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Mr. Willetts: In asking the hon. Gentleman a question, I am also looking to the Minister, who will reply to our debate. The hon. Gentleman was talking about the value of benefits. Of course, it is important that benefits for disabled people are delivered competently and promptly. Is the hon. Gentleman concerned, as I am, about the increasing evidence of delays in getting attendance allowance to claimants and an apparent deterioration in performance evident from the unacceptable periods that people have to wait, especially if they appeal against a decision not to allow them benefit?

Mr. Coaker: We are all concerned. That is not a political point, as we are all anxious about unnecessary delay. I am sure that, as a constituency Member of Parliament, the Minister sees constituents who are worried about things that sometimes go wrong with the system. Of course, that is important, and we must make sure that the benefit system delivers to those people as quickly, effectively and efficiently as possible. My point is that the level of those benefits is crucial to some people who are living in very difficult circumstances.

I am delighted with the extension of disability living allowance to three and four-year-old children. Before the change, many of us had experiences of those children being excluded from the DLA provision. I also welcome the extension of incapacity benefit to young people under 20.

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The uprating order deals with huge amounts of public money. We have had a good debate on the reforms and on what the benefits should be. The welfare state, as it is currently constituted, has contributed significantly to the society in which we live, but it cannot remain static and must change with the times. It must reflect the development of society. There will always be debate about the reforms that are required to achieve that, but I am proud that the Government are consistent and have remained true to the principles of the welfare state, while recognising that it needs to be changed and modernised.

I am pleased that the desire to help the poorest people first is at the heart of our welfare changes. I am pleased also that those changes relate not only to the payment of benefits, but are also about looking at our society and challenging the culture of dependency. They are about telling communities where large numbers of people have not worked for years and many families have existed on benefit for a long time that we must try to get people off benefits and into work while providing support for those who must remain on benefit.

In future, we will look back at a radical Government with radical policies who have brought about genuine change. There will be differences of opinion on how such change can be achieved, but today's debate will contribute to the reform process, which is, above all, about how to do the most that we can for some of the poorest people in society and tackling the problems of social exclusion that we see around us.

1.21 pm

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): I begin by apologising to the House. As I am feeling slightly under the weather, I might not be present for all the subsequent contributions. Indeed, I might have to curtail my remarks, although it has struck me that no one would object if I did so. I suppose that I should not worry too much about courtesy, as the Secretary of State did his usual trick and did not even stay to listen to the first speech made by a Labour Back Bencher. Obviously, he does not think that he has anything to learn from any hon. Member, which is regrettable.

I do not want to keep the House in suspense any longer, so I inform hon. Members that neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats will seek to press the motion to a Division. This debate is a good opportunity to discuss the question of where the system is going and to exchange some ideas, as the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) tried to do, so it is unfortunate that the House has been treated in a regrettable manner.

The hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) used an interesting phrase in his contribution, which was, as ever, thoughtful and considered. He referred to a package of systematic, step-by-step reforms. The word "systematic" is the one word that I would not use about the Government's welfare reform process. Instead, I would use the phrase "make it up as you go along", for reasons that I shall expand, especially in relation to pensions. My hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), who chairs the Select Committee on Social Security, is considering in depth the strategy for families with children, so I shall touch only briefly on that matter.

With regard to pensioners, the Government have a story. It sounds at first as if something coherent is going on, but the more I consider their policies, the less sure I

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am that much coherence exists. After the election, the first announcement that the Government made was that the minimum income guarantee--as income support was renamed--would rise in line with earnings. Few people disagree that the level was too low and that extra support for poorer pensioners was needed, so I associate myself with that decision, which was the first step. However, the next step was curious.

In the winter, the Chancellor found some spare cash that had been released by an underspend on his EU contribution, or something similar, and he wondered what to do with it. He decided to make a winter fuel payment to pensioners. The House may forget that it was introduced at £20. The policy was met with a fanfare, although I suspect that a similar payment would now cause a riot. The amount for those on income support was £50. The argument for that was that it targeted more help on those in need.

There is a fundamental inconsistency in the Government's strategy. Depending on whether there is an "r" in the month, they focus either on helping the folk who are most in need or on giving universal support as a way of providing tax-free help to everybody. A policy of granting a tax-free £200 payment to every household in the land is as untargeted as possible. However, when the Liberal Democrats said that 75p was not enough and asked the Government why they were not paying more, they told us that a general increase in the pension would be poorly targeted and that they wanted to spend money on those in need. They are facing both ways at the same time, and have done so throughout.

The Government could have said that they needed a mix, that they were only partly targeting those who were most in need and that pensioners as a group needed to do better. One might have had more sympathy with such a view. When it suited them, as it did with the 75p payment, they said that they had to help those who were most in need. When an election is imminent, however, they grant a winter fuel payment of £200.

When I questioned the rate of the winter fuel payment for the coming year and said that it would fall from £200 to £150, a few hon. Members queried that, and said that it could not be right. The hon. Member for Havant has asked about that. I do not know whether he has seen a written answer published this morning in response to a question that he tabled. He may not have spotted it, but I had nothing better to do over breakfast. He asked about the rate of the winter fuel payment next year. His question received the following opaque reply:

There is a shorter version of that answer, but I think that it was felt to be embarrassing. I went to the Vote Office to obtain a copy of the regulations to which the answer referred. Initially, the document was unavailable, so one senses that there has not been a big demand for it. On finally obtaining it, I saw that in a paragraph of the regulations that set out the winter fuel payment, it stated:

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The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker): Then why are you giving the wrong impression?

Mr. Webb: If the right hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall explain my point.

The Government's pensions strategy, such as it is, is all heading towards 2003. Everything between now and 2003 is described as transitional. In other words, the Government are introducing measures for the next two years, until they can get the new system in place. Thus, a big pension rise has been announced for next April and an above-inflation rise has been announced for the following year, albeit only a pound or so. Why, then, is the winter fuel payment not also dealt with transitionally? Why does it not apply for two years at the £200 level? The answer is that, between this winter and next winter, something will happen.

I think that that approach is extraordinarily cynical. Pensioners have seen the winter fuel payment move from £20 to £100 to £200. If we went out into the streets and asked pensioners to predict next winter's fuel payment, I suspect that we would not find one who would expect the Government to cut it by a quarter. Clearly, that message has not been conveyed. Will the Under-Secretary tell us whether pensioners were notified when they received this year's winter fuel payment that it would be cut next winter? Do pensioners know? I suspect that they do not. It is cynical to increase a benefit immediately before an election, to cut it afterwards and to hope that nobody will ask the awkward question.

The hon. Member for Havant spoke about what his party wanted to do with the winter fuel payment. I have a point for him to cogitate about on Boxing day. He announced that, were he given the opportunity to do so, he would introduce not the £5 increase to which the order refers but a £9.50 increase. I think that that is the figure for newly retired pensioners. Roughly speaking, that sum comprises the fiver that the Government are giving anyway, four quid for winter fuel and 50p for which the hon. Gentleman has scrabbled around in the social fund and elsewhere. However, if the Government provide not £4 a week but £3 a week--the hon. Gentleman has discovered that that is what they plan to do--the Conservatives could afford not £9.50 on the pension but £8.50. That applies unless the hon. Gentleman can find £1 a week for every pensioner household in the land, which amounts, I think, to £500 million. I shall have a word with the shadow Chancellor. I will tell him that he must either find another £500 million for the hon. Member for Havant or announce a smaller pension increase than he planned.

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