[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

It means that when money is available within the next Parliament, we will do it.

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was uncharacteristically churlish about the role of private and occupational pensions in delivering a good standard of living for millions of our fellow citizens. Much of that is due to reforms and encouragement by successive Conservative Governments. It is a measure of this Government's failure on pensions and pensioner poverty that those pension arrangements have taken such a hit in the past 13 years. We know that the Government stripped more than £100 billion out of pension funds, and my party is committed to reversing the effects of that in time. It was important that the hon. Member for Northavon touched on the future development of personal accounts, or National Employment Savings Trust pensions-NEST, as we must get used to calling them. We also know, following the pre-Budget report, that the Government are already planning to strip out £2.4 billion from those pension savings through delays in implementation.

The default retirement age, which was touched on by several hon. Members, is important. There are already 1.4 million people working beyond normal retirement age, which shows that there is an appetite for doing so. My party supports scrapping the default retirement age in principle, but we are not oblivious to the practical difficulties that that presents-unlike, possibly, the Liberal Democrats. We will work closely with organisations such as the CBI to find solutions to the complications and problems.

Mark Williams raised a concern of the Royal British Legion. Several hon. Members mentioned the complexity of the council tax benefit system and the resulting low take-up. We know that nearly one half of all pensioners are subject to means-tested benefits under this Government and that, of all the benefits, the one with the lowest take-up by far is council tax benefit. Hence, my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron, the Leader of the Opposition, gave his support to the campaign of the Royal British Legion, which was pleased that during passage of the Welfare Reform Act 2009 there seemed to be a firm commitment that the Government would take action quickly. However, Ministers now seem to have retreated from that position. They gave undertakings and ensured that a particular amendment was withdrawn on the back of such assurances, but they are now talking about consulting local authorities and other key stakeholders.

We know that only 55 per cent. or so of all pensioners who qualify for the benefit actually get round to making a claim. According to polling carried out by ComRes, two thirds of people believe that the benefit is not claimed because people are ashamed to claim it. Conservatives are committed to working with local authorities to have a two-year freeze on council tax levels, and I am sure that that will be welcomed by many pensioners, but it seems to us-I believe that there is cross-party support for this-that the simple change of name from "benefit" to "rebate" would take away a great deal of the shame felt by pensioners who simply do not claim. An Ipsos MORI survey conducted on behalf of the Royal British Legion found that 56 per cent. of respondents believed that eligible veterans would be more likely to make a claim if it were for a rebate rather than a benefit.

May I take the opportunity provided so kindly by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire to press the Minister to tell us exactly when that simple administrative change will happen. A simple change it may be, but it could put a great deal of extra money into the pockets of needy pensioners across our country who face poverty. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.