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House of Commons

Monday 26 April 1993

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Family Credit

1. Mr. John Marshall : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many people are now receiving family credit.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Burt) : At the end of October 1992, 450,000 families were receiving family credit.

Mr. Marshall : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he accept that it is probably now time for another publicity campaign on the merits of family credit? Does he agree that it is much better to help the low paid through family credit than to legislate for their unemployment through a national minimum wage, as the Labour party wishes to do?

Mr. Burt : Yes, I think that my hon. Friend is right on both counts. We take quite a lot of notice of the effect of advertising campaigns and some of those that we have run have been very successful. That is one of the reasons why the numbers have been boosted to their present level of 450,000.

On my hon. Friend's second point, I believe that family credit is a better scheme than the minimum wage. It is better targeted on those who need it most and there is no evidence to suggest that it costs jobs. Indeed, even under the Labour party's scheme as announced before the general election, family credit would still have been necessary with the minimum wage.

Mr. Olner : Does the Minister not realise that people want not low wages but proper wages for proper jobs? Does he not realise that family credit will have to be considerably extended when the Government bring into law the abolition of wages councils, which is a great time bomb ticking away for the low paid?

Mr. Burt : No, I do not accept that at all. There is no evidence to suggest that low wages are connected with family credit, which is available to workers who have a family and is, therefore, better directed. It is not aimed at all wage earners. Nor do I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about wages councils. The amount of money needed for family credit depends on the number of people in the family rather more than it depends on wages.

Mr. Spring : Will my hon. Friend confirm that in order to qualify for family credit the number of hours worked

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per week was recently reduced from 24 to 16? Does he agree that that will have the beneficial effect of spreading the benefit more widely to many more families?

Mr. Burt : Yes, I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The hours were reduced from 24 to 16, which has enabled a large number of extra people to obtain family credit. We estimate that some 60,000 people have now obtained family credit for that reason in the past year or so. That further emphasises our determination to help the low waged with an in-work benefit, because it is far better for people to be in work than not.


2. Mr. John D. Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security at what age retirement pensions are paid to men and women in each of the 12 Community countries.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Miss Ann Widdecombe) : State retirement pension ages are as follows in Denmark, from age 67 for men and women ; in Spain, the Netherlands, Ireland and Luxembourg, from 65 for men and women, as it is also to be in Germany ; in Portugal, from age 65 for men and 62 for women ; and in Greece, from age 65 for men and 60 for women. In France and Belgium, the retirement pension may be paid from age 60 for men and women. In Italy, the ages are to be increased by five years to 65 for men and 60 for women. In the United Kingdom, the state retirement pension is paid from age 65 for men and 60 for women.

Mr. Taylor : Since the doctrine of infallibility has recently been accepted by some, will the Minister assure the House that it does not extend to her Department and that there is an open mind on the issue of pensions? Following the high-level review that took place at the weekend, and in view of her reply confirming that eight of the 12 Community countries now provide pensions at the same age for men and women, when will that be the basis on which pensions are paid to men and women in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Skinner : Where's your hat?

Miss Widdecombe : The hon. Gentleman, from the penitential and sedentary position of his fourth term in opposition, calls out a rather irrelevant remark.

Decisions in respect of state pension age will be announced in due course. No decision has so far been reached, and we have at present no plans whatever to change the basis on which the pension is paid.

Mrs. Angela Knight : But does my hon. Friend agree that as the number of people drawing pensions is likely to increase substantially very soon, while the number of those of working age who support them is likely to decrease, it makes sense to look at the possibility of equalising the pension age at 65? Does she further agree that many women would prefer to work until age 65, as I propose to do, rather than putting increasing financial burdens on their children, as would happen if we kept the retirement age for women at 60?

Miss Widdecombe : My hon. Friend is right about demographic trends. At the moment, there are some 3.4 people of working age for every one pensioner in Britain. Assuming that no changes were made, that ratio would

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have decreased to 2.4 per pensioner by the year 2030. We shall obviously take that into account, as we shall take into account trends elsewhere in Europe and the world and potential costs or savings. Of course, women have different preferences and different plans for their retirement, and some would be happy to work for longer. All that I can say is that, as yet, no decision has been taken on the subject.

Mr. Winnick : Is the Minister aware of the growing concern--which has been increased by what happened at the weekend seminar--that the state retirement pension is no longer safe with the Government? Is it not the case that, to a large extent, what was decided at the seminar was war on the existing welfare state?

Miss Widdecombe : If there is one thing that I find disturbing about the Labour party, it is its willingness to play with the minds and the fears of the vulnerable and elderly. We made a clear statement in our manifesto, and we have made clear statements at the Dispatch Box time after time, that we have no plans--absolutely no plans--to abolish, to freeze or to means-test the pension. We have stood by that. The only plans to means- test the pension are those coming from the Opposition Benches. Not only do Opposition Members want to means-test the pension : they want to do it at the same time as discouraging the only alternative, which is private provision. The hon. Gentleman also has a considerable amount of penance to do for scaring the elderly totally unnecessarily.

Sir Donald Thompson : Will my hon. Friend consider reducing the pension age for men by one year every two or three years over the next 10 or 15 years and at the same time give men a chance to bolster the private part of their pension?

Miss Widdecombe : All options will be taken into account in considering what to do with state pensions. The Government have continually encouraged the provision of pension other than the state pension. As a result of that, 70 per cent. of people now retiring have an addition to their state pension--either from an occupational pension or from savings. That is a proud record to which the Opposition could never aspire and on which, what is more, they pour scorn : they want to keep people dependent on the state and do not want to encourage them to try for security in their retirement.

3. Mr. Corbyn : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what plans he has to link the state retirement pension to average earnings ; and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lilley) : We have no plans to link the basic pension to average earnings.

Mr. Corbyn : Is the Secretary of State aware that in 1980 the Government broke the link between average earnings and the state old-age pension and established instead a link with a rejigged retail prices index, and that that has cost every pensioner more than £17 a week and has taken from pensioners more than £25 billion in the past 13 years? Will the right hon. Gentleman now come clean and stop ripping off pensioners? Can we now return to the system whereby the link was either with the RPI or with average earnings--whichever represented the larger increase--and will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that pensioners in our

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society, who pay for their old-age pension through taxation and national insurance, can be assured of a decent income in retirement and not have to depend on income support or be forced to take out private pension schemes, some of which are very unreliable indeed?

Mr. Lilley : The hon. Gentleman should address his questions to the Opposition Front Bench and not to me. In the first place, the Labour Government broke the link with earnings when they were in power. More recently, the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman on the subject said that even to hold the link between pensions and earnings at its present level would be very costly and would do nothing to tackle the problem of poverty among the elderly. For once, he is quite right : it would cost £8 billion to do what the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) suggests and that would cost every working person in this country nearly £6 per week in increased contributions.

Mr. Congdon : Does my right hon. Friend agree that since many pensioners now retire with generous occupational pensions, it is better to target resources on those in greatest need than to spread them across the board?

Mr. Lilley : That is absolutely right and is, indeed, what we have been doing. My hon. Friend will know that over the past year we have been able to confirm an extra £500 million to poorer pensioners, largely through the increase in the pensioners' premium last October by £2 per week for a single person and £3 for a couple, over and above the increase in inflation. On top of that, pensioners have seen their purchasing power increase this month by an equivalent of a further £2.90 a week on top of inflation because of the extra £750 million that we have pumped into income-related benefits by not requiring anyone on those benefits to make the 20 per cent. contribution to local government taxation.

Dr. Reid : Will the Minister confirm that the figure of £8 billion that he mentioned as the figure necessary to restore the link between pensions and earnings or prices--whichever is the higher--for every pensioner, for 365 days a year, is slightly less than what the Government spent on one day, on black Wednesday, as a result of their own economic folly? Is the Minister not ashamed of the fact that the most vulnerable section of the community--the people who created the wealth that he and his colleagues on the Conservative Benches are now ripping off--have been deprived of £17 a week by the Government? Will he now answer the question put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn)?

Mr. Lilley : The figure that I quoted related directly to the point made by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) and would be the cost of the proposal that he was advocating. It has nothing to do with the cost in relation to 16 September which, of course, would have been infinitely greater had we followed the advice of the Labour party and remained in the exchange rate mechanism.

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4. Mr. Pickles : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what plans he has to carry out a review of the scope for the replacement of all universal benefits by selective benefits.

Mr. Lilley : We are reviewing all aspects of social security expenditure.

Mr. Pickles : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is appropriate for some benefits, such as pensions, to remain universal? Will he confirm that since 1979, spending on pensions now totals about £35 billion? Does he recognise that if we change the way in which pensions are funded, as Opposition Members are advocating, the cost would be so prohibitive as to hasten the day when means tests are placed on pensioners, as the Opposition have also advocated? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that we have no intention of means testing the basic state pension?

Mr. Lilley : I can reassure my hon. Friend that we made a clear pledge at the election that we intend to keep the basic pension as the keystone of our policy for retired people and we have no intention of deviating from that pledge. However, my hon. Friend is quite right. Any Government committed--as were the previous Labour Government and as is the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn)--to uprating pensions in line with earnings would very soon find that they had no money to pump into increased benefits for the least well-off pensioners, as we have done, and they would be forced to means-test pensions as Labour implicitly recognised when it set up the Social Justice Commission and said that it was to examine means-testing all universal benefits.

Mr. Kirkwood : Does the Secretary of State agree that it is inadvisable to hold weekend ministerial reviews entirely in secret as they lead to comment, some of which is wrong and some of which is speculative? Would he be prepared to place in the Library of the House the working documents used at the weekend, if not the ministerial advice? Would he also help to ease some of the confusion and concern that have surrounded the weekend meeting by saying clearly that the purpose of any ministerial review would be to make savings--not savings that would be taken out of the social security budget and returned to the Treasury, but savings that could be redeployed and used within the social security system in other ways?

Mr. Lilley : The Liberal party may try to formulate its policies by inviting the press to sit in on the discussions, but I do not think that that would be a sensible way to proceed. More publicity should be given to some of the Liberal party's policies, not least its clear policy to impose value added tax on heating--either on top of a carbon tax or unilaterally if it cannot get a carbon tax. The Liberal policy document, which is interestingly called, "Costing the Earth"--a fairly apt description of Liberal policy--makes it equally clear that the additional costs of heating for elderly people

"must not be achieved through granting exemptions to particular target groups ; everyone must face the same incentives to use less and cleaner energy."

Mr. Nicholas Winterton : Does my right hon. Friend accept that child benefit is a universal benefit, and perhaps the most popular universal benefit in this country? While

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it may well go to a number of people who are very comfortably off, does he accept that overall it goes to the mother who benefits immensely, as does her child? Even if we were prepared to tax that benefit, therefore, its universality should not be ended.

Mr. Lilley : Again, my hon. Friend will know that there is a pledge in our manifesto--I am glad to know that it is one that he supports--that we would maintain the payment of child benefit normally to the mother and uprate it in line with inflation. Again, we have no intention of reneging on our pledges and I am sure that he will welcome that.

Mr. Dewar : Does the Secretary of State accept that there has been a lot of press briefing about what happened at Chevening at the weekend and that it would be helpful if he said a little about that? Is it true, for example, that a decision has been taken in principle that people on middle incomes and above are to be asked to opt out of the basic retirement pension and, ultimately, from sickness and unemployment benefit? As the Government are committed to increasing national insurance contributions by 1 per cent. next year, is it not true that if the Treasury loses the contributions of people who opt out of the basic state retirement pension but still has the responsibility of paying pensions to those in retirement, that is a recipe for further increased taxation? If those policies are in contemplation--never mind the working papers--will the Secretary of State at least guarantee that he will make an early statement and produce a consultation document so that people know what is in store for them?

Mr. Lilley : We have given no press briefing, as the hon. Member suggests, on what was discussed at Chevening. He underestimates the media's imaginative capacities, as they are able to comment without such briefing, using their imagination. Such comments largely tell us what the people who make them are thinking. If the hon. Member is thinking such thoughts, I congratulate him on his courage and suggest that he should feed them to his Social Justice Commission. In the course of our long-term review, we shall consider all the options that will meet the objectives that I spelt out to the Select Committee on Social Security, one of which is to focus benefits increasingly on those in need. However, we also want to ensure that people have greater control over their resources and greater ability to tailor their provision to their needs, and that is alien to the whole Labour party tradition.


5. Mr. Brandreth : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is the current state pension age in (a) Sweden and (b) the United Kingdom.

Miss Widdecombe : A rise in state pension age in Sweden, to 66 from the current 65 for both men and women, will be phased in rapidly by 1998. State pension age in the United Kingdom is currently 65 for men and 60 for women.

Mr. Brandreth : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Will she confirm that the position in Sweden is typical of that in most European countries? Does she agree that for

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the United Kingdom to fall into line we would be well advised to equalise pension ages in this country over a period of time?

Miss Widdecombe : As I said in reply to an earlier question, many countries in Europe are now following the path of either raising the state pension age or examining their pension system. I cannot say what our final decision will be on this score, but I will, as my hon. Friend suggests, take into account both European and world trends in reaching it.

Mr. Skinner : Will the Minister confirm that about two months ago I sent her a couple of letters from constituents of mine? Both letters were from women who were in work. To the one who had a year left to work, the reply was, "Don't worry--we will not introduce a 65 or 67 retiring age for women". To the one who had four years left to work, the answer was a little more ambiguous. It is fairly clear that it is part of the Government's agenda to raise the retirement age for women to either 65 or 67. That is a scandal at a time when the Government are spending £27 billion to keep 3 million people out of work, and they have just handed back more than £20 billion to the richest 1 per cent. of tax payers. Instead of attacking pensioners, they should be attacking the wealthy in Britain. What does the Minister have against women?

Miss Widdecombe : Unfortunately for the hon. Gentleman, my memory of the two letters in question is good. To the first lady, I said that she could be completely reassured ; to the second lady, I also said that she could be reassured. Therefore, I did not make any difference between the two ladies.

As for what I have against women, the answer is nothing at all : I want to see them well protected and well looked after, which is why I am so happy that more women than ever before are taking advantage of occupational pensions and thus advancing their situation in retirement. If the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) wants to quote letters to his constituents from me, I suggest that he reads them first.

6. Mr. Ian Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what comparative study has been made of the principal factors underlying the setting of the level of pensions in EC countries.

Miss Widdecombe : A number of studies comparing levels of pensions in EC countries have been carried out. One recent comparative exercise based on data provided by Watsons independent actuaries looked at the incomes of pensioners in six EC countries. It is available in the Library.

Mr. Taylor : Is my hon. Friend aware that the United Kingdom spends 8.4 per cent. of gross domestic product on pensions, which is third in the European Community, beaten only by Denmark and France? Given that the cost of living in the United Kingdom compares favourably with those countries, pensioners here do very well. Will my hon. Friend go further and examine closely the trends in the Community? Earnings-related pensions paid by the state do not make sense, given that they penalise those on the lowest earnings. What we need in the Community are portable pensions, occupational pensions and more encouragement to the private sector to help individuals to

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protect themselves, given the burden that will depend heavily on those of working age with the demographic trend and the increase in the number of people over 80.

Miss Widdecombe : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am becoming tired of wholly fallacious comparisons between pensions in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe which take no account of the fact that in some countries the pensions are earnings related and not basic pensions at all and that many citizens in those countries are drawing a pension below the figures quoted.

I am also always amazed that the figures quoted are at exchange rates, rather than taking into account the cost of living. For example, I often hear about the wonderful pensions in Denmark and Sweden, completely ignoring the fact that people have to be 67 and 66 to get them and that the basket of goods costs 40 per cent. more and 55 per cent. more respectively.

Mr. Redmond : Will the Minister have urgent discussions with the President of the Board of Trade in view of the underlying threat to pensions if she allows him to get away with putting his sticky fingers on the pension funds, which would have grave implications for her Department?

Miss Widdecombe : The President of the Board of Trade has his sticky fingers on nothing whatever. There is no proposal that would mean that pensioners in pension funds transferring from the public to the private sector would not have their interests fully taken care of. That has been made clear by a number of Departments involved. Once again, I must say with regret--as I said earlier to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick)--that the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) is scaremongering and the people whom he is frightening are vulnerable.


7. Mr. Trend : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what further action his Department is taking to reduce fraud.

Mr. Lilley : In this financial year, I am introducing financial incentives to encourage local authorities to fight housing benefit and council tax benefit fraud. I am also allocating additional resources to allow the Benefits Agency to deploy more specially trained investigators and to make greater use of new information technology to identify false claims.

Mr. Trend : Does my right hon. Friend agree that every pound lost to fraud means less for those in real need? Does he agree that the Government have a moral commitment to pursue vigorously fraud and abuse, which hurts the very people whom the social security system is designed to help?

Mr. Lilley : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. It is important that we strive as much as possible to prevent fraud. That is why I set a target last year for the Benefits Agency to identify and stop some £500 million of fraud. I am glad to say that provisional figures suggest that we shall have exceeded that target. In the current year, for both the Benefits Agency and local councils handling housing and council tax benefit, we are setting a combined target of identifying and stopping almost £1 billion of fraud. It is no surprise that, as a result, I was able to

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confirm an extra £1 billion for those on the lowest incomes through the income-related benefits. If we do not take tough action on fraud, we cannot ensure that the money is channelled back to the people to whom Parliament intended it to go.

Mr. Frank Field : As one of the Members who have pressurised this lethargic Government to take action against fraud, may I ask the Secretary of State to accept that there are two abuses of the social security system? There are those who claim benefits to which they are not entitled and there is the even greater number of people who do not claim benefits to which they are entitled. Does the Secretary of State give equal time to those who are eligible but do not claim? Will he outline to the House which major new initiatives he has taken to ensure that some of the poorest in our society claim the benefits that are due to them?

Mr. Lilley : I have to acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman takes an even-handed view and recognises the importance of tackling fraud and I pay tribute to him for that. But I agree that we must also ensure that those who are entitled to benefits and are ignorant of their entitlement get to know about them. In the next few days I shall make a further announcement about measures that we are taking, especially on family credit, which is one of the most important benefits in helping people off permanent reliance on benefit and into work. We shall encourage people to claim family credit and improve the advertising so that they do so.

Mr. Streeter : Does my right hon. Friend agree that far too much taxpayers' money is spent not only on those who claim fraudulently, but on supporting people who lead grossly irresponsible lives and do not deserve to be supported by the rest of us? Is his Department also examining that aspect?

Mr. Lilley : I recognise that people feel that benefit has a moral dimension and are reluctant to see some of the payments that we make. But, above all, we have to give priority to children. That sometimes means helping children in family circumstances of which hon. Members may not approve. The rights of the child have to come first, even though we naturally want to ensure that we do nothing to undermine the strength of the family, the right to which is, of course, the greatest right that a child has.


8. Mr. Hain : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he has any plans to alter the regulations covering entitlement to benefits of students and their parents.

Mr. Burt : No. We believe that students should look to the education system, not the social security system, for their maintenance.

Mr. Hain : May I remind the Minister of the case of Miss Kerry Rees of Neath, whose parents are on invalidity benefit and lost more than £33 in child benefit and income support when she turned 19 a few weeks ago? Is the Minister proud of the fact that Kerry has had to abandon her two-year course at Neath college, just three months before she was due to complete it, and sign on the dole because her parents could not afford to maintain her? It is

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disgraceful. It is no good passing the buck to the education authority and saying that it should pay a discretionary award, because the Government have cut West Glamorgan education authority's budget by more than £6 million. Surely the Government should abandon such oppressive regulations and allow many thousands of lower-income students like Kerry to claim benefit and continue in higher and further education.

Mr. Burt : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of this particular case, on which we have corresponded. When I wrote to him I mentioned that two possible sources of funds might have helped his constituent, one being the local authority, which has no limit placed on the discretionary amount that it can spend on a particular award and which could have covered this case from the resources it might have. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman's constituent coul (Fuel)

9. Mr. Welsh : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what representations he has received on the impact on benefit claimants arising from the imposition of VAT on domestic fuel and power ; and if he will make a statement.

11. Mr. O'Hara : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how much he estimates it will cost his Department in the relevant upratings of benefits to take account of the incremental imposition of VAT on domestic fuel.

The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. Nicholas Scott) : We have received a number of representations from a range oorganisations and individuals, including hon. Members. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in his speech that extra help will be given to poorer pensioners and others on low incomes. We will be announcing the precise details and costs of this help in the autumn.

Mr. Welsh : Does the Minister understand the anger felt at the imposition of VAT on domestic fuel bills and on the standing charges for gas and electricity, especially by people in Scotland, where, by definition, the colder climate means higher fuel bills? It has been estimated that the VAT will place an extra financial burden of £133 on families in Scotland. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that such taxation on domestic fuel will hit the poorest in our society, especially pensioners and those receiving social security benefits? Has he demanded that the Chancellor should abolish this measure? If not, why not?

Mr. Scott : My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has explained why he felt it necessary to introduce this measure. It is now common internationally for indirect taxes to be levied on the cost of fuel. The most important thing for the House to bear in mind is that both my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor have undertaken that the poorer people in our society will be protected from the impact of the increases.

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Mr. O'Hara : Is the Minister aware that many pensioners, including those who frequently come to my advice surgeries in despair, receive electricity bills in which the standing charge is the most significant item on the bill? A bill of £24 may be made up, half and half, of the standing charge and the units consumed and it is very common to receive a bill of £36, of which £24 is for the fuel consumed. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the imposition of 17.5 per cent. VAT on such bills represents an increase of between 25 and 35 per cent. in the cost of actual fuel consumed? Those pensioners are frightened to consume that fuel. Can the right hon. Gentleman assure those pensioners that they will be adequately protected by the uprating of benefits that he will announce shortly?

Mr. Scott : The price of fuel has been falling in recent years. The Government have already given substantial amounts of extra help to poorer pensioners and others on low income. As I have already said, the Government have a clear commitment to ensure that those on lower incomes will be protected from the introduction of VAT on fuel.

Mr. Sims : But is my right hon. Friend aware that there is concern about this tax among some of my constituents, who find that income from the modest savings that they have made during their working lives, when added to their pension, brings them just above the income support level? They still find it difficult to make ends meet and their sense of grievance is added to when others in similar circumstances, but who made no such special provision, are entitled to income support and a number of other benefits which flow from that. Is my right hon. Friend really satisfied with the present level at which one becomes eligible for income support and the structure of benefits associated with it?

Mr. Scott : This is not the first time that we have heard about the problem faced by the group that my hon. Friend has identified. One reason why we will consider carefully between now and the autumn the precise form of protection to be introduced is to determine which groups, either on income support or any income-related benefit, should be protected as a result of the introduction of VAT on fuel.

Mr. Bradley : May I press the Minister a little further on the extra compensation that the Government are considering? Will he guarantee today that the extra compensation will not be limited to those on means-tested benefits? He will be aware that many of those on means-tested benefits will not claim such compensation and so will get no extra help with the VAT imposition. Many people on non-means-tested benefits, such as elderly people on retirement pensions, disabled people, people with carers, the unemployed and those on low incomes, will get no extra help with the imposition of VAT unless the compensation scheme extends to non-means- tested benefits. Will the Minister give that guarantee today or, better still, will he urge the Chancellor of the Exchequer to scrap the plans altogether?

Mr. Scott : I say no to both points made by the hon. Gentleman at the end of his remarks. Full details of the extra help to be made available will be given in the autumn, based on the latest information then available to the Government and to the House. We shall announce then a coherent and integrated set of measures rather than a one-off, isolated measure. I reiterate the commitment

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made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the extra help will be given to those who need it most.


Obscene Publications

29. Mr. Nicholas Winterton : To ask the Attorney-General what recent discussions the Crown prosecution service has had with the obscene publications squad of the Metropolitan police on its prosecutions policy in relation to the Obscene Publications Act 1959 and related legislation.

The Attorney-General (Sir Nicholas Lyell) : The obscene publications squad of the Metropolitan police works closely with the Crown prosecution service. They have discussed many specific cases in recent months.

Mr. Winterton : I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for that response. He was one of the 300 Members of Parliament who attended the recent exhibition in the Palace at which the vile and offensive material was displayed for all to see. My right hon. and learned Friend has implied that the Crown prosecution service is unlikely to be successful in prosecuting those who make that material available. Will he agree with me and, I think, with the House that at present our law is wholly inadequate? It is a charter for such offensive material. Will he take steps to amend the law as soon as possible to prevent this vile, offensive and disgraceful material from being made available?

The Attorney-General : I recognise my hon. Friend's frustration in respect of one or two categories of this material, especially computer- created child pornography. However, he will not overlook the fact that, for example, in 1991, the latest year for which I have figures, the Metropolitan police seized no fewer than 19,000 items and brought cases on 363 occasions under the Obscene Publications Act 1959, 40 occasions under the Protection of Children Act 1978 and 53 occasions under the Criminal Justice Act 1988.

Mr. Fraser : The Attorney-General may know that I also went to the exhibition organised by the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton). Although I take a fairly relaxed view about many of these matters, I was shocked by the use of new technology, of satellite broadcasting and of computer design to create a new, high-tech and obnoxious market in exploitation, especially of children and women. Much of that material is in the public domain ; it is not for private consumption. I know that this is not the direct responsibility of the Attorney-General, but I wonder whether his advice to the Home Secretary will be that the law on these matters needs to be brought up to date in accordance with technology. There is clearly a deficiency in the powers to arrest people found in possession of documents and pictures in relation to the distribution of child pornography.

The Attorney-General : I well understand the hon. Gentleman's points and I will refer them to the Home Secretary. The computerised matters with which he dealt are under close scrutiny.

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Information Technology

30. Mr. Congdon : To ask the Attorney-General what contribution has been made by the Crown prosecution service and the Serious Fraud Office through the use of information technology for the better presentation of cases to juries.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Derek Spencer) : Information technology has been used in a number of factually complex fraud cases to speed up the presentation of evidence and to illustrate it in a clearer and more understandable form.

Mr. Congdon : I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that helpful reply. Do the initial findings show that juries have found this information technology useful?

The Solicitor-General : Independent consultants who have been spoken to by the Crown prosecution service confirm that juries have found information technology of great assistance in following the details of cases. It has been used with success in the Barlow Clowes and Eagle Trust cases and it is currently being used in the Nissan prosecution. Its graphics are very good and it is good for showing invoice and payment trails and information of that sort.

Mr. Miller : I am sure that the whole House will welcome any improvements in the Crown prosecution service, given the difficulties that it faces. Can the Minister confirm whether information technology is being used by the CPS more locally to investigate whether there are connections between complaints raised with the service, even though those complaints may seem small--because collectively they may amount to a large complaint about a person or organisation? I am being careful in my choice of words because I am referring to a particular case, but is the Minister aware of such use of information technology ; if not, will he encourage the service to use it?

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