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21 Oct 2002 : Column 6—continued

Student Nurses (Benefit Entitlement)

2. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): If he will make a statement on the benefit entitlement of student nurses. [73060]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): Full-time students, including student nurses, are not generally entitled to receive income-related benefits while studying unless they are in a vulnerable group, such as people with disabilities or lone parents. Student nurses receive a non-repayable bursary which in many cases is more generous than the help available to full-time students in mainstream higher education. All students may claim

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other social security benefits, subject to their satisfying the normal conditions of entitlement for the benefits concerned.

Tom Brake : I thank the Minister for his response. I understand that next year there will be changes to child care benefits for student nurses, and I welcome that. However, I press the Minister to tell us the advice that he would give today to a constituent of mine who is studying but who cannot afford to pay for her child care costs and whose housing association property is at risk of repossession. Should she abandon her course or risk the financial consequences of pursuing it?

Malcolm Wicks: I am happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman about that case, about which we have corresponded. I think that there has been a recent development whereby Sutton council, I assume, has been rather more helpful with housing benefit.

In the national health service, we are now spending more than #300 million a year on NHS bursaries, and the first three rates increased by 10 per cent. last year. The NHS has its own child care strategy on which it will spend #100 million by 2004. As part of that strategy, there will be 150 on-site nurseries, which means that about a further 7,500 subsidised places will be available by 2004. However, I repeat that I am happy to talk about the particular case that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Does not my hon. Friend agree, however, that it is anomalous, not to say unjust, that in many cases the loan that students receive is treated as income for the purposes of deciding whether they are eligible for benefit? Does he not want to take steps to rectify that injustice in view of the fact that it has some of the consequences mentioned by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake)?

Malcolm Wicks: It is appropriate that the help provided through loans and the non-payment of university tuition fees for low-income families is regarded as separate from the help we give people through the provision of income support and jobseeker's allowance when they are out of work. As I said, however, vulnerable groups have access to income-related benefits. It has always been the case that, subject to certain disregards, income sources are subtracted from income support entitlement. That is the case with student loans and it remains the policy.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Is the Minister aware of the serious problem of the number of student nurses who are abandoning the profession simply because of the high cost of rentals in London? Is he aware in particular of the big problem at Barts, which many nurses are leaving because of the closure of the residential unit at Mile End? If he is interested in holding on to nurses, would it not be helpful to find a way in which the hospitals can assist with the provision of accommodation for student nurses at reasonable rents?

Malcolm Wicks: We are certainly interested in retaining nurses and are sensitive to the issue of housing, not least in my city of London. Housing developments

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are proceeding for key workers, who include nurses. Both housing policy and national health service policy are sensitive to that important issue.

Disability Benefits (Home Visits)

4. Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): How many complaints were recorded against doctors carrying out home visits to assess people receiving disability benefits in (a) 1981, (b) 1991 and (c) 2001. [73062]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown): No data are held about complaints for the period before the contract for medical services was let in September 1998. However, in 2001 there were 1,665 complaints out of a total of 236,028 home visits carried out by medical services doctors.

Mr. Win Griffiths : I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Will he consider how complaints against doctors who visit people on disability benefits are dealt with, given that at the moment it is the doctor's word against the word of the person who has been interviewed? When, as often happens, the two stories do not coincide, the doctor's word is taken against that of the person on benefit. How many of those complaints were found to be justified?

Mr. Brown: I am afraid that I do not have an immediate figure for how many complaints were justified. It will not always be the case that the complainant is right and the doctor is wrong, or the other way around. The fact is that two people may see such exchanges from different points of view. If my hon. Friend has a specific case in mind that he wants to draw to my attention, I shall be happy to consider it. However, people approach those vexed questions on the basis of different circumstances and have different views accordingly.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): Does the Minister not think that it would be appropriate for doctors to examine people physically rather than simply discussing how far they can walk and how much weight they can lift? That would ensure that there was objective information on which a decision to remove benefit could be based before such terrible decisions were imposed on vulnerable people who have no defence against a doctor's word.

Mr. Brown: The doctor's assessment informs the decision maker. It is a medical gateway, but doctors do not make the decisions themselves. I have no reason to believe that there is a case for making the changes that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): Does my right hon. Friend accept that many of our constituents unfairly have their disability benefit removed? Do

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doctors follow a quota that is recommended by the Government? If not, does my right hon. Friend agree that we should examine the system as it is at present?

Mr. Brown: If people believe that the system has treated them unfairly, there is an appeals mechanism that they can use. Indeed, many cases succeed on appeal.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Does the Minister know that constituents of mine who receive incapacity benefit had to go all the way from King's Lynn to Norwich to undergo a fitness-for-work test? Would it not be easier if the test took place in King's Lynn? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the journey time from King's Lynn to Norwich by public transport is longer than the recommended 90 minutes? Will he please examine that matter?

Mr. Brown: I shall examine the hon. Gentleman's specific point. However, many assessments are carried out through home visits; not everybody has to travel.

Winter Fuel Payments

6. Mr. John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): What plans he has to increase winter fuel payments to over-60s. [73064]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): We have increased the level of winter fuel payments considerably since we introduced them in 1997. Most people aged 60 or over receive a payment of up to #200, which is a significant contribution towards their winter fuel bill. That means that almost 1 million pensioners in Scotland—more than 13,000 in my hon. Friend's constituency—will continue to benefit. We are committed to helping pensioners and we have given an undertaking that that level of payment will continue for the rest of the Parliament.

John Robertson: I wholeheartedly welcome the winter fuel allowance and the increases in it. However, does my hon. Friend realise that although the death rate has decreased, more people die of cold in Britain than in the rest of Europe? That costs the national health service more than #1 billion a year. Does my hon. Friend agree that a winter fuel allowance increase of #50 to #250 would help to reduce fuel poverty in this country and help to alleviate the costs on the NHS? If so, when will the 13,000 households in Anniesland receive it?

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is well known for his assiduity in pursuing the interests of his pensioner constituents. However, he seems to believe that I have a little more power than I do.

The winter fuel payment is not the Government's only policy to tackle fuel poverty. Of course, it is an important policy that helps pensioners in my hon. Friend's constituency and elsewhere, but we have other policies. For example, the old home energy efficiency scheme, which is now known as warm front, gives grants of up to #2,500 for over-60s to improve the heating and insulation of their properties.

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Between 1997 and 2002, gas prices have decreased by almost 12 per cent. in real terms and electricity prices by more than 21 per cent. So there are other factors that mean that people should find it easier to pay their winter fuel bills.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Will the Minister give us the figures for the decrease in older people's deaths in the winter months? The hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) described such deaths as a British phenomenon. Will the hon. Lady further emphasise that it is not only the winter fuel payment but tackling the substandard housing and lack of insulation in many older people's households that makes a difference?

Maria Eagle: I cannot provide the exact figures governing the decrease in deaths because I do not have them with me. Of course, they vary from year to year. The 2000 spending review provided an extra #2.5 billion to renovate social housing. That will do much to improve insulation and heating. I have already referred to warm front, the home energy efficiency scheme, which the Government have greatly extended.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman supported the policy because I was not a Member of Parliament at the time, but the Conservative Government introduced VAT on fuel, which we cut from 8 per cent. to 5 per cent. We have therefore taken several measures to ensure that people who have difficulty paying their fuel bills can do so. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman wants to join us in that aim. I hope that he will dissent from any Conservative party policies that are not excellent on cutting winter fuel prices.

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