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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley): I checked the numbers this morning and can confirm that, as of today's date, 12,200 forms have been issued and 11,300 completed claims received.
Jane Griffiths: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, which will be welcome to those of my constituents who are eligible to apply. Does he agree that the speedy issuing of forms and the acceleration of claims will be good news for my constituent, John Darby, who was captured in 1942 and served on the infamous railway of death? Now in his 80s, he is not in the best of health and he hopes to receive his compensation before his health worsens further.
Mr. Bayley: I know that my hon. Friend has taken a close interest in the matter and that she secured a debate in the House on compensation for far east prisoners of war two years ago. I can guarantee that the Government will move as quickly as they can to make the payments. We hope to be able to start making payments--indeed, to make the majority of them--in February next year.
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): The Minister will recall that his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence was praised--rightly so--for the apparently comprehensive nature of the original settlement. Is he aware that it is now being said that those Gurkhas who became far east prisoners of war will, uniquely, be excluded from the scheme? I appreciate that the matter is not the direct responsibility of the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, although it does arise from today's question, but if he cannot give me an assurance today, will he ensure that I am written to in the near future? Given the service that they have rendered this country, it would be quite unthinkable to leave Gurkhas out of the arrangement.
Mr. Bayley: The policy is a matter for my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Ministry of Defence, who will read the hon. Gentleman's comments. I have enormous respect for the Gurkhas--indeed, last year, for the first time, Gurkhas served in the regiment based in my constituency, 2 Signals Regiment. However, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, the position during the second world war was different, in that there were no Gurkha regiments in the British Army; such regiments were all members of the Indian army. On India becoming independent in 1948, responsibility for all matters relating to Indian army regiments passed to the Indian Government and subsequently the Indian and Pakistani Governments.
Mr. Bayley: The reason the Canadian Government have a similar scheme to ours is that they take responsibility for the Canadian service men who were imprisoned in the far east during the war. Responsibility for each contingent of the allied forces lies with the Government under whom those forces served.
The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker): To date, we have received slightly more than 150 responses to the pension credit consultation exercise, which runs until 28 February next year.
Mr. Borrow: Thousands of pensioners in my constituency who receive only modest occupational pensions have repeatedly told me that they feel that, having made provision for their old age, they receive no practical benefit for having done so and that, in many ways, they wish that they had not made that provision. The announcement of the pension credit is a major step toward satisfying such concerns. However, will my right hon. Friend ensure that, in the scheme's introduction, consideration is given to ensuring that any application form is as simple and as straightforward as possible, and that his Department will examine imaginative ways of ensuring that all those who are eligible to apply for the pension credit do so?
Mr. Rooker: The application form for pension credit will be unlike any other form ever issued by my Department. It will be short, simple, easily understood and an absolute joy to fill in for the millions of pensioners who will gain from the pension credit, for whom the Conservatives, who oppose the credit, do not have the time of day.
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): The Minister might not be a Member of Parliament when the form becomes available, but can he answer the following question? As the current take-up campaign for the minimum income guarantee is being conducted on such a scale and is eliciting so many responses, why did his Department not include in that exercise questions that could have enabled it to identify those who would benefit from the pension credit?
Mr. Rooker: As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the pension credit had not been introduced when we started the MIG take-up campaign, and it took several months to plan it. We have information from those who made unsuccessful MIG claims. As my right hon. Friend said, both the income and capital figures are changing next April. It should be easy to access the information provided by unsuccessful claimants. We have tried to make the process as simple as possible. Introducing other information--we could not do so, because the scheme was not announced--would have put people off. It would have added to the complications of the form that they had to complete.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley): We intend to remove the upper age limit for claims to invalid care allowance. Subject to parliamentary approval, this measure will allow carers aged 65 and older who meet the normal entitlement conditions to be awarded ICA. Carers whose rate of basic state pension is less than the rate of ICA will benefit, as will carers receiving the pensioner minimum income guarantee, who will receive the carer premium.
Ms Perham: I thank the Minister for that answer. Is he aware that those measures are widely welcomed in my constituency, especially those for older carers? On the day that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the uprating of benefits in November, I was addressing the annual meeting of Redbridge Carers Association. It particularly welcomed the extension of ICA for over 65-year-olds. How many people will benefit from this measure and from the eight-week run-on for the bereavement allowance for over 65s?
Mr. Bayley: I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done, in both her constituency and the House, on behalf of carers. Our announcement to extend eligibility to apply for ICA to people over 65 has been warmly welcomed. For instance, the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation wrote:
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley): It is important not to penalise anyone who is seeking work. Disability living allowance is based on a person's care and mobility needs, and is paid irrespective of whether they are working, not working or seeking work.
Mr. George: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Does he accept that many disabled people face, in effect, a precipice of benefit withdrawal as they enter work and come off benefit? That applies not only to the independent living fund but to many other forms of benefit. What action will the Minister and the Department
Mr. Bayley: We are putting in train a number of changes to the benefit system to remove disincentives to work for those people who are disabled, who want to work and who are able to secure a job. For instance, we extended the linking rule in incapacity benefit from eight weeks, when we took office, to 52 weeks. For those who benefit from the disabled person's tax credit, we stretched the linking rule further from eight weeks to two years. We have made changes to the rules of the independent living fund, so that ILF customers who are able to work can keep a greater proportion of their income.
Through the new deal for disabled people, we continue to make it possible for more disabled people who want to work to do so. According to the Government's labour force survey, more than 1 million disabled people are on incapacity benefits and they say that they would like to work. Our policies--the changes to the benefit system and the new deal--are making it possible for more disabled people to achieve their ambition to get a job.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): As the Minister mentioned disincentives, does he accept that they are a factor in the considerations of disabled people who want to return to the labour force? Will he continue to press the matter, with particular reference to the independent living fund? The package that he announced, on its own and unsupported, is by no means adequate to get people back to work at a reasonable level of income, and the perverse disincentive has not been eliminated. What other action does he plan to reduce the elements of disincentive that remain in a system in which the Government pileon further means tests and, by implication, further disincentives to honest employment, when all that those people want is honest employment?
Mr. Bayley: I know that the hon. Gentleman means well, but the very tight means test on the independent living fund was introduced by his party. We relaxed it to enable those ILF customers who work to keep a larger proportion of their earnings. We made that change to provide the sort of incentive to work that the hon. Gentleman suggests ought to be provided. I agree that it ought to be provided. It is just a shame that it was not provided by his party when it was in government.