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Child Support (Service Personnel)

9. Caroline Flint (Don Valley): What action he has taken in collaboration with the Secretary of State for Defence about revision of the services pay regulations that prevent Child Support Agency deductions of earnings orders being implemented on service personnel. [150489]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): In 99 per cent. of child support cases involving service men, the full amount of maintenance is deducted from their pay. In less than 1 per cent. of cases, the full amount is not met because it

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exceeds the maximum deduction rates that are set by the Ministry of Defence. We have discussed with the Ministry of Defence the problems encountered with this small minority of cases.

Caroline Flint: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but I find it a little disappointing. I have campaigned on this issue for a number of years, and although it affects only a small percentage of families, it seems strange that we are saying that someone who joins the Army can, in some way, escape their CSA payments. May I urge my hon. Friend to look into the matter, and particularly into the circumstances in which service personnel who leave the service get an end-of-service payment? The CSA should be urged to liaise with the Ministry of Defence to see whether, at that point, before the service man disappears, the payments that he should have made could be met in full.

Angela Eagle: I know that my hon. Friend has a particularly difficult individual case to deal with and that she has been working hard for her constituent with respect to it, but 99 per cent., which is the compliance rate in the services, compares very well with the compliance rate in civilian cases, which stands at 72 per cent.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): In confirming what the Minister has said, may I urge her not to follow the recommendation of the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint)? Will the Minister confirm not only that the services compliance rate is higher than in civilian life, but that, unlike civilians, service men and their families face a huge range of disadvantages? They are taxed as though they are resident in the United Kingdom, a range of UK benefits are not available to them and, when they leave the services, they are grossly disadvantaged in the housing market.

Angela Eagle: I have some sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says, and the compliance rates do compare favourably. The maximum deduction rates--25 per cent. and 50 per cent.--were put in the in-service rules for a particular reason following experience in the second world war. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) has had a debate with the Ministry of Defence about the matter and she needs to continue to make representations there.

Means testing

10. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): What recent representations he has received on means testing of benefits; and if he will make a statement. [150490]

13. Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): If he will make a statement on Government policy on means testing of pensioners' benefits. [150494]

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling): Numerous representations have been made over the years. As the hon. Lady will know, the benefit system has always combined universal, means- tested and extra-cost payments. Each plays a part in meeting people's needs.

Miss McIntosh: Is the Secretary of State proud of the fact that, under his stewardship, savings have gone down

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while means testing has gone up? According to his own Department's figures, at least 500,000 pensioners who should be receiving the minimum income guarantee have not applied. Will he pay heed to the representations that he has undoubtedly received from Age Concern, to the effect that means testing does not help the poorest pensioners, but simply puts them off applying?

Mr. Darling: Day by day--indeed, minute by minute--I become increasingly confused about what the policy of the Conservative party is. It was in power for 18 years, and means testing as a proportion of the benefit system increased from 17 per cent. in 1979 to 35 per cent. in 1997. For the sake of completeness, I might add that the figure is now 30 per cent. She must recognise that any Government who want to help the poorest pensioners cannot do so through universal, across-the-board increases. That is why we introduced the minimum income guarantee.

Of course the hon. Lady is right that we need to ensure that as many eligible people as possible receive the minimum income guarantee. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I have told her, we have to assess how much pension people are due when they retire; so when the pension credit is introduced, from 2003, we shall work out whether they qualify for the minimum income guarantee and the pension credit. In that way, we shall be able to target and eliminate pensioner poverty and reward saving. Unless the hon. Lady is proposing that there should be no means testing in the social security system, which is not a policy usually taken up by most elements in the Conservative party and which would be cripplingly expensive, she must accept that the Government are tackling pensioner poverty in the right way.

Mr. Viggers: The Secretary of State has not answered the question. Before the election, the Labour party campaigned on the basis of ending the means test for elderly people, but in government it has increased its use. The figure is 50 per cent. and rising: has something gone wrong or have the Government changed their mind?

Mr. Darling: It is always touching to hear the Conservatives' new-found concern with pensioner poverty, which they allowed to grow when they were in office. When we were elected, we made it clear that our first priority was to deal with and then eradicate pensioner poverty. That is possible only if the money is targeted on the people who need that help most, which is why we introduced the minimum income guarantee. From April, it will rise to £92 a week. The Conservative party has no policy for tackling pensioner poverty, and the only proposals that it has made for pensioners would disproportionately benefit the better off.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government have done more to help the poorest sections of the community? If we are to do so at an affordable cost, there regrettably has to be means testing. Will he assure the House that at some stage there will be only one means-testing form for income support, for the guaranteed minimum income for pensioners and for housing and council tax benefit, so that we can reduce the number of forms that have to be filled in?

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Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right. If any Government are serious about tackling pensioner poverty or child poverty, they must give more to the people who need it most. In addition to tackling pensioner poverty, we must help the people who are by no means well off--those who have saved and have a little money in the bank--and that is what the pension credit will do. We are taking that approach for other benefits. Through the working families tax credit, we can help people on low wages to increase the amount of money that they take home, so that they see the benefit of being in work and the difference that the credit can make to their take-home pay.

Right across the board, the Government's strategy has been, first, to deal with poverty; secondly, to ensure that the right incentives are in the system so that it pays to work and to save; and thirdly, to benefit the incomes of the population as a whole. That is what we have started to do, and if we are returned at the next election, that is what we shall continue to do. That is in stark contrast with what the Tories are about, which is to restore the inequalities that they presided over during the 18 years they were in power.

Housing Benefit

11. Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): What plans he has to reform the administration of housing benefit. [150491]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): Following years of neglect by the previous Government, improving administration is the biggest challenge facing the housing benefit system. We published our strategy to achieve such an improvement in December, and one of our first steps has been the formation of the expert help team. Working in partnership with local authorities, the team will help to turn things around.

Mr. Ruffley: The Minister will have a list of the10 local authorities with the worst record of tackling housing benefit fraud. Could she tell us which ones are Labour controlled?

Angela Eagle: As most local authorities are Labour controlled, that is a pretty pointless question.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Does my hon. Friend recognise that housing benefit creates particular difficulties in areas with high housing costs? The threshold at which a return to work is worth while requires some people to work 20 hours just to cover the loss of housing and council tax benefit. Will she bear in mind the fact that a reform of the housing benefit system to address that issue would be most welcome in Hertfordshire?

Angela Eagle: There is a lot of truth in what my hon. Friend says. We need to work on the work-incentive aspects of housing benefit, but we will not fundamentally reform the system until after the reform of rents, which was dealt with in the Green Paper, and that will be in the medium to long term.

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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given that the Government have made no fewer than 85 changes to the administration of housing benefit, does the hon. Lady rule out an 86th?

Angela Eagle: No; and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we shall shortly introduce a change to ease the single room rent restrictions, which have caused so much hardship to the single homeless. I expect that he will be against such a measure, but it will be a great help to the socially excluded.

Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): My hon. Friend will be aware that the announcement that east Ayrshire is to be included in the housing benefit expert team project was warmly welcomed by its

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Labour-controlled council and by its 10,500 housing benefit recipients. I am glad that it is a Labour-controlled council in a Labour-controlled country. Under that initiative, what steps can be taken to improve clarity and simplify the form, and to reduce the mountain of paperwork and bureaucracy that is generated by housing benefit applications?

Angela Eagle: I add my thanks to East Ayrshire council for agreeing to allow the expert help team to assist it with the administration of housing benefit, which is a difficult benefit to administer.

Working with the benefit fraud inspectorate, the Department has for the first time produced a template of a housing benefit form that is readable and user friendly. It is now being made available to all local authorities, and I hope that many will take advantage of it.

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