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6.30 pm

David Cairns: At the outset of his remarks the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said that he would listen to the rest of the debate before deciding whether to oppose Third Reading. As I think I am the only Member on the Government Benches seeking to speak, I will assume that if he does not divide the House, it will be entirely due to the persuasive force of my argument. Of course, if he changes his mind and decides to divide the House, I will take it equally personally.

I had hoped that after the brilliant speech by the Minister we would hear no more of the scaremongering nonsense about mass means-testing. Alas, the hon. Member for Daventry continued, as if he had heard nothing of what my right hon. Friend said, to perpetuate that nonsense, and although I do not want to prejudge the contribution of the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb), I suspect that he will do the same. I assume, however, that if the hon. Member for Daventry does not divide the House, it will be a principled decision and not the result of incompetence such as we saw a few minutes ago on the last group of amendments.

I want briefly to address a couple of canards from the debate. The first is the extraordinary allegation that the Bill has been introduced to clear up a mess made by the minimum income guarantee. It is quite ludicrous to assert that the Government should or could achieve all their social policy on pensioners in one Bill, and that one cannot begin, as we did, by focusing on alleviating the appalling legacy left to the poorest pensioners in this country.

Not only did we have to spend considerable sums alleviating the dire poverty of the poorest pensioners, but we had to ensure that significant sums and a great deal of parliamentary time were taken up sorting out the scandal of pension mis-selling which we inherited from the previous Conservative Government. We make no apology for focusing first and foremost on the poorest pensioners, as we did with the minimum income guarantee. We also ensured, through the winter fuel payment and other universal benefits such as free eye tests, that all pensioners who had lost out were receiving additional benefits. We were right to do all that.

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What we are doing now is not an academic exercise. The remarks made earlier by the hon. Member for Northavon, when he said that giving an extra pound to someone with savings of £6 was better than giving that person £23 through the minimum income guarantee but nothing extra for savings, were like something that Alice might have found through the looking glass. The Government are being extraordinarily generous to our poorest pensioners, and rightly so, because they deserve nothing less.

We are addressing a pressing need that every single Member has heard expressed on the doorstep time after time. People say, "What about me? I have a small second pension and a few savings, and I'm no better off than the person down the road who smoked and drank all his life and didn't bother." The Government are addressing that real need in the Bill, so I hope, although I am not optimistic, that we will hear no more nonsense about the Bill clearing up a mess. We have laid excellent foundations, and the Bill builds on them, and I am very proud of that.

Let us keep our eye on the bigger picture when considering what the measure is seeking to achieve. Pensioners will be more than £400 a year better off on average, and in constituencies like mine and those of my hon. Friends, where people are poorer because their incomes are below the national average, they will be even better off. That goes a long way towards righting an historic wrong; people should not be penalised for thrift and prudence.

The other theme running through our four hours of debate has been the scaremongering about means-testing. After Second Reading, I decided that I wanted to look into the subject in depth, so I turned to what the Library told me was the definitive history of the means test, "Reserved for the Poor: The Means Test in British Social Policy" by Deacon and Bradshaw, which I am sure the hon. Member for Northavon has lectured on. Referring to the 1950s, Deacon and Bradshaw say:

A sterile debate has been taking place since the inception of the welfare state, but the Bill takes us past that. The Government are prepared to go beyond the sterile debate about mass means-testing, but the Opposition want to drag us back to it.

Deacon and Bradshaw also write about the reality of the means test under the National Assistance Board in the 1940s and 50s. They say that it was

That was the reality of the means test, which my right hon. Friend the Minister said was designed not to lift people out of poverty but to ensure that they were given just enough to keep them in poverty. Heaven forbid that the Governments of the 1950s would give people enough money to lift them out of poverty and float them beyond range of the means test.

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The Bill is quantitatively and qualitatively different. We are not talking about weekly assessments or people from the National Assistance Board coming round demanding to see people's sheets, clothing and ornaments that might have been pawned. We abhor such means-testing. We are talking about one phone call every five years, with a request for the bare minimum of information so that claimants get what they deserve to lift them out of poverty. It is an extraordinary perversion to equate the means-testing of the National Assistance Board with the income assessment in the Bill. The hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Benches—and they are all hon. Gentlemen—know full well that those are completely dissimilar beasts, yet they are willing to perpetuate that myth for one reason alone: scaremongering.

My right hon. Friend has said on more than one occasion that, as soon as the legislation allows, he intends to publicise and promote the credit; every Labour Member will make sure that every pensioner knows about it. We will hold the Minister responsible for ensuring that the Pension Service is as proactive as he promised. I guarantee to my right hon. Friend that if I suspect that the Pension Service is not proactive and does not provide a localised service I will, to coin a Scottish phrase, be in his face. He knows that, and he knows that every Labour Member feels exactly the same way.

Our approach is completely different from the scaremongering of Opposition Members, who have only one aim in mind—to depress take-up. They will prevent people applying for the credit by telling elderly and poor pensioners, "It's the old means test. It's the humiliation and embarrassment that your parents had to endure." It is no such thing. A glimmer of recognition on the part of the Opposition that the Bill is entirely different from that sort of means-testing would be very welcome.

I commend the Government for introducing the measure. It addresses a real need, it is generous and it is clear. The complexity will be dealt with by the civil servants, not the claimants. All the claimants need to know is whether they have £135 a week coming in. If they can answer yes or no to that question, the system will do the rest. The Bill is a good measure. It is positive, redistributive and progressive, and I warmly support it.

6.40 pm

Mr. Webb: The contributions of the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) are passionate and well researched. They are fundamentally misconceived, but none the less entertaining for that.

As a parent—I am sure that there are many parents in the House—if I come home and discover that my child has made a mess of the kitchen floor but has begun to clean it up, I would applaud them for the fact that they had started to clean it up, but I might ever so gently suggest to them that they should not have made the mess in the first place. That is how we view the Bill.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde mentioned the familiar cry of the person who finds that their neighbour has the same living standards as they have, even though they have saved. That very problem has been made worse by the Government over the past four or five years. A person with £20 a week of savings this year is no better off than their next-door neighbour, whereas in 1997 a person with £20 of savings would have been better off than their neighbour. In terms of dealing with the resentment felt by people who have saved, the Government have made the matter worse and are only partially remedying it through the Bill.

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The hon. Gentleman says that what is proposed is not the same as the means-testing of the 1930s. I agree; however, I am not contrasting what is proposed with the 1930s but with the means-testing of the 1990s—the system from which the Bill takes over. The non-take-up rate, not under the system where claimants have to show that their sheets are worn through, but under the system operated now in modern-day Britain, is one in three. Forget about the national assistance board in the 1930s—the means-testing that does not work is the means-testing that is done now.

The hon. Gentleman's noble Friend Baroness Hollis, told Members in another place that the non-take-up rate for the shiny new-fangled benefit credit would be one in three. He can check—it is on the record. The non-take-up rate for the new pension credit would be one in three. Baroness Hollis hopes that that will build up as time goes by, but what I want to know—

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