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Angela Eagle: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman thinks that making 82,000 people, on average, £20 a week better off--after being left in poverty as a result of the neglect of the previous Conservative Government--is not worth celebrating. Since the campaign is not yet over, the figures that we have given so far will not be the final figures. Next week, we will double the capital limit, which will ensure that more people are eligible for the minimum income guarantee. That stands in contrast with the Conservatives, who froze the capital limits for a decade when they were in office.
The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling): Two million pensioners are now £15 a week better off as a direct result of what the Government have done since 1997. The minimum income guarantee take-up campaign has encouraged thousands to claim, and resulted in significant improvements to the service delivered to pensioners.
Mr. Randall: Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the reasons for the rather disappointing take-up after the costly campaigns is that elderly people find the whole idea of means-testing extremely demeaning?
Mr. Darling: No, I do not. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said, just over 900,000 people have responded as a result of our advertising campaign. If stigma or a reluctance to claim were the problem, 900,000 people would not have responded. The facts rather contradict the argument of the hon. Gentleman. The big problem that the Conservatives have is not that they are somehow concerned about means-tested benefits, but that they do not like paying more money to people who need help and would take it away if they got back in.
Mr. Edwards: Does my right hon. Friend agree that around 50 per cent. of women pensioners do not get the full pension because they could not or did not pay full national insurance contributions and that the minimum income guarantee for pensioners--far from being a gimmick or window-dressing--is an important way of
Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to one of the problems of the present pension system. The basic state pension has many strengths and attractions, but one of its weaknesses is that someone without the required number of contributions will not get a full pension. Many women--particularly those who did not pay the full contributions up until 1977--are retiring with pensions that are below even the basic state pension. We introduced the minimum income guarantee to make sure that all pensioners were guaranteed just that; a minimum, from next week, of more than £92 a week. The pension credit will be of great help to women who have some savings. As it will increase in line with earnings, it will benefit women significantly. All those measures are, of course, opposed by the Conservative party.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Can the Secretary of State now give us an answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) by saying what proportion of pensioners are on means-tested benefits now, and what proportion will be on such benefits in 2003?
Mr. Darling: The answer is about 9 per cent. I make no apology for the fact that we are paying more money than ever before to pensioners whose incomes were so low that they had to depend on income support. Unlike the Conservative party, we are determined to spend more on helping the pensioners who need help most, as well as making the long-term reforms to the pension system that were long overdue. We will change the social security system so that the pension credit ensures that people who have saved or put a little money by are rewarded for their thrift. Every one of those measures has been opposed by the Conservative party.
The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker): I have to say no. The introduction of the pension credit will require primary legislation; it is not possible to introduce it by order. We have consulted and we shall shortly bring our proposals to the House, and we shall do so as soon as practicable. Legislation and planning will then be required. Therefore, it is not possible to introduce the pension credit before our planned date of 2003.
Mr. Flynn: Have not the Government achieved a triple crown of improvements for pensioners? They have introduced the £200 winter fuel payment; the biggest increase in the basic pension for 25 years, which we hope will continue; and the pension credit, which will, for the first time ever, give those pensioners who have paid into private pensions all their lives real benefit from those contributions. It is marvellous that that injustice will end. In the extra time that we have in this Parliament, is it possible to get some swift legislation through?
Mr. Rooker: That is a matter for the business managers. However, we will introduce the proposals that result from the consultation as soon as we possibly can. The introduction of the pension credit will, for the first time since 1948, ensure that it pays to save. The way that the welfare state has worked--Ministers were never honest enough to admit it--meant that it has never paid to save for people on moderate earnings and small pensions. With the pension credit, it will pay to save for the first time. That is a great tribute to the work of this Government in this Parliament.
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Will the Minister reflect on the fact that his initial answer to the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) was not very convincing? Surely, if the House has the will, legislation can be passed quickly. Will the Minister therefore re-examine the possibility of introducing the credit in 2002? In addition, what is his estimate of the effect that the pension credit will have on Treasury funds, and what is that when we remember the £5 billion tax raid that the Government have perpetrated on pension funds?
Mr. Rooker: The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the position. The consultation has taken several months and we have received more than 400 submissions on the pension credit. We have not yet announced our final decision as to the shape of the credit. Although I would like to answer his question in detail, I cannot because the mechanics of the finances of the pension credit have to take account of the consultation and its interaction with other benefits, such as council tax benefit and housing benefit. Only after we have made our announcement on the policy can we instruct the parliamentary draftsman to get to work on drafting primary legislation. That is why we cannot do what the hon. Gentleman suggests.
I would also caution against rushing. More than half the pensioners in this country will benefit from the pension credit. Therefore, it is crucial that, when it is delivered, it works. If we rush it and it does not work, no one will thank us.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): Child benefit is paid to more than 7 million families: virtually all families with children receive it. Since 1997, we have increased the rate of child benefit for the first child by 26 per cent. in real terms--to £15 a week. From next week, this will increase again to £15.50 and to £10.35 for all other children.
Mr. Miller: For the 10,500 families in Ellesmere Port and Neston who gain from child benefit, that sum represents an extra expenditure over and above inflation of more than £1.5 million since 1997. It is truly welcome. However, will my hon. Friend ensure that, when future programmes in other parts of the Department's work are considered, special attention is given to those areas of my constituency where there is still child poverty?
Angela Eagle: It is one of the Government's aims to end child poverty within 20 years, and more than1 million children will be lifted out of poverty in this Parliament. Therefore, we are on track to achieve our aim. The Tories tripled child poverty during their time in office, and I contrast our record on child benefit and the increase of 26 per cent. with the three-year freeze in child benefit between 1988 and 1990 that was the Tory legacy.