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Voluntary Sector

13. Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): If he will make a statement on the provision of financial support by his Department to the voluntary sector. [102941]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley): Voluntary organisations make an important contribution to helping

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families and pensioners, and to helping people into work. We are already involving voluntary organisations in the ONE pilots and the new deal, and we are establishing a children's fund to help voluntary organisations to do more to eliminate child poverty.

Mr. St. Aubyn: The rough sleepers initiative set up by the previous Conservative Government was an excellent example of how the private and voluntary sectors can be involved in helping those in our society who are most in need. For example, the Number Five project in Guildford benefited under that initiative. Will the Minister assure the House that this Government will give as much money to the initiative in this Parliament as was provided by the previous Government in the previous Parliament?

Mr. Bayley: I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about this matter. The Department of Social Security's resettlement programme assists the voluntary sector to provide more than 4,000 bed spaces in more than 100 organisations. The statutory framework that binds the Department contains no general legal power to provide support to voluntary bodies. However, given that constraint, we will do all that we can to assist voluntary bodies.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): Does my hon. Friend agree that the right people are more likely to receive the right benefit to which they are entitled if they are well advised? In particular, I refer to disabled people, so would my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the work carried out by local DIAL--disablement information and advice line--organisations? Does he also recognise that such organisations often struggle on from year to year unsure about local authority grants and lottery applications? Will he consider how he can further help such organisations to carry out their valuable work?

Mr. Bayley: I agree very much with my hon. Friend that the advice that voluntary bodies give to disabled people about their benefit entitlement is an extremely important part of the benefits process. As I said earlier, the Department of Social Security has no general legal power to help voluntary bodies. Other Departments have such general powers and they include the Department of Health, which puts more than £50 million into grants for voluntary bodies through its two main programmes which support such organisations.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Following what my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) said about rough sleepers, is the Minister satisfied that enough is being done to tackle the problem given that, to the untrained eye, there seems to be no obvious diminution in the number of people sleeping rough? During the period of the previous Government, the media made a great deal of rightful protest about that problem, but they are strangely rather silent about it now.

Mr. Bayley: The Government took, particularly over the Christmas period, a series of new initiatives to expand the support that we give for people, both inside and outside London, who are homeless and roofless. Such initiatives are part of the Government's overall strategy to tackle the problems faced by the poor.

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Child Support Agency

16. Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): If the Government will accelerate the transition of CSA cases to the new system as soon as possible. [102946]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): We want to introduce the new scheme as quickly as we can, but we have to be careful not to repeat the mistakes of the previous scheme, which failed because it was introduced too quickly. By 2001, there will be 1 million cases on the CSA's books. Transferring them to the new scheme will be a major task that will need very careful preparation.

Dr. Palmer: I warmly support the Government's view on this matter. It is vital that we do not have a new catastrophe to match the one that was introduced by the previous Government with the CSA. However, many of my constituents, who are particularly enthusiastic about the reform, regret the fact that, even when a case has been transferred to the new system in perhaps three or four years' time, the adjustment to the new figure--whatever that may be--will be at the fairly leisurely rate of £5 a year. That means that many people who are now in the system will not benefit to any significant extent before their children grow up. Will my hon. Friend have another look at the matter?

Angela Eagle: We have had a very close look at all these difficult issues in the White Paper that preceded the Bill and in the Green Paper consultation that preceded that. They are difficult issues, and there is always a balance to be struck. The Government believe that they have struck the right balance by knowing that they can prudently get the system into place effectively and by warning people sufficiently about it. Many people at either end of the system are bound to feel that it is not fair, but we are being as fair and as open as we can be, and we consulted as many people as we could. I believe that we have reached a general agreement that our way forward is correct, but, as always, we shall listen.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Under the new system, how many parents will see their entitlement to maintenance reduced and by how much?

Angela Eagle: The Opposition keep carping on about that, but the fact is that entitlement to maintenance under the new system and getting paid are two very different things. We have always taken the view, in the Green Paper and the White Paper, that it is good for everyone if people receive and are actually paid smaller sums of money instead of receiving theoretical payments.

Benefit Reform

18. Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): If he will report progress on achieving reforms in welfare benefits. [102948]

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker): We are reforming the welfare system to eradicate child poverty by creating opportunity for all.

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The working families tax credit, together with the minimum wage and other measures, will lift 1.25 million people, including 800,000 children, out of poverty.

Seven million families will benefit from the highest-ever rise in child benefit. One and a half million pensioner households are benefiting from the minimum income guarantee, which means £10 a week more for single pensioners and £15 a week more for couples.

The new deal has already helped more than 200,000 people move off benefits and into work.

Sir Sydney Chapman: I am grateful for that report of progress. Will the Minister confirm that, according to the definitive measurements that his party supported in opposition, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened in the past 30 months? If he claims that it has not, will he publish the figures that would prove his assertion?

Mr. Rooker: I am grateful for the first part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I gave only a partial report--I could spend the rest of the day detailing the successes of our welfare reforms. The hon. Gentleman's point is correct and has been raised before. It is based on research and evidence that predate the Government coming to power. As everyone knows, we freely entered into a contract with the electorate to accept the spending limits imposed by the previous Government for the first two years. That has consequences, which we all understand. In September we published "Opportunity for All", the first-ever national audit of poverty in Britain by any Government. We will produce a report each and every year, so that we can be judged against the standards in that report and, in due course, we will alter the figures that the hon. Gentleman quotes.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): My right hon. Friend will be aware that some of us would have been happier if he had junked the figures agreed with the Opposition much earlier. Although the Government have produced some positive and useful results, will my right hon. Friend give me one undertaking? There have been a number of cases recently in which the detail of various benefit arrangements has been incorrect. It would be helpful if we could guarantee in future that all the calculations coming from the Department were as accurate as possible. Although human beings always make errors, in these matters errors can have devastating effects for the people in receipt of the benefit concerned.

Mr. Rooker: I can only answer yes. If my hon. Friend has particular examples, I will be pleased to look into them. We are endeavouring to take error out of the system by getting the calculations right at the beginning. It is better for people to get the lawful rights to which the House has agreed that they are entitled, and it helps us to stamp out error and fraud. We have a programme to get the figures right at the outset, and if there are specific problems, I will be happy to look into them for my hon. Friend.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Will the Minister confirm that, with the introduction of the working families tax credit, the number of households with children that are dependent on means-tested benefits and tax credits will rise; that, where the working families tax credit is combined with housing benefit, the net taper of tax and benefit withdrawal will be 89 per cent.; and that that must

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lead in the long run to large numbers of households having no incentive to better themselves--the very reason why the WFTC was abolished in Canada recently?

Mr. Rooker: As we say from the Front Bench, that was a very good point. It does not alter the fact that 1.25 million people--800,000 of them children--have been lifted out of poverty as a result of the working families tax credit and the national minimum wage. We have arranged matters so that it is no longer possible for people to say that it does not pay to work and that it pays to stay on benefit. We have reversed that position, which must be wholly good for both the country and the individuals concerned.

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