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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:39 am on 23rd February 2010.

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Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Shadow Minister, Work and Pensions 10:39 am, 23rd February 2010

As always, it is a great pleasure to follow Steve Webb. Indeed, it is becoming routine. I join him in congratulating Jo Swinson on securing this debate, which has been interesting if a bit breathless, given the number of issues that have been raised.

I was grateful for the hon. Lady's confirmation that her party has downgraded the citizen's pension, or universal pension, to an aspiration. It joins the list of other policies such as free tuition and free care which have also been downgraded recently. Those downgrades do not yet seem to have found their way into the Liberals' literature in my constituency, but I am sure that it is only a matter of time before they find their way into mine.

Pensioner poverty has been debated any number of times in recent years, sometimes in Opposition time as well. I believe that it is clear to all of us that the problem is getting worse: at least 2.5 million pensioners are officially living in poverty. On the basis of work in our own constituencies, as we have heard from several hon. Members, the problems faced by many of our older constituents are perfectly plain. I am a vice-president of my local Age Concern and see that very much at first hand.

We are asked to believe that the Government's slogan for the next election will be, "A future fair for all". What happened to the past 13 years? That was the future once, if I can misquote somebody. The fact is that all the statistics show that the problem is getting worse. The Government seem to be rightly focused on child poverty to the extent that they have introduced a Bill designed to abolish it, even though it is clear that they will fail to meet their 2020 target on child poverty. Why not a Bill on pensioner poverty? What is the distinction? Of course child poverty is important, but so is pensioner poverty.

The Government often say-I am sure that it is in the Minister's prepared speech-that pensioners are now less likely to fall into poverty than the rest of the population. Of course, that depends on how one looks at the statistics: including or not including housing costs makes a significant difference to the claim. We still face the grim truth that 2.5 million pensioners live in poverty, and 64 per cent. of pensioner households are dependent on state benefits for at least one half of their income.

One aspect among others that Mr. Pelling touched on was fuel poverty, which is particularly important at present because of the recent bad weather. The latest Government figures suggest that 3.5 million households are affected, but Energywatch says that actually 5.4 million households, or some 9 million people, live in fuel poverty. Sadly, Help the Aged has estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 elderly people die each winter because of their freezing homes.

My party intends to continue the winter fuel allowance. We are committed to protecting that vital source of help for older people, but it is clear that this issue will not go away, whoever is in government. We intend to bring in energy efficiency improvements of £6,500 for every household and to require energy companies to provide information on energy bills that clearly shows the cheapest tariff available. We need complete transparency in the energy market if we are to give pensioners and others the opportunity to get the best possible deal to meet their energy requirements.

There has been quite a discussion about benefits and take-up. John Mason touched on this in his speech. We know that some £5.4 billion a year in benefits goes unclaimed by pensioners-a huge amount which, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, could take at least 500,000 pensioners out of poverty at a stroke. The hon. Gentleman was right to touch on the problem of complexity in all of this.

On the earnings link, Jeremy Corbyn took us on an interesting trip down memory lane, but I am sure that he is as frustrated as he was when the Conservatives were in government that, after 13 years, this Government have done absolutely nothing to restore it. I can confirm that my party is committed to restoring the earnings link within the next Parliament, exactly mirroring the Government's current position, which I hope the Minister will confirm.