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Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): I rise to seek clarification about the children's tax credit. I understand that the Inland Revenue does not know who the children

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of tax payers are, as such information is not part of the tax system. As a result, it sent out 7 million forms, just over 2 million of which have been returned. Apart from those 2 million families, what will be the situation for all other families who pay tax? If they have not returned the form, do the Government have a plan to find them? How will they get their money? What is the latest date by which forms can be returned so that families can still get the money in April?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman knows that responsibility for the Inland Revenue rests with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I will make a point of asking my right hon. Friend, or one of his Ministers, to write to the hon. Gentleman to outline the Inland Revenue's plans in that respect. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the tax authorities do not necessarily know who has children. That is why the Inland Revenue wrote to all those taxpayers who it thought might be eligible. From next year, the child tax credit will be worth £10 a week, and will be a valuable help to families on modest and low incomes. We are anxious to ensure that as many people as possible benefit from it, and I will certainly ask one of my colleagues to write to the hon. Gentleman with details of what we propose to do.

The important point to note is that the Government are not extending financial help alone. Other measures--such as the sure start initiative and our general objective of raising standards in education, which we are now achieving--are ensuring that millions of children get a far better opportunity and start in life than in the past.

In particular, we want to do more for families on low incomes who are bringing up children with disabilities, and to help with the extra costs that they face. That is why from April, for the first time, we will extend benefits to severely disabled three and four-year-olds. As a result, some 6,000 disabled children and their families will be better off by more than £38 a week.

We are also raising the disabled child premium by £7.40 a week, on top of the normal uprating. That means that around 80,000 children will see a rise in the premium, from £22.25 a week to £30 a week. That will be a real increase for some of the poorest families in the country who need that extra help.

Secondly, we want to do more for adults with severe disabilities. As I said in my statement to the House on 9 November, we have decided to introduce the disability income guarantee for people with severe disabilities from April next year at a far higher rate than originally intended. We had intended that it be introduced at the rate of £128 a week, but in fact the rate will be £142 a week--an extra £14 a week. For couples, the rate will be £186.80.

In addition, from April next year young adults disabled early in life will benefit from an extra £27.60 a week. Until the changes were introduced, those people got so little money that they depended on income support for most of their lives. I do not consider that to be acceptable in today's society, which is why we are increasing the amount that they get by £27 a week. All of the extra money has been made possible by the changes that we made two years ago.

Thirdly, we are doing more for carers. Many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have long recognised that the carer's contribution needs to be properly recognised. That is why we are increasing the

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carer's premium by £10 a week on top of the normal uprating. That means that the premium will rise in April from £14.15 to £24.40, helping more than 200,000 carers on low incomes. We are also increasing the earnings threshold for the invalid carer's allowance from £50 to £72--the rate of the lower earnings limit.

In total, we will be spending nearly £200 million more on supporting carers and people with disabilities next year, and every year thereafter. That is something that the Tories never did--what is more, they never could do it because of the cuts guarantee to which they are committed. It is interesting that so few of them have turned up for the debate. [Interruption.] I have found one. There is a Tory sitting at the back. I apologise to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson)--he is lurking under the Gallery, and I did not see him in the gloom. He will no doubt tell his colleagues of all the good things that the Labour Government are able to do for people, thanks to our economic policies.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): That will not take long.

Mr. Darling: In addition to the measures that I have outlined, we are also introducing measures to improve the vaccine damage regime. In case the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) raises the matter again, I would like to take the opportunity of saying that we will be introducing the necessary legislation to reduce the disability threshold from 80 per cent. to 60 per cent., and to increase the time limits for claiming for children to the age of 21. We propose that these changes be introduced in the regulatory reform order as part of the Regulatory Reform Bill, which is now before the House. I said in the summer that we would act, and we will. With regard to the main changes that I announced in the summer to increase the vaccine damage payment to £100,000 for claims made after 22 July, those payments are now being made. That is the main step that I announced and it is being implemented.

No doubt the Conservatives--or, at least, the two of them on the Front Bench and the one on the Back Bench--will criticise us for not doing more sooner. However, the previous Government had 18 years to sort this out and they did not. We have made the necessary changes, which will go some way towards helping the families affected. I hope that most people will accept that.

I now turn to pensions.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): Before the Secretary of State talks about pensions, could he answer the question of a 24-year-old constituent of mine? Have the Government any plans to alter the housing benefit system, because my constituent does not understand why, at the age of 24, his housing need is considered to be less than his neighbour who is 26? In a constituency like mine, if young people are to stay and work in the community, we must tackle the cost of housing for them.

Mr. Darling: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has had a chance to read the Government's response to the consultation exercise that we carried out after publishing the Green Paper on housing. We have said that we want to

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broaden the definition of the single room reference rent to which the hon. Gentleman refers, which will help those under 25 in many parts of the country.

Mr. Webb: If I have understood my hon. Friend correctly, he might have been referring to the fact that the applicable amounts for the under-25s are lower than for those over 25. For a person in a low-paid job, for example, the tapering away of the rent rebate starts at a lower level for a 24-year-old than for a 25-year-old. Does the Secretary of State have any plans to address that issue?

Mr. Darling: We have made it clear that we do not propose to change the general regime, which is different from that for the under-25s. As I said to the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith)--who is no doubt capable of asking his own question--we have broadened the definition, which will go some way to help. However, if the question is whether we propose to remove the distinction between those over 25 and those under, the answer is no.

I shall now deal with pensions. Most national insurance benefits will rise in line with the retail prices index, which is 3.3 per cent. However, as the House will know, we want to do more than that to help pensioners. First, we want to tackle the scandal of pensioner poverty. Secondly, we want to ensure that every pensioner shares in the rising prosperity of our country. Thirdly, we want to reward pensioners for their saving instead of penalising it, as was the case under the system that we inherited.

Our first priority was to get more help quickly to the poorest pensioners; that is why we introduced the minimum income guarantee, which is already helping almost 2 million of the poorest pensioners. It is worth remembering that when we came into office, just three years ago, a single pensioner, aged 70, on income support, would have received a weekly income of £68.80. As a result of the measures before the House, the minimum income guarantee will rise to £92.15 from April, so that same pensioner--who would have been living on £68.80 three years ago--will be nearly £18 a week better off, over and above inflation. That is an example of how Governments can make a real difference in the standard of living of some of the oldest and poorest people in the country.

As we move towards the pension credit from 2003, we are increasing the basic state pension, which we believe should be the foundation of pension provision. It is part of the partnership between state and funded pensions that is essential if people are to retire on a decent income in the future. We want to raise the basic state pension by £5 a week for single people and by £8 a week for married couples; the pension will rise again in the following year. As I told the House in November, I can also confirm that widow's and bereavement benefits will rise by the same amounts.

That is on top of the £200 winter fuel payment, worth nearly £4 a week. Eleven million pensioners have already been sent their winter fuel payment; many of them appreciate that it makes a major contribution towards meeting their fuel costs at what is, traditionally, a time of great worry for many pensioners.

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