I can only agree with my hon. Friend. The blatant way in which the Government are attempting to put off the evil day, while more and more Equitable Life victims sadly pass away, is outrageous. There seems to have been a campaign of delay and dithering, as on so many other things.
The Government's record on pensions is no better. A report produced by the Department for Work and Pensions concluded that 51 per cent. of people would not trust the Government to act in their best interests on pensions. Although we passed the necessary legislation some time ago, Ministers will still not say exactly when they will restore the link between the uprating of the state pension and the growth in average earnings. May I please press the Minister on that again today?
The Government have tested to destruction the notion that mass means-testing can deliver help to those most in need. As I said, each year more than £5 billion of benefits goes unclaimed by needy pensioners and some 1.7 million people never claim the pension credit to which they are entitled. Other benefits have even worse take-up, the best example being council tax benefit. Why will Ministers not support the British Legion and Age Concern campaign to change the name of the benefit to council tax rebate, so that people can see that it is theirs as of right?
The Government have also presided over a huge retreat from private and occupational pensions. More than 70,000 occupational schemes have wound up or begun winding up since Labour took office in 1997-no wonder, when one of the Government's first acts was their tax raid on pensions, which is estimated to have cost pension funds up to £150 billion since 1997. They have continued to heap extra costs and red tape on those employers who, for all the right reasons, continue to sponsor defined-benefit schemes for their work force. The latest estimate puts the funding shortfall for UK defined-benefit schemes at more than £200 billion-a staggering 88 per cent. of the country's DB schemes face a shortfall. The pensions regulator has warned of "severe pressures" on employers and pension fund trustees and members, and pensions expert Dr. Ros Altmann has said that we are
"on the way to being a nation of pensioner poverty."
In contrast, we will simplify pensions rules and do everything possible to encourage responsible employers to make generous workplace provision. The new system of personal accounts may auto-enrol many thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of workers, who may be no better off or even worse off because of the effect of the means-tested benefits system. Even worse, personal accounts could actually hasten the demise of more generous existing schemes-a phenomenon called levelling down.
Yesterday, the long-awaited Green Paper on care and support was published-another one with a chatty foreword by the Prime Minister. He seems to think that we need "a major debate" on the issues. We do not need another debate; we need a decision. Is that really the best that Labour can do after 12 years in government, and 10 years since the Sutherland report-more dithering, more options to debate, and a menu without prices?