HC Deb 11 April 1972 vol 834 cc1027-32

3.38 p.m.

Mr. Sydney Bid well (Southall)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a minimum retirement pension related to average earnings. It is appropriate that my effort to bring in this Bill takes place on the day when the Secretary of State for Social Services is answering Questions and when so many Questions have ranged over the inadequacy—[Interruption.]—

Mr. Russell Kerr

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the importance of the remarks of my hon. Friend, can we have a bit of "shush".

Mr. Speaker

I believe that hon. Members will have regard to what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Bidwell

—when so many Questions have ranged around the inadequacy of the existing old-age pension and the present plight of pensioners. I wish to bring in a Bill which will substantially increase old-age pensions. For the first time—[Interruption.]—

Mr. Speaker

If hon. Members want to conduct discussions, they must do so outside the Chamber.

Mr. Bidwell

For the first time, my Bill would put the national State retirement pension for a single person and that for a married couple on the basis of national average earnings of adult male manual workers in a wide range of industries—earnings which now stand at £30.93 and are bound to rise before October when the new pension rates come into being.

This figure is more indicative of the general standard of living than any other amount based on cost of living indices or anything else. It generally describes how "the people next door" are living. This is why the T.U.C. in its Economic Review for 1972 has called for such a base. It is not common knowledge that present retirement pensions have no firm base or anchorage at all. This is curious at a time when the Government encourage occupational pension schemes drawn from percentage contributions from rising earnings, and the previous Labour Gov- ernment nearly managed to introduce a new scheme of national superannuation on the earnings principle.

A study of State retirement pensions paid since 1948 compared with average earnings is most interesting, and I invite the Minister to undertake such a study. It will give more facts about the provision for old age than most observations we have heard in the House over the years.

If we look at the set of figures elicited last year by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), we find a considerable fluctuation in terms of percentages of national earnings. If my memory serves me correctly, the percentage went up to its highest point of about 34 per cent. for a married couple during the period when the Labour Government were in office. That is the time to make the correct comparison. Tory Governments have never intended to make proper provision for old age through State insurance, and the Labour Government's scheme had nothing to offer existing pensioners and was mostly futuristic. It had nothing serious to say to the present aged who, to quote Jack Jones, the General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, are too old to work and too young to die.

I am aware that pension and superannuation matters are complicated. There are "top hat" schemes to keep up the accustomed standard of living of company directors. Company accounts disclose a salting away of handsome funds for this purpose and the tax avoidance that goes with it. There are respectable schemes for salary-earners in the higher and lower middle classes which are sometimes contributory and sometimes not, there are the lousy, inadequate schemes for wage-earners, and sometimes there are no schemes at all.

My Bill relates to State retirement pensions and will provide a means of starting to do what both Tory and Labour Governments have failed to do. In 1970 when there was a Labour Government I asked my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins), who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, to announce a substantial increase in State retirement pensions after the long hard struggle over the balance of payments. He was then to some extent caught by the two-yearly review system, which is now to be changed, but mostly, by his own recent admission, he was too cautious.

The miserable increase announced for the coming October by the Chancellor of the Exchequer makes the lauded annual review a mockery. In 1965 a Labour Government made a meaningful improvement of about 20 per cent. By 1970, still under the Labour Government, another real improvement was overdue, but it was not to be. The level as it will be in October this year of £6.75 for a single person and £10.90 for a married couple is woefully inadequate and falls below subsistence and supplementary benefit levels.

A national disappointment arose from the Budget, especially as the air had been thick with rumours of a real increase at a time when there was an obvious need to stimulate domestic consumption. We can be sure that most old people will spend any extra money they get. I know, because I have been around and asked them. This denial of increased pensions is at a time when the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the rich men in the Government are doling out millions to their money-lending and money-raising friends and to property and land speculators.

The National Insurance (Further Provisions) Act, which is of assistance to many people who are over 80 regardless of means, came first as an attempted Private Member's Bill. Then a Tory Government Measure was ushered in under the argument that many old people did not get a chance in their younger days of building up funds to entitle them to a pension. Surely a similar argument in principle may be applied to most old people at present who had no chance in their younger days of building up occupational pension funds to enable them to live a decent life now.

We all know that many old people are too proud to come forward to ask for extra help. Indeed, the Department of Health and Social Security has demonstrated that it has these old people and others in need well in mind by launching a £340,000 advertising campaign to encourage the take-up of available benefits. As it was, in 1971 1,811,000 pensioners were in receipt of means-tested extra pensions—over 27 per cent. The average amount was £2.27. It stands to reason that many are driven to seek extra help.

My Bill is in line with current T.U.C. policy. The need for it has been made doubly urgent by the Chancellor's announcement of the miserable pension increase in October which was not known to me when I decided to ask leave to bring in the Bill.

The Bill proposes a modest first-year start of £1.25 above the Chancellor's 75p for a single pensioner, making the immediate £2 extra which was called for by both the T.U.C. and the National Council of Labour. It also fits in with the current demand of the pensioners' associations by producing £8 for the single pensioner. The Bill proposes a pension of £14 for a married couple, which is £2.10 above the October proposal, and provides over three years annual increments until at least half national average earnings is achieved for a married couple and at least one-third of national average earnings is achieved for a single pensioner. This could be financed by the T.U.C. formula of 19/20ths of the National Insurance Fund contributed by employers and the State and the remainder by the employees. Trade union leaders have announced that they are ready to accept this and to advise their members to contribute extra for this purpose.

I am aware that it may be said that such proposals are too costly, and I am sure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the statisticians will make heavy weather of them. But against the initial costs there are several financial off-setting factors, not least of which will be the saving in medical time and expenditure arising from old people's ailments and malnutrition through lack of heat and food which they cannot afford. In the winter many stay in bed to save fuel and to try to keep warm. Of course we could cheapen the load if we could arrange for people to die soon after they have ceased to be of much use to their employers.

There are several ways of pruning the Government's extravagant expenditure and tax relief plans to find the money for improved State pensions. My hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) could show how we could reduce arms expenditure and get better value for money. We could put the unemployed to work and save a lot on unemployment pay. It is work and wages the unemployed want. It is estimated that during 1971 about£1,570 million was lost in goods and services because of the present unemployment figures.

Several daily and Sunday newspapers have consistently advocated extra pensions and have been sharply critical of the niggardly increases to be paid in October, which are likely by then to be eroded. Who could fail to be moved by the plight of old people who are able to afford only one manufactured meat pie between two and are not able to afford even to buy a pound of those sausages which are advertised on television? We have no right to keep pushing on both sides of the House for extended welfare services without at the same time making a determined effort to relieve old people who are in penury.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope the hon. Member will forgive me for saying that this is a Ten-Minute Rule Bill. I would remind him that he has been speaking for 13 minutes.

Mr. Bidwell

I am about to come to a conclusion, Mr. Speaker.

In giving support to my Bill, the House will be fortified in the sure knowledge that a national referendum would result in an overwhelming vote in favour of giving old people the money and of charging this House with the responsibility of working out the means of so doing. I refer mainly to a neglected generation who endured two world wars, who worked and sweated for longer hours than are customary today, and many of whom for a large amount of that time did not even have a paid holiday of any sort. Surely their reward is long overdue. My Bill is a short but firm step in that direction.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Sydney Bidwell, Mr. Frank Allaun, Mr. Robert Edwards, Mr. Michael Meacher, Mr. Norman Atkinson, Mr. William Molloy, Dr. Edmund Marshall, Mrs. Doris Fisher, Mr. Thomas Cox, Mr. Alec Jones, and Mr. Tom Torney.


Bill to establish a minimum retirement pension related to average earnings, presented accordingly, and read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday, 5th May, and to be printed. [Bill 118.]