[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair] — Pensioner Poverty

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 23rd February 2010.

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs) 9:30 am, 23rd February 2010

I am pleased to have secured this debate on pensioner poverty, although it is depressing that such a debate should be necessary. It is surely a scandal that, in one of the world's most developed and prosperous nations, one in five elderly people still live below the breadline. That is a total of more than 2 million individuals.

I wish to discuss some of the causes of pensioner poverty and say what more can be done to help one of the most vulnerable and deserving groups. Today, 1.3 million pensioners rely on the state pension as their sole source of income, but at £97 a week it clearly is not enough to achieve a standard of living that most people would find acceptable. Our state pension is among the lowest in the developed world. Among the 27 OECD countries, only Japan, Ireland and Mexico have a lower state pension measured as a proportion of the national average wage.

Had the link with earnings not been broken in the 1980s, the basic pension would now be £40 a week higher. It is only fair that pensioners should share equally in the growing prosperity of the society that they helped to build. The Government recognise that pensions must be re-linked to earnings but they are not committed to doing so until 2016. Even then, we will be left with a state pension system that Ros Altmann, the pensions expert and former adviser to Tony Blair, described as one of the lowest and most complicated in the developed world.

Women are hugely over-represented among the poorest pensioners. Not only are they far less likely to have savings, but thousands do not receive the full basic state pension. Even after the lowering of the threshold for national insurance contributions later this year, a quarter of women will still not qualify for a full basic state pension, mostly because of gaps in their NI contributions as a result of bringing up their children. To make matters worse, with life expectancy for women exceeding men by more than five years, increasing numbers of women are left living alone. I hope that the Minister agrees that we should be working towards a fairer system-one in which individuals who have lived in this country for their entire lives should be guaranteed at least the full basic state pension.

I draw the Minister's attention to the outrageous sums that are left unclaimed by some of the UK's most vulnerable pensioners. One of the main reasons for the unacceptable level of pensioner poverty is the under-claiming of pension credit and housing and council tax benefits; as much as £5 billion is unclaimed every year. That is £13.9 million every day.