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Winter Fuel Payments

9. Helen Jones (Warrington, North): How successful his Department was in getting winter fuel payments to all eligible pensioners before Christmas. [102935]

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker): The payment process for the winter fuel payments went extremely well indeed. Some 10 million people in more than 7.5 million households were issued with their winter fuel payments before Christmas.

Helen Jones: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. In view of the judgment of the European Court in the Taylor case, what action will he take to get payments to those who are now deemed eligible for them?

Mr. Rooker: We shall take every action, because the judgment means that everyone who is ordinarily resident in Great Britain and aged over 60 is eligible. Significantly, that includes people who are not in receipt of any of the qualifying benefits and, because the payments are non-contributory and not means-tested, it includes those who are working. We are committed to finding the extra 1.5 million people to pay them what they are owed for the past two years and we will make an announcement on the issue in due course.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I am encouraged to hear that all pensioners over 60 are eligible forwinter fuel payments. Can the Minister explain why Mrs. Stockdale of Leeming village has not received a winter fuel payment for 1999 or 1998?

Mr. Rooker: I did not talk about pensioners. In the context of the European Court's decision, it is no longer appropriate to talk about pensioners. Everyone aged over 60 who is ordinarily resident in this country is eligible, whether they work or not. I cannot explain why someone has been missed out more than once, but if the hon. Lady will give me the details, we will do our best to rectify the mistake forthwith.

Information Technology

10. Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): What assessment he has made of the scope for improved IT in the administration of his Department and of benefits payments. [102937]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): The potential for new technology to transform the welfare state is enormous. However, our current IT infrastructure is old and out of date. It also essentially computerises clerical processes. We have ambitions for a major transformation, including more interactivity, telephone access and more remote access, all of which cannot be achieved overnight.

Dr. Turner: My hon. Friend the Minister has reminded the House that the chaos that the CSA brought to the lives

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of many of my constituents was amplified by the horrific computer-generated literature that it used to send en masse, with people sometimes receiving two or three five-page missives a week. It is obvious that we need to learn the lessons of the past when considering computerisation in the future and I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend's reassurance that the arrangements in the new Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill will be properly supported. It was clear when my hon. Friend visited my constituency that wholesale reform of the Department's IT is needed. Is there a timetable and is the budget sufficient?

Angela Eagle: There is a timetable. Clearly, the Child Support Agency computer system must take priority because of the new legislation to go on the statute book, which we cannot put into effect without a new system. It says something for the legacy of the previous Government that the CSA, the newest agency in the social security system, still has a computer system that is unusable in the modern age.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant): Part of that legacy was a benefit card project that would have ensured a future for post offices around the country delivering benefits. The Government have abandoned that project. Is the Minister aware of the widespread concern among post office staff about their future under the Government's proposals? Under the previous Government, the hon. Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley), now Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, wrote to all the sub-postmasters and postmistresses in his constituency recognising the widespread concern about any change in the method of payment for pensions and other benefits to automated credit transfer. The hon. Gentleman said that such a change would

He promised a petition then, on behalf of the people who wanted to keep using their post offices. Will there be another petition now?

Angela Eagle: I hate to carp, but part of the problem with all these computer systems is the huge mess that we inherited from the previous Government, from the national insurance recording system 2 to the Horizon project, to which the hon. Gentleman refers. This project was three years behind time when it was cancelled, and was providing infrastructure that has already been overtaken by other developments. The new system will automate the Post Office and will still enable people to get their benefits from post offices if they so desire.

The cost of ACT is 1p per transaction. The hon. Gentleman expects us to stick with order books, when it costs 49p per transaction to present an order book foil, and 79p per transaction to encash a giro. That is very old and expensive technology. ACT will save us £400 million per annum when it is introduced, and we anticipate saving another £240 million on fraud. The hon. Gentleman cannot tell us off about fraud and also tell us off when we introduce a system to prevent it.

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Local Exchange Trading Schemes

11. Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): If he will make a statement on the treatment of local exchange trading scheme units for the purpose of calculating benefits. [102938]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): If unemployed people undertake local exchange trading scheme activities for less than 16 hours a week on average, they can earn up to £260 worth of credits in a year without affecting their benefit. Our understanding is that the average level of earnings from local exchange trading systems is around £80 a year.

Mrs. Gilroy: My hon. Friend has taken a great interest in LET schemes, and is aware of the report of the policy action team on jobs, which was published before Christmas. That made a number of recommendations, including piloting changes to the rules on local exchange trading schemes and units. Is my hon. Friend considering such changes to the rules so that LET schemes can play their full role in helping people to re-enter the labour market?

Angela Eagle: I know that my hon. Friend takes a close interest in LETS and is involved in their development. We recognise their value in promoting social inclusion and their potential in easing a move to full-time work. We have received representations and, as my hon. Friend pointed out, the report of the policy action team on jobs, issued on 7 December by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, also makes similar points. We are looking closely at the report's recommendations, and will make announcements in due course.

Women Pensioners

12. Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North): What proposals he has to address the financial needs of women pensioners. [102940]

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker): We are committed to ensuring that our pension reforms improve women's pension rights. Our plans to reform the state earnings-related pension scheme through the introduction of the state second pension will dramatically enhance state pension provision and will be of particular benefit to women, many of whom work part time or as carers. The state second pension will give a dramatic boost to the additional pension entitlement of low earners and, for the first time, will help carers and some long-term disabled people with broken work records, to build up a second pension.

For today's pensioners, the minimum income guarantee is available to provide a basic income in retirement for the poorest women pensioners, as it is to all who qualify.

Ms Keeble: In my constituency, some 8,000 women--about a quarter of all the people in employment--work part time. Almost all of them are in the income bracket that qualifies for the second state pension. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the pressures that many women face when they have to give up work to look after disabled relatives, so that raises the possibility of a break in their

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pension entitlement? Does he agree that, for future generations of pensioners, a carers pension linked to the state second pension would ensure that people have a decent and independent pension entitlement? Would it not also ease the pressures that women face by rewarding them, through the pension provision, for staying at home and looking after families and disabled relatives?

Mr. Rooker: Yes. Figures show that some 2 million carers--at least 1.5 million of whom are women--would benefit under the second state pension, for which, for the first time, people are beginning to build up entitlement. There are 4.5 million low earners in this country, of whom 70 per cent. are women, and 6 million moderate earners. All those people--more than 10 million of them, the majority of whom will be women--will gain under the state second pension.

Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor): The Minister told us some weeks ago that he was looking with urgency at the position of war widows, in whose circumstances I know that he is deeply interested. Does he now agree with us that war widows should be allowed to retain their husbands' occupational pensions, or will that possibility be lost from sight again?

Mr. Rooker: It will not be lost from sight, as there is at least one clause on war pensions in the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill that we are to debate tomorrow. However, the matter is under active consideration in the Ministry of Defence, where the decision will be taken. In due course, the appropriate Ministers will come to the House and account for their decisions.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): Does my right hon. Friend agree that there remain significant numbers of pensioners, mainly older women, who refuse to apply for the minimum income guarantee because of the income support label that it carries? Will he urgently consider how the benefit is labelled? Might it not be better to call it a supplementary pension, or something similar, so that what is sometimes wrongly considered to be a stigma could help those pensioners who need it?

Mr. Rooker: Yes. Our research shows that the largest group of people missing out on the minimum income guarantee are older women. We are to initiate a Government-sponsored take-up campaign for the minimum income guarantee, which will include a partial rebranding of the benefit to meet the point that my hon. Friend makes about the stigma attached to it.

As I have told the House before, applications for the minimum income guarantee can be made in writing or over the telephone. It is not necessary to go to the local benefit office to make an application.

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