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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:30 am on 23rd February 2010.

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Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 10:30 am, 23rd February 2010

I do not doubt that there are small steps in the right direction, but, for example, we are now in a culture in which, when one gets a motor insurance premium, one can shop around and "compare the meerkat", or whatever it is. There is less of a culture of doing that with annuities, and one proposal is that, however many months out from the date on which someone expects to draw an annuity, they ought to be given, in a digestible format, the information that they need to shop around. If they have access to the internet-I take the point made about internet access by the hon. Member for Croydon, Central-or can go to a library, they will then have the five key pieces of information they need, and the process would be far easier than it is at present. That is an easy win for improving pensions, particularly for women, and something on which much more should be done.

My hon. Friend Mark Williams properly raised the issue of council tax benefit, as opposed to council tax rebate, and the Royal British Legion is rightly concerned about that. With the best will in the world, we can have the best take-up campaigns and can rename benefits as rebates, which would help, but ultimately a decent, secure, guaranteed pension must be the goal. I would be the first to accept that the level of pension that all of us would like to see cannot and never could be delivered overnight, but I believe that any political party must have a vision-a direction of travel. One of the problems in pensioner poverty is that we have seen flip-flops and switches in emphasis, so we need a clear goal and must make progress as rapidly is possible. That is why we think that the earnings link needs to be restored, not by the end of the next Parliament, as the Conservatives have said, or by 2012 but maybe 2015, as the Government have said, but immediately. Earnings or prices, whichever is higher, must be the way to go straight away, but that is a small first step on a long journey.

I will repeat the point I made to the hon. Member for Islington, North: at a time when we should be re-linking the pension to earnings, to have only part of the total basic pension price protected and to freeze SERPS, graduated pensions and the state second pension is an extraordinary thing to do when we all recognise-I speak at enough pension conferences to know-that every single problem in the pensions system would be made better by a decent state pension. Getting private pension incentives on top is easier with a decent state pension. Reducing reliance on non take-up and issues of means-testing is made better with a decent state pension. If we can do only one thing in the whole of pensions policy, it must be to have a decent state pension, which would make all the other problems much less severe.

Personal accounts pensions, or NEST pensions, ought to be a good way of tackling gaps in pension provision, but one of my worries about the future is that we will end up encouraging millions of people to take out relatively small pensions, much of which they will then find to have been means-tested away, and that might discredit private pension saving if we do not tackle means-testing and the adequacy of the basic state pension. I cannot do justice to the wide range of issues that my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire and other Members have raised, but the basic state pension is a critical issue. Sorting out the basic state pension is first, second and third on the list of priorities, and it needs to be dealt with not in the distant future, but now.