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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:26 am on 23rd February 2010.

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Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Minister (Wales) 10:26 am, 23rd February 2010

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Jo Swinson for raising the issue and am particularly grateful to John Mason for the speed at which he made his remarks.

These are critical issues. We have a higher proportion of pensioners in Wales than anywhere in the UK- 21 per cent. compared with 19 per cent. in England and Scotland. In my constituency of Ceredigion that figure rises to 24 per cent. We have heard the statistics: 22.1 million people in the UK are living in poverty and two out of three pensioners rely on benefits. I want to make three quick points. First, the key trend is that older people tend to be worse affected by inflation than the general population because they tend to spend a higher proportion of their income on things that have had particularly large price increases, such as fuel, food and council tax. The National Pensioners Convention has estimated that 40 per cent. of pensioners' income is spent on those things, which puts pensioners in an acutely vulnerable position.

That is backed up by a 2008 report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which talks about food and fuel inflation being at 6.7 per cent. However, for pensioner couples that figure is 7.7 per cent. and for single pensioners it is 9 per cent. Inflation might not be the most pressing problem at the moment-it stands at 3.5 per cent.-but it looks set to increase, so we need to monitor that position very carefully and look out for those food and fuel spikes.

It would be churlish not to welcome the 2.5 per cent. increase in the pension-the £2.40 and the £3.85-but when we put that in the context of the 50p a month charge on phone lines to finance broadband, we realise how minimal that increase is, not least for constituencies such a mine where there is minimal broadband and a large number of my constituents cannot access it.

I have two specific points for the Minister. The last time we had a debate on the subject in this Chamber was in December 2008. One of the clearest points made was that council tax benefit should be renamed the council tax rebate. The Government were receptive to the idea and an amendment was put forward. The amendment was removed on the basis that the Government would bring that issue forward, but the time frame for that is yet to be forthcoming.

The Royal British Legion has particular concerns. The response from the Minister to the legion stated that the Government would be consulting with local authorities and other key stakeholders in due course. We are still unclear about what "due course" means. Renaming council tax benefit would deal with some of the issues about pride and lack of take-up raised by other hon. Members. It is appalling that only up to 61 per cent. of pensioners eligible for council tax benefit claim it. We need to do something to deal with that issue, which was part of the legion's return to rationing campaign. Research for that campaign revealed that 38 per cent. of older veterans were living on an income less than that required for healthy living.

I reiterate the concerns raised about fuel poverty. Particularly in a rural constituency such as Ceredigion, many people come to me with concerns about the costs of heating their home. They are unable to do so and they are unable to switch between different suppliers because of the monopolistic situation that exists.

Finally, I wish to highlight the work of the voluntary sector in bringing awareness of pension credits and other available benefits. Age Concern Ceredigion has reported a 10 per cent. increase in poverty-related inquiries among the 32,000 over-55s with whom it works. It has helped people access up to £1 million in benefits. It is an independent charity that is combating rural isolation and promoting income maximisation. It has a £100,000 shortfall in its funding for next year-because of the recession, grants are drawing up-so it will have to cut back on some of the invaluable work it does for those people. That work is replicated by citizens advice bureaux, the Royal British Legion and volunteer consultants such as Rif and Ann Winfield in my constituency. They have an important contribution to make in the short term, before we get the full citizens pension that the Liberals Democrats would certainly support.

My final point is this: the spectacle of a retired couple in south Ceredigion who have to reconcile whether it is more provident to put £10 of petrol in the car to do their shopping or to walk cannot be right, and that is why this debate is so important.