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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:19 am on 23rd February 2010.

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Photo of John Mason John Mason Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 10:19 am, 23rd February 2010

I completely agree with the Minister on that point. In a constituency such as mine, where people are probably earning a bit less than average, they are possibly getting even less than that. The matter is very important to those people and such a pension is certainly not gold-plated. We should surely bring the private sector up to the public sector, rather than the other way around. I wonder whether employers are getting off too lightly and if there should be much more compulsion regarding employers contributing to employees' pension schemes. The reality is that that is often why the private sector can undercut the public sector when it comes to contracts in the local authority or elsewhere. The private sector has lower pension costs and is able to win contracts, but, in the long term, such a situation is causing a problem. I accept that it is unlikely we can return all employees to defined benefit schemes and that putting all the risk on employers is perhaps unfair, but to switch to the other extreme of putting all the risk on employees is also unfair. It should be possible to come to some kind of compromise where risk is shared.

There is also clearly an issue regarding spending priorities. When we face tight financial times, we have to choose priorities. We have to choose between nuclear submarines or going around the world fighting wars as if we were still an empire, and putting money into helping pensioners and other vulnerable groups. Surely the reason why Sweden, the Netherlands and such countries have a level of pensioner poverty that is a third of that of the UK is that they are not spending so much on defence and other priorities. Even if the UK has those priorities, can Scotland not be allowed to have a bit more freedom to set its own priorities? I believe that most people in Scotland would want to put more money into pensions and less into nuclear weapons. If we could have fiscal autonomy or accept at least some of Calman's proposals, we would be moving in the right direction.

I wanted to intervene on the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire to point out that she had not talked a lot about council tax, but I did not get the chance. I believe that her party-mine certainly does-favours a move away from council tax towards something such as a local income tax, which would be based on ability to pay and, at a stroke, would help pensioners and people on a limited income. Such people would not have to apply for anything because that local tax would be based on their income. I congratulate the hon. Lady on the debate and urge the Government to take the issue more seriously. Surely, this is one subject where the Government could be seriously to the left of the Conservatives.