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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley): We estimate that around 500,000 pensioners are missing out on their entitlement, and we are concerned about those in real need because they do not take up the minimum income guarantee. At the end of May, we launched an ambitious minimum income guarantee take-up campaign, and there is intense activity on a number of fronts to encourage those who may be entitled to the minimum income guarantee to claim it.
Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, is it not true that the poorest pensioners are in fact the oldest pensioners? Is it not also true that the oldest pensioners are probably less likely to take up income support or the minimum income guarantee? Given the Government's stated objective of helping the poorest pensioners, would it not be a failure of the minimum income guarantee if that were the case? Would the problem not be alleviated if pensioners--or at least today's pensioners and older pensioners--received a better state pension?
Mr. Bayley: It is the intention of the take-up campaign to ensure that all pensioners who are entitled to a minimum income guarantee but are not claiming it get it. That includes a lot of older pensioners--precisely those to whom we are giving the additional help of the free television licence.
In the first two weeks of the campaign, we have received 40,000 calls on the MIG helpline, and an additional 30,000 requests have been received through the post from people returning the tear-off slips in the mail shots that we have sent out so far. We are getting a good response, and we know that it will provide the additional support of a minimum income guarantee for a lot of pensioners who have not have had it hitherto, although they were entitled to it.
Helen Jones (Warrington, North): I welcome what my hon. Friend has said about the number of those calling the helpline. However, even when people receive the partially completed form, many pensioners who live alone, and some with disabilities, will find it very difficult to complete the other relevant parts of the form, particularly people who are blind or partially sighted. Will my hon. Friend consider the possibility of a link-up between the
Mr. Bayley: I can reassure my hon. Friend that the way we have structured the MIG take-up campaign is intended to deal with precisely that problem. When people telephone the helpline, they can fill in the form over the telephone there and then.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Is not the Government's minimum income guarantee for pensioners a complete con, because it depends on some of our poorest pensioners having to go cap in hand to the Government to claim income support? Is it not high time all our pensioners had a decent minimum pension?
Mr. Bayley: I am just astounded by that question. Let me take the House back to May 1997, when the basic state pension was £62.45. Those getting the MIG now are getting £16 more. If the hon. Gentleman tells the people who are getting £16 more as a result of a Labour policy that the MIG is a bad thing, they will laugh in his face.
The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling): We want everyone who can save to do so. People think about their education and their working career, and they should think also about their retirement. So we are introducing individual pension forecasts that set out how much individuals will get on retirement. It should concentrate minds wonderfully.
Mr. Love: All the evidence suggests, first, that people begin to think about their pensions only when it is too late and, secondly, that the level of financial literacy in this country is far too low and needs to be raised. The Financial Services Authority has been given a statutory duty to promote an information and education campaign, but is that enough? What further steps of encouragement can the Government take to help people save for their retirement?
Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend has a good point. I suspect that most people tend not to think about their income in retirement until they are in their 50s, or when it is too late to build up a second pension.
First, we had to ensure that there were the means to enable people to save for their retirement. That is why we have reformed SERPS for the new state second pension and introduced a stakeholder pension to provide options that previously did not exist. We shall ensure that everyone receives an annual statement that tells him or her exactly how much they will get when they retire. Members will no doubt be aware that the Fees Office is in the process of sending out just such statements to Members, who frequently think about their second and third careers, especially at this stage in a Parliament. I am sure that many Conservatives wish now that they had thought about these matters during the previous
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): When it comes to knowledge about saving for retirement, will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the basic state pension is popular precisely because it gives dignity to people? They do not view it as a handout. It is something that they have worked for all their life. That is why they want an increase in the basic state pension. Is that perhaps why a Labour Back Bencher was quoted as telling the Daily Mirror:
Mr. Darling: As far as I am aware, the hon. Gentleman stood on exactly the same manifesto as the rest of his Conservative colleagues at the previous election. Conservative policy in government and at the general election--
Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend reminds me that the hon. Gentleman was a Minister in the previous Tory Government. Every year, they increased the state pension in line with prices, and that is what their policy remains. Despite the one-off policy of increasing pensions by all of 42p, which is what their policy is now, they say that that was a one-off and that they will go to price indexation thereafter.
We are doing better than that, but our priority in the first instance is to help pensioners who lost out during all the years when the Conservatives were in power, and during the years when the hon. Gentleman was a Minister, when he said absolutely nothing about pensioners or the basic state pension. He does not even dispute that. The Conservative Government's record was to leave us with a generation of pensioners who had so little to retire on that they were living below income support levels. That situation should not be tolerated, and that is why we have increased the moneys that we spend on supporting pensioners. In the first instance, we are giving most help to those pensioners who lost out during the Tory years.
Ms Helen Southworth (Warrington, South): I really welcome the action that my right hon. Friend is taking for tomorrow's pensioners. It will solve many future problems. Far too many of today's pensioners are on unacceptably low incomes, thanks to 18 years of Tory Government mismanagement, which caused appalling neglect. Will my right hon. Friend take some early action to continue the work that he has already begun, so that we can increase the basic state pension and provide what Age Concern calls a modest but decent income for everybody?
Mr. Darling: We should aim to ensure that all pensioners share in the country's rightful prosperity. Surely the first priority must be to address the situation that we inherited, in which about 2 million pensioners
Mr. David Willetts (Havant): I am afraid that the Secretary of State does not seem to have been listening to his own Back Benchers. Several Labour Back Benchers have called for a substantial increase in the basic state pension. That is our policy. We would get rid of the gimmicks and consolidate that money in a pension that pensioners want, which is a guaranteed entitlement. Why on earth did the Secretary of State not argue that case with the Treasury? Why was he happy to accept the 75p, when we are offering what pensioners up and down the country want? We are offering all pensioners an increase in the real value of their pension on top of what they get from the Government at the moment. If the Secretary of State does not listen, all Labour Members will need some retirement planning.
Mr. Darling: That is wishful thinking on the part of the hon. Gentleman. I shall tell him what I did listen to: I listened to the shadow Chancellor when he was asked about the Conservative party's pension policy. He said:
When the election comes, I am quite happy for us to be judged against what we have done, what the Tory party did in office and what it is now promising. Most pensioners will see that this Government are doing more for pensioners than the last lot would do if they were ever returned to power.
Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): May I say openly and honestly that many of my constituents have expressed concerns about pensions and have urged the Government to do more, but not one of them has said that pensioners would be better off under a Conservative Government? They know that when the Conservatives, over 18 years, had the opportunity to do something about pensions, they did absolutely nothing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that during the debate on this issue in the past few months not one representative pensioners' leader has endorsed the Conservative party's proposals?
Mr. Darling: I can tell my hon. Friend something else. I am not sure that many pensioners would be grateful for their 42p once they read what the shadow Health Secretary had to say earlier this year. He said that health conditions such as