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Mr. Webb: I am aware that everyone wants to go home, so I promise not to intervene again, but for the avoidance of doubt, will the hon. Gentleman give a simple yes or no answer to this question--next year, will the winter fuel payment be £150 or £200?

Mr. Bayley: The hon. Gentleman will have to wait and see; he was not told last year what this year's winter fuel payment would be--the amount was not included in last year's regulations. He will have to wait and see what it is for next year.

The orders confirm our determination to provide more support for those people who need it most--those with severe disabilities, carers and the elderly. Our pilots for the new deal for disabled people have shown that it is possible to create opportunities even for those who have been on incapacity benefit for many years--perhaps for 10 years--to get back into the labour market, provided they receive adequate help and support.

Through the new deal we have shown that it is possible to provide support for those who are able to work. The orders make it clear that we are also providing security for those who cannot work. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) asked whether the Government would do more to allow the use of information collected for council tax benefit and housing benefit purposes in calculating entitlement to the minimum income guarantee and to income support. The one service initiative is piloting joined-up working to achieve the outcome that he seeks. The consultation document on the pension credit includes proposals to develop a single application process for those means-tested benefits.

My hon. Friend also referred to the overall rate of benefits and drew attention to disability living allowance and attendance allowance. As he mentioned, from next April we shall improve DLA by extending the higher rate mobility component to three and four-year-old children. We shall also do more for people with the most severe disabilities, who are on the lowest incomes and receive the higher rate care component of DLA. Under the new disability income guarantee, which comes into operation next April, they will receive a further enhancement of their benefit. That enhancement would have provided a minimum income of £128 a week, but as a result of these measures, it will be £142--£14 more. A single, severely disabled person on income support will receive £142; a couple will receive £186.80.

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We have made further changes to improve the benefits of disabled people and their carers. We realise that it is hard for people with disabled children to support their families, so we are increasing the disabled child premium in income support by £7.40 a week--raising the amount to £30 a week.

In response to a point made by the hon. Member for Beckenham, we recognise the pressures on carers. I have mentioned our intention--when legislative time permits--to extend new claims to ICA to people aged over 65. These regulations introduce improvements for carers from next April. The carers premium rises by £10 above the normal inflation uprating to £24.40 a week.

The measures for disabled children and for carers and the introduction of disability income guarantee will help about 350,000 of the poorest and most vulnerable families.

The decision to equate the MIG to the highest rate for all pensioners who receive it is another radical step in our battle to end pensioner poverty. Many pensioners will receive a real-terms increase of £12.45 a week as a result of that measure alone. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) drew attention to the surplus of about £3 billion in the national insurance fund. However, the disability measures in the uprating are alone worth more than £200 million a year--this year, next year and in future--than a simple inflation uprating.

As for the pensions uprating, the value of the pensions increase is about £4.5 billion a year more in real terms than the regime that we inherited from the Conservatives in 1997. By 2002-03, there will be about £5 billion a year more for pensioners. That puts into perspective the £3 billion national insurance fund surplus. One could blow the money all at once, but then it would not be there for the future, so the Government are following prudent policies; we are building an economy that generates resources and allows real-terms increases in benefits for disabled people and for pensioners. However, that must have a sustainable basis.

Mr. Kirkwood: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point; the figures have been published and they are clear. I repeat the practical question that I put during my speech. Is it possible for Ministers to ask the Benefits Agency to assist positively all of us who have the opportunity to promote local take-up campaigns in our constituencies? Obviously, we must be careful, because without proper support such campaigns may generate a volume of applications that the benefits agencies cannot cope with. Will the hon. Gentleman commit himself to helping Members who are working locally--with citizens advice bureaux and so on--on such campaigns?

Mr. Bayley: I welcome the spread of take-up campaigns to reinforce the Government's work on the biggest and most successful such campaign--on MIG. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, we do not have the power to make discretionary grants to CABs or other groups who undertake similar work. However, we should be happy to see and support such work.

The fact that we have got so far with the MIG take-up campaign--about 60,000 additional cases, and it is not over yet--is something that we should celebrate. Indeed, the hon. Member for Northavon was celebrating that.

The orders give additional help where it is most needed: more help for severely disabled adults and children and for those who care for disabled people. They provide a

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guarantee that, from April, no pensioner need live on an income of less than £92.15 a week. We have listened to pensioners and introduced reforms through the pension credit proposals to ensure that saving is rewarded instead of being penalised as it was in the past. We have acted to ensure that all pensioners benefit from the country's rising prosperity, by proposing--from next year--an increase in the basic state pension of £5 a week for a single person and £8 a week for a couple.

I commend the orders to the House.

Question put and agreed to.




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Adjournment (Christmas)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Betts.]

2.39 pm

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting): I want to talk about two local issues in my Tooting constituency, both of which involve the prison department of the Home Office. Local residents deeply oppose both projects, as I do myself.

The first issue is the opening, in Bedford hill in the Bedford ward of my constituency, of a hostel to house former high-risk ex-prison inmates. The second is the possible housing development on land in Heathfield square in the Springfield ward, which is at the rear of Wandsworth prison. I have written to the Minister of State at the Home Office who is responsible for prisons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) on both issues.

There is enormous local opposition to the proposed opening of the hostel in January next year. There has also been an appalling lack of discussion with local people. The first real information about the project and its purpose came from the local press. We are given to understand that the hostel will house men who have been convicted of rape and offences against children. Is it any wonder that there is local opposition to the project?

I am appalled by the lack of any meaningful consultation. I, the local Member of Parliament, have not been informed about this project by anyone. I deplore the way in which an issue that we all know is sensitive in all constituencies has been dealt with. I shall comment in greater detail about that in a moment.

The area in which it is proposed to open the hostel contains a number of schools and nurseries. One has to ask whether the people who run those establishments were informed about the proposals for the hostel. When one starts to make inquiries, one finds that little information is available about the day-to-day running of the hostel. We do not know who will decide who will be allowed to reside in it, how it will be supervised or how risk assessments will be made of people who have been in prison, served their sentence, and are to go to the hostel.

I accept that there comes a time for prisoners to be released, but these people have committed very serious offences against society. We do not even know the long-term aims of the project because, sadly, we simply have not been informed by anyone. Against that background, the clear opposition and concern arose.

Local people in that area of my constituency take a clear view that the authorities have deliberately sought to keep quiet the purpose to which the hostel will be put. The local residents whom I represent are reasonable and tolerant people, but many of them have young children, and they know what can and does happen. In my view, they have already suffered enormously from the lack of information that I have described.

I realise that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, who will reply to the debate, is not responsible for home affairs. Having heard him speak in similar Adjournment debates, I can say that, to his great credit, he always responds to the points that I, and all other hon. Members, raise. I am sure that he will respond to my comments about who has been consulted.

It would be nice to know whether there has been any real consultation with Wandsworth council. I do not know about that, but I do know, as the whole House knows,

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that if a local authority is not kept fully informed about this sort of project in its area, it could lead to the sort of protests that took place in Portsmouth a few months ago when it became known that paedophiles were living in a certain area. My constituents have made it clear to me that they certainly do not want that sort of action taking place in Balham; neither do I.

I have some advice for the Home Office, and for the Inner London probation service, which I believe is the real culprit behind the lack of available information. Apparently it held a meeting, but there is a great deal of confusion about exactly who attended. Certainly, no local residents were invited to attend. I, as the local Member of Parliament, was certainly not invited, or even told about the meeting. Apparently, in the course of that meeting, it emerged that potential hostel residents might have committed serious offences. They might have carried out robberies with extreme violence, or been convicted of sexual abuse of children. As I said, the concern in my constituency should not surprise anyone.

I have tabled a question to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about the need for hon. Members--any hon. Member, not just myself--to be fully informed when such hostels are to be opened in their constituencies. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South replied:

Neither of those two requirements suggested by my right hon. Friend have applied to me. No one has consulted me or asked me my views about the proposal.

We should now consider the matter most seriously. Until there has been proper discussion with the local community, the local council, schools, churches and other local organisations, the proposed hostel should not open. It is as clear as that. It should not open because we do not know about so many aspects of the hostel--what sort of supervision will be in place, for example. We have been given a clear indication of the type of person who will reside in it, but we do not know whether there will be 24-hour or seven-day supervision. I have the duty to voice in this House the real concerns expressed to me both by phone and in the large number of letters that I have received from my constituents, who are deeply troubled.

I hope that the Minister will convey to the Home Secretary the fact that the hostel must not be opened until local people have been given the right to full consultation, which has so far been denied them. They must be allowed to voice their views about the proposals for the hostel, but I say that it should not be opened at all. The hostel was formerly used for ex-offenders, and my constituents accepted that, because there are people who have been in prison and served their sentence, and are not a threat to society. However, I am not talking about that; the problem is that, because it was already a hostel, no planning application was needed for a change of use. That is what concerns us so deeply. I ask my hon. Friend to convey those feelings to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

The other issue that I wish to talk about also involves the prison department. According to the Home Office, land at the rear of Wandsworth prison is now surplus to

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its needs, and there is a proposal that that land should be used for housing development. As with the previous issue, there is great opposition to that development taking place. If it were allowed, it would spoil the whole local environment, because it is a large open space used by local people of all ages, especially young children.

In fairness to the Home Office, I should say that, unlike the other issue, there has been consultation on that issue. Wandsworth council has presented a public consultation document, a public meeting has taken place, and the issue will go before the council's planning committee. I accept those procedures, as we all do. Although those procedures are necessary, it is also crucial to listen principally to the views of the people who live in the area. It is no good the authorities--whether the Government or local authorities--telling the community, "This land belongs to us, and we will do whatever we think appropriate with it." They should listen to the people who live in that environment to discover to what use they want the land to be put.

I have received an enormous number of letters from local people, and many of them have come to see me at my advice service, but to date, only one person has written to me in support of the Home Office proposals for housing development on that site. Those who live in the area are truly a local community. Their youngsters play in the area with their friends. The area is used for a great many activities during the year. Parents feel very happy for their children to be in that environment, away from the mass of traffic that circulates in the area. They can easily see their children, and can be with them in few seconds if necessary. If the housing development is allowed to take place, that environment would be lost to local people.

When people write to me and when they see me, they tell me that children love the area; it is peaceful, quiet and away from traffic, and a wide range of sport--football, cricket and badminton, for example--is played there. We are repeatedly told in the House that those are the very things that that young people and adults should be involved in, which is why that open space is so important. A great deal of wildlife can been seen there. People see foxes, birds and hedgehogs. It is all part of a community that is growing up in an environment in which people are happy to live, and they want to continue to live there; they enjoy it.

The green, as it is known locally, has existed for more than 100 years. The prison governor of the time dedicated it for use as a recreation and leisure facility for prison staff and their families. That is still one of its uses, because it is adjacent to Wandsworth prison, and many of those who are most vehement in their criticism of the loss of that open space to housing development are prison officers. We all know that their job is very difficult and stressful. The working environment can be pretty grim at times, but immediately in the area where they live, they have an environment--an open space--where they can relax, and where they and their friends, families and neighbours can enjoy themselves. We are totally opposed to that delightful open space being turned into a housing development and lost to the local community.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in the debate. I have raised two local issues of great importance to my constituents. I beg the Home Office and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, who has responsibility for prisons, to listen carefully to my comments. The issues are totally different, but they

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are very important to the people whom I represent. Like all hon. Members, I have a duty to raise such concerns when given the opportunity, and I have certainly done so today.

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