light of pensioners' suggestions. Those of us who held meetings on the consultation document know that the policies emerging now are exactly those that pensioners said they wanted. I hope that the benefit will be a big step forward, certainly in areas, such as mine, where a lot of pensioners have some occupational or private pension or savings, but not very much.
I agree that a good number of things remain to be done to improve pensioners' lives, and I am sure that the Government will continue to take on some of those things. The first thing to do is to ensure that next month's introduction of the pension credit is as smooth as the arrangements have been so far for claiming and outreach work. I am sure that many others will want that to happen.
The development of home care packages is extremely important. That is mainly a job for local authorities, but such measures need to be in place if we are to provide pensioners with a decent standard of living in the years to come. We also still have to deal with pensioners who are asset rich and cash poor and find ways to secure their home ownership in their old age. That involves people who may have bought their council properties, as well as those in areas such as mine who have always owned their own homes, as it is often not cost-effective for them to move into smaller places.
The Government must consider ways of supporting equity release—either by making it safer, or by introducing some sort of CAT mark—so that people can afford to pay for repairs, major maintenance and adaptations by releasing some of the capital value. In that way, people could achieve what they often want: to stay on with dignity in their own homes, without their homes deteriorating and failing down around them.
I want to press a couple of final points. First, the procurement of residential care must be improved. Mr. Mitchell should consider the incredibly imaginative work being done in Castle Vale in Birmingham, which has enabled more old people to leave hospital and return to their own homes. The work has involved very clever joint funding, and I commend that model.
Secondly, we should look at some of the anomalies in the benefits package, so that pensioners who are carers can receive benefits that they should receive, including important mobility benefits that are denied to them.
I recognise that some important and positive changes are taking place. Pensioners are living longer and enjoying better health, and they have higher aspirations. Female pensioners rightly aspire to be independent. As a society, we need to take on the challenges and to protect pensioners and their standard of living in their older years and give them dignity in their retirement. I believe that our Labour Government have made an incredibly good start, with some very thoughtful and well put together programmes, so I urge the House to support the amendment and not to go for cheap slogans, but to go for things that will give people security and dignity in their old age.
I welcome this debate on an important subject for older people in Wales, where 60 per cent. of pensioners live at the minimum income guarantee level—on or below the poverty line—and where the health of pensioners is worse than in the rest of the UK. It does not take an analyst of genius to link those two little facts.
My concern is the centralisation of the Pension Service at the pension centre in Swansea, the perceived lack of a local service from local officers and the problems that have been reported to me with the Welsh language service. I met officials from the Pension Service a few weeks ago to discuss these matters, and personally found them helpful and committed to delivering the best service that could be managed. I do not, of course, hold those individual officers responsible, but the centralisation of the Pension Service in Swansea is by its nature a bad idea for Wales, given the geography of our country and the difficulties of communicating between north and south. I fear and suspect that we will continue to see a complication of the service, which will make it much worse. I am not saying that the problems at Swansea are unique—I would not be surprised to learn that similar problems exist at other pension centres—but it is the only one in Wales and is our national pension centre. As a result, its problems are a national problem in Wales.
The problems with the pension centre are exemplified by a number of cases, and I hope that I am not being unnecessarily negative by examining the problems, which have been raised in my constituency surgeries. First, I want to mention the problems faced by Mrs. Williams of Porthmadog at the start of year. It took a one-woman campaign on her behalf to secure her pension. After five months of continual phoning, writing and calling the local office, she finally secured the pension. I hope that my intervention also helped her to some extent. It seemed to me that Swansea was unable to cope with the case, despite all the phone calls and the help of the local office. Mrs. Williams is a very determined person and someone who likes a certain degree of formality, as do many older people. She found it very difficult to deal with a different person each time, and she would have liked to call officials Mr. Jones or Miss Hughes—she found it difficult to cope with Dave referring to June, Jane, John or Joe. It is a small matter but an important one for some older people. As I said, she has managed to secure her pension and has received compensation from the special unit in Newcastle. She should not, however, have had to go all that way over five months to secure what should have been a straightforward matter—her own pension.
The second case is that of Mrs. Harding from the community of Aberdaron, a small village at the very tip of the Llyn peninsula—about as far away as one can get from Swansea. People in Aberdaron would say that they live centrally, however, and that it is Swansea that is far away. I suppose that it depends where one starts. Mrs. Harding's pension, which used to be paid directly into her bank, disappeared. After a good deal of phoning around and phoning Swansea she was told that it had disappeared because she was dead. She was not dead—she was phoning them up. It took a large number of phone calls from her and from me, and letters from me, to restore her pension. I was told—the Minister might like to respond to this matter later—that when someone is registered or entered as dead in the computer system, it is very difficult for the computer to reverse that categorisation. I wonder whether a Lazarus programme could be devised to rectify that.
Again, after a lot of trouble, Mrs. Harding has received a substantial compensation payment from Newcastle. I think that she would have preferred to have her pension paid directly into her bank properly—
I want to refer briefly, given the pressure of time, to two other cases that were brought to my attention this week by a constituent who is an ex-Department of Social Security official, Mr. Ken Jones of Llanberis. The first was of a pensioner who had tried repeatedly to get through to the Welsh language line in Swansea. I should explain to hon. Members that there are two lines in Swansea—a Welsh language line and an English language line—both of which are very helpful at times. The person concerned found it very difficult to get through to the line in Swansea, however, and told Mr. Ken Jones that he suspected that the official eventually phoned from home rather than from the centre, as he apparently heard children playing in the background. Mr. Jones tells me that that would never have happened in his day at the DSS. Perhaps one might look back fondly on one's previous career, but he has a valid point.
Mr. Jones told me that he often contacts the Swansea centre himself, and he feels that the officials there have to refer to someone else for an opinion rather too often, instead of giving an opinion directly. He also refers to Swansea being at the further end of Wales, and to the fact that the centre workers speak Welsh with a pronounced Swansea accent. He stated that some elderly people have despaired and have turned to the English language. I should tell the House that I tried to get the number of the Swansea pension centre today from our wonderful new directory inquiries system, and I was unable to do so. I eventually got through to a local office in Swansea, which gave me the number. It was the number for the English language line, however, even though I had begun the conversation in Welsh. I suppose that those are the complexities of running a bilingual service, but I would have hoped that the Pension Service would have ironed them out.
The last case, which was again referred to me by Mr. Ken Jones, was of a widow who waited for payments for five weeks after her bereavement, and who then received a giro rather than an order book. Again, Mr. Jones referred me to earlier practice, whereby that person would have been paid very promptly rather than having to wait for five weeks.
I can appreciate that this centre, like other centres, has teething problems. The consequences for individual payments and individual pensioners, however, are serious. Even if the majority of claimants get a first-class service, some do not, which is a matter of concern to me and to other hon. Members, as the effects can be disastrous. The point that my constituent, Mr. Jones, makes is that a system that was based locally would not have led to such problems. I know that there is a facility for local support and local visits. Is the Minister satisfied that that system is working? Will he tell us what provision exists for monitoring and reviewing the quality of the service from pension centres generally, and specifically from the telephone service in Welsh and English from Swansea? I fear that the complexity of the system will lead to problems, and that the complexity of the telephone system will lead to a disincentive to claim.
On that point, I refer, finally, to the question asked by Annabelle Ewing about whether the Government will set specific take-up targets for pension credits for Wales, Scotland and the regions of England. I would be very interested to know that.
This has been an important debate. We have covered issues ranging from the closure of care homes and the pensions crisis to the burden of council tax. Those are matters of concern to all of our constituents, but of particular concern to many older people throughout Britain.
The debate was opened expertly and powerfully, as we would expect, by my hon. Friend Mr. Burstow. I will not spare his blushes by mentioning that this morning The Guardian described him as one of the most knowledgeable and effective politicians on older people's issues. He demonstrated this afternoon why he has attained that reputation.
My hon. Friend highlighted the crisis of closure of care homes. He drew attention to the fact that when a care home closes, those who have lived there have less security of tenure than a council tenant or someone living in rented accommodation. Yet that elderly person can be at their most vulnerable point in life. In some tragic and extreme cases, that disruption can be fatal. My hon. Friend was right to say that in the past 15 months, 13,000 care home places have been lost. That is unacceptable. The Government's amendment to the motion is woefully complacent and inadequate in suggesting what might be done in the circumstances.
The Minister for Pensions, who spoke to the Government amendment, has a history on some of the issues that we have discussed to which I shall refer later, always assuming that he has wandered back into the Chamber by then.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Calton referred powerfully to the human cost of post office closures, which is another issue of particular concern to older pensioners. She referred to a number of her constituents who will struggle to an alternative post office when their local one is closed. She said that the exercise of walking to the local office is good for them and that the visit is sociable, but that when the local post office is closed, a lifeline will go with it.
Rob Marris was right to say in response to our concerns about the burden of council tax on pensioners that there is a council tax benefit, but he failed to say that that means-tested benefit has the lowest rate of take-up of any benefit. More than 1 million pensioners fail to claim their council tax benefit entitlement and, therefore, it is an inadequate safety net. Rather than have an unfair and regressive tax inadequately corrected by a failed, means-tested benefit, we would prefer a tax that relates fairly to ability to pay.
My hon. Friend is aware that we have been lobbied today by pensioners, and among those lobbying me was Mr. Cayley. His family has a fairly good income of £17,000, but it is paying £1,900 in council tax. That represents 11 per cent. of the family's income. Even those on better incomes are being hurt by the high levels of council tax.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Those who are hurt hardest by the council tax are not those who are on the lowest incomes, who may have their council tax met in full or in part, but those who have worked hard and saved hard, and have to face that tax burden in full. When one tax comes to represent 11 per cent. of someone's income, clearly something has gone very wrong.
Ms Keeble suggested that replacing the council tax with some form of local income tax would in some way be unfair to pensioners because that would mean getting rid of a property-based tax. Given that two thirds of pensioners pay no income tax at all, they would be the principal group of beneficiaries in a switch away from council tax to local income tax.
I actually said that if we sloganise and, for example, talk about flat-rate increases, and then talk about changing from a property-based tax to an income-based tax, there will be unforeseen consequences. I think that the two measures have not been thought through properly by the Liberal Democrats.
I recall from the hon. Lady's remarks that she said that, given that many pensioners are property owners, a move from a property-based tax might be to their detriment. Many parts of Europe and the United States run local income tax systems perfectly effectively. Given that two thirds of pensioners pay no main income tax, they would be the principal beneficiaries of such a move.
I am not saying that the hon. Gentleman is wrong, but what is the provenance of his statistic? The Library tells me, using the Department for Work and Pensions pensioner income series, that it estimates that 60 per cent. of single pensioners have gross weekly incomes of more than £150, and that 60 per cent. of pensioner couples have gross weekly incomes of more than £250. I would expect that to mean that at least those 60 per cent. of pensioners would be paying income tax. That is a different figure from the one that the hon. Gentleman is giving.
The hon. Gentleman needs to bear in mind that not all sources of income included in his gross weekly income figures are taxable. It has been understood for many years that roughly one third of pensioners pay tax.
Mr. Mitchell raised the important issue of care home closures specifically in Birmingham, and drew attention to the pensions crisis, a crisis that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West believes does not exist. Tell that to those who are in company schemes that have recently been wound up with inadequate funds. Tell that to people in their 40s and 50s who now fear that they do not have a secure retirement ahead of them.
Mr. Waterson, who now speaks for the Conservatives on older people's issues—I congratulate him on assuming that role—quite properly raised the issue of pension scheme closures, and highlighted the missing 1 million pensioners who, on the Government's figures, will not claim their entitlement to pension credit. He also criticised the Government for assuming that pensioners can get 10 per cent. income on their investments as part of the pension credit rules. That is clearly absurd. He glossed over the fact that in 1988 the Conservatives introduced similar rules that assumed that pensioners could get not 10 per cent. income on their savings but 20 per cent. The House and the electorate would do well not merely to look at the Government's performance but to remind themselves of the Conservatives' record of doing precisely nothing when they had the chance to do something.
Mr. Turner quite properly drew attention to his family circumstances, and said that his own experiences of the Pension Service had been positive. I welcome that. However, I intervened to highlight the fact that his elderly mother had found it preferable to ask her son to deal with the authorities. Surely, a system that worked well to maintain the security and dignity of pensioners would guarantee that all pensioners could deal with matters themselves without needing the assistance of family members.
I also referred to the importance of access to the Pension Service; employees of the service can go to people's homes to help them fill out the forms. The Pension Service is a hugely important step forward in making sure that ordinary pensioners get the services that they deserve.
I am sure that everyone in the House would like the Pension Service to succeed and provide a higher standard of service than that which is currently provided. However, its employees would not have to make home visits to deal with applications for means-tested benefits if people got a decent pension in the first place—that would be a better way of operating the system.
Hywel Williams expressed concern about the centralisation of the Pension Service in Wales, and drew the attention of the House to the case of a constituent who had had her pension stopped because she had been told that she was dead. It is understandable that those who write the computer programmes do not normally allow them to reverse such transitions, but it illustrates a problem. When the IT systems of a Government Department are as ropey as those of the Department for Work and Pensions, such things will happen. We are concerned that when the pension credit is introduced next month many pensioners will have experiences similar to that constituent.
The Minister began with a social policy analysis of the issues affecting older people, which we all enjoyed and took us back to his days as an academic. I was intrigued that he attacked Sarah Teather, our excellent colleague who is fighting the Brent, East by-election and who we hope, next week, will be an even more excellent addition to the House of Commons, for encouraging people to claim the pension credit. A few moments before, he had exhorted us all to encourage people to claim the credit. Am I missing something? One minute, the Minister says that he hopes everybody will encourage people to claim the pension credit, but when the Liberal Democrat candidate for Brent, East does so, that is apparently outrageous behaviour.
No. We have made it clear that in government we would spend that £2 billion on the pension for the over-75s. That proposal was in an amendment that we tabled with the Conservatives to the Bill that introduced the pension credit. Once the credit is introduced, we will not scrap it. As the next party of government we will replace the dependence on means-testing with greater dependence on the universal state pension, particularly for older pensioners. In other words, as the economy grows and Governments have to decide whether to put money into means-tested benefits or a universal state pension, we will opt for the pensions route. That is the difference between the Liberal Democrats and the Government.
I suggested that the Minister has a history. He used to be a free thinker. Indeed, some people have unkindly suggested that the delay in his attaining ministerial office—his appointment was long overdue, I hasten to add—was partly attributable to the fact that he had a tendency to free-think rather too much.
I happen to have with me a copy of an article by the Minister that appeared in the New Statesman a year after the 1997 general election, entitled "Back to Beveridge's Basics." [Interruption.] It was a very good article and I commend it to the House. I am not sure whether I have the authority to place a copy in the Library, but I would like to do so. In the article, he asked himself this very important rhetorical question:
"Should social security policy abandon notions of universality and focus all available resources on the poor? It is time to give a loud 'no' in answer to this question."
He went on to write:
"the notion of citizenship is diminished if the welfare state deteriorates into a mere poverty relief programme. And the main sufferers would be the poor themselves, subject to more means tests."
That is the dreadful thing to which they would be subject, and they would be "marginalised and stigmatised." The article goes on to state:
"And it would be a slippery slope: if pensions and child benefits are means-tested, why shouldn't we means-test access to doctors and hospitals and schools?"
Those are the Minister's words and perhaps that is his agenda—I do not know. I sometimes ask myself what happened to that idealist of a few years ago. Perhaps the House should reflect on his concluding comment:
"No one of sound mind could advocate wholesale means-testing".
How right he was.
To coin a new Labour phrase, I always believed that means-testing should be for the few and not the many, but what sort of policy do we have? It is one in which the majority of pensioners will be allowed to retire into poverty only for some of them to be rescued by a means test. Is that really a vision for 40 years down the line? Should it not be the Government's goal to ensure that the vast majority of pensioners reach pension age with decent pension entitlements in their own right, so that it is the few who have slipped through the net who need lifting out of poverty, not the many? How can a Government have so little ambition for Britain's older people that they allow this situation to persist?
The Minister did not refer to the council tax at all. I wonder why he did not do so and why he did not accept that, year after year, the council tax, which was created by the Conservatives and has been built on by the Labour Government, is becoming more of a burden, especially for Britain's older people. Those are the people who have modest incomes beyond the reach of the benefits system. They have worked, saved and budgeted hard and expect to have a particular standard of living, but find that, through inadequate central Government funding, the council tax is an increasing share of their income and more of a burden. Who is responsible? Year in, year out, central Government builds in an assumption that revenues from the council tax will rise far faster than inflation. Year after year, Governments and local authorities of all political parties and none ratcheted up the council tax, and what do the Government do about it? They have done nothing to address the burden of the council tax on Britain's older people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle raised the important issue of post office closures. The Minister is to some extent responsible for that policy. He spoke about giving pensioners choice. He even said that about 60 per cent. of newly retired pensioners opt for payment into a bank account. That is fine, as it is their choice. However, 40 per cent. want an order book. Faced with a choice between payment into a bank account and an order book, they want the latter, but the Government are going to take that choice away from them. I am most concerned not about newly retired pensioners, but about the elderly and infirm pensioners to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle referred, who can just about make it to the local post office and enjoy the social contact, value the order book and have opted to have the book by not choosing payment to a bank account. Why do the Government not respect that choice? They are guilty of a lack of respect of older people.
We make no apology for the fact that our motion is wide ranging. Older people quite properly have a sense that Britain is an unfair place for them. They have worked and saved hard. They were told that the welfare state would be there from the cradle to the grave, not from the cradle to when they really needed it most, when the carpet would be pulled away from under them. That is what the Government are guilty of.
We have heard no response to the care homes crisis, the pensions crisis, the closure of post offices or the burden of the council tax. The Government's attitude has been complacent; I hope that the Minister will do rather better.
The debate has been, as usual, good-humoured and enjoyable. It has also been informative, although I doubt whether it informed us in quite the way that the Liberal Democrats hoped. It tells us that they have not changed their ways—they would rather make a lot of noise and issue a lot of press releases than do any serious thinking about an issue. Although this is their Opposition day, and they started by saying that the issue is one of the most important of the day and absolutely key to their policies, at times they did not even have any Back Benchers in the Chamber and very few tried to contribute to the debate.
We have heard so many contradictions that it is difficult for me to figure out where to start, but I shall do so with a word that was mentioned by Mr. Webb—choice. That represents the key dividing line between what the Liberal Democrats intend for older people and what this Government intend. When Mr. Burstow opened the debate, he used the phrases, "People stuck in hospital when they are ready to go to a care home," and, "We want elderly people to go to a care home at the right time and the right place." The assumption that the Liberal Democrats make in all their planning is that the right place for older people is a care home. That is the inevitable consequence of everything that they try to do in local government and other places where they have positions of power, such as Scotland, and of what they are trying to do here in Westminster.
To emphasise what my hon. Friend says, in Cumbria, where the Liberal Democrats are in control of the county council, the first thing that they did when they got power was to increase home care charges, despite having said during the election that they would not. We now have 250 pensioners who cannot afford home care any more because of the Liberal Democrats.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that to the House's attention, because I bet that it is a story that is repeated all over the country wherever the Liberal Democrats are in a position of power.
Let me give an alternative view of what we should be offering to older people. Primarily, we should assume that older people know best what they want. We should bear it in mind that this is the generation that got us through a world war—in many cases, two world wars. We intend to respect their right to control and make choices about their own lives. We want them to have a spectrum of choices for their old age, ranging from being looked after in their own home to a variety of provision, including extra-care housing, residential care and nursing care. We want to enable them to make practical decisions.
Yesterday, I had the privilege of opening Alexandra house in Coventry—an extra-care facility that was created as a result of some foresighted thinking by the Anchor trust and Coventry social services. The council is Labour run, I might add. Every resident has their own flat—not a room, but a flat, with a living room, a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen and its own front door. Although the front door opens not on to a street, but on to a corridor, the corridors are named after streets, so people live in, say, 31 Primrose way instead of a numbered room in a house. It is therefore a private home where the individual can close the door on the rest of the world whenever they want. There, I met an elderly lady in a wheelchair who is no longer able to see or feed herself—she is fed through perentaneous endoscopic gastrostomy, or PEG, feeding—and needs total and constant nursing care. Yet she lives in her home with her own space and privacy. She is able to do that because she can plug into the services that she needs when they are required.
We should like to extend the model of extra-care housing to give additional choice to older people. Some people could choose to rent extra-care housing and others could choose to transfer the equity from their homes to buy it. There would be a range of provision, and people could make the choice when they approached retirement age. They would know that, as their care needs progressed, they could plug into different, more intensive care packages. We want to add such provision to the spectrum of choice. We are realising that by devising an £85 million competition to encourage people to propose ideas for creating such extra-care facilities. We shall not assume that people want to be in a care home. Our planning will be predicated on giving people genuine choice.
Before considering care home closures, I want to deal with some aspects of pension credit. I shall not do that in depth, because my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions did so earlier, and I do not pretend to be an expert on it. However, Hywel Williams raised some local issues involving the centralisation of the Pension Service in Wales. He made some constructive points that deserve a constructive answer, and I shall ensure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions reads his comments and takes them on board. I shall deal with two points.
First, the hon. Gentleman said that 60 per cent. of pensioners in Wales rely on the minimum income guarantee. That means that 60 per cent. of pensioners in Wales benefit from our targeting resources on the poorer pensioners—those who need them most—rather than spreading them too thinly.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman said that there are two language lines for people in Wales to ring when they claim minimum income guarantee and pension credit. Of course, there should be two language lines and their existence shows the detail into which the Department for Work and Pensions and the Pension Service go to ensure that everybody can easily claim the minimum income guarantee and the pension credit. The fact that people can do that by telephone and that Pension Service officials will go to people's homes to help them to apply for the benefits shows the lengths to which we go to boost the number of claimants and ensure that everyone can claim. The Department and the Pension Service should be congratulated on their work, and not encounter the sort of blocking that Liberal Democrats are attempting.
Events in Brent, East have constituted another sub-theme of the debate. Liberal Democrats in one place claim that they would scrap the pension credit, but in Brent, East they claim that it is wonderful. For the first time, I witnessed a political party changing its policy three times in one debate. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam began with an explicit statement that the pension credit should be scrapped and that we should give £19 extra a week to people over 75. [Interruption.] That is what he said—I am not going barmy and I did not imagine it. Anybody under 75 would not benefit from that Liberal Democrat policy. When he claimed that he would get rid of means-testing, he did not mean it because £19 is not as much as the total minimum income guarantee, which is closer to £26. Anybody who did not benefit from the £19 and remained worse off would have to be means-tested to reach the minimum income guarantee, and anyone under 75 would still have to be means-tested to get the minimum income guarantee.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam sits here trying to give the impression to the pensioners of this country and the voters in Brent, East that if his party were in power, it would scrap means-testing and give everyone an extra £19 a week, but he is going to do neither of those things. By the end of the debate, the hon. Member for Northavon had said, "Well, we did believe in scrapping the pension credit when it first came out, but we've changed our mind now. We're going to keep it." Yet, by the time he had reached the end of his speech, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions as to whether he would scrap it he said, "No, but if we were in power, we would shift to some other means of providing pensioner benefits." He had changed his policy within 15 seconds of making it, which has to be a record, even for the Liberal Democrats.
Let us move away from pensions, although that will not involve moving any closer to an issue that the Liberal Democrats have done any serious thinking about. Let us consider the so-called crisis in care homes that they keep talking about. I would be the first to admit that, in some parts of the country, there are some difficulties in respect of capacity in care homes. How are we dealing with that? We have given local authorities substantial extra funding, along with the responsibility to manage care home capacity in their own areas. We have given resources above the level of inflation since 1997. We have given local authorities nearly a quarter more funding for personal social services, and they can use that money in any way they want—to balance provision between domiciliary care and care homes, or to stabilise the care home market, for example. They can do whatever they want with it, because we believe in local government autonomy. That is something that the Liberal Democrats are always telling us that they believe in, yet as soon as local authorities make a decision that they do not like, they want us to intervene from Whitehall.
It is working all round the country. My hon. Friend Mr. Turner told us how it is working in his constituency. He has a Labour council—that is why it is working there. Why is it that Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members raise the issue of problems in the care home market? It is because most of them have constituencies with Conservative and Liberal Democrat local councils. Labour councils balance these provisions in the way that they were intended to be balanced. Let me give the House one final figure on care home closures. There are 500,000 care home places available in this country, yet only 460,000 people want to use them. There is still excess care home capacity.
With regard to domiciliary care, we want to give a real choice to older people. No less than 80 per cent. of older people tell us that they want to stay in their own home for as long as possible. The suggestion by the hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam, for Northavon and for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) that there are now fewer domiciliary care packages in place is—dare I say it—a sophisticated use of spin. The reality is that the number of hours of domiciliary care provision is now 14 per cent. higher. The difference is that home care packages are now being properly targeted on the people who need them so that they can stay in their own home, rather than being spread among all elderly people. We are taking practical steps to keep people in their own home.
We believe in choice, respecting older people and giving them security in retirement. The Liberal Democrats believe in taking away that choice and security. They believe in introducing policies that might help a few pensioners, but at the expense of destroying the economy, slashing the value of pensions overall and taking choice away from everybody. That is not what the Government are about. We are about respecting and valuing old age, and ensuring that people have cash in their pockets when they become older. This Government ensure that people have choice of provision when they get older and we respect their right to choose. That is what the Government are about, and I advise the House to treat the Liberal Democrat motion with the contempt that it deserves.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House welcomes that from 2004–05 Government will be spending £9.2 billion extra per year in real terms on pensioners compared with the 1997 system; notes this is £5.7 billion more than if the basic state pension had been linked to earnings; recognises that the poorest third of pensioners will be £1,600 a year better off in real terms compared with the 1997 system; applauds Government action for older people on health and social care, fuel poverty, transport and lifelong learning; approves of action to stabilise the care home sector by increasing resources available to councils to increase care home fees where required; supports the Government's commitment to increase resources available for social services by on average six per cent. a year in real terms over the next three years, the expansion of intensive home care support, and the largest ever sustained increase in funding for the NHS; welcomes the real terms increase of 25 per cent. in grant to local authorities since 1997, and the review of the balance of funding between central and local government; further welcomes the successful introduction of universal banking services, giving Post Office access through a number of current accounts, basic bank accounts and the Post Office card account; congratulates Government on its intention to bring in Pension Credit from October; notes eligible households stand to gain on average £400 a year; and applauds the actions of the Government which result in over 1 million people being ready to receive Pension Credit who will gain more money than they had before.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am reliably informed that yesterday the official spokesman for No. 10, Downing street told the Lobby that the report from the Intelligence and Security Committee had been handed to the Prime Minister that day. However, when the Prime Minister was asked earlier today in the Chamber why he would not publish the report, he said—as far as I can remember hearing—that he could not possibly publish it today because he would not have it until tomorrow. There is a serious inconsistency between what No. 10 told everybody yesterday and, unsurprisingly, what the Prime Minister told the House today. Can you help the House to sort the matter out? It is a matter of the greatest importance and considerable controversy. It is not good enough for the Prime Minister to say something to the House that is in direct contradiction of what his spokesman told the Lobby yesterday. May we have this matter sorted out before much more time passes?
I understand the points that the right hon. Gentleman makes, but I am not in a position to help him because I am not aware of the detailed points he has made. No doubt the House will have heard his points and they are, of course, now on the record.