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House of Commons

Monday 18 November 1991

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Lone Parents (Earnings Disregard)

1. Mrs. Gorman : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he has any plans to increase the amount of earnings disregard before benefits for lone parents are affected.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Michael Jack) : We have no plans at present to change the earnings disregard in income support, housing benefit or community charge benefit. However, in family credit, the threshold at which earnings start to affect the maximum credit for lone parents will be increased at next April's uprating from £62.25 to £66.60.

Mrs. Gorman : I thank my hon. Friend for that encouraging news. As he will know, those in work who earn more than £15 a week lose £1 for every £1 that they earn. That discourages people from working. Almost 1 million lone parents are now managing on benefit. Only 10 per cent. work, and the number is falling. Will my hon. Friend consider allowing working women in such circumstances a greater disregard? Will he at least

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allow them the cost of paying childminders? I am sure that he agrees that we should not dock the benefit of deserving mums.

Mr. Jack : I thank my hon. Friend for advancing, in her characteristic way, the case of women who wish to return to the labour market.

The Government have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend has said. As she will know, from next April a £15 maintenance disregard will, for the first time, be applied to family credit. We shall also reduce the number of hours required for people to qualify for that benefit. Given those two improvements--together with child benefit, one-parent benefit and housing benefit--many women in my hon. Friend's constituency will find that they have enough financial room for manoeuvre, so that they can both go out to work and meet their childcare costs.

Mr. Kirkwood : The Minister will recognise that lone parents are being given some useful assistance under the "children come first" proposals, in the form of a reduction from 24 to 16 hours in the full-time working week. Is he aware that many people who work part time, for less than 24 hours a week, and who can currently claim income support, will lose out substantially in terms of mortgage interest relief? Have the Government considered that and, if so, what steps is the Minister taking to mitigate the losses involved?

Mr. Jack : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking that question. The Government have carefully considered the matter, and transitional arrangements will be made to safeguard those who are now receiving income support and would like to move to family credit, but may be worried for precisely the reasons that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.


2. Mr. Andrew Hargreaves : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many low-income pensioners are expected to gain from the measures he announced in his uprating statement.

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The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton) : The proposed uprating of income support by a full 7 per cent. from next April will give increases substantially above the current level of inflation to around 3.5 million low-income pensioners where the claimant or partner is aged 60 or over.

Mr. Hargreaves : I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Does he accept that many Conservative Members are anxious that any future measures should be directed specifically towards those receiving small pensions or basic pensions but no works or professional pensions? How much danger would be posed to such pensions by some of Labour's high-inflation, high-spending policies?

Mr. Newton : It goes without saying that those on retirement incomes were among the principal sufferers under the taxation and inflation rates of the late 1970s.

It is precisely to direct extra resources to the pensioners, about whom my right hon. Friend is rightly concerned, that we have increased income support premiums for three successive years, providing more than £300 million extra in real terms. I think that we are succeeding in that aim.

Mr. Madden : Does the Secretary of State accept that the miserly 4.1 per cent. given to those on state pensions has been met with a resounding raspberry? Does he refuse, even now, to double the Christmas bonus to £20, to give a little Christmas cheer to hard-up pensioners? While he is at it, will he adopt Labour's policy and top up next year's pension increase by £5 for single pensioners and £8 for couples? That, surely, is the least that the right hon. Gentleman could do to inject some justice and fairness into the lives of our pensioners.

Mr. Newton : I make just two points. First, if the hon. Gentleman considers what has happened over the past two years, to the basic retirement pension, quite apart from income support premiums, he will find that they have risen by 15 per cent. That is a very substantial increase. Secondly, I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about the Christmas bonus, but many other people would think that if the relevant sums of money were available--and they would be quite substantial--they should be directed to the less well-off pensioners.

Mrs. Roe : My right hon. Friend knows that Opposition parties constantly carp about the level of pensions in Britain. Will he confirm that many aspects of social security systems in other countries compare unfavourably with ours? For example, no other European Community country pays pensions in their own right to married women with no contribution record.

Mr. Newton : It is certainly the case that in much of what is said about pension comparisons with Europe, areas that would lead to a substantial loss among some British pensioners, including those to whom my hon. Friend referred, are often overlooked. Another fact that is also overlooked is that in most other European countries, people must make contributions, for example to health care, which do not arise here.

Mr. Allen : The Secretary of State is aware that had the Government not broken the link between the rise in pensions and the rise in earnings, the single pensioner would be receiving £14 more a week and a couple £24 more a week. That means that more and more elderly people are being forced down to income support or poverty line

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levels. The Secretary of State's last uprating statement means that another 400,000 pensioners are now eligible for income support. That in itself is an indictment of the Government. Will he ensure that at that poverty level, those additional 400,000 pensioners are informed of their rights to claim income support so that they can at the very least receive what little is due to them under this Government?

Mr. Newton : I have to say that I find something quite extraordinary in the spectacle of an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman apparently complaining that we are to make a potential 400,000 pensioners better off. I hope that he will acknowledge that. With regard to his latter point, I know that he has sought, and has rightly been provided by the Department, a copy of the circular that we have sent to local authorities precisely to enlist their assistance to ensure that pensioners who will gain from the proposals receive those gains.

Cold Weather Payments

3. Mr. Sayeed : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what measures he has taken to improve the working of the cold weather payments scheme.

The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. Nicholas Scott) : The cold weather payments scheme has been considerably improved for the coming winter. Payments of £6 for every period of cold weather will be paid automatically to eligible people as soon as a seven-day period of exceptionally cold weather is forecast by the Met Office or actually occurs. The capital rule has also been abolished, making approximately 400,000 more people eligible for payments. In addition, some improvements have been made to weather station linkages.

Mr. Sayeed : I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. He knows that I have often thought that the exceptional needs payment scheme was complex, slow and did not often reach those most in need. Is the new system speedy? Will it reach those who are entitled to it and is it far less complex than the old system?

Mr. Scott : I would put particular emphasis on two factors. The first is the ability of the Met Office to forecast cold weather in advance with some accuracy so that payments can be made in advance rather than in arrears. Secondly, people will be paid automatically without having to fill in a claim form or other kind of document.

Dr. Godman : I am not going to whinge that the weather in Scotland is always colder than in England. However, I plead with the Minister to examine the local system on the Clyde. The weather station at Glasgow airport is too far from the homes of many of my constituents and their homes are also several hundred feet above sea level. Will he re-examine the system and the way in which it affects people on the lower Clyde?

Mr. Scott : As the hon. Gentleman knows, in Scotland we made a number of changes to the linkages of weather stations with local areas. If he wants me to reconsider the changes, I shall, of course, do so. However, he will understand that in such matters I rely heavily upon the professionals at the Meteorological Office for advice.

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Mr. David Nicholson : Is my right hon. Friend aware that there has already been snow in the north, the midlands, and even on Exmoor in my constituency? Is my right hon. Friend also aware that there is concern about the efficiency of the cold weather payments system? Will he confirm, therefore, that the present system is greatly superior to what existed under the previous Labour Government, whose supporters make such hypocritical remarks about their concern for old people?

Mr. Scott : I reiterate the point that I made to the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman). On the advice of the Meteorological Office, I further fine-tuned the system, but I am prepared to consider individual cases again, if necessary.

Mr. Bradley : The cold weather payment scheme is still wholly inadequate, with thousands of pensioners whose incomes are just above the income support level receiving no extra help with their fuel charges. As fuel costs are racing ahead of inflation, will the Minister enter into immediate discussions with the Secretary of State for Energy and the fuel industry to examine the standing charge, which is iniquitous and which adversely affects low-income families, and pensioners in particular?

Mr. Scott : I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box and to his newly appointed position. I look forward to doing battle with him in the coming weeks and months. I trust that, after the next election, he will remain a Front-Bench spokesman for the Opposition. The present scheme has, in recent years, been made substantially more generous than the previous one. The actions of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when he was responsible for such matters, together with our recent announcement, have made arrangements for the coming winter much more generous. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue his last point, he should do so with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy.

Homeless Families (Diet)

5. Mr. Steen : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what account was taken in the review of the arrangements for income support of homeless families of the need of children of homeless families in bed- and-breakfast accommodation to have a balanced diet ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Scott : Since April 1989, people in board-and-lodging accommodation have been treated in the same way as most other recipients of income support. They receive housing benefit to cover the cost of their accommodation and the standard income support personal allowances and premiums to meet their day-to-day living expenses.

Mr. Steen : I welcome the Government's initiative to help the homeless, and we are grateful for what the Department of the Environment has done. Is my right hon. Friend aware that many bed-and-breakfast families are living below the level of subsistence and that parents go without so that children can eat? Does he agree that, as we approach the Christmas season, it would be appropriate to have a homeless children's Christmas bonus, perhaps of £10 a week, and then longer-term arrangements through

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supplement for income support, so that we can guarantee that every child in bed-and-breakfast accommodation can have a hot meal every day?

Mr. Scott : My hon. Friend will recognise that, in introducing the concept of premiums into income support, we have made it possible to concentrate help on those who most need it, and not least families with young children. They, of course, will get the appropriate premiums, whatever accommodation they are in. I should be very reluctant to go back to anything like the old system, which gave a perverse incentive for landlords to provide board and lodging rather than other accommodation.

Mr. Wigley : Does the Minister accept that board and lodging is a second-best provision for those families? Is he satisfied that the new system encourages local authorities to provide houses--rented accommodation --for those people and that the numbers that are dependent on board and lodging are decreasing?

Mr. Scott : As I said, that is a matter for Environment Ministers. I, too, welcome the fact that we are trying to move away from a system that does not benefit families, local chargepayers, or anybody else. We need as little as possible of the concept of board and lodging and bed and breakfast.

Mr. Paice : Is not every child whose parents are on income support entitled to a free school meal? Is my right hon. Friend aware of the immense burden that is being placed on education authorities in the current year because of the increase in the numbers entitled to free school meals? We recognise why that is, and it is a perfectly reasonable requirement that they should be given that free school meal, but it is producing a rather sudden burden for education authorities which they are finding difficult to accommodate at present.

Mr. Scott : I take my hon. Friend's point, but I must say to him that it is not a matter for me.

Mr. O'Hara : May we have an assurance that the Minister takes full account of the particular needs of children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, among whom there is a high incidence of low birth weight, weight loss, malnourishment and exposure to infectious diseases which is associated with the inadequate cooking and food storage facilities in such accommodation? Commonly, families are excluded during the daytime from such facilities as there are. As a result, such families depend on convenience foods which are more expensive than other foods, and have to purchase food in small quantities which makes it even more expensive. Is the Minister satisfied that the particular needs of those children are met by present arrangements?

Mr. Scott : I accept much of what the hon. Gentleman said. That is one of the reasons why the Government as a whole and especially my colleagues in the Department of the Environment wish to minimise the use of that type of accommodation.

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Local Offices (Strathclyde)

6. Dr. Godman : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will state the number of those employed in local Department of Social Security offices in (a) Strathclyde and (b) Greenock and Port Glasgow in each of the past three years.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Miss Ann Widdecombe) : The number of staff employed in local Benefits Agency offices in Strathclyde at 1 April 1989 was 3,774, at 1 April 1990, 3,661 and at 1 April 1991, 3,267. Of those, 204 were employed in Greenock and Port Glasgow in April 1989, 220 in April 1990 and 184 in April 1991.

Dr. Godman : Do not those inadequate staffing levels explain why many of my constituents have to wait so long for their applications for disability benefit, severe disability premium and industrial injury benefit? Why is that? Only this morning I received a letter from a lady in Port Glasgow which states that her husband made his claim in relation to the heat cataract from which he suffers in September 1989. His appeal, which he won, was heard on 29 September this year. Yet he has heard nothing from the local Benefits Agency. Is that what we can expect from the Benefits Agency? Will the Minister consider employing more people in Port Glasgow and Greenock, especially in respect of such claims and those which have been made vis-a-vis regulation 72?

Miss Widdecombe : Despite the hon. Gentleman's claim of poor staffing, Greenock and Port Glasgow are ahead on most of the national and area targets for the year. The hon. Member will understand that there was a take-up campaign for disablement benefits directed particularly at the dockyards and shipbuilding. The campaign resulted in 1,400 claims being received in Greenock and Port Glasgow. As a result, 1,367 claims were removed to Stranraer, which had the experienced staff and surplus capacity to deal with the claims. Only 86 claims were outstanding because of the category into which the vast majority fell. Four of those are awaiting medical boards, two are awaiting a decision and 80 have been submitted for an appeal tribunal hearing. If the hon. Gentleman's office is ahead of national and area targets and if it can transfer claims to an office which will deal with them at that rate, the overall picture seems rather better than the hon. Gentleman portrays.

Social Security Appeals

7. Mr. Knox : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security whether he intends to introduce measures to reduce the time taken to determine appeals against the disallowance of social security benefits.

Mr. Newton : I understand from the chief executive of the Benefits Agency that several initiatives are currently being proposed or piloted in conjunction with the Independent Tribunal Service to reduce the time taken to determine appeals.

Mr. Knox : Does my right hon. Friend agree that too many appeals take too long to determine and that causes a great deal of anxiety to applicants? Does he agree that something drastic needs to be done about that?

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Mr. Newton : I do not quite go along with the way in which my hon. Friend presents the position. I accept that we all want to see an improvement in the speed of determining appeals. Both the Benefits Agency and, indeed, Judge Holden, as president of the Independent Tribunal Service are devoting a great deal of time and attention to the matter at present. There has been an interesting pilot scheme to speed up submissions in family credit cases. It looks as if the scheme will provide a model to speed up other appeal processes. I accept my hon. Friend's underlying anxiety. We shall certainly continue to do everything that we can to improve the position.

Mr. Meacher : Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that 16 to 17-year- olds are the biggest group who are disallowed benefit, and that latest estimates suggest that 65,000 of them have no job, no training, no further education and no benefit? Is he aware of a recent survey which found that 21 per cent. admitted that they could support themselves only by stealing, 6 per cent. only by begging and 2 per cent. only by selling drugs, and that many were starving and had not eaten for several days? Is not the right hon. Gentleman ashamed of the hypocrisy of the Government talking about the citizens charter while depriving tens of thousands of their citizens of the basic essentials of life?

Mr. Newton : I suppose that I could say that that question has nothing to do with the original question. Whether or not it has, it is a characteristically overheated piece of Oldham hype talk. We have made persistent and, in my view, successful attempts to improve the operation of that part of the benefit system. That, and the severe hardship provision-- of which he is well aware, but did not even mention--are working well.


8. Mr. John Browne : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is the total value of extra help, including measures in the 1991 uprating statement, which has been directed to less-well-off pensioners since 1989.

Mr. Newton : The proposed additions to the income support higher pensioner premium from next April will increase social security expenditure by £60 million. That means that the total cost of help for pensioners on low incomes, over and above that resulting from normal upratings since 1989 will amount to about one third of a billion pounds.

Mr. Browne : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the proportion of pensioners who claim income support fell significantly over the 10 years beginning 1979? Will he please tell the House what percentage rise the lowest 20 per cent. are receiving in real terms?

Mr. Newton : A study of the incomes of the least-well-off pensioners will show that there has been an increase of about 15 per cent. in the standard of living of the lowest quintile. I hope that that is the sort of information that my hon. Friend wants. Pensioners' living standards have been rising faster than those of the population as a whole. That reflects not only social security policies, including those touched on in the original question, but the greatly improved income from savings and occupational pensions, which have been such a feature of the past 10 years.

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Mr. O'Brien : Will the Secretary of State consider reinstating the disregard for retired mineworkers and their widows? They have lost income through the concessionary fuel allowance and, therefore, in many instances are being driven into the lowest benefit possible--income support. If the allowance for fuel were reinstated, it would lift their benefits and standard of living. Would he give that serious consideration?

Mr. Newton : The hon. Gentleman, with his experience, will know that we went to considerable trouble earlier this year to try to ensure that the changes being made by British Coal did not have adverse effects on pensioners. I am sure that the right approach overall is the one that we have adopted--that is, to put additional resources into income support premiums to help low-income pensioners regardless of in which industry they may have worked.

Care Homes

9. Dame Peggy Fenner : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many people are expected to benefit from the increased funding from residential care and nursing home income support limits announced in October 1991.

Miss Widdecombe : The increased income support limits are expected to help about 265,000 people.

Dame Peggy Fenner : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, which I know will be of benefit to quite a large number of my constituents and also a consolation to those in residential care and nursing homes, who were becoming concerned. Does she agree that that again gives an example of extra help to the most vulnerable among our older population--those who need residential care and nursing?

Miss Widdecombe : My hon. Friend is right. She may be interested to know that whereas those benefits cost £10 million when the Conservative Government came to power in 1979, we are now paying about £1.6 billion, which is a sign of our commitment to help the poor pensioner.

Mr. Meacher : The Secretary of State has made great play of his proposed increased funding for residential homes to £175 a place next April. Is he aware that that level of income support is already grossly inadequate for homes in London and the south-east? According to a survey by the Association of Directors of Social Services only a month ago, the proposed level of income support is already £70 a week short of the actual charges being made today in Watford, £80 short in Edgware and £95 short in Edmonton. Since another survey has shown that as a result of those shortfalls elderly relatives have been evicted from private homes in more than one in four social service department areas, will the Minister now have the grace to recognise that the privatisation of old people's homes has been an extremely expensive error, of which many elderly, frail residents have been the chief victims?

Miss Widdecombe : As usual, the hon. Gentleman has got the whole thing wrong. As ever, he is confusing costs with charges. He is also ignoring both the survey conducted by this Department which showed clearly that many homes manage and the fact that when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State addressed the National Care

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Homes Association he was given a standing ovation, so they cannot be too discontent. Evidence of evictions is negligible. The hon. Gentleman completely overlooks, conveniently, the responsibilities that local authorities have even now towards those who require care and cannot afford it.


10. Mr. Gerald Bowden : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is the average income of a single pensioner and pensioner couple on income support ; and what is the total weekly value of their income from all benefits.

Mr. Newton : The average total weekly income of pensioners on income support excluding housing benefit is, for a single person, £56.70, of which £56.20 is benefit income ; and for a couple £91.20, £90.30 of which is made up of benefit.

Mr. Bowden : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the old-fashioned Labour party view that all pensioners have low incomes is now completely outdated? Since so many pensioners in retirement own their own houses and have good occupational pensions, investments, savings and interest-bearing shares, is not it crazy to give an across-the-board uprating? Is not it better to target resources on those who need them most?

Mr. Newton : My hon. Friend is entirely right to point to the rising number of pensioners who have significant sources of income other than the state retirement pension. That has emerged several times in today's Question Time. I agree that in making extra real resources available, as we have been doing, it is right to steer them towards those who do not have those extra incomes and are therefore most in need.

Mr. Tony Banks : I do not know where all these rich pensioners are, but they certainly do not live in my constituency. Is not it outrageous that any Tory Member should suggest that £56 a week for a single pensioner and £91 a week for a pensioner couple is in any way adequate? Those are miserly sums. When one considers the sums available to pensioners in other European countries, the Secretary of State should be ashamed of himself. I am ashamed that so many pensioners have to live on the sort of money that Tory Members will spend on dinner tonight.

Mr. Newton : Before the hon. Gentleman gets too overheated, let me make two simple points. First, the particular part of London that he represents may have an above-average proportion of less well-off pensioners. That is another way of saying that he has a population that will have benefited disproportionately from the increases that we have steered towards less well-off pensioners. Secondly, as I emphasised in my answer, these figures exclude housing benefit. To get the real comparison of what is being paid to many of those pensioners each week, we need to add the 100 per cent. support with the rent which they also get.

Child Benefit

11. Sir Peter Blaker : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many children will benefit from the October uprating of child benefit.

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Mr. Jack : Child benefit is paid for about 12.3 million children. My right hon. Friend may be interested to know that 1.5 million of them are in the north-west and 300,000 in Lancashire. Every one of them will gain from the October increases.

Sir Peter Blaker : Will my hon. Friend confirm that, by the time of the increase next April, child benefit will have increased no fewer than three times in the space of 12 months? Will he also transmit to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State my congratulations on his decision to locate 550 extra jobs in the Blackpool, Fylde and Preston area? That is extremely welcome and those jobs will be well performed.

Mr. Jack : I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the tenacity with which he has put the case for his constituents regarding the location of jobs in our constituencies. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State noted my hon. Friend's remarks. The three upratings have cost £1 billion and our record is in stark contrast to that of the Labour Government, who cut benefits to families with children by 7 per cent. in real terms.

Mr. Eastham : The Minister and the Government may take all the glory for the recent increases, but if things are so good, why did the Government refuse for several years to uprate child benefit when they knew that the same needs as now existed?

Mr. Jack : The hon. Gentleman may not have noticed that since the social security system changed in the 1987-88 financial year we have managed to increase in real terms the benefits up to April 1992--in addition to all the other expenditure--for low-income families by £600 million. We must balance how we use our resources and, by doing so, we have been able to help such families.

Disabled People

14. Sir John Hunt : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what measures he is taking to ensure that disabled people receive benefits to which they are entitled.

Mr. Scott : We are planning a wide range of activities to publicise the introduction in April next year of disability living allowance and disability working allowance and we shall be involving disabled people and their organisations in the publicity campaign to ensure effective take-up of these and other benefits for disabled people.

Sir John Hunt : Should not my right hon. Friend's welcome announcement lead to a further significant take-up of disability benefits? The mobility allowance has increased sevenfold since 1979 and during the same time there has been a substantial increase in disability benefits. All those increases demonstrate the Government's continuing concern for the needs of the disabled.

Mr. Scott : The increases in the coverage of attendance allowance, mobility allowance, invalid care allowance and other benefits for disabled people during the term of the Government have been remarkable. Sometimes the Opposition appear to criticise us for that, but our take-up campaigns have been successful. However, we are learning new techniques all the time and they will be applied to disability working allowance and disability living allowance.

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Attendance Allowance

15. Mr. Skinner : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security whether he will introduce changes to speed up the payment of attendance allowance ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Scott : I am pleased to announce that from April next year we are introducing a fundamentally different claims and adjudication system for disability living allowance and attendance allowance for people over 65 which will significantly improve the time taken to deal with claims to those benefits.

Mr. Skinner : The Minister is referring to the fact that the Government are going to modify the sixth-month waiting allowance that applies to people who get payments such as the attendance allowance. However, some cancer victims do not qualify, because, unfortunately, they have passed on. From what I can gather, the Government are refusing to pay retrospectively all those who claim attendance allowance in the proper manner, irrespective of their illness. In April will the Minister ensure that no claimant for attendance allowance and all the other benefits loses out retrospectively? It is not good enough for the Government to say that they will improve the benefits for some exceptional cases, but not for all. So get rid of the six-month allowance for everyone.

Mr. Scott : The DLA will subsume attendance allowance and mobility allowance. This new benefit will substantially lower the threshold that people have to meet. For the care component of the new benefit the qualifying period will be reduced from six months to three months. Those on existing benefits will automatically transfer to the new benefits. The hon. Gentleman referred to terminally ill people. We have removed the qualifying period--

Mr. Skinner : For some of them.

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