Previous SectionIndexHome Page

James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): The hon. Gentleman talks about means-tested benefits and reducing the number of people who have to claim them. Obviously, one way to do that would be to cut the value of the minimum income guarantee. Can he give us a guarantee that, if he were the Secretary of State, he would continue to uprate the minimum income guarantee in line with earnings?

Mr. Willetts: We will have that debate as we approach the next election. The Government have not promised indefinite upratings of their means-tested benefits in line with earnings, and our warning is that that is where we will end up if we carry on in the direction in which we are going; but the long-term uprating of benefits in line with earnings is not consistent with the objective in which Ministers say they believe—funded pensions providing 60 per cent. of pensioners' incomes.

We want a society in which people have more funded-pension savings. That vision is as important as high-quality public services. When people are stuck on trolleys waiting for medical attention in hospital, they can see what is going wrong with our health service. When people are delayed by yet another rail strike, they can see that our transport system is not working. The decline in our funded pensions is much less visible, but it is more insidious and equally dangerous. The long-term consequences for our society of the decline in funded pensions could be very serious indeed. That is why we have called this debate, and it is why I ask the House to support the motion.

7.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I commend the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) for one thing at least—he spoke for substantially less time than he did when we last debated pensions. The only thing that seems to be the same is that he said absolutely nothing then about what the Conservative party would do to increase people's pensions savings, and tonight he did exactly the same—he said exactly nothing about what the Conservative party would do.

I will deal with all the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised during his short speech, but I am surprised that almost a year into this Parliament there is still no Tory policy. I am surprised because in the previous Parliament policies flowed from him like water. He told us that the

4 Feb 2002 : Column 661

winter fuel payments were gimmicks, as were free television licences. A year later, with a new policy, winter fuel payments were so good that he wanted to pay them to everyone, not only those who lived here, but those who lived in sunny Spain as well. Instead of being gimmicks, free television licences became so good that he wanted to given them to everyone—even to those without television licences.

By the election, the hon. Gentleman was on to a new policy—he wanted people to opt out of the basic state pension, the result of which would be that a 16-year-old boy would have to save about £10 a week just to buy back his basic pension. So there is no shortage of inventiveness from the hon. Gentleman, but he said absolutely nothing today.

In case the hon. Gentleman did say nothing, I looked at the Conservative party's website, which is usually the repository of what a party has to say. It said, "Click for more", so I clicked for more and found out that there is no more. For the benefit of Conservative Members who do not have to hand a personal computer—it is probably against the rules of the House to have a PC in the Chamber—I have a copy of the web page on the Tory party policy, and it is absolutely blank, as hon. Members can see, except for a picture of the dome, for some reason. If that is the Tories' policy, good luck to them.

It is surprising that the hon. Gentleman had nothing to say, because I happened to glance through the February edition of Pensions Management, which includes an article by him under the odd heading, "Kiss—keep it simple stupid". Indeed, he is to be commended because he has kept it extremely simple. He says:

That is from the man who has opposed every measure that we have introduced precisely to help pensioners on low incomes. He might have got away with that if he had said at the same time what his policy was to help pensioners on low incomes share in the rising prosperity of this country, instead of which there is no policy whatever. We are well into this Parliament, and whereas some of his colleagues are coming up with policies here, there and everywhere, we hear not a single word from him on what his policy is.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): The Secretary of State calls for policies from the Opposition in the first year of Parliament. Will he confirm that the last Conservative Government provided the largest-ever increase in pension funds, whereas he has presided over a very sad decline?

Mr. Darling: I well remember what the last Conservative Government left us. I remember the mis-selling of pensions and the fact that the Conservative Government halved the value of the state earnings-related pension scheme and then forgot to tell anyone that they had done so. I remember that the gap between the better-off pensioners in this country and the poorest widened and that the Conservative Government left 2 million pensioners living in poverty. The hon. Member for Havant clearly also remembers those things because he at least said that something ought to be done about them. My complaint is that he has said absolutely nothing tonight or indeed at any other time when he has been

4 Feb 2002 : Column 662

principal Opposition spokesman on pensions about what the Conservative party would do to tackle pensioner poverty.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Darling: Yes. I then want to deal with the points made by the hon. Member for Havant, but I shall give way to the Liberal Democrat spokesman in the meantime.

Mr. Webb: The right hon. Gentleman quoted from February's Pensions Management. An article headed, "Government support slips" appears on page 9. Would he care to comment on the survey that found that Liberal Democrat policies on pensions were the most favoured among pensions experts?

Mr. Darling: I am afraid that the professor who speaks for the Liberal Democrats is a bit behind the times. The article in Pensions Management was probably printed some time before an interview given by the leader of the Liberal Democrat party. On "Breakfast with Frost" on 28 February, he said:

It is obvious that Liberal Democrat policies are all up for grabs as well. Indeed, I look forward to hearing what the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) has to say because the leader of his party has said:

But the hon. Gentleman wants to spend £3 billion more on pensions alone. If his party leader is right, the hon. Gentleman may well have some difficulty with his policies. I suspect that those who read Pensions Management and similar publications will hold the same view on their pension policies. Everyone knows that the problem with the Liberal Democrats' policies on pensions and everything else is that they simply do not add up.

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs) rose

Mr. Willetts rose

Mr. Darling: I want to deal with some of the points raised by the Conservative party, and then I shall certainly give way.

Let me first deal with stakeholder pensions. Interestingly, when we last debated the subject the hon. Member for Havant spoke at great length about the perceived shortcomings of stakeholder pensions, but he was extremely brief tonight, and I am not surprised. I notice that the Conservative party is somewhat divided on its attitude to stakeholder pensions. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), who used to speak on pensions for the Conservative party, said:

So at least some Conservatives believe that stakeholder pensions are a very good addition to the options available to people.

4 Feb 2002 : Column 663

The hon. Member for Havant, however, glided over the issue of stakeholder pensions. He did not mention the fact that, whereas in October just over 400,000 stakeholder pensions had been sold, the latest figure shows that just under 638,000 have been sold, with nearly 70,000 being sold in December. Therefore, stakeholder pensions are being sold month in and month out. We always said that it would take time for them to be sold. After all, people do not suddenly run out and buy a pension as they would another consumer good. People have to think about a pension and they have to receive the proper advice and so on. However, so far, there are encouraging signs that stakeholder pensions are being sold in the way that we anticipated.

As I said when we last debated the issue, it is worth bearing in mind that, in addition to stakeholder pensions, new pension sales rose by 9 per cent. in the quarter from July to September and regular premium business rose by 50 per cent. That is encouraging. It shows that the general awareness of pensions and the willingness of people to buy them are increasing. Clearly, there is still a long way to go, but the fact that more than 637,000 pensions have been sold is part of a trend that should be encouraged. It is not surprising that Conservative Members have glided over that point as if, somehow, it did not matter. The last time we debated stakeholder pensions, they spent a considerable time going on about the fact that only 400,000 of them had been sold. Now that the number has increased considerably, they have absolutely nothing to say about the issue.

Next Section

IndexHome Page