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10. Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): When she last met representatives of the National Association of Pension Funds to discuss the Government's proposals for pensions. [38488]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. John Denham): My right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I have met representatives of the National Association of Pension Funds on a number of occasions since the pensions review was launched last July, most recently at the annual council dinner on11 February.

Mrs. Bottomley: Did the Under-Secretary hear the chairman of the Association of Consulting Actuaries warn recently of the damage inflicted by the Government on industry's willingness to support pension schemes? A year ago, the Government promised to support occupational pension schemes, but the result was a £5 billion raid without consultation. Was that another election pledge being delivered?

Mr. Denham: I should have found it difficult not to hear the comments of the chairman of the Association of Consulting Actuaries, as I sat next to him when he spoke. In my own remarks to that organisation, I made it clear that this country's future ability to pay pensions--in whatever form--depends critically on our developing sound economic policies, avoiding boom and bust and achieving the long-term investment needed to create wealth.

The measures taken in last July's Budget, including the cut in corporation tax, and our commitment to sound fiscal policies will produce the economic circumstances in which pensioners can be paid in future.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): The Minister for Welfare Reform told me in the Select Committee last week that the state retirement pension would remain universal for the lifetime of this Parliament. I am sure that the Under-Secretary will want to avoid any doubt on that point, which can perhaps be cleared up once and for all: will he confirm that the Government will not, in any circumstances, means-test the basic state retirement pension?

Mr. Denham: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has been listening to earlier exchanges. Let me make it clear that we will honour the manifesto on which we were elected, as we have done on uprating and maintenance of the basic state pension as the foundation for retirement and on the many other measures that we have taken to help pensioners.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Did the National Association of Pension Funds agree that the best-value pensions in this country are paid by the state earnings-related pension scheme? Did it agree that the previous Government got away with damaging the value of SERPS because that was not appreciated by the general population and that our best way forward is to ensure that SERPS is well understood--as is the pensions points scheme in France--to pay index-linked pensions of superb value? Would the association also agree that the

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worst way to go forward with stakeholder pensions would be to entrust them to those who wickedly mis-sold personal pensions to millions of people?

Mr. Denham: In fairness, the National Association of Pension Funds would be more anxious to stress that the majority of those who enjoy security in retirement have a good second pension from an occupational scheme. However, I agree that one of the critical challenges for the pensions review is to ensure that each individual has the fullest possible understanding of his or her pension provision and of the available alternatives. The pensions education working group established by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in September is considering that and we hope to receive its conclusions shortly.

Winter Fuel Payments

12. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): How many people have not received their winter fuel payments. [38490]

20. Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): What steps her Department has taken to help pensioners with their fuel bills since 1 May 1997. [38499]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. John Denham): All payments should now have been sent to eligible pensioners' homes or bank accounts, or issued to post offices for collection. An estimated 100,000 girocheques have not been collected from post offices. That may be for a variety of reasons, including death, hospitalisation and holidays, but the Benefits Agency will follow up each case to make every effort to ensure that the proper entitlement is received. We have committed a total of £400 million for last winter and the next to make winter fuel payments to help eligible pensioners with their fuel bills. This is the first time that any Government have provided automatic help to more than 7 million pensioner households with fuel bills to pay.

Mr. Swayne: The £850,000 television advertisement gave pensioners the impression that the cheques would drop through their letter-boxes. When they discovered that that was not the case and that they had to collect them, many people discovered that they could not cash them because they were already out of date. Why were the cheques issued with a four-week time limit on them?

Mr. Denham: For obvious security reasons, girocheques for Benefits Agency payments are normally time-limited. The advertising scheme was necessary to ensure that pensioners had the confidence to keep their heating on, and not be cold in the winter, because help was going to arrive.

Mr. Bradshaw: Will my hon. Friend confirm that the amount spent by the Government on winter fuel payments is larger than we would have spent had we restored the link with wages so scandalously abandoned by the Conservative party, with the added effect that the help has gone to those who need it most? Given that, will my hon. Friend consider extending the scheme beyond next year?

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the scale of the support that the Government have given

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to pensioners. In doing that, we have given priority to the poorest pensioners, as we promised in our manifesto. We made a commitment to the operation of winter fuel payments last winter and next winter. A variety of initiatives is under way across government, examining, for example, utility regulation and energy conservation. We will take stock as the reviews come to conclusions on the best way to ensure that pensioners can heat their homes in winter.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): Given that the Under-Secretary mentioned the advertising campaign, will he say why the contract for it was awarded, without going out to competitive tender, to an agency that just happened to have a close link to the Labour party?

Mr. Denham: The reason is that that agency was extensively used by the Conservative party in government. Since 1989, the agency has had a standing contract--I forget the technical term--with the Department, properly agreed under EC procurement regulations. We merely continued to use the same agency that the Conservative party used when it was in government.

Welfare Reform

13. Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): What representations she has received on the Green Paper on welfare reform since 26 March. [38491]

15. Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): What representations she has received from the Churches about the results of the Government's review of the social security benefits system. [38494]

The Minister for Welfare Reform (Mr. Frank Field): More than 100.

Mr. Boswell: I thank the Minister for Welfare Reform for that reply. As the Government's mood music accompanying their papers has suggested that those currently in receipt of benefits will not lose out, does it not follow that any process of welfare reform risks increasing the costs of an already expensive system? Has the Minister told the Chancellor or is the mood music unsustainable?

Mr. Field: At the end of last week, I wrote to all hon. Members to ask them to take the ideas of the Green Paper to their constituencies to consult party activists and other stakeholders in their areas. I look forward to receiving the hon. Gentleman's replies.

Mr. Mackinlay: Does the Minister recall in the correspondence that all candidates got in the general election the report of the Churches' inquiry into unemployment and the future of work? Will he take on board in the welfare review the strong message contained in that document that, although the right to work is inalienable--a right neglected by the previous Government--implicit in that is quality of work? People should have a right to work appropriate to their aspirations, skills and needs. That must be the objective of the Government. Will the Minister be mindful that people

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should have the right to safeguard and look after their families? There should not be a presumption that people must work while neglecting their other obligations.

Mr. Field: The Government believe that those who can work should work. We also believe that we have a duty to help people to achieve that objective. The Chancellor made it plain in his Budget that those who work would be better off in work. Although it is desirable that people find work that fulfils their talents to the full, their primary duty is to earn a wage to look after themselves and their families.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): I ask my right hon. Friend to consider the response from some of my constituents in respect of reform of the welfare state. First, it is coming through loud and clear that both providers and users believe that reform is well and truly overdue; but, secondly, they are explicitly asking for an assurance that benefits staff will not only effectively administer reforms when those are in place, but do so with compassion.

Mr. Field: I was in my hon. Friend's constituency on Saturday. I was able to give her that assurance then and I give it to the House now.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): Does the Minister agree that one of the main objectives of the Government's welfare reforms ought to be to encourage more people to save more money for their old age? He has asked what our constituents think about his proposals and I can tell him that in Bromsgrove one of the major concerns among hard-working decent people who have saved hard for their old age is that they see others who are similarly elderly, but who spent their money during their working lives and now receive considerable benefits from the state to which those who did save are not entitled. They are angry about that and they would like to know what the Government's proposals are for reform in that respect.

Mr. Field: People saving adequately is one of our objectives in welfare reform. I very much agree with the second part of the hon. Lady's question.

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