The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1979-1983 Parliament

Mr Major’s Contributions to the Pensions Debate – 4 February 1982

Below is the text of Mr Major’s Parliamentary contributions to the Pensions Debate on 4th February 1982.

Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd) I beg to move,

That this House, recalling the major progress made by the Labour Government 1974 to 1979 both in increasing the real value of the state pension and in legislating for a substantial improvement in the provision for future pensioners, notes with mounting dismay that Her Majesty’s Government’s policies have lowered already and threaten to lower still further the standard of living and quality of life of the elderly; and believes that urgent measures are needed to remedy this situation and, in particular, an early report to the House and the country on how a constructive response may be made to the Declaration of Intent of the National Pensioners’ Convention.

This is a Supply Day debate in which the Opposition have chosen to highlight the current plight of the elderly. On 18 February, the National Pensioners’ Convention, a federation of all the major organisations active on pensions, will lobby the House of Commons. We ought to consider today our likely reaction to that. Many sincere people will be there, united in their anger at how their standard of living has dropped in the past three years. They will present their ideas on how to prevent that from happening in the future.

There are two stages in our response. The first is how we should receive them on that day. They will clearly want to meet the leaders of the parties, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot) has already undertaken to do that. This debate’s first value is that it has enabled the Prime Minister to agree, for the first time, to meet leaders of the convention at the 18 February lobby.

So that it is clear beyond peradventure, I should like the Secretary of State, when he responds, to confirm unequivocally that the convention’s leaders will have an opportunity to put their points to the Prime Minister. She is the architect of the Government’s economic policies and, therefore, she must hear from them at first-hand the effect that her disastrous policies have had on their standard of living. After all, it is not enough to express moving words about pensioners as a generalised category when one is unable to meet them in person. I therefore look forward to the Secretary of State confirming what we heard in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Stoddart) today.

Secondly, there is the form of response that the House prepares for the convention. Conservative Members should note that at the end of the motion we ask that the Government publish a study of the convention’s proposals so that the House is made aware of their views and, more importantly, that the country and pensioners lobby should have that estimation of the Government’s views.

The lobby should be an exercise in which hon. Members try to get through it not with the minimum friction with those lobbying them, but with a maximum exchange of freely available information. Until the Government tabled their amendment, I believed that the Secretary of State would welcome this part of the motion and be eager to accept it, despite the reluctance of some of his Back Benchers to do the same.

My authority for making that statement is a report in the Sutton Coldfield News of 25 December 1981. One can imagine, with such an attraction, how many pensioners in the Secretary of State’s constituency turned away front watching the Bertram Mills circus to read that newspaper. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will testify to the excellence of that newspaper. He ought to, because irreverent people in the Midlands call it the “Norman Fowler House Magazine”. In that edition, there was a report of a meeting that he had with the West Midlands branch of the convention. He said: You have put up a very strong case with dignity and moderation. He promised to consider the case and respond to it. Our motion asks that the information he promised to give the West Midlands delegation should be made available to the House of Commons and the rest of the country.

In the 1974-79 period, despite many economic difficulties, the Labour Government were responsible for many improvements in pensions, at least two of which were of a major nature. The first linked the pensions of existing pensioners to whichever was the higher, earnings or prices, so that in addition to protecting them against inflation it gave them status by ensuring that they shared in the rise of general standards. I emphasise that when we left office pensions were worth, in real terms, 20 per cent. more than in 1974.

Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown) Will the hon. Gentleman explain why, in 1976, a year after his Government passed the 1975 Act, the pension was increased not in line with prices or earnings but at a level below both of those?

Mr. John As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman’s point was about the change in the method of forecasting – a change which has been adopted by the Government. My point was that the net effect over five years of the Labour Government’s pension arrangements made for an increase of 20 per cent. in real terms in the pensioners’ standard of living. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that and agree that it was a significant advance for them.

However, that was not the only advance made on that occasion. For the future, we passed pensions legislation which, after a funding period of 20 years, will provide, for a person who retires, a pension linked to earnings and an old age free from penury. That is a great and lasting monument to our late colleague Brian O’Malley. [HON. MEMBERS: “Hear, hear.”] I hope that the Secretary of State will give a pledge this afternoon on behalf of the Government that they will not interfere with the scheme or do anything to jeopardise it.

I say that not to cast aspersions on the Secretary of State’s attitude, but because powerful voices front the pension industry are now beginning to be heard, seeming to suggest that the State pension scheme ought to he scrapped. As witness to that, I quote from yesterday’s Financial Times and its report of the pensions conference. Lord Harris, the Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs, waxed lyrical during that conference. He called for the euthanasia of State pensions, which he attributed as one of the major causes of the current economic ills. I hope that the Secretary of State does two things: first, say that State pensions will not be killed off and, secondly, that they are not responsible for the country’s economic ills. Of course, the force of Lord Harris’s argument was slightly under-valued because at the end of his speech he referred to the pension reforms of the Chilean generals, who had returned to a system of ‘individual capitalism.’ The only adequate comment on that is that I bet they have.

Before the scheme comes fully on stream it will be necessary for all Governments to continue carefully to look after the intermediate generations of pensioners. Despite all the vehemence that Conservative Back Benchers dredge up from their Central Office briefs, no one can deny that the Labour Government did a great deal for the pensioners. The story of the past three years is equally undeniably a stark contrast.

The key to the real advance in pensioners’ incomes was the option of linking the pension to increased earnings or prices, whichever was the bigger. As early as the first Social Security Act of 1980 the Government cut the link with earnings. It was one of their early actions after coming to power.

When one scratches a Minister at the Department of Health and Social Security – I am sure that it is a matter of taste as to whether one ever wants to – he is sure to wax lyrical about the way in which the Government have protected the pensioner against inflation. But the truth is that, as the Secretary of State made clear in a recent answer, in 1982-83 the Government are to save £500 million as a result of cutting the link between pensions and earnings and a high proportion of the money will be lost by retirement pensioners. The cumulative effect of the Government’s actions on pensions is that a married couple are £2.90 a week worse off and a single person is £1.80 a week worse off than if the link had not been cut.

As a result of that loss of relativity, even if inflation is compensated for, the failure to relate pensions to what is being earned in the rest of society means that the pensioner cannot automatically look forward to a real increase in his pension. He will continue to feel a sense of grievance at the failure to allocate him an appropriate status in society.

Our party bitterly opposed the breaking of the earnings link. My predecessors pledged themselves to restore a link with earnings, and I am glad to repeat that pledge.

Other ways in which the pensioners have had the moneys to which they were entitled reduced include the deferral of the uprating for two weeks, which will next year save the Government £100 million; freezing the pensioners’ earnings rule; and abating the unemployment benefit of occupational pensioners. Those are one or two major cuts, but the pensioners’ standard of living is suffering the death of a thousand cuts under the present Government.

Nowhere is the pensioners’ sense of grievance more keenly felt than over the uprating techniques. Inflation to November 1981 was 12 per cent. The Government’s forecast was 10 per cent. There was a further 1 per cent. clawback of an overestimate for inflation in the year before. That all sounds very reasonable, but it is not. The 1 per cent. overpayment was itself only a partial compensation for a previous pensions shortfall, when in November 1979 the Government failed to make the pension up to the value of earnings by no less than 1.7 percent.

That shortfall has never been made good. The other 2 per cent. will be restored – but in November this year, a whole year having elapsed and the equivalent of one week’s pension having been forfeited by the retirement pensioner.

This is a time of hardship. We do not need the competition in gloom between the Leader of the House and the Chancellor of the Exchequer in their public pronouncements this week to convince everyone that it is a time of hardship unparalleled in peacetime, certainly in the post-war era. Therefore, I appeal to the Government to make good the 3 per cent. shortfall as quickly as possible. The cost of living is high and pensioners suffer the hardship of meeting high prices every week. Why should not the Government, as a mark of their sincerity, make good the shortfall as quickly as possible, without making the pensioners wait another nine months?

Saying that brings into focus the whole question of the frequency of uprating, which is a long-standing subject of debate. The Minister of State, who in our debate on child benefit boasted of the practice of our European neighbours on child benefit, should have followed up the logic of his argument. If he looked carefully at their practice, he would find that most of our European neighbours have more frequent upratings of pension than annually. Some of them have very frequent upratings.

According to an answer by the Minister of State, a 10 per cent. rate of inflation erodes the value of the pension in six months by a total of £250 million. We see that the position is even worse when we remember that inflation does not rise on annual anniversaries, but creeps up on the population week in, week out, forcing the elderly to cope with increased costs of food, energy and fuel.

We all appreciate the reasons advanced for the difficulty in uprating the pension more frequently than annually. However, we need to re-examine ways in which that can be done instead of looking for reasons why it is not possible.

I should like to make some suggestions. First, six-monthly upratings should initially be confined to periods in which inflation is high – that is, when it is in double figures. As the Minister of State has also said in parliamentary answers, the obstacle to uprating is supposed to be the difficulty of uprating supplementary benefits. Therefore, let us confine upratings to the standard pensions, uprating them by, say, 5 per cent. after six months when inflation is running at 10 per cent. If we then disregard that increase for supplementary benefit purposes the supplementary benefit can still be adjusted annually.

If that scheme is too complicated, let us instead add to the flat-rate pension a fixed sum of, say, £2.25 for a married couple and £1.50 for a single person. That is a rough approximation to 5 per cent. inflation over six months.

I concede that those are not perfect schemes. They would not bring about perfect justice, even if they were feasible. But at least they would make some attempt to protect the pensioner during the year against high rates of inflation. Despite the Government’s boasts, 12 per cent. inflation seems to be with us to stay, even on their own reckoning. Therefore, I ask the Government to shake the Department out of its present negative attitude into trying again to find ways in which the uprating can be done at six-monthly intervals rather than annually.

Mr. John Major (Huntingdonshire) I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is making a genuine attempt to cope with a problem that we all acknowledge. Can he go a little further and suggest by what mechanism the occasional upratings might be funded in the middle of a financial year?

Mr. John As upratings are carried out annually anyway, the amount of money held back for annual uprating could be accelerated in order to fund the amount involved.

I return the hon. Gentleman’s question in the following form. Is it not right that we should preserve the real value of pensions if it is technically feasible to do so? That is what the Government intend when they carry out the annual uprating. It is only because the present Government have miserably failed to control inflation that pensioners feel so bitterly the erosion of their real pensions during the year.

Mr. R. A. McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar) No doubt the hon. Gentleman’s heart is in the right place in making his suggestion, but can he turn his attention to the fact that at this moment, on an annual uprating, there are constant complaints that the announcement is made in March and April and the payment is not made until November? If we had an uprating twice a year, does he think that there would be the slightest chance of people in the Department of Health and Social Security being able to catch up, because at the moment they have great difficulty with only one uprating? His heart is in the right place, but has he given thought to it with his head?

Mr. John I have not looked in the mirror for some hours but I think my head, like my heart, is still in the right place. Of course, the hon. Gentleman has advanced the classic technical and technocratic argument why uprating cannot take place. Let me answer the hon. Gentleman in this way. The reason given by the Minister of State in a recent parliamentary answer why uprating cannot take place is that the chief obstacle is that the uprating of supplementary benefits applies to innumerable individual cases, and this covers a very long period. I had hoped I had covered that by saying that I would still favour supplementary benefit being dealt with on an annual basis, but that it was perfectly possible for the basic pensions to be increased on a six-monthly basis.

Mr.McCrindle rose—

Mr. John No, I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman again. I have been generous with my time in giving way, but I will give way to my hon. Friend, so I am discriminating in that sense.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) Does my hon. Friend accept that uprating has taken place on a six-monthly basis on a previous occasion, so the exercise has been done? Does he also accept that people who are engaged in drawing up pensions readily acknowledge that the job can be done in less than two months? Is it not obvious that if it is possible to stop the amount of money from people’s pay packets in a relatively short time, and if it is possible to find an up-to-date computer to pay out Members of Parliament’s salaries within a month of an increase having been declared in the House, it should be right for the pensioners to have their declarations made on that same up-to-date computer instead of being on the rickety one that takes about nine months to work out pensions.

Mr. John Without following my hon. Friend’s argument all the way, I agree that it certainly has been done on a previous occasion, and I believe that it is still perfectly possible. It is even more possible if one excludes the highly individualised supplementary benefit and goes for an uprating of the basic pension at six-monthly intervals. I have put forward a suggestion –

Mr. McCrindle rose –

Mr. John The hon. Gentleman will be able to make his case when he makes a speech. If he believes that the technocratic reasons are so overwhelming that we cannot possibly do what I have proposed, he must tell that to the pensioners and the country.

Mr. McCrindle rose –

Mr. John I am not prepared to give way to the hon. Gentleman on this occasion. I am now passing to another point.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury) I realise that the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) is trying to face up to the great difficulties that we all have in this sphere, but does not the plan that he is putting forward have this enormous and insuperable difficulty? If the increase were made for pensioners who were not on supplementary benefit rather than for those who were, one would be using the money for those relatively less in need of it than those on supplementary benefit who need it more.

Mr. John I would say to my hon. Friend – for I still regard him as my hon. Friend – that he did not follow my argument fully. What I said was that all State benefits would be increased whether people received supplementary benefits or not. But the supplementary benefit recipients could have that part of their income uprated only annually because of the difficulties in those cases. That would clearly take care of my hon. Friend’s point.

I want now to turn to the question of fixed-sum grants and their true value today. Two of these grants spring to my mind. The Christmas bonus is very popular, is beneficial, and is boasted about in the Government’s otherwise totally anodyne amendment. It may be on the statute book, but the factor that occurs to most people is its current value. The £10 Christmas bonus is now worth, in real terms, less than £3 compared with when it was first introduced. I believe that it should at least be doubled; if inflation is to be fully met it will have to be raised to al least £35. I would be extremely interested to know whether the Secretary of State feels that putting the bonus on the statute book is the last word he has to say on that matter.

I have also to mention the death grant, without, I hope, pre-empting the debate on the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross). Evidence is overwhelming that the present death grant is pitifully inadequate and that its inadequacy is the cause of great anxiety as surviving relatives struggle to pay very large funeral bills. The sum of £30 fixed in 1968 is nonsense in 1982. I had hoped that the Secretary of State would have been in a position today to say so, and to announce its uprating. Apparently Cabinet in-fighting has not yet resulted in a deciding throw to the winner of whichever faction comes out on top.

But I hope that that decision will be announced without delay. Even the Government cannot indefinitely postpone an announcement which was promised before Christmas.

Let me counsel him against ideas about which we read in some newspapers about means testing. Whichever way that is sought to be done, its intrusion into grief would be an unacceptable invasion at a very private time. I hope that that is a non-starter.

We live in a society in which many more people are living to much greater ages. To retain their dignity and their independence is vital to them. That can be achieved only by greater support from society. It is at that very juncture that the demon king of the Tory Government, namely the Secretary of State for the Environment, has so hobbled local authorities that they are less able to provide the sort of support that is needed to enable elderly people to live with dignity and independence within the community. They need, for example, more home helps; yet the number of hours provided has fallen by 4.5 per cent. in three years and less than one in 10 authorities fulfils the DHSS guidelines on numbers. They need meals on wheels, but only one in six local authorities fulfils those guidelines. They need specially constructed or adapted buildings, but under this Tory Government such new buildings have been reduced by over half and adaptations have been reduced by one-fifth. Telephones are vital to them to keep in contact with relatives, with friends, with shops and with their medical advisers. In the last two years, however, installations of telephones for the elderly and the disabled have fallen by a half. Televisions provide them with their window on the world, but provision of sets to them has dropped by 40 per cent., and households with pensioners receiving help with television licences have dropped by 50 per cent. Our recent pledge on TV licences has been made to the House, and I repeat it today.

We have also recently pressed for a fuel allowance which the Government, quite wrongly in my view, rejected. I ask the Government to re-examine the proposition, bearing in mind that they are in some way profiting by a week’s payment from every pensioner through their delay of one year in the 2 per cent. uprating.

But I also hope that they will look at that other bane of pensioners’ lives, the standing charge. We all know of cases where the charge is overwhelmingly the largest part of an energy bill, for some of the pensioners are of necessity frugal with the amount of energy that they consume. Yet we see them coming in and saying “How does it make sense that my bill is a small amount and yet this standing charge is hanging like the old man of the sea around my shoulders?” The need for standing charges is being questioned even by the chairmen of energy industries consumer councils, and I believe that the Government ought urgently to re-examine the situation.

We should also reconsider the patchwork quilt of concessionary fares schemes so as to construct a coherent national scheme from which every pensioner can benefit, and not just the lucky ones who happen to be in a particular geographical area. The scheme should be in line with the best and in line with what the Labour Government put out for discussion in 1979, and which was generally welcomed, I believe, by those organisations that had been consulted about the particular project.

I am conscious that a lot of people want to speak in the debate. The pensioners’ convention will inevitably raise the points that I have raised. Most of them are of urgent and short-term necessity. That means they have to be met by the Government. Some of them are longer term, as pensioners seek a status and a dignity in society that shows that they are valued by society, not merely tolerated by it. We have asked the Government in our motion to examine their demands constructively. If the Government do so, the debate on the subject can continue on an informed basis and at an informed level. The lobby on 18 February will be extremely valuable, because people possessing the basic raw material of the argument can exchange their ideas. But if the Government reject this motion and do nothing in the debate except wring their hands rhetorically they will be demeaning the House and insulting the intelligence and sincerity of people whose anxiety about their lives is both real and growing.

The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mr. Norman Fowler) I beg to move, to leave out from “That” to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: this House welcomes the action the Government is taking at a time of severe economic difficulty fully to protect retirement pensions against inflation, to provide for the statutory payment of an annual Christmas bonus, to protect the most vulnerable elderly people against rising fuel prices, and to continue the development of services for elderly people; and expresses its appreciation of the dedicated efforts of professional staff and volunteers who provide support and care for elderly people and their families. We welcome the opportunity of this debate. I respond directly to what the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) said. I confirm what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in the House this afternoon concerning the leaders of the pensioners’ convention. I will let him see the response that I have sent to the West Midlands pensioners’ convention.

The Opposition are right to raise this as an issue which the House should discuss, but it is one not just of generalisations but of policy, and what the elderly want to know is just how the parties propose to give effect to their aspirations.

Let me try to set out both the aim and the achievements of the Government’s policy. What we have done is to protect the elderly during the worst recession that the world has experienced since the end of the Second World War. The fact is that the level of the pension has increased by 52 per cent. over the past three years. The fact is that spending on retirement pensions and other benefits for the elderly now totals £13.5 billion a year, which is about half the total social security budget. And the fact is that this has been achieved in spite of all the economic problems which this country, like all other countries, has been experiencing. So what we have done is what we promised to do.

Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire) Not true.

Mr. Fowler We promised to maintain pensions in line with inflation and we have kept that promise. We promised to continue the Christmas bonus and we have kept that promise. We promised to maintain and develop services like the National Health Service which are of such vital importance for the elderly and we have kept that promise also.

But more than that I say to the hon. Gentleman and to the Opposition that old people perhaps in particular have long memories. So when the Opposition talk about putting up the value of the Christmas bonus they remember that in 1975 and in 1976 the last Labour Government abolished that bonus altogether. It was not then a question of what level the Christmas bonus would be. There was no Christmas bonus at all in those two years. That was the policy of Barbara Castle and the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen). When they hear the Opposition talk and press on questions of the death grant the elderly also remember that over the six years of Labour rule absolutely nothing took place on that front at all. They will measure the promises made today against the record of the Labour Government. When they hear the Opposition talk about shortfall, they should remember what happened under the Labour Government in 1976. They should remember that £500 million was then saved at the expense of the pensioners by switching the method of uprating from the historical method used on the two previous occasions to the forecasting method. That shortfall in today’s prices would be of the order of £925 million in social security spending.

Mr. John The Minister talks about shortfalls. Is he denying that the inflation level when the pensioners received their increase was more than 12 per cent., that the increase that they received was only 9 per cent., that therefore they are not getting the full increase to which they were entitled, and will not get it until next November, and that therefore each month of this year, as inflation increases, they will be getting less and less in real terms?

Mr. Fowler As the Government have already made absolutely clear, as far as pensioners are concerned that shortfall will be made good. In March 1979, just before the Labour Party left office – the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) knows this well enough – the Minister for Social Security was challenged on precisely that point, and his reply was that they had now moved to a November uprating. He rejected the kind of pleas that are now coming from the Opposition Front Bench. Again, I think this is something that elderly people in this country will remember.

Mr. Mike Thomas (Newcastle upon Tyne East) rose –

Mr. Fowler I should like to go on for a moment. We certainly do not accept lectures from the hon. Gentleman or from his party.

But what disturbs me most about the Opposition’s statements, and what should disturb the public most, is that there seems to be no relationship between the different policies in different areas that they are putting forward. The elderly are not a ring-fenced group. They, like the rest of us, are affected by general economic policies. We do not serve the interests of the elderly by turning our back on inflation. And surely the fact is that it is inflation – which was scarcely mentioned by the hon. Gentleman in his speech – which particularly affects the elderly, because it destroys hard-earned savings and it strikes hardest at those on fixed incomes.

Mr. John The right hon. Gentleman could not have been listening to me with his usual care, or even his usual lack of care. I certainly mentioned the rate of inflation, because I said that inflation is now in double figures under this Government, who have given it the highest priority, and is likely to remain there indefinitely. It should have been down to single figures, according to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, last December. When may we expect his mismanagement to come right, by some miracle?

Mr. Fowler What the hon. Gentleman did, in setting out the policies and taking those policies with the policies that were previously set out by the Shadow Chancellor, was to set up a package which must lead to massive inflation under any Government presided over by the Labour Party. Last Thursday the Shadow Chancellor was advocating new capital expenditure of £6 billion.

Mr. Foulkes Quite right.

Mr. Fowler The hon. Gentleman says “Quite right”. Now the hon. Member for Pontypridd advocates policies that will certainly add further hundreds of millions and possibly more – we shall endeavour to have the pledges made by the hon. Gentleman properly costed – to public expenditure. The hon. Gentleman knows, like everyone else, that in no way can the nation afford this kind of additional expenditure without the most catastrophic effect on the economy. Those who would suffer most from such policies are, of course, the weakest members of oar society, including the elderly.

Mr. Skinner What kind of a society is the Minister defending when pensioners were able to read only a few weeks ago that one man, Jack Gill, as a pensioner, could pick up £750,000? There is argument now over whether the sum should come down to £500,000. At the same time, I am told, many pensioner widows of miners in my constituency receive £29.60 in widow’s pension, together with £6 and a few coppers from the National Coal Board from their late husbands’ pensions, amounting, roughly, to £36. As a result of the Government’s failure to raise personal allowances in line with inflation, they have now been sent income tax forms relating to this miserly allowance. That is what the Tory Government are defending. That is why the Opposition have put down the motion. That is why our Front Bench will do something about it when we get back into power.

Mr. Fowler The hon. Gentleman accepts, by his last statement, that there are many things that the previous Labour Government failed to do. He has changed his view from those days. I cannot comment on the one case –

Mr. Skinner Not one – plenty.

Mr. Fowler The hon. Gentleman must not become so excited. He should calm down.

Mr. Skinner This is the last issue about which the right hon. Gentleman will get excited.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong) Order.

Mr. Fowler If the hon. Gentleman will calm down a moment, I was about to say that I understand that the specific case that he has raised is now the subject of legal action. On the generality of the situation, I should like to put to the hon. Gentleman as sincerely as I can that he serves no one’s interests, and certainly not the interests of the elderly and the pensioners he represents, if he turns his back on inflation and policies aimed at controlling inflation. The expenditure plans of the Opposition can be financed only by higher taxes, increased borrowing or printing more money.

Mr. George Cunningham Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fowler I shall not give way. I have given way several times, and I do not intend to give way again for a while. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman.

What the Opposition promise the elderly are, in my view, fake solutions. They raise hopes, but their policies do not measure up to the seriousness of the challenge. That is the tragedy. One thing upon which the House should be clear is that the problems faced and posed by the elderly are problems which present this nation with a fundamental challenge over the next 20 years. Whatever the House may disagree upon, we should be under no illusion about that point. The numbers of people of retirement age, that is, men over 65 and women over 60, has grown steeply over the last decade. The high birth rates before the 1914-18 war and increased life expectation have produced a position in England and Wales where there are now almost 9 million people of retirement age – almost one-fifth of the population. By the end of the century, the number of people aged 75 and over is expected to have increased to 3.25 million, and the number aged 85 and over by almost a half to 700,000.

It would be wrong to generalise about the elderly. Many of those of retirement age live happy, active and successful lives. Many elderly people have a great deal to offer. Their potential strength and contribution should never be overlooked, as many voluntary organisations know and appreciate. The elderly are not an indivisible group, a problem simply to be resolved by Government action. But just as certainly there are many elderly people who do need help and where there is an obligation upon us to help.

The vast majority of elderly people live in the community. It is an essential aim of policy that all elderly people should be enabled to go on living in the community in familiar surroundings wherever possible and for as long as possible. This is much easier for those with family support. But circumstances have changed. There is now a very considerable and growing number of elderly people living alone or without immediate family help. Most women over 75 are widows. About a third of all elderly people have no surviving children, and in many cases the children of the very elderly are themselves of pensionable age.

Over the last 10 years, the number of elderly people living in their children’s homes has dropped by half. Many, particularly the very old, who find themselves in these circumstances are likely to rely more heavily on support from general practitioners, district nurses, health visitors and the personal social services, as well as from the magnificent range of voluntary organisations in this country.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North) What about home helps?

Mr. Fowler I am coming to that point.

Perhaps, above all, they need help from the community itself, from friends and neighbours among whom they live.

Elderly patients occupy nearly half of all National Health Service hospital beds. They are admitted to hospital more often than younger patients, and they stay in longer. One of the central features of the Government’s strategy for hospital services for elderly people is the provision of acute services in departments of geriatric medicine. Here, the aim is to provide the right kind of service to prevent long-term disability and long-term dependence. The aim is to help elderly people return home as soon as possible, and the growth of departments of geriatric medicine in recent years has made a major contribution to improving the range and quality of services available to elderly hospital patients. The continued development of these facilities remains a major policy objective.

Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles) rose –

Mr. Fowler I should like to continue for a moment.

A great deal is already being done and I pay tribute to the efforts being made inside the Health Service by local authorities and by the voluntary organisations. But there are now a number of further initiatives that the Government want to take.

The first concerns elderly patients who need continuous nursing care. At present many of these patients are housed in long-stay geriatric wards. Often the standard of care which they receive is superb, but many things work against providing a home-like environment in these wards in spite of all the excellent activity aimed at achieving that goal. Our aim is to provide for as many of these elderly patients as possible in small local units close to families and friends.

As a contribution, the Government now intend to set up three experimental nursing homes, the first ever established, within the National Health Service. The three nursing homes will be at Fleetwood, Portsmouth and Sheffield. It is hoped that two of the homes will become operational within the next 18 months and the third shortly after that. The nursing homes will be intended for those elderly patients who do not need to be in hospital. The homes will be in the charge of a nurse, and medical care will be provided by general practitioners. Remedial and community support services will be available. The nursing homes will be financed jointly by the health authorities and the Department of Health. I shall also be funding an independent evaluation of the scheme from my Department’s research funds. I will have this checked for the wind up, but I believe that the nursing homes will have a capacity of between 30 and 50.

The House would also want to know that we are examining the possibility of setting up a second set of experimental schemes for care outside hospitals – this time for elderly patients who may need care because of psychiatric disorders.

Mr. Carter-Jones May I refer to some information that the right hon. Gentleman gave me recently? He said that the cost of geriatric patients in acute nursing hospitals amounts to £308 million per annum. Geriatric patients alone cost £165 million. People could have been kept out of hospitals if there had not been cuts in local government expenditure to allow warden control. This is the key to the issue. The few places that the right hon. Gentleman has talked about are just a sop. We must resolve a clearly identifiable problem about which the DHSS knows.

Mr. Fowler Not only the DHSS but the Government know about the problem. There are obviously issues upon which we have party divisions. When the Government are responding to the concern – I know the hon. Gentleman’s concern – by doing something which has not been done previously, the hon. Gentleman should at least give us credit for putting forward proposals which aim at finding new ways round the problem that we both recognise.

Mr. Foulkes The Minister is making a number of policy statements on health and social services. Could he tell us whether the policy is only for England and Wales?

Will the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland responsible for health and social services clarify the policy for Scotland?

Mr. Fowler I believe that the hon. Gentleman recognises that Fleetwood, Portsmouth and Sheffield are not in Scotland.

The second initiative concerns the long-term care which private and voluntary residential homes provide for old people. These homes are a valuable resource for the nation. Many of them have a long tradition of devoted and highly skilled care. At present we estimate that there are about 26,000 elderly people living in voluntary residential homes and another 30,000 in private homes. These homes now face a difficult and changed position. Residents tend to be more infirm, both because of their greater age and because there has been the concentration over the last few years upon provision for as long as possible inside the community. We need to be sure that the care provided in these homes has kept pace with the needs of the residents and the overall pattern of services for old people. There has clearly been concern about this.

These changes have led to increasing interest among local authorities and other organisations concerned with old people in arrangements for ensuring the best possible standards in these homes. The Government are therefore shortly to issue a consultative document on the subject to help us decide what improvements are needed in the registration system in England and Wales. The document will also propose a code of practice which local authorities might apply flexibly to encourage improvement in conditions. In other words, what we shall seek to do is to rely on advice as a means of improving standards rather than on the rigid application of new statutory requirements.

The third action that the Government will be taking concerns voluntary organisations. No one can doubt the enormous contribution that they make in care for the elderly. At present my Department is giving grants to many national organisations. In the current year we have so far allocated over £300,000 for grants to organisations concerned with the elderly. I shall be shortly announcing the details of further grants totalling about £100,000 to some of these organisations. These will include a major grant to Age Concern to help it establish a national training centre where it will be running courses for both its professional staff and for volunteers. We shall also be giving help to the Centre for Policy on Ageing, to Contact and to the Employment Fellowship.

The fourth initiative is that the Government are setting up new arrangements to improve financial and policy accountability in the National Health Service. Basically what this will involve will be that each year Ministers will lead a departmental review with the chairman and chief officers of each regional health authority of the region’s long-term plans and objectives and of the efficiency with which it provides services. One of the aims of the new system will be better financial accountability, but the review will go much further. It will mean that for the first time since 1948 the Government can carry out a systematic and rigorous corporate review of policy. In other words, we shall be able to check and discuss the priorities of the regions, including their plans for the development of services for the elderly, which remains a priority of this Government.

Mr. Carter-Jones Is the Minister saying that the Department is now prepared to indulge in positive discrimination in favour of the weak? If he is, he will have my support.

Mr. Fowler I believe that the hon. Gentleman will have seen the allocation for the regions and the difference between the weak and the strong regions in the RAWP allocation which we announced. The elderly are one of our priorities. One of the aims of the new system that I am announcing is to ensure that the Government’s priority goes to the regions and districts. That is a sensible development of the National Health Service.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) Is the Minister telling us that within the regional structure and the new districts he will implement the proposals of the Black report?

Mr. Fowler The factors in the Black report have been taken into account in the RAWP allocation. Identifying weaknesses in the services enables us for the first time to have the structure whereby Government policy is taken down to the region and the district.

Mr. Spearing The Government become a national health authority.

Mr. Fowler We do not become the national health authority in the sense of direction. It is important that the hon. Gentleman should understand what we seek to do. It is a new concept. We seek to have both devolution and accountability. I believe that that is a sensible way forward in the National Health Service.

The fifth initiative that the Government are taking concerns joint financing. Joint financing has made a big contribution to promoting community care. Through this scheme National Health Service cash is used to support and enhance the community care provided by social services authorities and voluntary organisations. The Government have been able to increase the resources made available in this way from just over £8 million in 1976-77. Joint finance has now risen to over £75 million in this financial year. A further increase is planned next year, bringing the total to almost £85 million.

Elderly people are the major beneficiaries of joint finance. About 40 per cent. of the money is spent directly or indirectly on services for them -for local authority homes, for voluntary homes and for services like home helps or meals on wheels. However, it has become clear that the joint finance scheme, although valuable, does not go far enough. There are still many people in hospital who need not be there, including elderly people.

Last July we published a consultation document, “Care in the Community”, seeking the views of a wide range of interested bodies on further ways of moving resources from health to personal social services. The document suggested seven different ways of overcoming obstacles to the movement of resources and patients in the community care, and it attracted a great deal of comment. Basically, a clear preference has emerged for two proposals.

The first involves making the joint finance arrangements more flexible. At present all the revenue cost of a joint scheme can be funded for three years, and then the joint finance contribution tapers off over a period of up to four years more. Some local authorities are finding it difficult to commit themselves to taking over responsibility for jointly financed schemes as the Health Service contribution tapers off, so the proposal in the document was to extend the maximum period of full revenue funding up to 10 years, with tapering over a further five. The other suggestion widely favoured is for district health authorities to sponsor patients moving into community care by making payments to the local authorities for individual patients or for places without limiting the period over which payments can be made. This gain would provide a flexible means of moving people more quickly out of hospital and into community care.

There has been a general welcome given to the broad aims of the initiative and to these two suggestions in particular. We shall also want to consider which of the other suggestions may be worth pursuing. I hope to be able shortly to announce our conclusions. But what we are trying to do is to give people the service that they need and want by removing obstacles wherever possible. We are not in the business of imposing bureaucratic solutions. Local management should have maximum freedom to decide how best to use its resources and local opportunities.

The initiatives are aimed particularly to improve services for those who need hospital, nursing home or residential care or support in the community. They are aimed at helping those old people whose needs are the greatest. I make no apology for concentrating upon their position. But the majority of old people live in the community and do not need that kind of help or support. For them the most important questions are, as the hon. Member for Pontypridd said, the maintenance of income and the quality of the life that they can enjoy.

I turn to the question of income. We stand by our promise to protect the purchasing power of pensions and other linked long-term benefits over the lifetime of this Parliament. For pensioners that means that even in these difficult times the purchasing power of their retirement pensions would be maintained. They also know that we have promised that, as the economy of the nation improves, we shall seek to ensure that pensioners share in the increased prosperity.

When we came to office the basic rate of pensions was £19.50 for a single pensioner and £31.20 for a married couple. Now, three years later, they stand at £29.60 for a single pensioner and £47.35 for a married couple. At the same time as protecting the pension from the effects of inflation, we have also ensured that pensioners can look forward to the Christmas bonus every Christmas. No longer is it a grace-and-favour payment made by the Government of the day, which enabled it to be withdrawn by the previous Government. It is now established in legislation as a regular feature.

We have also made real improvements in the help available to pensioners receiving supplementary benefit. All pensioners over the age of 70 receiving supplementary benefit or with a dependant over 70 now automatically get an extra heating addition of £1.65 a week. Both this standard rate and the higher rate of £4.5 a week were increased in real terms in 1980. The increase last November more than maintained their value against the forecast rise in fuel prices to that date.

Mr. George Cunningham The Minister is aware that last November he raised the supplementary benefit personal scale rates by 9 per cent., but at the same time he raised by about 18 per cent. the figure if one pays in excess of which on a heating charge which is part of a rent one gets the excess paid in addition to the normal supplementary benefit. Does he accept that by giving, say, £2.50 for some supplementary benefit recipients, on the one hand, he has taken away up to 85p, on the other? Can he justify raising the normal rate by 9 per cent. and raising this particular threshold by 18 per cent., which has had the harmful effect that I state?

Mr. Fowler In real terms, the value of the heating support that we have been able to give has increased over that period. But even before we announced the special measures last month to help supplementary pensioners meet the fuel costs arising from the severe weather, the cost of this extra heating assistance was running at about £250 million a year and about 2.25 million people were benefiting.

We are talking not just about the past in terms of pensions but also about future policy. Those people who will be retiring this year can expect not just the price-protected basic retirement pension but also the price-protected and earnings-related additional component pensions. The Social Security Pensions Act 1975, which commanded all-party support, has been benefiting many of those who have retired in the past years. I join the hon. Member for Pontypridd in paying tribute to the late Brian O’Malley, as the major author of the Act. I take the opportunity to restate our commitment to it.

Already it is possible for someone to have £5.86 a week on top of his basic pension. By the end of the decade, and with the scheme just halfway to maturity, this additional pension could amount to four times that figure – about £23.44 in current values. We shall over the coming years be taking substantial steps to ensure that the income of pensioners increases.

There are many other issues concerning the pension and the age of retirement. Age of retirement is currently being considered by the Social Services Select Committee. I hope that its studies will help to establish a consensus on the best ways forward. I believe that most people would like to see a measure of flexibility brought into the age of retirement – that the individual should be given a proper choice in deciding at what age he or she can retire. That is a proper goal of policy. But we also know that a simple reduction of pension age for a man to 60 is ruled out on grounds of cost, estimated at present to be about £2.5 billion a year. It is a point which brings the debate full circle.

Ultimately, what more can be done is conditioned by resources. The cost of paying retirement pensions already accounts for about one-eighth of all public expenditure. If one adds to that the cost of the personal social services, the National Health Service and the other support that is going to the elderly, it is a very substantial figure indeed. Let me emphasise that it is a cost which is borne predominantly by the working population.

The Government most certainly recognise their obligations and duty to the elderly. But I am not prepared to make promises that we cannot carry out. In the last analysis, the prosperity of pensioners will depend upon the prosperity of the nation and upon economic and industrial recovery.

The Opposition’s motion refers to the quality of life. Income is clearly crucial to that, but other important policies are also connected with it. The decline of public transport services in country areas, for example, as the hon. Gentleman said, has had a disproportionate effect on elderly people. The need for revenue support has been reflected in transport supplementary grant allocations. Local authorities must ensure that the subsidies are directed where they will prove most effective. At the same time the Transport Act 1980 swept away many barriers which stood in the way of new services developing. If the Opposition advocate a national concessionary scheme they are again taking and promising – deliberately promising – extra spending of around £100 million a year in current prices.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire) Why not?

Mr. Fowler That may be the hon. Member’s response, but I do not think that that is a proper response for running the economy of the country.

There is another fundamental aspect, on which I will make my last point.

Mr. John Can I bring the right hon. Gentleman back to the lobby of the National Pensioners’ Convention? It has carefully separated the declaration of intent, which is of long-term aims, from its immediate demands. Is the hon. Gentleman’s answer to each of those demands, which he has seen, “No”, as we suppose it to be? He has not agreed to look at any of them.

Mr. Fowler As the hon. Member mentioned in his speech, I have seen the convention. I will mention later one or two of my responses to it.

There is one fundamental aspect of the quality of life for elderly people. Attention was drawn to this by The Daily Telegraph earlier this week on the problem of crimes against old people. The report spelt out the excellent work of Age Concern and its security campaign. It also graphically illustrated the suffering of old people, who are victims of crime, especially with violence. I think that the whole House will agree with me that violence against the elderly is a particularly repugnant form of crime.

The Government have made it clear that priority will continue to be given to the fight against crime. The strength of the police has increased by 7,500, from about 112,000 to 119,500, in England and Wales since the Government came to office. That is a very marked improvement and we will continue to give the fullest support to the police in their very difficult task.

I understand the concern of organisations such as the National Pensioners’ Convention. However, I am not prepared to make promises which cannot be implemented. It would cost £11.5 billion to raise pension levels and other long-term benefits to the amount sought in the declaration. In the longer term the new pensions scheme, to which both major parties are committed, will take pensions towards the level of one half or one third average earnings. But in the much shorter-term it is a fraud to talk of raising basic pensions to such levels, because there is no way that the working population could bear that cost on top of the cost of the new scheme as it develops.

We shall get no credit from the public for disguising the problems or raising expectations which will not be realised. My criticism of the Opposition is that it is just that that they are doing. A Chief Secretary in the previous Labour Government said that the laws of arithmetic do not change when a party leaves Government. The Opposition’s proposals, when both the social and economic proposals are taken together, do not add up.

What the vast majority of old people in this county want is the income to support a decent quality of life, and the mobility and personal security to enjoy that life to the full, and to contribute to the society in which they live. These we have ensured and we will, as the economy improves, ensure that the elderly share in that improvement. For those elderly people who need more support and care, additional initiatives are needed, and the five I have outlined today represent a significant package of measures. It will be our intention to look for all opportunities to take positive practical steps to assist elderly people.

The Government will continue to give priority to the elderly. I ask the house to support the Government amendment.

Mr. Gregor MacKenzie (Rutherglen) I have heard many speeches delivered by Secretaries of State for Social Services, but today I found the right hon. Gentleman’s speech particularly difficult to listen to because it offered little comfort, either to me or to the pensioners. In his last two or three sentences he said that it was difficult to implement some of the legitimate aspirations of old-age pensioners. However, if there is the will, we can do these things. If the Government have a genuine will to give these people what they want something can be done immediately. The whole speech of the right hon. Gentleman struck me as being in marked contradiction to the excellent pamphlet published by the DHSS and the Scottish Office last year. It was called “Growing Older” and I read in that pamphlet this statement: The aim of the Government’s policies is to enable elderly people to live independent lives in their own homes wherever possible – which reflects what the majority themselves want. If this is to be achieved, people will need an income sufficient to provide them with a reasonable standard of living and enable them to take part in the life of the community”. I thought that that was an excellent statement and declaration and all of us should derive great encouragement from it. We all know from meeting people in our constituencies that it is true. We all know what they want. In common with many other hon. Members I have elderly relatives and I know that is what they want to do.

However, when I look at the second part of the statement, which talks about money, I become troubled. Society, and this Government in particular, does not seem to be giving our old people the means to live comfortably, in dignity and without financial worry, which is their right when they become older.

Sir Julian Ridsdale (Harwich) Would the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the ways to help the elderly to live in their own homes would be to reduce the rate burden, and particularly take some of the burden which they have to pay for education off the rates?

Mr. MacKenzie Perhaps we can come to these points a little later in our deliberations. That is certainly something of which I am conscious. It may occur to the hon. Gentleman that old people in this country pay rates and taxes just as other people do and not many of them get much out of it.

It is sometimes forgotten by people such as the hon. Gentleman, who seems to be more concerned about rates and taxes than about elderly people, that many of our elderly do not have the wherewithal to live very comfortably. They do not have company or works pensions and their whole income derives from the old-age pension and supplementary benefit.

The older people who live in my area, many of whom are miners and steel workers, lived, and when they could, worked, throughout the depression, so have never been able to save any money to have a better life when they grew older. We are also talking, as both my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) and the Secretary of State pointed out, about people who are unmarried and without children and who therefore do not have young people on whom they can depend for help and who can assist them financially, or with goods and services, or with the care that they need.

Even when the elderly do have children who would like to help their parents, with unemployment at its present level of three million, most of the unemployed have enough difficulty looking after themselves and their children without having to help the older people. I do not want to read any more surveys or hear any more speeches about the problems of the pensioners when we know that it all boils down to the fact that they do not have a proper income on which to live.

There is nothing more soul destroying to me when I accompany my wife to the shops than to see old-age pensioners pick up a piece of butcher’s meat, look at the price tag and have to put it back, or to pick up something at a grocers, look at the price tag and put it back because they have not the money to buy it. That makes me sad. The main answer to the problem is money, and that point was made effectively by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd when he opened the debate.

The Secretary of State said that as we improved life in the country and as we had growth pensioners would share in that new-found prosperity. That is something that we would all like to see, but it is not happening. How are we to cater for the growing number of people of pensionable age if the wealth earners are daily, by hundreds and thousands, thrown on to the industrial scrap heap? The old-age pensioners are not daft. They see that the wealth creators, the working men and women, are themselves having a difficult time. The pensioners know that they, too, will have a difficult time for as long as the policies of the Government are more concerned with trying ineffectively to cure inflation than with providing jobs and creating wealth.

I turn to the problem of housing. The pamphlet “Growing Older” takes the view that older people should be allowed to remain in their own homes. That is, of course, desirable. Older people want to live in their own homes, among their own possessions, among their own friends and people, and in circumstances that they thoroughly understand.

From time to time I am told that the Government tell local authorities that they ought to build many more houses for our old-age pensioners. However, having told them to build more houses, the Government fail to provide the local authorities with the resources to do that. Some of the houses that are being erected are shocking. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart), who is present, will look at some of the pensioners’ flats. It seems that some pensioners are expected to live in one room. In that room, with a small kitchen and bathroom, they must eat, sleep and exist. The Under-Secretary of State knows the old expression that we use in the West of Scotland to describe such places. We call them “single ends”. Most of my constituents and those of my hon. Friends in Scotland were born and brought up in single ends. They went on to raise their families in single ends. If such people had one ambition in life, it was to get out of them and get a decent house. The minimum requirement imposed on such local authorities by the Scottish Office should be to ensure that pensioners have a bedroom, a sitting room, a small kitchen and a bathroom.

If people are allowed to live in their own homes, they must have a proper home-help service. In many families, daughters and sons can assist. However, we must recognise that there are many pensioners who do not have relatives who are able to provide such assistance. In my part of the world the home-help service is excellent. It is pathetic that the Government have made cuts in the finances of local authorities that have led to a reduction in the home-help service. That is a dreadful condemnation of the good work carried out by the home-help services.

My father has a home-help. She comes in for a couple of hours a week. She helps, with my wife and others, to look after my 84-year-old father. That service has been cut.

Home-helps are good, honest working women who provide meals, services and, above all, a wee bit of company. Such company, at the end of the day, is essential to these pensioners. It is sad that these services and the number of hours being worked in Scotland by home helps are being cut. That deserves the condemnation of each and every one of us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd talked about providing television licences and transport services for pensioners. I firmly believed once that the answer to the problem was to provide a good basic pension and no more and to allow pensioners to make choices for themselves – for example, whether to have a television and to buy a television licence and whether to travel and pay transportation costs. Over the years I have changed my position considerably. I feel that we should provide pensioners with a free television licence and with free public transport. It is argued that if such a scheme were implemented many who are fairly well-to-do would benefit. Would that matter? For every one well-to-do person who might benefit there would be thousands who would need the provision of such services and who would obtain them. I hope that the Government will give these matters their consideration.

I have talked in the main about the elderly who live in their own homes. Unfortunately, there are many who cannot do so. I refer to the sick, the frail and the mentally ill. I know of scores of examples where the families are willing and anxious to help but do not have the medical or nursing skills to enable them to look after their frail or mentally confused parents. It is scandalous that we have not come to grips with the problem of providing sufficient beds for old people who are confused and mentally sick.

Doctors are becoming terribly depressed about the shortage of beds for the mentally confused and the mentally sick. They have to assess illness on the basis of the number of beds that are available and not on the nature and seriousness of the illness itself. I ask the Under-Secretary of State to take up the issue of providing more beds in Scotland. If he does, he will earn the gratitude of each and every one of us.

Mr. James Hamilton (Bothwell) One of my constituents is an old lady of 92 years of age. Her doctor has recommended that she be hospitalised. Her daughter is 66 years of age. I have been unsuccessful so far in getting the old lady into a particular hospital. If I remain unsuccessful, I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will give me his full support in acknowledging the plea that is being made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen (Mr. MacKenzie).

Mr. MacKenzie I hope that my hon. Friend is successful.

On 8 June 1981 the Secretary of State’s predecessor said that he would be making a statement on the death grant. Fortunately I am possessed of considerable patience. I waited until 10 November, when I asked the Minister for Social Security, whom I am delighted to see on the Government Front Bench, when his right hon. Friend would make a statement. The Minister told me that the statement would be made before the end of the year, and left me with the impression that we would get something out of it. When I hear that we are still to have the present miserable low level of death grant, it makes me pretty sad.

About a year ago I buried an elderly relative. The National Health Service certificate for a cremation cost £27.50 and an extract for a death certificate cost £3. In all, I paid £30.50 for certification, which meant that I was 50p out of pocket before we started to make any arrangements. The relative who died was a simple man with simple wishes who did not want to have an elaborate funeral. In deference to his wishes and his memory we had the simplest possible funeral – one hearse, a small chapel, one car and no elaborate meal after it was over. That cost £361.33. That was not a crisis for me or for my family, but it would have been a major financial crisis in many other families. I am disappointed again to hear the Secretary of State say that he cannot yet do anything about the death grant. The matter worries old people very much and the sooner that a statement is made and the grant is improved the better it will be for all of us.

I concede that many individuals and groups are concerned about the problems of the elderly and do much good work to help them. I refer to churches, voluntary organisations, social work departments and many others. However, al the end of the day, society looks to the Government for action and resources. This Government are not carrying out their clear and obvious duty to the old people of Britain.

Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown) When I studied the terms of the motion on the Order Paper and the Government amendment, I found myself unable to support either the motion tabled by the Leader of the Opposition or the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friends. Despite the Secretary of State’s speech, I cannot go into the Government Lobby tonight. At the same time, under no circumstances, especially because of the Opposition amendment, am I prepared to go into the Opposition Lobby. The House will know that there were occasions in the previous parliamentary Session when I was fully prepared to go into the Opposition Lobby.

I am glad to see in his place the secretary-treasurer of the all-party parliamentary group for pensioners, the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes). I am one of the co-chairmen of that group. When he studies the terms of the motion and the amendment, he might find himself in the same position as me.

Let us first examine the record of the Labour Government. When the Social Security Pensions Act 1975 was passed, there was a tremendous fanfare of trumpets and we were told that it was a massive step forward for retired people. We were told that in future every increase in the pension would be related either to prices or to wages, whichever was of the greatest advantage to pensioners. But what happened? First, the Government were careful in the wording of the Act to ensure that the proposal was in no way legally enforceable. That was the first fraud. We know that year after year there was no question of increasing the pension at the rate that was to the greatest advantage of pensioners, considering both earnings and the cost of living. When the Opposition tried to pretend that they had fulfilled that requirement, they knew that it was not true.

Mr. Foulkes Does the hon. Gentleman concede that the most recent evidence of comparable periods – the final period of the Labour Government and the current Conservative Government – shows that the pension went up in real terms during the final period of the Labour Government and is now falling behind in real terms month by month?

Mr. Bowden I am dealing with the record of the Labour Government. I shall deal with the record of the Conservative Government in a moment.

Both in 1976 and in 1978. the Labour Government did not increase pensions in line with the terms laid down in the 1975 Act. In 1976, they did not increase it in line either with inflation or with wages. I remind the House of what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said – that in the overall life of that Parliament pensioners moved forward by 20 per cent. in relation to prices. That figure does not apply when one considers the terms of the 1975 Act, which stated that they should have the best advantage in relation to wages. As my right hon. Friend said, on two occasions the Christmas bonus was not paid. In one of the years about which we are talking – the period of which Opposition Members seem to be so proud when they talk about uprating now – inflation was approaching 30 per cent. a year. Did they make two increases in that year? Opposition Members know very well that they did not. I cannot support the motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

At the end of last year I put a motion on the Order Paper which stated: “That this House believes that every pensioner has the right to choice, dignity and independence in retirement … urges Her Majesty’s Government to continue to support pensioners in achieving this right by increasing the existing State retirement pension”. Whichever way it is argued, the fact remains that the pension has not kept pace with inflation. I know that the Government will argue that it will do so in the life of this Parliament, but that is not good enough. In November, the pension was increased by 9 per cent. We know that inflation between November 1980 and October 1981 was 12 per cent. If we allow for a clawback of 1 per cent., there is still a 2 per cent. deficit. If we allow for the two-week delay in paying the pension in an earlier year, that is the equivalent of about 1 or 1.5 per cent. If we add those matters together, I suggest to my right hon. Friends that the next pension increase must be about 16 to 17 per cent., if we allow for an inflation rate of 12 per cent. between November 1981 and November 1982. The Government should be thinking about increasing the single pension by £5 and the married couple’s pension by £8. That would honour the pledge that must be fulfilled. For that reason, I deeply regret that it is not possible for me to support the Government in the Lobby tonight.

However, other groups of pensioners, who have not been mentioned in the debate, are having a hard time. What about the pensioners who worked all their lives, saved for retirement and put sufficient money away to enjoy a reasonable standard of living for their expected term? Their savings have been destroyed by inflation. Although they worked to be independent of the State and of their families, many of them now find that they are only marginally above the basic State pension and that of those on supplementary benefit. Because in so many cases they are not entitled to receive supplementary benefit, they are worse off than those who are in receipt of the State pension and supplementary benefit.

There is no doubt that economic policies, particularly those followed by the Labour Government, led to massive inflation that destroyed the value of those people’s savings. At the same time, I must say to my hon. and right hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench that it was outrageous that the age allowances were not increased last year because nothing hurts pensioners more than not increasing those age allowances in line with inflation.

Mr. Allen McKay (Penistone) I know of one old lady on a retirement pension from her ex-employer who is in receipt of mobility allowance and who is now having to sell her silver to keep her home going. Yet the Government have the audacity to tax that allowance. Her pension is now taxed to such an extent that she has to pay her annual tax in four instalments. That is because the personal allowances were not raised.

Mr. Bowden I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to an elderly lady who, when she retired, had money in the bank, and that that was about five or 10 years ago. If that is so, the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported were largely responsible for destroying the value of the lady’s savings. He should feel guilty about that Government’s economic policies. That case is tragic.

In the Budget, the Government must substantially increase the age allowances at least in line with inflation, preferably over and above it to make up for some of the loss of last year.

A full review is needed in a range of areas for providing help for the elderly. I shall take one or two examples. Many pensioners are paying up to £3 a week out of their incomes to meet standing charges. That could approach 10 per cent. of their total income. When they are invariably among the smallest users of the services provided upon which they have to pay standing charges – be it electricity, gas, water or telephone – is not that fundamentally unfair and does it not cause unreasonable hardship to the retired section of our nation? That must be looked at carefully.

Hon. Members have already referred to concessionary fares. There is great bitterness among many retired people who see people on one side of the road getting advantages in concessionary fares that are not available to those living on the other side of the road. The Government should be looking ahead – not necessarily immediately – and preparing a fully workable national concessionary fares scheme.

There is also the cost of fuel and heating. The Government have made progress in that area. The heating allowance schemes are infinitely better than those produced by the Labour Government.

Mr. Foulkes Rubbish.

Mr. Bowden Our schemes are infinitely better, and that is unarguably and firmly so.

However, there are still groups that are not being fairly treated, particularly those on rent and rate rebates. Pensioners have been to see me at my advice service. Invariably I must tell them that they must balance carefully the advantages and disadvantages between rent and rate rebates and supplementary benefit. Therefore, much more is still to be done in producing an effective, national comprehensive fuel and heating scheme.

The rating system has been touched on by hon. Members. The domestic rating system operates in a diabolical way, to the detriment of the retired. The sooner the pledge to abolish domestic rates is carried out the better it will be for the retired of our nation.

I should like to make a brief point about the protection of the elderly, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. All of us are utterly sick almost every day when we open our newspapers and read of vicious attacks on elderly people who are kicked, battered and assaulted in their homes when they are completely defenceless. I am sure that the House will support the widespread re-emergence of more policemen on the beat. In the long run that is the only way in which such attacks can be checked. I am sure that the House will support that policy with all its strength. Crimes of violence against the elderly must be severely punished.

I must say honestly to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that I am disappointed with the Government’s performance and the way in which they have approached pensioner problems in the past two years. I have absolutely no confidence in the Opposition, whose record stands completely condemned. However, it is not too late for the Government to demonstrate positively their concern for the retired. The nation is in debt to the retired. I ask the Government to honour that debt.

Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles) When I used to go to chapel, the preacher would regularly say “By their deeds ye shall know them”.

If the Government want voluntary organisations to assist the elderly and disabled in our society, why on earth do they impose a tax on them? Why do they make them pay 15 per cent. tax on voluntary contributions made to sustain the elderly? The House must face that challenge in the near future.

The hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) has tabled an all-party motion that I have amended slightly, and that has my full support. The Treasury must face up to the fact that if society wants voluntary organisations to sustain the weak and the elderly they should not be taxed on the contributions that they are given from the British public for that purpose.

It is argued that we need to keep people within the community, that the elderly should not be put away too quickly, that they should be sustained in our society and protected, and should remain with their families. What do we have? We have a Department that gives me parliamentary replies clearly stating that it knows the problem. That is intriguing. We ask for information, the information is given and on the basis of that information certain items are predictable.

It is predictable that the frail elderly will increase in number and that the severity of the problem will increase. I refer not to my figures, but the Department’s figures. We know that every year there will be a 2 per cent. increase in people who require special care and attention in our community. The Government say that they will keep those people in the community. Knowing that the number of those people is increasing, how can the Government cut support by 10 per cent? Where is the logic in that? How can it work out?

I give an example from Salford. The council there is most anxious to assist. It is aware of the importance of home helps and meals on wheels, but those services are being savagely cut. Knowing the predicted increase in the number of old people and the strains and stresses involved, the council is trying to cater for the increase and to keep its services in step. The number of home helps has been maintained, but the time that they can give to each elderly person has been cut from four hours to 2.2 hours per week. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen (Mr. MacKenzie) said, home helps do more than just provide a service. A home help is a companion for a short while and a lifeline. That is an important element.

The statistics provided by the Department show that that is exactly the kind of action that local authorities have to take. A strain is then imposed, either upon a frail person who is trying to live alone, or upon one elderly person trying to look after a frail partner. The strain then intensifies and where previously there was one frail elderly person the lack of services soon results in there being two frail elderly persons.

That is a classic example of a totally false economy. However, I do not like arguing about the economics of the problem. We are told that the problem today is to tackle inflation and bring it down, and that the elderly understand that. But the Minister should understand that by the time inflation has been brought down those people will be dead, and it is no comfort to them to have some form of posthumous blessing from the Government.

My second point, within the sphere of social services, is this. If we intend to keep elderly people in the community, the next stage down is either warden-controlled accommodation provided by the local authority or old people’s homes run by local authorities. Government statistics show that in order to continue to provide home helps and meals on wheels local authorities have been forced to cut development of warden-controlled accommodation and homes for the elderly and disabled. I hope that I am not being too unkind, but when a problem is known I believe that there is a moral duty to tackle it. It is pure hypocrisy to say that the weak in our society must pay to help us out of our problems.

Mr. David Ennals (Norwich, North) Does my hon. Friend agree – I imagine that this is as true in his area as it is in Norfolk – that the result of making charges, which are due to increase again, for home helps, and the result of the increase in the cost of the meals-on-wheels service, has been a dramatic fall in the demand for those services because people can no longer afford them?

Mr. Carter-Jones I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. That is true for his constituency, for my constituency and, indeed, for every hon. Member’s constituency.

I wish to refer briefly to an issue raised by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) Standing charges for the weak in our community are a superb example of an utterly regressive tax. Ministers should not hide from that fact. Inevitably, the burden upon such people is great. Indeed, in Salford the social services department is worried stiff about elderly people, brought up in the tradition of paying their debts and knowing that they must settle their accounts, who turn off the heating in their flats when they ought not to do so. The Government may believe that they are bringing down the inflation rate, but those people will be dead be lore it happens.

I have dealt with two factors. I have explained why I am unhappy at the way in which the Government are treating the voluntary organisations, and I have tried to illustrate from Government statistics that the Government do not stand well in the judgment of society when one sees the way in which social services have been cut back due to lack of support.

The third factor is even worse. The Government have exacerbated the problem. There is a domino effect. Because the frail elderly cannot remain in their own homes; because the burden is great and the numbers have increased but provision by social services departments has declined due to Government cuts, the burden upon the National Health Service has increased and intensified and there is absolutely no more room. I have tried to explain this to the Minister. Of course, a fair number of the frail elderly will from time to time require acute nursing care, but it is a dreadful situation when more money is spent on the care of geriatric patients in acute nursing wards than on our geriatric wards. That is the economics of madness, for two reasons.

I am utterly dedicated to the concept of rehabilitation. People tend to think that rehabilitation is for the young and the middle-aged, but in many parts of the country great progress has been made in rehabilitation of the elderly. I was interested to hear the Secretary of State say that the Government were going for positive discrimination. It is about time that the less glamorous parts of medicine had a fair crack of the whip.

If my next comment upsets anyone, I shall not worry. I hope that the National Health Service will spend more time on bowel and bladder problems, because those are the indignities faced by the elderly. I have been gathering information and I heard recently that in order to save money certain hospitals provide babies’ disposable nappies for incontinent patients in geriatric wards when perfectly good incontinence pads are available. How low are these people in our priorities? I wish to deal not with esoteric matters, but with the bread-and-butter problems that face the frail elderly every day of their lives.

This is not a minority problem. I was delighted at the Secretary of State’s response. If he is prepared to accept positive discrimination for the weak in our society and in the National Health Service, one thing is certain. He will have to tell certain regional officers and area health authorities to spend a little more time and effort looking after those people who cannot look after themselves, many of whom are effectively discharged from society because there is inadequate provision in their own community and their own homes.

I am not noted for having supported the Labour Government at all times. I have been known to revolt at times. I must tell the Government that in the sphere of services for the frail elderly there has been a record of misuse of money. False economies are being made by area health authorities. In studying the needs of the coming year, I hope that the Government will ensure that resources are restored to local authorities and hospitals so that the weak in our society may stay in their homes and within the community.

Mr. R. A. McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar) I welcome this debate on the elderly, and pay tribute to the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) for having instigated it. It is a pity that he disappeared just as I mentioned his name, because, although I welcome the opportunity of a debate on this subject, I am a little disappointed by what has been said so far by the right hon. and hon. Members in whose name the motion stands. They seem to be strong on rhetoric and surprisingly thin on detail.

In his speech, the right hon. Member for Pontypridd raised only one new concept – even that lacked originality – and that was a possibility of the pensions uprating taking place twice a year instead of once a year. I shall return to that matter later in my speech, but I hope that he will understand my disappointment that we have not heard in more detail how Labour Members intend to carry out the many promises they are now making – with most of which, of course, it would be extremely difficult to disagree, provided that we lived in an ideal world.

Before I come to particular matters, I want to mention a few general points. Labour Members tend to dismiss the fact that we can best serve pensioners by trying to keep down inflation. It is surprising that that fact is dismissed so easily, because I am in no doubt that inflation is the greatest enemy of the retired and bids fair to destroy the value of their savings and incomes. I therefore hope that all hon, Members will welcome and endorse the Government’s determination to reduce inflation, and accept that, although criticism can be made on many areas, there can surely be none of the Government’s attempt to maintain the value of the savings and incomes of retired people.

I suspect that Conservative Members will be a little disappointed not to have found more endorsement by Labour Members of the fact that, at a time when arguably we have been passing through the worst recession this century, we have managed fully to price-protect retirement pensions. I shall prove what I say later in my speech.

First, however, I wish to comment on the speech of the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones)., I found it impossible to disagree with its fervour or with much of its content. Nevertheless, he seemed to play down the importance of inflation when he said that it was not of major importance because, unless we succeeded the day after tomorrow, most of the pensioners would be dead before they got the benefits. I have great respect for the hon. Member, but in saying that he brushed aside far too readily the fact that inflation is, and will remain, a crucial factor in the fixed incomes and savings of retired people.

Mr. Carter-Jones On reflection, I think the hon. Gentleman will find that I was talking about the frail elderly. It is difficult to be too dogmatic, but they are people who have a low expectation of life. In denying them nursing rights, I suggested, in the kindest possible way, that they would be dead before inflation was tackled.

Mr. McCrindle I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because it enables me to say that he and I are closer together than I realised. He does not challenge what I say about the desirability of beating back inflation in the interests of the generality of pensioners. He is saying something that I have often said in the House, that at a time of limited resources – I challenge any hon. Member to remember a time when resources were not limited – such assistance as is available has to be directed to groups of people such as the frail elderly.

Elderly people have another difficulty, and it relates to heating costs. I do not pretend that this Government have got it absolutely right, but I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) was perhaps a little less generous than we know him to be in the compliment that he was prepared to pay the Government in this regard, There are, of course, many areas where we need to do more, but heating cost aid under this Government is higher in real terms than it was in the comparable scheme under the Labour Government. This is also true even in the National Health Service or – dare I say it? – personal social services, by which I mean home helps and meals on wheels. I do not contend that the situation is a happy one.

However, although these services have been cut back by many county councils – a fact that I deplore, as do most hon. Members – the totality of central Government allocation in this sphere appears to be up compared with the figure that was expended when the Labour Government left office. I hope that I am not being complacent. I am realistic and realise that even at this difficult time the Government have something to be proud of, even in this most exposed area.

I come back unashamedly to inflation. It destroys the value of pensioners’ incomes and savings. I have no doubt that the Government are right to make it a major priority. In that way, inflation will be conquered. That will be a powerful gain for the elderly – arguably more for the elderly than for any other section of the community.

I come now to the vexed question whether we have been successful in inflation-proofing the retirement pension. The retirement pension has increased between 1979 and 1981 by 52 per cent. During the same period prices also increased by 52 per cent. One does not have to be a mathematician to recognise that that represents full protection. However, that does not satisfy me. I should like the standard of living of pensioners to rise progressively, but I remind the House that in a period during which we have had such difficulties it is not bad to be able to claim that we have increased pensions by 52 per cent. at the same time as prices have risen by 52 per cent. By November 1982, pensions will be increased in line with prices, and a further 2 per cent. will be paid because of the shortfall last year.

Much has been said in another context about the shortfall last year. I am one of those who feel that the proposal to continue to derate other benefits by 2 per cent. should be reversed. However, at a time when it could have been argued that there should have been some derating in pensions as well, I believe that the Government are to be congratulated on the fact that the increase in the pension over the four-year period will precisely match the increase in prices during the same period – and this at a time when the gross national product has been falling and the living standards of many other sections of the community falling simultaneously. I repeat that this is an achievement of which the Government can be proud.

I come now to the important point raised by the hon. Member for Pontypridd about the uprating of benefits twice a year I should like to link that with a matter that I have raised in the House many times in the past 12 years. I refer to the time lag between the announcement of an increase and the payment of it. Nowadays Budgets are frequently introduced in March rather than in April, and the payment does not take effect until November. There is, therefore, a period of eight months when a great deal can happen to the inflation rate. It can increase, as it did in 1980, or fall, as it will in 1982, we hope.

The difficulty is that because the changes in the benefit books have to be made manually, it is impossible to shrink the time scale between the announcement and the payment. That could be achieved – and is achieved in other EEC countries – by computerising the whole exercise. It is interesting that the hon. Member for Pontypridd should have raised this matter. There is only one thing that stops us moving over to the computerisation of benefit changes, and that is that the trade unions that are involved in the negotiations will not accept the situation.

If the hon. Member for Pontypridd wants to be of assistance to pensioners perhaps he could use his influence with the trade unions so that although we continue to uprate only once a year the announcement can be made in July and the payment made in October. If he genuinely wishes to make a concrete contribution to the benefit of old-age pensioners, I would respectfully suggest that it lies within his own hands and that he has no need to press the Government to take action.

I listened with great interest to the right hon. Member for Rutherglen (Mr. MacKenzie). He said that he used to be of the opinion that one should pay as high a pension as possible and then leave people to spend their money on buses, television licences or whatever. I still take that view. I see many problems, particularly as I represent a constituency just over the border from greater London, where the concessionary fares scheme is much less generous than that of the GLC. I know the difficulties that can arise when one local authority offers a very good concessionary scheme and another does not. I have frequently said how much easier it would be if we could have a national scheme.

However, given that funds will always be limited to some degree, what sort of national scheme would be acceptable? Would it be the scheme that is presently run in London, with virtually free fares? That would cost an enormous amount of money if it were spread throughout the United Kingdom. Or would it be an infinitely less generous scheme, such as the one in my area? If the latter, how would the millions of people in the capital take that?

It is the easiest thing in the world to talk about the desirability of a national scheme for concessionary bus fares, but it is infinitely more difficult to implement it.

Unless the Opposition can tell us what sort of money they foresee being involved, what sort of area they would take that money from, and what sort of scheme it would be – the best in the country or the worst – I shall consider their representations to be more than a little bogus.

Mr. John The hon. Gentleman talks about bogus representations. However, he asked the Transport Department on 28 January for just such a national scheme, without specifying what standard it should be. He asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will reconsider the introduction of a national scheme.” – [Official Report, 28 January 1982; Vol. 16, c. 441.] Will the real Robert McCrindle please stand up?

Mr. McCrindle If the hon. Gentleman is such an inexperienced Member of Parliament that he does not recognise that hon. Members may table parliamentary questions to elicit information without necessarily including their opinion in those questions, he is hardly fit to lead for the Opposition on such important matters. The attraction of such a national scheme is constantly being considered, but I have reached the conclusion that it would be expensive and would create as many problems as it solved.

Mr. Major Some rural areas, such as mine, have very few buses, yet they would have to contribute to the cost of a national scheme.

Mr. McCrindle That is a good point. What about those who are housebound? How can a national scheme be introduced that takes account of the many pensioners who could not conceivably take advantage of it? Am I not correct in suggesting that it would be far better to move towards increasing pensions by the maximum possible, while leaving the individual to do as he wishes with his money?

The same applies to concessionary television licences. Not every old person wants a television set. Where would the concession stop? Are not the disabled just as entitled as the elderly? [Interruption.] I am trying to tell hon. Members where I stand. Opposition Members clearly have not thought the matter through. If hon. Members think the subject through, they will reach the same conclusion as me. The elderly would get very little benefit. Before Opposition Members put such attractive propositions into the shop window so that elderly people who have riot, perhaps, thought the matter through are attracted by them, they have a duty to the House and to the country to cost the proposition and to tell us whether it would solve all the problems in the way that they suggest.

Before being mildly diverted, I had intended to say more. However, as other hon. Members wish to speak I shall say only that, although we have much more to do, the Government have managed to protect pensions against the ravages of inflation when hardly any other incomes have been protected in that way. That is quite something. It is a sham and a disgrace that we should be pilloried by the Opposition for not doing better. However, the elderly will know who are on their side and who, in the long run, will serve their interests best. They will conclude that the Conservative Party – as always – is well on the way to protecting the standard of living for the elderly in Britain.

Mr. Ronald W. Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) As far as it went, I was interested in the speech made by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle), but he was bowled, middle stump, by the Ian Botham on the Opposition Front Bench.

When the hon. Gentleman’s local press publishes the fact that he tabled a question about reconsidering a national concessionary scheme and that he meant not that, but that he wanted the Government to ensure that there was no such scheme, pensioners in his constituency will have to consider the matter carefully. The hon. Gentleman seems to have arrived at 1984 before the rest of us. I was interested in the hon. Gentleman’s remarks but what he admitted to was a bit of a fraud. He argued that the Government had kept pensions in line with inflation. Why does not the hon. Gentleman ask pensioners in his constituency about that? If he asked my constituents they would say that there was no parity.

I am concerned about the Secretary of State’s statements. He suggested that five items were new issues. It would be churlish not to say that I am pleased that such steps are being taken. However, they are faltering steps. The first proposal is for three experimental nursing homes. Many of us have long argued for that. I am pleased that the Minister has suggested that. However, three is somewhat limited – the Minister could have made it five and included Scotland. We should not only consider England and Wales. Surely it is possible to establish an experimental home for the elderly in Scotland. The proposal is interesting, and I shall follow its progress with interest. We shall want to know more about it – for example, its cost and other factors. The Minister gave only a skeleton outline. I understand that there will be 150 beds.

I am pleased that the Minister intends to increase the grants to Age Concern for training. It is an important problem with which local government has been trying to deal – but without real success. Perhaps Age Concern can do better on a voluntary basis. I note that, for the first time, the Minister will meet the chairman and officers of the regional health authorities to discuss a corporate plan. Although Ministers have never done that, the Department has always held what have been called “forward looks”. When I chaired committees at St. Bartholomew’s hospital the Minister sent some of his senior officials to our meetings. We all received a subpoena to attend, and there was a corporate review on the “forward look”. We discussed the previous year’s work, the plan for the future and how we were allocating our resources, including those for the aged. Therefore, I do not understand the argument that it is the first time ever in the field of human conflict that such meetings are to be held, because that is exactly what we have been doing. I suggest that the Minister consults not only the chairmen but all the RHA members, so that we can tell him about the problems. I could write the scenario of the corporate review for the North-West Thames regional health authority and tell the Minister exactly what the problems are. Do I understand that the Minister intends to do something about the problems? Will he provide more money? That is the basic issue we are debating. If he does not provide more money his statement on the corporate review is simply a cosmetic exercise.

The House has always discussed these matters in great detail because we all have an interest, either now or in the future –  and if not concerning ourselves, then our families. All of us feel obliged, therefore, to take this subject seriously.

The Minister said that the House had to face a fundamental challenge during the next 20 years. I have news for him. The challenge has been facing us for the past 20 years. The real problem is that society has never been geared to the problems of old age. Society has always walked the other way. It is inevitable that we must now face the problem, either individually, as a country, or as Government.

We knew in 1948 that better medication was on the way, which would create a longer lifespan for people. We knew that a longer lifespan would encourage independence, and that that, in turn, would bring a more active life. We knew that a more active life would bring higher aspirations because all things become possible. We have concessionary fares because pensioners want to travel around. They do not want to stay at home, as they once had to do. It was clear to everyone that that would be the state of play, but we refused to examine the issue.

I do not want to rehearse all the arguments and go into the banter about who provided what, and whether or not pensions are worth more now than previously. My pensioners tell me that they are not, and I am satisfied to believe them because they are the people who receive them.

I turn now to the other items in the convention. I am sad that the Government have responded with their amendment. I shall be inviting my hon. Friends in the SDP and the Liberal Party to support the Opposition motion. I cannot understand why anyone would turn down a request for an early report to the House and the country on how a constructive response may be made to the Declaration of Intent of the National Pensioners’ Convention. It would be an important and fundamental report, which would answer a number of questions, one way or the other. If the House does not have the report, we cannot discuss the issue. The pensioners will not thank us for that. There is nothing clever in sweeping the issue under the carpet. The pensioners may not like the decision that we reach, but they want to know that we are discussing the issue.

Mr. Bowden rose –

Mr. Brown I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman because he made a courageous speech.

Mr. Bowden I tried to explain to the House why I cannot support either the Opposition motion or the Government amendment. Although I understand the hon. Gentleman’s reasons for not wishing to support the Government amendment, I am amazed that he intends to support the Opposition motion.

Mr. Brown We can eliminate the political propaganda in the first part of the motion – although I do not disagree with all of it. However, we need a report about all the elements in the declaration of intent, which covers a wide range of matters. If we do not have a report on the declaration, we shall never have a report on all the elements. It is in the interests both of the pensioners and ourselves to know the facts. The Government should have responded to the declaration, especially as they today announced five activities that are incorporated in the broad list in the declaration of intent.

I wish to address myself to three of the issues. Local authorities failed to grasp the problems in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. As I served in local government during that time, I blame myself as much as anyone else. I should have recognised the position and done something about it. I am proud of the building programme undertaken by local authorities at that time. However, it is clear that the relationship of bedroom needs was wrong. We are now in the desperate position of needing more one-bedroom properties than ever before. It is even more difficult because in the main they cannot be above ground floor level, they must be near certain facilities, they cannot be in hilly areas, and they must have ramps and other facilities.

Having carried out the vast building programmes, we now find ourselves locked in to them. As a result, a large number of the elderly – many of whom I see weekly at my advice centre – desperately wish to leave their two or three-bedroom flats or maisonettes and move into a one-bedroom unit. Their homes are too large and they cannot afford to heat them. They may be infirm, and so cannot fully use their homes. They cannot escape from those conditions because local authorities cannot provide them with an alternative. Certainly, private housing does not provide an alternative. We are left with not only the uneconomic use of the houses, but with the unhappy position of locking in the elderly to unsuitable homes. That causes them stress and they have to visit their doctors more frequently, which causes all the other problems that everyone knows so well.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West): Has the hon. Gentleman asked any of his elderly constituents to read a pamphlet called “Growing Older”, pages 30 to 34? That sets out seven or eight schemes that are available, largely through private efforts, to enable the elderly to change their houses for the sort of accommodation that the hon. Gentleman rightly suggests should be available to them.

Mr. Brown I seek to read as much as I can about these matters but I am talking not about houses but about the top of a fifteen storey block of flats. It is all very well if everything is as stated. It is not. I cannot get people out; the local authority will not move people – there is nobody offering them anywhere to go. I have had discussions with Ministers until I was exhausted and frustrated and have got nowhere. Even if one solves that part of the problem, one is still locked into a problem that one cannot resolve because of the way we built properties in the past. The declaration of intent says that pensioners have a right to live in accommodation which is appropriate to personal need and circumstance with a reasonable degree of choice. In my constituency there is no choice, certainly no consideration of appropriate personal need. People’s circumstances are ignored. I invite the Secretary of State to visit my area and talk to the local authority so that it can explain. I send letter after letter to the Department of the Environment setting out those absurdities.

My second point on that aspect concerns the less fit, who need sheltered accommodation. Again, that aspect is equally hopeless in my area. The argument is that we have not matched the supply to the demand and that time certainly is not on the side of the elderly. However, when the Secretary of State came to office in 1979, the first thing he did was to overrule his inspector’s report on Hackney, and said that it could not build sheltered housing on a site being compulsorily purchased because he would prefer it to be given to a speculator called Fairview to build speculative properties. They are now being built and cost between £43,000 to £45,000 a time. The desperately needed sheltered housing could have been built two years ago. Therefore, when I hear the Secretary of State’s concern, how he will guide local authorities and that there will be joint funding, I say that is marvellous, but I also ask where he has been for the past three years, because his colleague the Secretary of State for the Environment did the opposite.

The Secretary of State must give some explanations. In addition, he also changed the cost yardstick to what he calls the indicative cost and he has changed the whole pattern by which a local authority endeavours to use the only means it has of providing specialised housing for the elderly – knocking down two old houses and building eight units of a sheltered housing area. One cannot do that because the indicative cost is too expensive and the Secretary of State turns it down. One Secretary of State claims that we want small units all over the place that keep people in the community and take them out of hospitals – that is marvellous. However, when local government tries to do that, the other Secretary of State makes sure it cannot.

The new cost system should be considered in the light of today’s debate to see whether the Government are satisfied that there is comparability between the objectives of the Department of Health and Social Security and the Department of the Environment. Otherwise, joint financial schemes and funding schemes are, again, purely cosmetic and will mean little.

The declaration of intent says that pensioners should be able to call on the full range of community and personal social services to give full support as need arises. Hon. Members who have been involved with the National Health Service and local government tried desperately to achieve that. However, all Governments, over a time, tried to cut costs in the NHS by offloading many of the financial problems to local government. That would not be so bad and it could be argued that it would get them into the community and make sure that it was a community response; getting local people to help as well as local government. That would be fine and I should not entirely dissent from it.

However, what has been so wrong is that all Governments have transferred the financial responsibility and burden for providing the service to local government and then introduced cuts and moratoriums and said that local government cannot do this, that or the other. The result in my area – I frequently argue with the area health authority (teaching) and the local authority – is that the AHA (teaching) produces strategic and operational plans every year, all of which are based on the argument that there is an outside community and personal social service run by the local authority. The local authority will confirm that that is not there.

Protecting itself, the local authority keeps saying that it is trying but when pressed on why it is failing it says that it is because of Government policy and that it has no money. Hackney had £14 million taken away from it last year. Consequently, I say to the area health authority (teaching) that it is unfair and misleading of it to keep producing strategic plans, time and again over the past six years, for closing hospitals. I have talked to right hon. Gentleman after right hon. Gentleman about that and, when I hear the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals), arguing that Westminster hospital and the Medical College Union should be kept open, and remember what he did to my constituency, my God, I no longer know what “fraud” means. It is outrageous –

Mr. Ennals In terms of the argument that the hon. Gentleman is using – putting National Health Service responsibilities on to local authorities – would he not say that one of the most useful initiatives taken by the Labour Government was joint financing which enabled local authorities throughout the country to develop community care projects that they would not have been able to do otherwise from their own funds?

Mr. Brown The right hon. Gentleman will recall that as Secretary of State he was invited to visit my constituency on many occasions. He was courteous and friendly – he is a personal friend – and I showed him why it was not working or happening. He thought it was working in Alexander Fleming House but in the green fields of Hackney it was not and we were unable to get him to understand that there was a great gap between what was said and what was actually happening. That is the position today. There are little or no community or personal services because local authorities just do not have the money for them. I do not want to make a great issue of this, but do not let us believe that if we keep arguing about pensions the elderly are not concerned with these matters on which we, as politicians, seem to feel we are succeeding.

My third point from the declaration of intent is that pensioners should be able to maintain a warm and well lit home with adequate heating allowances covering all fuels. Time and again I referred the Department to the problems in Hackney – they must be the same elsewhere. My constituency is about 90 per cent. municipalised and, because of that, the local authority runs the heating system. Due to the high cost of fuel and pressure from the Department of the Environment, it cuts back on heating, puts it on late, cuts it off early and does not have it too high. Consequently, the tenants feel cold. If people are in work they are all right because they can plug another electric fire in and increase the heat. However, it does not discriminate with a pensioner with the same heating system. He or she has to decide whether they can afford a fire and the social services say that they cannot help with that. I talked to the Department’s officials who say that the pensioners get their heating paid within their pensions and, therefore, that they cannot pay any extra. Therefore, a pensioner has to decide whether to have the extra heating or food. He will try to have both and will end up in debt. That brings us back to the fuel debt problem and the matters that I am already discussing.

Mr. Skinner rose –

Mr. Brown The hon. Gentleman is hardly the most courteous hon. Member, but I shall give way to him, as I always do.

Mr. Skinner The hon. Gentleman is referring to the fact that old people find life very difficult, especially this winter, with the number of deaths from hypothermia rising astronomically. He is very concerned, but I recall what happened last week, when we had an important debate about electricity and other fuel rebates, a month’s free supply of electricity and so on, when all these matters were raised. Various points were advanced. The hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Thomas) took part in the debate, but said very little. When it came to the Division at the end of the debate the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) was missing. And the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East was missing as well.

Mr. Mike Thomas (Newcastle upon Tyne, East): I spoke.

Mr. Skinner I know, but the hon. Gentleman refused to vote. The hon. Member and his hon. Friend are concerned about the pensioners in Hackney and Newcastle, and the SDP is not too bad at talking, but when it comes to delivering votes it is no good at all.

Mr. Brown I always try to be helpful and courteous to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), but this will be the last time that I give way to him. I do not object to his intervening and trying to make his party points, but we are talking about pensioners. The hon. Gentleman has done nothing today but walk in and out of the Chamber. He has never listened to any hon. Member and has been rude and offensive, walking from Bench to Bench. Let the pensioners of Bolsover understand that it might have been better if the hon. Gentleman had been in the Chamber doing his work.

Mr. Thomas I spoke in the debate on this matter a week ago. On that occasion the Labour Party put forward a cynical and opportunist motion advocating a course of action which it did not pursue in office and which it would not pursue if it were elected tomorrow. That kind of cynical misuse of the facilities of the House does not deserve the support of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it right and proper and in accordance with the rules of the House that hon. Members with something to say can be prevented from speaking by having to listen to hon. Members with nothing to say?

Mr. Brown I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member for Bolsover does that sort of thing; he comes in and has nothing to say. We were proceeding happily with the debate. It was interesting, and we were trying to understand it. I regret that I happened to be nobbled by the hon. Member for Bolsover.

I must now conclude quickly. I was trying to establish that because of the heating problems, resulting from local government’s having to cut back, the pensioner is in a Catch-22 situation. I am asking the Minister to examine the problem in Hackney to see whether there is any way in which his Department can co-operate with the London borough of Hackney to resolve the difficulty on behalf of the tenants.

I come to the subject of telephones, which is the other item on the declaration of intent and is a very important matter. The Greater London Council has just completed an excellent block of flats in my constituency and has arranged for the old people to have lights and alarms on the outside of their flat, so that if they get into difficulties they can pull a cord to bring help. It could have been done before, but it was not.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Over recent months many of us have given up much of our Back-Bench time to hear Members belonging to minority parties –

Mr. Mike Thomas This is not a point of order.

Mr. Campbell-Savours – making their case. We have sat back and have been willing to accept that, in accordance with the principles and good spirit of the House. Today a Back-Bench Member has spoken for half an hour, taking away time from other Members who regard the time available in this debate as crucial. He has taken away from other Back Benchers their right to speak. Will you intervene, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to protect the rights of all Back Benchers as against the rights of those belonging to minority parties who are abusing the procedures of the House?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine) As the hon. Gentleman knows  [Interruption] If the hon. Gentleman wants to hear the answer, perhaps he will pay attention. The Chair has no control over the length of any Member’s speech. The principle of what the hon. Gentleman says could be applied to the whole House and not only to the hon. Member to whom it was directed.

Mr. Brown I have been interrupted, and I have tried to be courteous in giving way. The hon. Gentleman’s point of order may show that one should not be so courteous in future. The pensioners in my constituency are interested in the matter, even if those elsewhere are not. They want me to state the case.

One pensioner fell ill in one of the flats that I have just described. He used the device provided, and when he called for help at 3 o’clock in the morning it was a 75-year old lady who came to help him. It was necessary to summon an ambulance, but, because of the way in which things are done, there was no telephone in the area. The old lady had to run all the way up the road to find a telephone box. It had been vandalised, so she then had to run to the other end of the road to another telephone.

The moral of the story for the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) is that if he lived in an inner city area like mine he would understand the difficulties that we face. On behalf of my constituents, I was asking the Minister to direct his attention to the problem, which is that although we have the aids that we want for the elderly the original purpose has been frustrated because that has not been married with the provision of telephones. The pensioner in question died. I hope that the Minister can help prevent similar tragedies.

I should like to end on a note of friendship and courtesy to my former hon. Friends, but their standard of behaviour is so appalling that if ever I think again about what I had to do last December the hon. Member for Workington will have told me how right I was.

Mrs. Sheila Faith (Belper) I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown), who is closely related to my distinguished predecessor at Belper. Today, as always, the Government are being blamed not only for the world recession and the shortcomings of all previous Governments, but for every day in which we have experienced blizzards, flooding, fog and other inclement weather. However, the pensioners have the right to choose and to decide for themselves.

Before the 1979 general election there had been 13 years of Labour Government and 13 years of Conservative Government. The elderly people knew when they were well off. Over 50 per cent. of those over 65 voted Conservative, and I know that at the next general election they will vote Conservative again, because they know that pensions will be protected.

The Government’s long-term objective is a system that could stop pensioners having to pay taxes. I have never heard of any practical proposals on the Labour Party’s agenda. It simply has pie-in-the-sky promises or, as some of my hon. Friends have said, rhetoric, and nothing else to offer.

Mr. James Hamilton We promised in our manifesto that if we were elected we would give free television licences to the old people in the lifetime of a Parliament. Can the hon. Lady match that?

Mrs. Faith That suggestion was also made before the 1974 general election. The Labour candidate in my constituency promised it, but it did not happen. The present Government have been more generous in their fuel allowances than previous Governments were. It should be noted that in 1975-76 disconnections were higher both for gas and electricity than in any year during the present Government’s term of office.

We should all make it known to our elderly constituents that the Government give a 90 per cent. grant to pensioners to cover home insulation costs.

I agree that today’s debate is very important because, as other hon. Members have already said, there will be a rapid increase in the number of elderly people by the end of the century. In fact, hon. Members have already said that there will be a 20 per cent. increase in the 75 to 80 age group over the next 10 years, that improvements in medical knowledge and the resulting increased longevity will mean that the over-85 age group will increase by 30 per cent. and that by 1990 there will be half a million more people over 75. Therefore, it is very important that we look today at ways of improving the lot of the elderly and of maintaining the largest possible number of fit, happy and active members of the community.

I welcome the fact that the Select Committee on Social Services, of which I am privileged to be a member – and I see that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short), the Chairman of the Committee, and the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies), a fellow member, are hoping to speak later – is looking into the age of retirement, and I hope that we shall recommend a more flexible retirement age. Account must be taken of the fact that some people wear better than others; some people would like to keep on working and keep their jobs until they are over 65, whilst others cannot wait to retire and want to give more time to their hobbies and other interests at an earlier age. Many elderly people, when they retire, still like to work part-time. I am delighted that the Government have enabled pensioners to earn £52 per week without having their pensions reduced. I welcome the fact that the eventual abolition of the earnings rule is one of the most important commitments of our party.

Mr. Foulkes rose –

Mrs. Faith I am sorry but I cannot give way since other hon. Members want to speak.

This commitment was reaffirmed in the White Paper “Growing Older” which was published last year.

The Seebohm report, published in the late 1960s, showed that an overwhelming majority of elderly people are happily living in the community, and when they are sick they are looked after by relatives and friends. Long may that continue However, there are those who have no families or who may be living away from them, and many rely on the local authority’s social services for home helps and other assistance. The previous Secretary of State for Social Services advised local authorities to protect these services for the old and frail, and they have done so. There has been a 4 per cent. increase in spending on the personal social services in real terms during the past two and a half years. I have tremendous admiration and respect for the people in my constituency who do so much for the elderly on a voluntary basis. Rural areas have a high proportion of elderly people and more and more villages have no chemist’s shop and no doctor. I particularly welcome those who organise for elderly people transport to shops and hospitals. It is also pleasing that many housing estates with a large number of elderly residents operate voluntary warden schemes.

The Opposition are only now beginning to realise the excellent work being carried out by the voluntary sector, for it should be remembered that 3 million people work in voluntary associations; that 60 per cent. of meals on wheels are delivered by voluntary organisations; and that many volunteers organise luncheon and tea clubs. In my experience, many of the volunteers themselves are long past retirement age, still have tremendous energy and vitality and enjoy using their organisational skills. I welcome, therefore, the extra money being given to Age Concern and other organisations to train volunteers and professionals.

It is the wish of most people to stay in their homes for as long as possible. I am glad that housing schemes for the elderly now show great imagination, for it costs £20,000 in capital costs to provide a home for an old person in residential care, not accounting for staff and other costs. So it make sense to try to help as many people as possible to retain their independence and, most importantly, that is what the elderly prefer.

An article published recently in The Daily Telegraph by Dr. Vernon Coleman pointed out that elderly people in homes quickly become institutionalised and sit all day staring into space. We have all seen it when visiting homes in our constituencies. Residents should be encouraged to share in the chores, to go out freely in the community. That does happen in the more enlightened homes, but too often the residents are over-protected. I hope that these matters will be considered and will be mentioned in the new consultative document that I look forward to reading.

The members of the National Federation of Housing Associations have produced 47,000 specially-designed units for the elderly. The associations provide a high proportion of all sheltered housing. That allows for diversification and new initiatives. We should also remember that there is a growing number of private retirement housing schemes, and, just as in private health and private education, these schemes can set the standard for the public and the voluntary sectors. Private builders will, I am sure, respond to the increased demand.

The elderly person feels most vulnerable when he or she returns from a stay in hospital. Here again, I know that volunteers are supporting many elderly people during their days of convalescence. It is very important that there should be communication between voluntary organisations, hospitals and health authorities so that meals on wheels and home helps can be organised to commence helping an elderly person immediately after his or her stay in hospital. General practitioners should also be alerted so that they can make an early visit to give the old people reassurance. I believe that the new initiative will mean that more people will be able to leave hospital earlier, which is very important.

While in hospital, elderly people should be given the best possible care. I am sure that many become permanently hospitalised because of poor assessment. It is very worrying to many of our elderly people that they are treated in hospital by doctors from another culture and background. That may be of no consequence to a younger, more adaptable person, but to the frailer members of the community an unfamiliar accent may add to their confusion and bewilderment. I welcome, therefore, the Government’s response to the Select Committee’s fourth report on post-graduate medical education. I particularly welcome the Government’s view that the United Kingdom should be self-reliant in terms of medical manpower, although still allowing here post-graduate training of doctors from abroad. Our young students should be given better careers guidance so that they know of the opportunities open to them in geriatrics and psychiatry – specialties where vacancies exist which are often taken up by overseas doctors.

I am pleased that the Government endorse the promotion of better careers guidance. When we took evidence we noted that where undergraduates studied geriatrics in an academic environment many more of them were attracted to this specialty. We also saw that private industry could be prevailed upon to fund a chair in a university if that was necessary.

When our Committee visited Sweden last year, we found that there were similar problems. One doctor thought it would be necessary to have longer undergraduate training so that all students could spend six months studying the diseases of the elderly. This should be considered here. All general practitioners and hospital doctors should have a better insight into the problems of old age. A large amount of the general practitioner’s time must be taken up with the problems of the elderly, and, as well as those in long-stay hospitals, 40 per cent. of acute beds are occupied by elderly patients.

I welcome the fact that the Government are setting up experimentally three National Health Service nursing homes where nurses will have full care of the elderly and will bring in doctors from the community only when they are needed. Scarce medical manpower may not be permanently necessary to look after elderly patients. I think that this would be a very important experiment and should be watched with great interest. The Government have indeed shown great concern and imagination and are determined to improve the lot of the elderly.

Every day we read in the paper of brutal attacks on the elderly. Only today a headline in the Daily Mail read “Thug beats up a widow of 93″. It stated: A hooded robber sexually assaulted an 86-year-old widow at an old people’s home—and then stole her handbag containing £50. It is shocking that elderly people are particularly susceptible to brutal muggings, and many are afraid to venture out at night. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden). Heavy penalties should be meted out to people who commit such crimes. But it must be greatly to the advantage of pensioners that since the Government took office the number of police officers has been increased by 7,000, more forces are up to strength, and there is now a return of the bobby on the beat, so reassuring a sight for elderly people – and this at a time when the Government are spending taxpayers’ money very cautiously in other ways.

Over the last few years pensioners have seen their savings eroded. The provision they made for their old age by making economies when they were young has become inadequate. The Government are determined to conquer inflation and they are likely to be the first Government for many years to reduce inflation during their term of office. This economic stability is of vital importance to the whole community, but particularly to the elderly. If the plight of the elderly deteriorates, it will not be the fault of this Government. I shall certainly support the amendment tonight.

Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire) I am particularly grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me in the debate this evening. I speak as a former director of Age Concern, Scotland, and as the present secretary of the all-party pensioners group in the House. I can assure the co-chairman of the all-party group, the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden), that I have no qualms whatever about supporting the Opposition motion, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard), the other co-chairman of the all-party group, equally will have no qualms, because whatever twisting the Government do, or the Conservative Central Office does, to the statistics, they show quite clearly that during the term of office of the Labour Government pensions went up 20 per cent. in real terms, and during the term of office of the present Government they have not kept pace with inflation.

I am sorry that so far no Scottish Conservative Member has spoken. It is unfortunate that a Scottish Office Minister is not to reply to the debate and to the many Scottish contributions that I hope will be made. I am sorry that all the Minister’s comments, not on social security but on health and social services, referred merely to England and Wales. That was very disappointing.

The Secretary of State described the measures that he announced today as a significant package of measures. It was an unbelievable description of a smokescreen of bits and pieces to cloud the issues that ought to be concerning us today. It is also very interesting that it took a motion put down by the official Opposition to smoke out the measures. I hope that they will have more success than the measures announced by the Prime Minister on 27 July. She announced an extra £4 million for the community enterprise programme for the current financial year. Nothing has happened about that. I am told by the voluntary organisations concerned that the Prime Minister’s officers consulted them only on that very day, 27 July.

I hope that the measures will do better than the £4 million announced on 27 July for projects for community support for the handicapped and the elderly. Since that is a matter specifically for the Department of Health and Social Security, perhaps the Minister who is to reply will tell us precisely what has happened to that £4 million for the next financial year. Have the voluntary organisations been consulted? What projects will come forward? My information is that little or nothing has been done

It has often been said, indeed it is repeated again and again, that the measure of a civilised society is the way it treats its old people. That is a truism. The society for which the Government are responsible in Britain today can in no way be considered civilised by that standard.

I constantly get the impression when I come into this Chamber and hear the outpourings of Conservative Members that they are more concerned with and aware of the problems of the elderly champagne-sipping millionaires than of the real poverty that exists among the majority of our old people. They know more about the old Etonians of Doxford’s who managed to run off with the investments of many of the elderly people who invested in commodities. They know more of the lives of the Jack Gills of this world, with their pensions of £78,000 from Associated Communications. They know more of the lives of ex-presidents of the European Commission who, even at a fairly advanced age, seem to want to get back into this place in spite of the very generous pension that they receive. They do not know the problems of more than half of the 9.5 million people who are living close to the poverty level. They will all be going out to their enjoyable dinners tonight or tomorrow, unaware of the problems of these elderly people.

I think that the titles of the papers on the elderly produced by the two Governments are indicative of their attitudes. Our discussion document was called “A Happier Old Age”. The Government called their White Paper “Growing Older” – the dull expression of what the Government think about old age. They have spent nearly three years dismantling our Health Service and our social services.

Mr. Major Will the hon. Gentleman tell me how the National Health Service can have been dismantled when expenditure in real terms has increased, when there are an extra 21,000 nurses, 1,000 doctors, 1,000 dentists, and 2,000 occupational therapists? Does that not put the money where the patient will benefit from it? How is that destroying the National Health Service? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would explain why the number of people awaiting care practically doubled during the term of office of his party.

Mr. Foulkes I ask the hon. Member to ask the nurses, who are getting paid less than they are asking for. I ask him to ask the people who are paying higher prescription charges, and those who are paying more for the dental services. I shall come to the question of the elderly in my own time. We have heard a number of Central Office briefs, and I think that the hon. Member for Huntingdonshire (Mr. Major) will try to get in with another one about the pensions level.

The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shcreditch (Mr. Brown) talked about the pensions level. I agree with the Social Democrats about the pensions level. Do not twist the statistics. Ask the pensioners whether they feel that they are better off now than they were under the Labour Government in 1979. They will say they are not. Ask the organisations that represent them. I will quote one – not a radical group like the British pensioners’ trade union action group or even a relatively radical group like Age Concern, but a group of professional retired people, the British Association of Retired Persons, which is not a militant Marxist organisation by any standards. It said in a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer sent on 20 January: As regards the national retirement pension, the Conservative Party chairman in his reply in 1979 to BARP … stated: ‘We pledge to maintain the value of retirement pensions in terms of what they will but in the shops”, yet the November 1981 increase failed to do so. Mrs. Thatcher admitted this when challenged, and said the shortfall would be made good, but not till November 1982. One promise having been broken, what hope have we that the next one will be kept and, even if it is, how are the retired to meet ever-rising costs of living until next November? What is to prevent the due increase in the national retirement pension being given now? That is what we are saying. What is to prevent it? Why cannot an interim increase be given? I know many of these people. The person who signed this letter, Ian Mackenzie, the chairman, is well known to me. He is a former lord dean of guild of the city of Edinburgh. He is not a revolutionary. He adds: The number of letters which we receive on these and like matters from disgruntled and angry former Conservative supporters among our members has greatly increased in recent months, and there is little doubt that the popularity of your party has seriously, if not fatally, declined among the near 10 million retired persons on the UK electoral role”. That is true not only of retired people but of many others.

More examples are available from pensioners’ organisations and individual pensioners that give the lie to the claim that the Government have kept the pension in line with the cost of living. Even supposing that the Government had been successful, which they have not, many hon. Members – I see the hon. Member for Kemptown in his place –argue that the retail price index is not enough. The Labour Government agreed to keep pensions in line with prices or earnings, whichever were the higher, a significant improvement on the present situation. Many hon. Members would say that a TPI might be appropriate or that a separate pensioners index should be established. Pensioners spend a higher percentage of the money that they receive on food, fuel and housing. The cost of these necessities of life has gone up to a greater extent than the retail price index as a whole.

I wish to refer to the uprating. It is outrageous that hon. Members should repeatedly hear that there is no possibility of uprating pensions more than once a year. I am sorry to say that the same message was heard from the Labour Government. They must have been advised by the same civil servants who are advising the present Government. I am sure that the next Labour Government will tackle the problem. How can Denmark, France and the Netherlands carry out an uprating twice a year? How can Italy, a relatively poor country with about the same population as Britain, agree to an uprating three times a year? How are some countries able to operate pension increases on a trip mechanism as soon as inflation increases by a further 3 per cent.? Why cannot the United Kingdom emulate those countries?

I had hoped to hear more than Central Office briefs about the level of heating assistance being allegedly higher than previously. I had hoped to hear an explanation of heating assistance that must be given to elderly and disabled people to cope with costs arising from the recent cold weather. Instead, the elderly are told a series of confusing and bureaucratic tales. Age Concern has been scathing about the additional allowance, which it described as Nothing new for too few. Age Concern maintains that all pensioners should receive allowances, including people who get rent and rate rebates who lose out in relation to the additional assistance. The organisation suggests that fuel boards should spread winter fuel bills over the summer months. Will the Government encourage fuel boards to pursue such a policy? I recall that the reaction of one Conservative Member, when referring to the cut-off of £2,000, was to ask “Since when has it been Conservative policy to tax thrift?”

Another example of taxing thrift now arises. No assistance will be given towards meeting extra heating bills if, after paying, an old-age pensioner has £300 left in savings that may be intended to pay for his or her funeral. Is it not ridiculous to say that help will not be given to someone who has been thrifty enough to pay for his or her funeral because the death grant is inadequate? It is appalling that there has been no reference to extra heating allowances.

There has been a deafening silence from the Government over the death grant. This follows repeated promises. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen (Mr. MacKenzie) reminded the Government on 10 November that they had stated on 8 June that there would be an announcement. When he asked what had happened to the announcement, he was promised that it would be made before the end of the year. I was promised, as was the all-party group, that a statement would be made before the end of the year. On 22 December the Government had to admit that no announcement could be made in spite of pressure and a petition signed by 1 million people.

Mr. James Hamilton Is my hon. Friend aware that one of our colleagues will put forward tomorrow a Private Member’s Bill, and we have heard – the information seems to be correct – that the Government will do everything humanly possible to block it and to make sure that it does not make progress? Will the Minister explain why the Government are taking that action? Will he say when hon. Members can expect an announcement?

Mr. Foulkes I am glad to hear the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Bothwell (Mr. Hamilton), who is a senior Labour Whip and knows about these things.

The Minister for Social Security, although unable to meet his promise to reach a decision before the end of the year, said on 22 December: I now expect to be able to make the promised announcement” – he admitted that it had been promised –  shortly after the Christmas adjournment – [Official Report, 22 December 1981; Vol. 15, c. 373.]

Today is 4 February. There has still been no announcement about an increase in the death grant. Two perfect opportunities are available. An announcement could have been made today or tomorrow during the debate on the Private Members’ Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross). I have heard not only from my hon. Friend the Member for Bothwell, but from other hon. Members that there is a deliberate plan by the Government to “talk out’ the Bill on the death grant proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West. That is disgraceful. It shows the Government’s utter contempt for the 1 million people who took the trouble to sign the petition. It shows an utter contempt for the 40 or more voluntary organisations whom the Government purport to support who are part of the Dignity in Death Alliance.

The Government repeatedly point to an alleged increase in spending in real terms in the Health Service. I have yet to hear evidence of it from my talks with representatives of health boards. I invite the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland to intervene. I have yet to find, in any part of Scotland, evidence of an increase in real terms. Even in the area of the Ayrshire and Arran health board, which has seen a relatively greater increase than other health board areas, I have been in touch with the consultant geriatrician at the Ayrshire Central hospital, Irvine, Dr. Grant, about a 79-year-old man living alone whose nearest relatives live at Berwick. He fractured his left arm and is in a confused state. His doctor recognised that he should be put into care as quickly as possible. The consultant geriatrician agrees that the man desperately needs some kind of residential care. He is not, however, the only case. The consultant geriatrician reminded me that I had referred to him two or three more cases. He told me “There are many dozens more and the list grows week by week”. This greater need will not be satisfied by the Government’s paltry increases.

I should like to have covered a number of other topics. I recognise, however, that many other hon. Members wish to speak. I have drawn up what I would describe as a charge sheet condemning the Government. They should be brought into the dock and charged with various offences. Those offences are failure to uprate pensions in line with earnings or even with prices, abandonment of the electricity discount scheme and the proposals for a comprehensive heating allowance, scrapping of proposals for a national concessionary fares scheme, failure to increase the death grant, breaking of the election promise to scrap the earnings rule in spite of what Ministers have stated, cutting of public expenditure in health and social services when the number of old people is increasing, reducing expenditure on special housing for old people, taking no action to help with telephone and television installations and rents, reducing the real value of invalidity benefits for the elderly disabled and undermining voluntary organisations that the Conservatives profess to support.

With that list of crimes and many more, there is only one suitable punishment for the Government – defeat at the next election, which will come shortly.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton (Edinburgh, West) I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes). It seems only yesterday that we were both councillors on the Edinburgh district council. I do not believe that he has a monopoly of concern in these matters. We are deeply concerned on both sides of the House. The reason that a large majority of pensioners voted for the Government in the last election was that they realised that inflation was the greatest enemy to their savings and that if hyper-inflation took place their savings would evaporate.

In November 1976 the Labour Government increased pensions by 15 per cent., which was less than the increase in earnings, which was 19.4 per cent. In November 1978 they increased pensions by 11.4 per cent., although earnings rose by 12.8 per cent. I welcome the Government’s commitment to make good last year’s shortfall and to increase pensions in line with prices.

Mr. Ennals How can the hon. Gentleman say that when he knows that the Government decided that they would have a 9 per cent. increase in pensions for this year., starting last November, with a retail price index of 12 per cent and a tax and prices index of 14.5 per cent.? How can he pretend that the Government are protecting the pensioner?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton The Government have made it clear that they will make good the shortfall. I welcome that fact.

Mr. Major Does my hon. Friend recall that when the right hon. Gentleman was Secretary of State he increased the pensions in 1978 by less than the RPI?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton I welcome my hon. Friend’s helpful comment.

I put three points before the Minister. The first is the invalid care allowance. If an invalid has to be looked after he or she receives an attendance allowance. The person looking after the invalid may be entitled to an invalid care allowance. Single men and women are entitled to claim an invalid care allowance for looking after an invalid. Likewise, a married man is entitled to claim that allowance. The injustice of the present situation is that a married woman looking after an invalid is not entitled to claim the allowance. In other words, an allowance that is available to married men is not available to married women. That anomaly should be changed. I understand that the cost of changing it would be about £100 million. That is the gross cost. The net cost to the taxpayer might be much lower, possibly about £40 million, as there would be substantial savings in respect of supplementary benefit.

Will the Minister comment on these figures? If such a reform is too expensive, a start should be made by phasing in a new system by age group. There has been a precedent for this in the case of the mobility allowance. Something should be done in this connection. It has a bearing on those elderly persons in less than good health.

Secondly, at present a single old-age pensioner aged 65 or over is taxed if his or her income is above £35. The tax threshold, too, seems low. Last year tax allowances were not increased, but surely this year they should be increased substantially. I appreciate that the Minister cannot reply tonight. I hope that he will pass on my concern to the Chancellor.

Thirdly, there is a matter that was brought home to me when I visited the constituency of Glasgow, Hillhead last Saturday. It affects a number of elderly persons and a great many persons who may become elderly. The problem is that those who are about to become redundant may receive a considerable sum in redundancy pay, over the £2,000 limit. Thousands of people have become redundant in recent years and received substantial payments. For one year after being made redundant they receive unemployment benefit. After that, if they have more than £2,000 capital, they do not receive supplementary benefit. If somebody receives £3,000 a few years before retirement, after one year that person would not be entitled to supplementary benefit if he had spent £1,000. What progress is being made by the Government in their review of the £2,000 limit? It was impressed upon me in Hillhead that the limit is too low and that it discourages elderly persons from saving. I hope that the Minister will pass on the message from a colleague fresh from Hillhead.

I support the amendment. It is indisputable that the Government’s help for heating costs is higher in real terms than that of the last Labour Government. I hope that the three points I have mentioned will be carefully considered before the Budget.

Mrs. Renée Short (Wolverhampton, North-East) When the hon. Member for Belper (Mrs. Faith) referred to the work that the Select Committee is doing on the retirement age, there were five members of the Select Committee in the Chamber, which is very good. They are very conscientious.

It would be premature to say what line the Select Committee is pursuing. It would be difficult to do that at this stage of the inquiry. What is emerging is that the pensioners and pensioner organisations want flexibility in the retirement age. We should do away with the compulsory retirement age. People should carry on working as long as they can and wish to do so.

It is significant that nobody has referred to the retirement age for women or suggested that it should be increased to the present men’s retirement age. If women want to continue working after the age of 60, they should be able to do so. Likewise, men should be able to work after 65. They should also be able to retire before 65.

A flexible retirement policy should be reflected in a flexible working policy. People should be able to do part-time work and at the same time claim part of their retirement pension. Why not should two people share posts, as is done with some medical consultants posts? Why should it not be done in industry? We had evidence from the CBI yesterday that this might create difficulties for employers. If we are talking about complete flexibility, employers should find some way of making it possible. In that way many people could be encouraged to be active, energetic and lively for far longer. When the cut-off comes at 65, although it may be expected, it is a traumatic experience for many men who do not want to retire. Men who live alone find it particularly difficult to be thrust upon their own resources for the whole of the day.

I hope that the Minister will consider my suggestion. I emphasise that it is not the Select Committee’s suggestion. As the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) knows, we are not yet discussing our conclusions, but I am in favour of flexibility of retirement age and sharing jobs. I hope that the CBI and employers can find a way of making that possible.

The announcement by the Secretary of State for Social Services that he is providing three homes for elderly people in Portsmouth, Fleetwood and Sheffield is a drop in the ocean. Providing for 100 people will not affect the situation one way or the other. The right hon. Gentleman makes great play of the monitoring of what the regions are doing for the elderly. But, as many of my hon. Friends have said, the main requirement of all local authorities is for more resources to provide the care that they know is needed.

The alternative is for the elderly to be put into large, dreary hospital wards. When we were considering medical education, the members of the Select Committee visited hospitals on Merseyside and elsewhere. We all know of such hospitals in our constituencies. They are depressing. It is a medical fact that people deteriorate rapidly in such wards. They have nothing to occupy them physically or mentally. There is also a scarcity of creature comforts and a lack of privacy. Because of lack of staff, there are insufficient people to give them the time, care and attention that they need and to keep them occupied. They may not even have access to television. They do not read and they do nothing active. In that depressing state many die rapidly.

As the hon. Member for Belper said, the Committee was most concerned about the lack of medical care for those people. The Secretary of State did not mention the need for more doctors and nurses to specialise in geriatric care. To expand our care of the elderly it is essential for doctors and nurses to have better career guidance. We need the facilities and resources to finance the specialty to attract more students to geriatric care. The Secretary of State must consider how to attract more able medical students to the specialty. At present most elderly patients are cared for by junior doctors in training, who may know little about the background of their patients and may have difficulty in communicating with them. It is therefore not surprising that no progress is being made.

I want to see a flexible retiring age, but for elderly people who have ceased to work local authorities should be able to provide the facilities that people like to have – homes of their own or accommodation in small units. If accommodation for the elderly is too big, again people find little to occupy them. They sit around and deteriorate rapidly. The secret of a long and happy old age is to be mentally and physically active – which may be why hon. Members live a long time. They are kept busy inside and outside the House.

To keep the elderly active when they are at home again requires resources. In their heart of hearts they do not want to go into homes. The expenditure White Paper shows that, certainly over the past few years, when the personal social services are reduced the burden is merely transferred from the local to the hospital authorities, with all the attendant problems and the deterioration of the people involved.

Old people worry about poverty, even if they do not need to. They need the assurance that the pension will retain its value. The Government must maintain its purchasing power. It is essential to inflation-proof pensions if pensioners are to remain in their own homes, active and happy and living a long and productive life.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West) It is a great pleasure to hear the two hon. Ladies – the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short), who spoke from experience, and my hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mrs. Faith), who also made a constructive speech.

It is rare for me violently to criticise another speech, but the speech of the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes) was abusive arrogance. He treated hon. Members with utter contempt. It puts the hon. Gentleman in the class of the beast of Bolsover, which is very extreme indeed. It was one of the most scandalous speeches that I have heard. If hon. Members read it tomorrow morning they will see the utter contempt that that arrogant and ignorant young man tried to thrust on the House.

Mr. David Stoddart (Swindon): Withdraw.

Mr. Rees-Davies Certainly not. I do not make such comments without abundant proof. The experience of my hon. Friends is collectively and individually 10 times that of the hon. Member for South Ayrshire, yet he made contemptible remarks about Central Office. I do not like saying such things about anyone. It is the first time that I have said such things about another hon. Member for a long time. I hope that I do not have to say them again.

We have had some good speeches and some very bad ones. The bad ones tried to make cheap party political points. We are debating the future of the elderly. The number of people over 65 has increased by 25 per cent. over the past 20 years. About 15 per cent. or one-sixth of the population is over 65. The situation is getting considerably more serious. In 17 years, by the year 2000, 20 per cent. more people will be over 75. The number of people over 85 will have increased by at least half.

The young people and the breadwinners will have to carry an even heavier burden for the elderly and others on pensions. It is therefore idle for the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John), who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench. to suggest that we should spend another £5 billion or £6 billion on pensioners. We must be careful.

How can we get voluntary organisations, firms and so on to assist in helping the elderly? The Chancellor can give some help through taxes. I hope that he will bring the age allowance up to date. The Government have made it plain that they will abolish the earnings rule. The Select Committee is considering many matters about the age of retirement. It will probably recommend such a step, but it involves time and money. Therefore, the earnings rule ought to be revised and upgraded a little. These are probably the only two precise suggestions that I have to make that will cost the Government money.

The standing charges made by the electricity and gas boards have to be made to cover administrative costs but I should like the Government to look at whether that could be done on the bills rather than by standing charges. That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and not for the Minister who is present today, but the Minister might like to have some consultations with the Secretary of State.

The question of transport and a national scheme is exceptionally difficult, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle). I have always been in favour of a national scheme, and I say that as a Conservative who is against every other concessionary scheme. I have never favoured the tobacco concession, the television concession or any other such concessions. I therefore find it difficult sometimes. The trouble is that it is an intolerable situation if one resides in Thanet or one of the towns in that area to see people come from London and all get free fares.

Those outside London have the same problem. It is most unfair. I was instrumental in securing the introduction of a concessionary fares scheme for pensioners in Thanet which was done by virtually an all-Conservative council. We were unable to match or compete with the great concessions that pensioners receive in London, or certain other parts of the country. My attitude has always been that if there are to be concessionary fares they should be national or nor at all. The difficulty about the matter is that whichever party voted to abolish free fares in London would not get a single London seat. Therefore, I can appreciate the difficulties in London. I would rather abolish the whole lot and give the money to the old-age pensioners to spend as they like. However, if that cannot be done, we have to consider, unsatisfactory as it is to the general Tory philosophy, that it is better to do that on a national basis, and presumably along the lines of the British Rail scheme.

British Rail runs a concessionary scheme on the basis of half fares and does so because it seeks commercial advantages. Local schemes of benefit on local transport could be run, and provided that it was done on the off-peak hours, charging half rates, one could make money. Many parts of the country could do that commercially.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will fight the battle for having the pension paid through the computer system as soon as possible. It will save a lot of money and time if that can be done. If he speaks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry to ensure that there would be no strikes in certain sections of industry, particularly on the computer side, the changeover could be made. This should ensure that the difficulties of having to wait six or seven months for payment of pensions was overcome.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Mr. Stanley) was largely responsible, as Minister for Housing and Construction, for a very successful programme. Many old people, certainly in Thanet and, I know, throughout all the south coast towns, live in houses that are far too big for them. We must have a massive campaign to assist them to utilise the value of their houses by either selling the house and leasing it back or by one of the many other schemes that exist and are set out on pages 28 to 34 of the admirable pamphlet “Growing Older”. It is a first-class pamphlet and the DHSS is much to be congratulated.

Housing associations are also doing magnificent work and should be properly funded. They are introducing the idea of two rooms for one person – not only the bedroom, but a small sitting room and a kitchen. Those units are ideal for the elderly and are funded by housing associations. There are the sheltered housing schemes as well.

It is along those lines that we can do so much to enable the elderly to get what they want. Many of them want to remain in their own homes but they need to be persuaded to go into somewhere a little smaller and more convenient. It can be done, provided that they do not move out of their area. In Thanet I am always trying to persuade old people to move out of the large bungalows and houses in which they live and to ask the bank manager which of the schemes is best for them.

The 1980 scheme, which started in January 1981, is the most forward-looking scheme that there has been for repairs in the rented sector. That sector is something that one cannot mention to the Labour Party, but nevertheless a large number of elderly people live in rented accommodation. Under the scheme, introduced by the Secretary of State for the Environment, old properties can be pulled back into first-class repair and it is happening. Also, landlords can do the same for whole estates. This is all integrated.

The Ministry, in dealing with these matters, faces a similar problem to the one that I face in my other work for the House in tourism, which covers so many Ministries. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services must have knowledge not only of health and social services but of transport and housing, plus an appreciation of the environment. It is just as well that he came from one of those Ministries before going to the DHSS.

All in all, we want to look at the future. Let us not argue. We shall have plenty of time for that when the general election comes and we can indulge in badinage with each other on whether it is 3 per cent. more or less. It bores me and it bores the public, and I do not like boring the public on this sort of subject. I want to see that we have a policy in which we understand the problems of the aged, have a real, caring concern for them, and do our best to implement that policy for their benefit.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North) The hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) spoiled his speech by attacking my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes), who made a forthright speech, which most pensioners will welcome. For most pensioners it will be disappointing that the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West, who, for the most part made a thoughtful speech, started with that attack.

Most pensioners will also be very disappointed with the opening remarks of the Secretary of State for Social Services. He offered them little hope. He spoke of these difficult times. However, for most of today’s pensioners times have been difficult for most of their lives. They were born before, during or, increasingly, after the First World War. Those were pretty difficult times. Some of them will remember the election just after the First World War when Lloyd George was happily saying that we would build a land fit for heroes. But most of those people lived through the 1920s and 1930s, and they were hard times. They lived through the Second World War and the recovery from it, which were again hard times. Times may have been a little less hard after that, but it is tough of the Government to say that times are hard again and there is nothing for the pensioners. There are not hard times for everyone. In the high streets in most towns we can see those who are having hard times, but there are many who can afford to buy video recorders and other consumer luxuries.

The message for the Government from pensioners is “Why should it be hard times again for pensioners when the Government, in their first Budget, could afford to give fairly big tax handouts to those on average and above average earnings?”. Pensioners might just be able to accept hard times again if there were hard times for everyone, particularly for the affluent, but the Government are not asking that. They are asking those on pensions and low incomes to make sacrifices again, but they are not asking that of the well heeled and well off in our society.

Let us examine the way in which cuts have taken place under the Government. First, the pension link between prices and earnings has been destroyed. That means, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) stressed, a loss of pension for a married couple of £2.90 and a loss of £1.80 for a single person each week.

There was also the failure to uprate by the correct amount last November. That amounted to a 2 per cent. shortfall, or a loss of one week’s benefit during the year. The Government have said that they will make that good. That is a misleading statement. They have said that they will increase the amount for pensioners next November. Therefore, by next November the pension will be what it should have been, but no money will be paid for the 52 weeks between last November and next November during which pensioners will not be receiving the correct amount.

The Government are not making the shortfall good for those weeks and pensioners will remain short. They will be one week short because of that failure and they will be two weeks short because of the break in earnings. The Government have taken away from pensioners three weeks’ benefit.

If the Government said “We are not paying anything out to pensioners for three weeks”, there would be uproar. They believe that they are getting away with it as they shave off each week’s benefit. Most pensioners in my constituency are disgusted with what is happening. They know that they do not have the money in their pockets that they need.

We should not be offering concessions to pensioners. We should be giving them a decent income and allowing them to have the dignity to choose. Pensioners want not concessions but money as of right. We are offering not concessions but commercially viable services. It is profitable for British Rail to offer a special arrangement to pensioners as it is for a hairdresser to offer half-price hairdressing on a Tuesday or a Monday to drum up trade for the shop. These are not concessions but commercial ways of attracting pensioners to use services. There should be concessions only when something will otherwise be unused when everyone, especially pensioners, should be encouraged to take it up. There are buses and trains travelling around the country with empty seats and it makes sense to attract pensioners on to them. We should be very careful about going down the concession road. Pensioners want a decent income and the same right as anyone else to choose how they spend it.

In making his statement the Secretary of State set out five points. The headlines will have been written already. I suggest that the Government should come clean and tell us how much the five points will cost. It took the Secretary of State a great deal of time this afternoon to present his five points. I doubt whether they will cost as much as £1 million. They must be compared with the manner in which the Government have been attacking personal social services. By their treatment of local authorities the Government will have taken far more than the Minister appeared to be giving in his package.

For the coming year, the Government have cut Stockport’s rate support grant by £2 million. Stockport is experiencing great difficulty in trying to work out its budget. One of the options that it is examining is, yet again, to cut back on the provision of home helps. It is considering increasing the charges for them. These difficulties are being mirrored throughout the country. The rundown of the home-help service has done far more damage to the elderly, to their right to maintain dignity and their right to stay in their own homes than any of the palliatives the Government have offered.

The excuse has been trotted out that we cannot have a quick uprating of benefits as inflation makes them necessary as there is a great deal of administrative difficulty. I do not welcome some of the changes the Government have made, but they have made two changes in the benefit system that should make uprating very easy.

First, the Government said that they would simplify the social security system. Cutting it has made it a great deal simpler. There is now far less discretion. Fewer individual rates are paid out and consequently more of the rates are uniform. In Committee, there is a Bill to change housing benefit so that it will be paid by the local authority and not by the Department of Health and Social Security. Again, the result wall be that the system is simplified.

It should be much easier now for the Government to carry out a quick uprating. They will not have all the complications of the old discretionary system and they will not have all the complications that came from a variety of rates that had to be paid out because of the rent element. With those two simplifications it should be a great deal easier administratively to increase the rates. However, there was always a simple solution. If individual rates for pensioners could not be worked out quickly, the Government could always pay bonuses. A Christmas bonus is possible and surely there is no reason why an Easter bonus or summer bonus cannot be paid out. Such bonuses would give pensioners the amount that they lost during the year due to inflation. These are simple administrative matters. If the will existed to keep pensioners in line with inflation, it could be done. On too many occasions there has not been the will. Administration has been used as the excuse for not giving pensioners a decent income.

Several of my hon. Friends and Conservative Members have referred to the Select Committee inquiry into retirement ages. It is an important inquiry and should be part of a major debate throughout the country. Many elderly people are being steam-rollered into early retirement because society seems to think it is better to have out of work someone who is aged 61 than someone who is aged 17 or 18. We should examine the implications carefully. We should make it quite clear that if we have early retirement it will be in the best interests of the person who is aged 61. It should be for him to have the opportunity for early retirement. It should not be afforded to him merely because we cannot find a decent job for younger people.

There are a great many problems with early retirement. Hon. Members will know that some occupations, especially in heavy manual work, kill many of those who continue at work between the age of 60 and 65 before they reach pension age. However, we also have evidence that some people who retire at 65 lose the attractions of the work environment and possibly some of the purpose in their lives. They also die quickly. Clearly for some people the option of early retirement would be important, but others may not wish it.

We must not force people to take early retirement. If we wish to give them the choice, we must be sure that we can give them a decent income when they retire. At the moment the basic pension is not sufficient for a pensioner to live on for very long. The position is better if a man retires at 65 and he has had five or six years in which to have repairs done to his house and to accumulate a series of consumer durables, such as a new cooker and a new fridge. Those items last and will take him through the first years of retirement without any large bills having to be met. However, once those pieces of equipment must be renewed, pensioners find life increasingly difficult.

If we say that all people must receive pensions at 60, we are telling them that they have an extra five years of getting by on the existing inadequate pension. We are also saying that they have five years in which they cannot accumulate either savings or consumer durables. We must be careful that we do not force people to retire at 60 and give them five extra years of poverty. We must also consider carefully the impact that it will have on the State pension scheme.

Some hon. Members have said that when the Brian O’Malley scheme has been phased in it will make a big difference. It will, but if we bring down the retirement age by five years we must supplement the scheme because it will be another five years before it has an impact. 11 welcome offering people a flexible retirement age, but we must not extend the period in which they live in poverty.

I am bitterly disappointed that the Government have said nothing ‘today about the death grant and have suggested that they will say nothing about it tomorrow. It is appalling that they should continue to tell the House that they will make a statement and then bring nothing forward. It would be much more honest to say that they will do nothing than to continue to half-raise expectations. We cannot expect someone to put off dying until he is likely to qualify. It is a mean thing for the Government to do.

Several hon. Members have referred to standing charges. I raised that matter in the fuel prices debate last week, so I will not go into it again. In addition to standing charges for gas and electricity, there is much resentment about the fact that elderly people cannot get a rebate on water service charges. In the 1960s elderly people received a rebate on the sewerage part of their water rates, but as a result of the previous Conservative Government’s measures water and sewerage charges were put together, which is not logical, and the rebate was taken away. The Government should bring it back.

The Opposition must spell out firmly that one cannot get anything for nothing. The Labour Party, when it comes to power, must be firmly committed to spending substantial sums of money on raising pensions to a decent level that will give people some dignity in old age. However, we must ask how it will be paid for. It will be paid for by redistributing income in Britain. There will be a cut in the amount of money that the well-off and those in work can enjoy, which will be given to the pensioners. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), when he replies, will make it clear that the programme to which we are committing ourselves can be paid for. He must also tell the House who must pay for it.

Mr. John Major (Huntingdonshire) The motion that we are debating today is very opportunistic. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) may scoff at that, but if he listens I shall show him why that is so.

The substance of the motion and the position of pensioners and the elderly is a matter of great importance. It would have been greatly to the benefit of the House if a Supply day motion of such importance had been put down a little earlier than very late on Wednesday night. Many hon. Members, having studied the motion, would have welcomed the opportunity to research further into the comments that we might have made this afternoon. Had the timing of the motion been less tardy, we might have had a higher quality of contributions to the debate than has been the case.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett I know that the motion was down in the Table Office by four o’clock yesterday afternoon, because I added my name to it then.

Mr. Major The hon. Gentleman says that the motion was down at four o’clock. I assure him that I inquired much later than that and was told that the terms of the motion were not available. I see the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) nodding, so perhaps he suffered the same problem.

When the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) opened the debate, I thought in the first few moments that he would raise the tenor of the motion and would consider some of the realistic problems that pensioners face and some of the policy options that could assist them. However, the second half of his speech – I am sorry that he is not here now – fell well below the level of events.

It is a facet of Labour Party spokesmen that when dealing with social services they degenerate into a climate where they view people as groups rather than as individuals. Pensioners, trade unionists or council tenants are all viewed as groups. It would have been a more realistic assessment of the problems that we face – to help those who really need help – if there had been some recognition of the difference in income and need between different members of the elderly community and of their wide individuality. Yet there was no recognition that, although many elderly people in our society are poor, many are not, and others are exceedingly wealthy.

The hon. Member for Bolsover, whom I welcome back to the Chamber, exploded in some rage about Mr. Jack Gill. I understand his rage, but under the policies propounded by the Opposition Mr. Gill and others of similar wealth would be as entitled to free bus passes and other communal benefits as anyone in real need. Where there are superfluous resources, I have no objection to that. However, when there is a genuine need that has not been fully met in many parts of the elderly community, more selectivity would enable those genuine needs to be met.

Mr. Skinner The hon. Gentleman should follow through the logic of what he has said in terms of means testing such benefits. Only the other day his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport announced that the Government would be allocating about £60 million, in view of the recent Law Lords decision on the GLC bus fares in order, to sustain free fares between certain hours. The hon. Gentleman should tell us whether he will support the payment of that £60 million, because there might be some Jack Gills among the recipients of the free fares during those hours. If matters go the way that he wishes, everything will be based on a means test, which will require more civil servants.

Mr. Major The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the substance of what I was saying, which was that the greater the selectivity, the greater the extent to which we can meet genuine needs. Given that we do not and will not have unlimited resources, that is a point that not even the hon. Gentleman can dispute.

The hon. Member for Pontypridd made a number of specific commitments on behalf of the Labour Party. He said that it proposed to re-establish a link between pensions and earnings and prices, whichever turned out to be the greater. However, I fear that, as has been the custom in many of the pledges given by the Opposition during this Parliament, no costings were attached to that pledge, as the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) noticed. I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s speech to see whether he would say whether the cost would be met by increased national insurance contributions or some other source of taxation. However, there was no indication either of the anticipated cost or of how that cost was likely to be met.

Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr): I apologise for intervening as I shall make a winding-up speech, but if the hon. Gentleman carries on in that manner, it is necessary to put the record straight. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) gave a pledge to restore a link between pensions and prices and earnings. He put a cost on it as he said that if the formula had not been changed, at present levels the cost would be about £600 million a year. That figure was given in an answer to a parliamentary question. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman must be careful to listen to precisely what is said. My hon. Friend chose his words with care and put costings on the item mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Major Had he let me conclude, the hon. Gentleman would have found that I was about to develop the point. If he says that the costing was given, I accept that. Perhaps he will explain how that costing is to be funded. That is the substantive point that I was going to mention.

There were other implied, if not implicit, remarks by the hon. Member for Pontypridd. He talked of the need for more home helps, for a six-monthly pension uprating, for a greater death grant, a greater Christmas bonus, for more social services expenditure, although he neglected to mention the increase in expenditure on the National Health Service, and for free television licences. He talked of the need for the abolition of the standing charge on energy bills and for concessionary fares.

In their own way those are desirable objectives, which I do not dispute. However, those who are in need who may hear those remarks are entitled to be informed what might be the cost of all those desirable schemes and how the cost of meeting them is to be funded. In the absence of that information, there will be considerable cynicism – we all know that there is deep cynicism about promises made by politicians of all parties – and people will suspect that the Opposition were engaged on little more than a cheap auction. I hope that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) will disabuse me of that when he winds up, but I doubt that he will.

The needs of pensioners have been mentioned and are undoubted. Although it has been mentioned, there has been less talk of the growing difficulties in future in funding the standard of living that everyone without exception wishes retired people to enjoy.

I am indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) for his parliamentary questions which elicited the following figures last year. In November 1980 there were 8.97 million pensioners. In 1986 there are expected to be 9.3 million pensioners. The more substantive point even than the crude increase in numbers is the percentage of the population who will be retired. That is a point of great importance.

Over the last 20 years there has been an increase of about one third in the percentage of people receiving retirement pensions. In 1960, 11.9 per cent, of the population received retirement pensions but by 1980 the percentage of the population receiving retirement pensions was 15.1 per cent., which is a substantial increase.

That increase is expected to remain stable for about the next decade, but within that stability at 15.1 per cent, there is a substantial difference. Between now and the year 2000, although the percentage of the population who are retired will remain at 15.1 per cent., their average age level will significantly increase. For example, the number of those between 75 and 84 will grow by 20 per cent. The number of those of 85 and over will increase by 50 per cent. There can and will be no dispute that the older our pensioners become, the greater their necessary demands and the greater the costs will be. Therefore, the funding problem that we shall soon face will grow substantially over the years to come.

There is a further point that the House should bear carefully in mind. Those figures were based on the premise that the retirement age will remain as it is. However, schemes are already in hand for flexible retirement. There is wide concern because of unemployment and for other social reasons. A considerable lobby believes that it is desirable to reduce the retirement age for men and expects that that may become fact in the 1980s. If it becomes fact, that will add materially to our funding problem when we want to ensure that our pensioners in the future have an adequate income.

I shall put those remarks in context. When the NHS was first contemplated by Beveridge, he estimated that the cost in 1944 terms would be £200 million a year and that in real terms the cost would not increase because the value of the NHS would prevent increasing demands for health care. Even when one updates £200 million in 1944 terms, one can see that it falls substantially short of the £11,000 million plus that is spent on the NHS each year. That mistake in forward planning was grotesque at the time. I fear that unless we genuinely and carefully look at the expectation of those who will be in receipt of retirement pension, we may find that our fundings are substantially wrong.

I fully agree with one point made by the hon. Member for Stockport, North. Whatever differences in emphasis we may have, the prime concern of us all is that the value of the pension in pensioners’ hands should be as great as we can afford. That is clear to all of us. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that it is better for them to have the cash in their hands rather than an insufficient cash level funded by a variety of stratagems at national or local level, or through some other agent of government. That is another problem of considerable concern.

We recognise already that the growing costs of the social security budget, of which a substantial proportion is spent on the elderly, are becoming immensely difficult for all of us to fund. It is now 25 per cent. of total expenditure. There is always a possibility of its increasing. A variety of assistance is available to the elderly. None of us disputes that it is necessary. However, we need to bear most carefully in mind that it is not desirable for the House to hold out before people the prospect of an increase in provision for them which, in due course, we may not be able to fund. It would be better to pitch our promises and hopes a little lower than reality than to hold out hopes that will be greeted with great cynicism when eventually they are not fulfilled.

I should like to mention one or two specific problems that relate to the elderly. The first has already been mentioned today and I have referred to it on a previous occasion. The existing level of disregard for supplementary benefit stands at £2,000 of capital. This problem affects elderly people as well as those on supplementary benefit. It is widely agreed in the House that that is one of the most disliked of the social security regulations. It has little in common with Conservative philosophy to tell people who have in past years put by some money and aggregated capital that, as a result of the thrift that we have traditionally sought to encourage, they will be debarred from help at a time when they feel that they need it. Two thousand pounds is an insufficient amount for people who, perhaps being elderly, would like to have some money put aside to give them a feeling of security which they would not have were it to disappear.

Although I accept the principle of the disregard, a limit of £2,000 is absurdly inadequate, and I hope that before the end of this Parliament it will be substantially higher. I suggest that we should consider a threshold of £5,000 before disqualification for supplementary benefit takes place.

Secondly, and related to the 2,000 disregard level, it seems especially absurd that in calculating that sum the value of insurances within the person’s period of life is included. The Government ought not to accept or continue the principle that someone in temporary need of supplementary benefit, before being entitled to receive it may be forced to cash, perhaps at a loss, an insurance policy that has been held for many years.

I draw attention to another factor which I suspect that most hon. Members will have come across. That is the syndrome illustrated by Iain Macleod’s phrase of many years ago – “Poverty behind lace curtains”. I suspect that there are many people who do not fall into what the House would define as poverty but find themselves on the margin. I suspect that many of our constituents put a brave face on exceedingly difficult circumstances because they find themselves just marginally beyond the level at which it is freely admitted that they would be in difficulties. I have no easy solution to that problem, but I hope that the Secretary of State will bear it consistently in mind. I also trust that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will bear it in mind when he examines personal tax allowances in framing his Budget for 9 March.

People who by virtue of saving are in private nursing homes in their old age also face difficulties. Many people who, having put money away for care in old age and taken up a place in a private nursing home, find that inflation has moved on. Even with attendance and other allowances which may supplement their income they now and themselves with insufficient funds to meet the nursing home fees. I have seen a number for examples of that problem.

It is absurd that people are forced to leave a private nursing home and find themselves in a home run by the social services department of a county authority, when the State then picks up the cost of caring for that elderly person because there seems to be no mechanism by which the balance between their income and the cost of the care on the private nursing home can be met. That is an important technical matter, which I hope that the Secretary of State will consider.

As we peer ahead we can see immense problems in providing for our elderly citizens the level of care that we would all wish. There is no doubt that if we continue to fail to bring down inflation, and to sustain it at a low level, we shall not provide such care. Previous Governments have attempted to do so and failed, and so have the present Government. That is why I believe that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is absolutely right, even in today’s difficult circumstances, to retain as a prime objective the reduction of inflation and sustaining it at a tolerable level. That is critical.

Finally, the excellent document “Growing Older”, which was published a year ago, sets out in detail and with great clarity, care and compassion the figures and the problems of growing older in our society. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be able to implement more and more of the splendid ideas contained in it. If he does so, he may be assured of my support.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford) I shall not go over ground already adequately covered by my hon. Friends.

It was regrettable, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) has said, that the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) spoiled his own speech by attacking my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes), although he seemed most disturbed that the integrity of Conservative Members should be called into question, something that he seemed to regard as highly discourteous. I make no apology for referring to the hon. and learned Gentleman in his absence because after attacking my hon. Friend he did not observe the normal courtesies of the House but left immediately after making his speech rather than remaining to hear the next contribution.

When all the various arguments have been made in this long debate, we must decide where the truth lies. If we are dealing with men of integrity – and the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West gave the impression that all Conservative Members adopt a “holier than thou” attitude in these matters – let us test that integrity. I shall seek to persuade Conservative Members that the truth lies in the Opposition motion and that there is no truth whatever in the Government amendment. I sometimes think that the main product of this factory in which we all work is the distortion of the truth and that its boilers are fueled by hypocrisy. Today’s debate is a good example.

The Opposition motion begins by referring to the major progress made by the Labour Government 1974 to 1979 both in increasing the real value of the state pension and in legislating for a substantial improvement in the provision for future pensioners”. Let us see whether there is any truth in that. What did the Labour Government do when they returned to office in 1974? At that time, Britain was facing the most dangerous crisis since the war. I make that point so that it may be compared with the present crisis to which reference has already been made. The Tory programme of confrontation and social injustice had brought the country to its knees. We had unlit streets, unheated homes, closed factories, and the Tory two-day or three-day week that we all remember. Our national balance of payments was £1,000 million in deficit, and that was before the rise in oil prices. Prices soared month by month, and industry was enfeebled by years of under-investment. To top it all, Britain then had to contend with the full rise in oil prices and a worldwide inflation.

What did the Labour Government do? On 13 November 1974, the then Secretary of State, Mrs. Barbara Castle, said – and what she said was a vast improvement on what the Government are offering pensioners today: I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement about increases in social security benefits. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday announced the main features. The increases in benefits will take effect in the week beginning 7 April 1975. Thus, in view of the recent rapid inflation, benefits are to be increased eight and a half months after the previous general uprating in July of this year. My right hon. Friend went further and made it clear that the Government are planning another increase to take effect in December 1975 but that it is our intention to return to an annual cycle of upratings as inflation is brought under control. We are committed to increasing the level of pensions and other long-term benefits in line with the movement in national average earnings, unless the movement in prices would be more advantageous for those concerned”  – [Official Report, 13 November 1974; Vol. 881, c. 416.]

What attitude did the Tories take? They were not satisfied. One right hon. and learned Member, who at that time was in Opposition, said: “The right hon. Lady will not expect me to comment in detail on a very long statement. Will she accept that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I welcome her conversion to the need for more frequent upratings of benefits while inflation persists at its present rate.”- [Official Report, 13 November 1974; Vol. 881, c. 421.] That comment was not made by a Back Bencher who suddenly had a rush of blood to the head, and perhaps wanted to impress his electorate, but by the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe), the present Chancellor of the Exchequer. At that time, he thought that pensioners should have an uprating sooner than the eight months or so that the then Secretary of State suggested. It did not stop there. In the Committee proceedings of the Social Security Bill, the hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who at that time was the Opposition spokesman, made it clear that if his party were in office it would be committed by its manifesto to uprate pensions every six months. He said: It is well known that it has been the Opposition’s policy for a considerable time to go over to a system of six-monthly reviews of the level of pension and benefits, a policy that we clearly enunciated in the February election and that, had we been successful, we expected to introduce in the months that followed. It remains our belief  – [Official Report, Standing Committee B, 12 December 1974; c. 174.]

I shall not bore the House for much longer. Many speeches tonight have expressed concern and worry about the plight of pensioners, but words and platitudes are no good to pensioners, whose standards of living have undoubtedly dropped since this Government came to office. That cannot be refuted. If that is true, and if there is any integrity, right hon. and hon. Members will join the Opposition in the Lobby tonight.

I have said that I will not speak for too long. However, I make one further quotation, which I think is worthy of note. In reply to a statement by Mrs. Barbara Castle one right hon. Gentleman made another reference to the six-monthly uprating. May I ask the Secretary of State a number of short questions? First, why does the right hon. Lady still resist six-monthly reviews of pensions, for which we have pressed? Is it really only because the proposal comes from the Opposition side? Will she give the assurance that if inflation continues at its present rate she will reconsider her policy for at least 1976?” – [Official Report, 22 May 1975; Vol. 892, c. 1626.]

That was a question not from a Back Bencher but from the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), the present Secretary of State who has presented the case today. What about integrity now? Do Conservative Members mean one thing when they are in Opposition and another when they are in power?

It is time for truth. Those hon. Members who go through the Government Lobby tonight are insulting the intelligence of the pensioners of this country. That is not integrity. It is the time for truth. There are times, as life goes on and the decades pass by – politics apart – when people want the truth. If they do not get the truth it is no wonder that British politics are in the mess that they are in today. As time goes by people have less and less trust in the people who represent them. That is no wonder, when there are such statements. In my view, people are purely and simply being deceived.

I hope that hon. Members will search their souls tonight on this serious and important issue. I hope that they will think about the pensioners outside the House. It is regrettable, and certainly noticeable, how few Conservative Members are in the House tonight debating the plight of the pensioners compared with the full Benches when we debated the Lloyd’s Bill yesterday. I hope that the public will take notice. I hope that hon. Members will search their souls and vote for the motion tonight.

Mr. J. F. Pawsey (Rugby) I hope that the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) will forgive me if I do not follow him too far down the road that he was signposting. He spoke with great sincerity.

The speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Mr. Major) was thoughtful and constructive. It was possibly the best speech that we have heard in the debate.

My contribution will be short. It will relate to four basic topics and perhaps to two ancillary items. The four main topics are inflation, retirement pensions, heating costs and concessionary fares.

First, the point about inflation was well made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton). They argued, with some effect, that inflation’s greatest effect was on those who had fixed incomes. That accurately defines a pensioner. It is pensioners who see their savings being withered, who see their company pensions being increasingly exposed. It is they who must feel the chill wind of inflation.

When we compare them with those who enjoy index-linked pensions, the disparity is quite startling. Many pensioners feel concerned about the unfairness of index linkage. Perhaps the statement to be made in the near future will place a ceiling on index-linked pensions, and perhaps we shall also see a higher level of contributions. Certainly, to the average pensioner, inflation must be the greatest evil. It erodes accepted standards. It also exposes and reduces the need for thrift. It destroys incentive for saving. It destroys self-reliance. People try to make provision for retirement, only to find that that provision has been reduced, not through any fault of theirs, but as a result of inflation. Therefore, control of inflation must surely be central to any drive to improve the lot of the elderly.

It is worth remembering that the two largest pension increases have been awarded in the lifetime of this Government. Despite what Opposition Members say, pensions have been fully protected against prices. In November 1978, the single pension was £19.50. By November 1981, the single pension had risen to £29.60. Over the same period, the pension for a married couple had risen from £31.20 to £47.35. That is a substantial increase amounting to about 52 per cent. In 1982, pensions will be raised in line with prices, plus a further 2 per cent. Therefore, over a four-year period, and under this Government, pensions will be well up on prices.