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Mr. Darling rose--

Mr. Willetts: The Secretary of State wants to intervene again. We must be setting a record. Of course I give way to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Darling: Even in the spirit of Christmas, the hon. Gentleman will not get away with that nonsense about the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report. As the authors freely acknowledge, the report does not cover many of the measures that we introduced over the past two years. If the hon. Gentleman read the report, he would see that many of the things about which it complains, such as the increase in poverty and disadvantage, happened during the time that the Conservatives were in government and he was a Minister.

I am happy to be judged on what we have done during this first Parliament, and I hope that we will get the opportunity to be judged as a result of what we do in a second Parliament. I remind the hon. Gentleman that, far from acknowledging that poverty had to be tackled and eradicated, one of my predecessors, now Lord Moore, spent some time trying to prove that poverty did not exist. No wonder the Tories did nothing about it.

Mr. Willetts: I see the Government Whip looking restless, as he has a train to catch, so I shall not go further down that route. More of my speech has been taken up with the Secretary of State's interventions than with my remarks about social policy.

Had we had more time, we might have debated some of the other things that the Secretary of State is doing, in the absence of any coherent overall approach to social policy, any coherent statement about what the Government are trying to do in 2003, or any serious attempt to learn one of the most important lessons that can be learned from Beveridge about how to target assistance on the people who most need it. We have had no clear and authoritative statement of what will happen to the organisation of the Department. I will watch with great interest to see what happens as the right hon. Gentleman tries, for example, to merge the work for unemployed people done by the Department for Education and Employment with that done by the Department of Social Security. However, that is a matter for a separate debate.

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We will not oppose the uprating, although we have various specific criticisms of it. I wish the Secretary of State and his team, the House, and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, a merry Christmas.

1.2 pm

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling): In his speech, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) attacked the Government's record on dealing with poverty. When we reflect on what the Government have achieved in their first Parliament, we can rightly be proud of the anti-poverty measures that they have introduced. A key feature of the uprating order, which we cannot discuss in detail in the time available, is that it is part of the welfare reform programme that the Government are pursuing.

Without a fundamental reform of the welfare system, the poverty that has blighted many of our communities for so long will continue. When we examine the benefits system and see the people who have been entitled to benefits, it is clear that without reform of the system we would merely have continued to pay people benefits. In five years, their children would have been on benefit, and in 20 years their grandchildren would have been on benefit. The culture of benefit dependency in some communities would be perpetuated. That has been one of the factors driving me on in politics.

The welfare system cannot carry on confirming people in poverty; radical reform is necessary. That is the purpose of the range of measures that the Government have introduced, particularly those designed to get people back into work. That is fundamental to tackling poverty. We must help people back into work, and at the same time ensure that those who remain on benefit have security.

The benefit uprating package is a part of a radical programme of which the Government can be proud, especially as it sets about challenging the culture of dependency.

I shall deal first with pensions. The Government have produced a programme of measures to help pensioners. As is well known by those of us who attend debates such as this--one always seems to see the same faces--one of the Government's priorities was to tackle pensioner poverty. I support that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out in detail the increased help available to the poorest pensioners as a result of the measures that we have taken.

The minimum income guarantee included in the uprating order will bring about significant increases for the poorest single pensioners and pensioner couples. One of the criticisms of the minimum income guarantee is that it rewards the feckless who have not bothered to save for their retirement, but it is clear from the profile of the poorest pensioners that they are mostly the oldest pensioners and mostly women who have had no opportunity to build up a contribution record.

I do not believe that the vast majority of people who depend on the minimum income guarantee are those who have not bothered to save for retirement. They deserve our support. If the welfare state means anything, it must mean supporting such people. The minimum income guarantee is one of the ways in which the Government have tried to help those at the bottom of the income scale in their old age.

One of the problems associated with such a benefit is the difficulty of getting people who are entitled to it to claim it. It might help if we spoke about it differently

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in the House and told people that the minimum income guarantee was part of the welfare state. People who shrink from claiming means-tested benefit do not have the same problem when it comes to claiming housing benefit or council tax benefit, which are also means-tested benefits. We must persuade people that if they are not embarrassed to claim those benefits and do not feel that that is scrounging from the state, they should have the same attitude to the MIG, which is also part of the welfare state and for which they have built up an entitlement over their lifetime.

Mr. Drew: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he agree that we should be more proactive in telling people about their entitlement? The Government have had a carefully planned programme to tell people, through the Employment Service or the Benefits Agency, what they should be claiming.

Mr. Coaker: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Often, the Government do not get the credit for what they are doing. I know that, as a Back Bencher, I would say that. When the Government introduce the pension age agency, that will also make an immense difference. It will be dedicated to provision and support for pensioners and elderly people. One of the things that elderly people tell me is that they do not like the DSS office because they associate it with people who are out of work. The change in the delivery of benefits for the elderly will help to get people to claim those to which they are entitled. It is incumbent on all hon. Members to talk about the minimum income guarantee as an entitlement that people can claim without feeling guilty, just as they do not feel guilty about claiming council tax benefit or housing benefit, even though those benefits are also means-tested.

Mr. Webb: As usual, the hon. Gentleman is talking a lot of sense. Is he disappointed that more progress has not been made on the following matter? It is true that lots of pensioners do not mind claiming rent rebate and council tax benefit. Evidence shows that half the pensioners who do not claim the income support to which they are entitled claim housing benefit or council tax benefit. As they have to give all the information necessary to calculate their income support to claim housing benefit, is the hon. Gentleman disappointed about that and will he do something to ensure that his colleagues--who, on the whole, do not listen to me--get those two systems together? That has been going on for years, but all the information is already in the system. We do not need a separate system, because the information is there; it simply needs to be passed on so that pensioners can get the money.

Mr. Coaker: That is a fair comment. Anything that would increase the number of people claiming an entitlement is important. The hon. Gentleman will know, as I do, that there are experiments throughout the country in which local authority housing benefit officials are working with DSS officials in DSS offices to try to do that. It is perfectly sensible so to marry the available information that we get the money to those people who need it.

Mr. Laurence Robertson: I, too, agree with a lot of what the hon. Gentleman has said. He put his finger on

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one problem when he said that claiming the minimum income guarantee is a matter of practical difficulties and a philosophical problem for a lot of pensioners. I agree that it is a philosophical problem, but is it likely that pensioners can be persuaded out of that?

Mr. Coaker: Again, that is a fair comment. It is possible to persuade people out of that, but Members of Parliament and people outside will have to adopt a different attitude to the MIG. We must continue to argue that people should claim housing benefit and council tax benefit, which are means-tested benefits but do not have the same stigma. There might be a philosophical problem, and we all encounter that in our surgeries. However, if we talk about the MIG as an entitlement that people have built up in their lifetime, just as they have built up their entitlement to access to other welfare state benefits, we can go a long way to achieving that aim. There are practical difficulties with getting people to claim, and we need to continue to search for ways to overcome that.

We have made progress on other measures for pensioners. The winter fuel payment and free TV licences are important. Before becoming a Member of Parliament I was aware that people felt strongly about the winter fuel payment. They demanded that the Government do something, as they felt that it was wrong that individuals were frightened to turn their fire on in winter. The Government have attempted to address that. They told people that they would make a special payment so that they need not be frightened to heat their home and turn on the fire. That is not a gimmick, but a sensible response to something that was being demanded of all of us when we looked at the problems faced by pensioners trying to heat their homes in winter.

The pension credit builds on the pension reforms in the uprating report. When people study the pension credit, they will see it as another part of the Government's reform programme for pensioners. It is easiest to describe it as almost a reverse income tax. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is right that pensioners and elderly people want to be rewarded for their saving and do not want to be penalised for thrift. We would all agree that we need to address that important matter. The pension credit will bring people up to a minimum income and will pay them for the savings that they have accumulated or their small occupational pension, which will be seen as another important stage in our reforms.

People also feel particularly strongly about the unfairness of capital limits, whereby a small amount of money disqualifies individuals from entitlement to a range of other benefits. I am pleased that capital benefits will be raised in April to £6,000 and £12,000, and abolished altogether in 2003. Again, that sends out an important message that, having started with poorer pensioners and having reformed occupational pensions, the Government are looking to reform the pension credit as well. The Government are delivering a package of systematic and affordable step-by-step reforms.

It is important to recognise that the uprating report includes considerable increases for some of the poorest families with children with disabilities. The child premium on income support for a disabled child will go up from £22.50 to £30, which is £7.40 a week more than the normal uprating and will be a significant improvement for those people. Throughout the country, 80,000 children will benefit from that. The disability income guarantee

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will ensure that none of the poorest families has an income of less than £142 a week for single people and £186.60 for couples. Again, the Government are delivering for some of the poorest people in the most difficult circumstances. As with the minimum income guarantee for pensioners, we need to talk about the disability income guarantee as an important benefit to which people with disabilities are entitled and which the Government have provided as an important element in the welfare state.

Carers can be pleased that the carer premium on income support will be increased. Again, the Government made a pledge to do something to support carers, and the premium will be raised by £10 to £24.40. An estimated 200,000 carers on low incomes will be supported as a result of that.

I have talked about increases in benefits and important changes made by the Government. We all recognise that, if we strip away the politics and the political point scoring, the benefits often go to very poor people, who are in exceptionally difficult circumstances. I say to the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley), that we must keep an eye on the level of all benefits, as one sometimes thinks, "My God, is somebody having to live on that money, which is not an exceptional amount?" I think Members on both sides of the House could agree with that statement. In particular, we need to stay focused on the level of two significant benefits in the uprating: the disability living allowance and the attendance allowance. Those benefits are extremely important for the way in which society is developing, as there are people with all sorts of different care needs. I know from my mother-in-law's experience with attendance allowance that it is an important benefit.

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