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Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman is describing the Foreign Secretary's views in the mid-1980s as lunatic beyond words.

Mr. George: The Foreign Secretary is exceedingly competent. Like the Labour party, he has adapted over the years, but, even when he was anti-nuclear weapons, he was unequivocally pro-NATO. Many people on the same side of the Labour party as me in the early 1980s thought that money spent on Trident could be better spent on enhancing our conventional capability.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. George: No, I shall not give way.

The policy is right now. It is not that we have been converted to being pro-defence. Conservative Members should invest in my other study, "The British Labour Party and Defence".

Mr. Menzies Campbell: How much?

Mr. George: It is much cheaper. If Conservative Members invested in it, they would see that all that we are doing is returning to our roots of being very pro-defence. If I were in a provocative mood, I would invite them to read our parliamentary debates in 1940 to find which parties favoured a strong effort against Nazi Germany. It was the Liberals and the Labour party. I shall not make that point.

I do not feel guilty about the NATO of the past or of the future. I believe that, in enhancing our security, it will enhance not only the security of the three countries that will join it formally next year but that of people in the countries that have not yet had their requests for membership agreed. It is certainly enhancing the security of people living in the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, and, even more certainly, Bosnia. This is an alliance for the future. The day may come when it can wither away, but I suspect that it will not be in the lifetime of any hon. Member in the Chamber at the moment.

Having spoken at excessive length, for which I apologise, I urge all hon. Members to endorse the recommendations of the Government, of all NATO Governments and of the countries that are desperate to join, backed, in most cases, by their public opinion. Above all, I urge hon. Members to accept the

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recommendations of the Defence Committee by saying a resounding yes to enlarging the alliance to include the three additional members.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Some of us have waited for more than a year for this debate. It is intolerable not only that it should be held on a Friday when most Members have gone to their constituencies but that it should be interrupted by a Government statement that will interfere with an important debate. We protest in the strongest terms.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: It is not a matter for the Chair how the business of the House is arranged. In view of the tightness of time, making such points only detracts from the time available. Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith.

10.57 am

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden): I did not realise that I deserved this honour, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thought that you had recognised me for another reason. I shall take advantage of the minute or two left before the statement that the Government feel it necessary to make today. It could have waited.

The North Atlantic treaty would not have been signed had it not been for the Soviet threat but NATO has never been regarded by those of us who have studied it as a purely military alliance. One has only to examine the treaty preamble, which clearly articulates support for

I make that point because it explains why, with the end of the cold war and with no imminent Soviet threat, NATO was not disbanded.

My view is that, had NATO not responded to the challenge of building a new security architecture for Europe following the end of the cold war, the people of western Europe would have said, "What is the purpose of this military alliance? The cold war has ended. Russian communism is dead and buried and the Soviet threat has disappeared." The answer to the question "Why not disband it?" that was posed in people's minds was based on the statement made in 1967, when the Harmel doctrine, as it was called, was adopted. It made it clear that NATO strategy was to be based on a twin-tracked policy of maintaining adequate defence while seeking a relaxation of tensions between east and west Europe.

In short, NATO was not just a military alliance; it was and continues to be a political alliance--

It being Eleven o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 11 (Friday sittings).

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11 am

The Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women (Ms Harriet Harman): With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

The Government are modernising the welfare state to meet the changing needs of the 21st century. We inherited a system that was failing on all counts. It was failing to tackle poverty, despite spending more. It was failing to help people work, and was writing them off to benefit dependency.

Reform is necessary--work for those who can work and security for those who cannot. We have already set about the task. We have established the new deals--with the biggest ever investment in opportunities. We are not only helping the young and long-term unemployed, but for the first time helping those whose aspirations had not previously been recognised, whose benefit dependency had simply not been addressed--lone parents and people with disabilities and health problems. We are overhauling the child support system, setting up a comprehensive counter-fraud strategy and raising child benefit with extra help for the poorest families.

We are committed to fundamental reform of incapacity benefit for new claimants. We aim to spend less on incapacity benefit, and to provide more help for severely disabled people with the greatest needs and more help for disabled people to return to work. We will improve gateways into disability benefits, and we have already begun discussions with disability organisations about that.

Helping people into work helps them to be better off than they can be on benefits, but it will also help them to provide more for themselves in their retirement. Later this year, we will publish a Green Paper setting out our long-term strategic proposals for pensions. Now we are starting pensions reform for today's pensioners.

This House rightly places great emphasis on the concerns of older people--people who have worked hard all their lives either out at work or bringing up a family; the generation who fought in the war. They are entitled to security in their retirement. They deserve dignity in their retirement.

There has been much focus on the basic state pension, and that is right. It must remain the foundation of income in retirement. We will uprate it at least in line with prices, but we know that pensioners feel that their concerns were not central to the previous Government, and they want action now.

Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health announced to the House the abolition of charges for eye tests for all pensioners. On Monday, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will announce new concessionary travel for all pensioners. Today I can announce to the House, as part of the comprehensive spending review, extra help with winter fuel payments for all pensioners.

We have already made a winter fuel payment of £20 to all pensioner households and announced our intention to do so again this winter. As a result of cutting VAT on fuel, our winter fuel payments and other changes, average pensioner fuel bills are as much as £100 lower this year. As part of the comprehensive spending review, we have

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allocated a further £0.5 billion to make those winter fuel payments a permanent feature of all pensioners' income. All pensioners will know that, in addition to the help with their fuel bills from our cut in value added tax to 5 per cent., they will get a winter fuel payment of £20.

There are elderly people for whom even the extra help of the basic state pension increase and the winter fuel payment is simply not enough. These are the pensioners whose income has fallen furthest behind. Typically, they have no occupational pension, no private pension, no savings, no state earnings-related pension scheme, sometimes not even the full entitlement to the basic state pension. They fall back on income support. They have fallen further and further behind. In a divided Britain, the gap between the poorest and the richest pensioners has been widening. It has been widening for 30 years, and without decisive Government action is set to widen further.

This Government are committed to tackling poverty and social exclusion and we are not prepared to let that happen. We are taking action. We will establish a guaranteed minimum income for pensioners. So, for the poorest pensioners, we are increasing their income by three times the increase in income support that they would have received had we awarded only the usual price uprating. For 1.5 million of the poorest pensioners, this is the biggest single increase they have ever had.

For the first time, all pensioners will have a guaranteed minimum income of not less than £75 a week. For the first time, pensioner couples are guaranteed a minimum income of £116.60. The oldest pensioners will get even more.

There are some pensioners who are even poorer than those on income support. They are some of the very poorest people in Britain. They are the pensioners who are entitled to income support, but are not getting it; those who are slipping through the safety net altogether--the forgotten pensioners. This is not a marginal issue involving just a few slipping through the net. We estimate there are as many as 1 million of these forgotten pensioners. They are mostly very elderly, and nearly all women. Now we are taking action to bring the guaranteed minimum income to them, too.

Starting from next April, we will be introducing, for the first time, a new national programme of personal advisers for pensioners. We have already set up, and are running, nine pilot projects to help us shape this new service. Through new technology, we will for the first time use the information that pensioners have already given us throughout their lives. We will match the data that we already hold on their personal records in the Contributions Agency, the Benefits Agency and the local authority records to identify those who are likely to be over pension age, entitled to income support and not receiving it.

The pensioner will then be contacted by the personal adviser, who, over the telephone or through a visit, will assess their entitlement, and then fill in the forms for them. All that pensioners will have do is sign, and their extra money will come through the following week.

Yesterday, I visited one of the pilot projects in Torfaen in Wales and met some of the pensioners who had already been helped. The pensioners were all absolutely clear about two things. First, the extra money, even where it was only a small amount, meant a great deal to them. It is desperately needed. Secondly, without the personal

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contact, there would have been absolutely no chance of their getting the money. It is right that we are taking this service nationwide. It will begin to tackle the hidden problem of pensioner poverty.

Today, my announcement marks a major modernisation of the pensions system. We have been able to deliver real help for pensioners within a social security budget that is set to grow more slowly in this Parliament than it did in the last, to take a lower share of gross domestic product, and to take a lower share of public spending as a whole. It is part of our pensions reform and marks a new approach to tackling the problem of pensioner poverty and inequality.

We promised to reform the welfare state around work for those who can work. We have made progress on that. We promised security for whose who cannot work. Today we make progress on that too. This marks a major step forward in our determination to deliver security and dignity in retirement for all.

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