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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 September, 2004, 16:37 GMT 17:37 UK
Pensioners pile pressure on MPs
The mass lobby of Parliament on Wednesday
Pensioners wield power at the ballot box
Pensioners have staged a mass lobby of MPs to call for an increase in the basic state pension.

More than 1,000 people gathered in Westminster demanding better long-term care and a pension "to live on".

The demonstration came as MPs debated policies for the elderly, with the Tories warning of "a serious and growing crisis".

Michael Howard said Tony Blair should "stop changing [pensions] ministers and start changing his policies".

Pensions review

Shadow work and pensions secretary David Willetts said Andrew Smith, who quit as his Labour opposite number earlier this week, was a "decent and honourable man" who had been brought down by "spin".

Political parties must take the views of the grey vote seriously or face the consequences at the ballot box
Neil Duncan-Jordan, National Pensioners Convention

Opening the debate, Mr Willetts said Labour's pensions policy was a "shambles" and the party had broken successive promises to tackle the crisis.

He said the National Pensioners Convention (NPC), the group behind Wednesday's demonstration, and other bodies were pressing for the reversal of means testing of pensions - something the Tories would deliver.

And the party would also reward savings better with a new "lifetime savers account".

'Long-term crisis'

Pensions minister Malcolm Wicks attacked the Tory legacy on pensions and accused the party of "carping" over means testing.

He said the Tory strategy of raising the basic state pension in line with earnings but pension credit only in line with prices meant most of the resources would go to the better off.

"The government's approach has rightly targeted extra state support to those who need it most and encouraged private funded provision for those who can afford to save," Mr Wicks told MPs.

Former welfare reform minister, Labour MP Frank Field, said the crux of the debate was the "crisis in long term pension provision".

"In the past we have been able to disguise the fact that our state retirement pension was inadequate because our occupational schemes were such a success."

Blair's warning

But that "crucial prop to long term pensions provision now looks less certain than it has probably done for any of the last 50 years".

He said no long term reform of the system could get off the ground, without an increase in the basic state pension.

Earlier at prime minister's questions, Tony Blair said he wanted a "public debate" on current and future pension provision.

He said people should wait for Adair Turner's report on the issue, due in the Autumn, to get the full facts on the issue.

But he warned MPs: "If we want to commit ourselves to funding ever greater amounts of state provision for people that will become pensioners we have got to say how that can be paid for,"

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said two-fifths of pensioners - two million people - were not receiving the means-tested benefits to which they are entitled.

Tony Blair responded that Lib Dem plans to boost pension spending by abolishing the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) would mean cutting two thirds of the UK science budget and scrapping regional economic assistance.

Council tax

The Lib Dems come closest to the NPC's demand for an increase in the basic state pension from 75 to 105.45 a week to end means testing, with the party pledging such an increase for the over 75s.

The pensioners' group also wants the link between pensions and earnings to be restored and a fairer system of council tax.

"There are 11 million pensioners in the country and they are more likely than any other sector to turn out and vote.

"Political parties must take the views of the grey vote seriously or face the consequences at the ballot box," the NPC's Neil Duncan-Jordan told BBC News Online.




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