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House of Commons

Tuesday 25 January 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]


City of Newcastle upon Tyne Bill [Lords]

Read a Second time, and committed.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Fuel Bills (Pensioners)

1. Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston): What steps are being taken to assist Scottish pensioners with their winter fuel bills; and if a helpline has been set up for them. [104927]

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (Mr. Brian Wilson): This winter about £70 million has been paid in winter fuel payments to more than 900,000 Scottish pensioners. As in previous years, a national helpline has been set up to deal with inquiries about the winter fuel payments scheme.

Mr. Wray: Does my hon. Friend agree that Scottish pensioners will be grateful not only for the £100 payment, but for the reduction in VAT--which was imposed by the previous Tory Government--from 17.5 to 5 per cent? Does he also agree that fuel payments are not only necessary, but that 169,000 pensioners in Scotland are entitled to income support? I know that his Department has set up a hotline, but will he speak to our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security and tell him to set up a hotline to help the 63,000 pensioners who do not claim the income support to which they are entitled?

Mr. Wilson: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Step by step, the Government are delivering on their manifesto commitments to pensioners. That is a matter of right and also of respect to the senior members of our community. Step by step, we shall continue to do that until all our commitments are met.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about helplines. Many pensioners do not claim their full entitlement and we must do more to ensure that they do. I have recently discussed the matter with my right hon.

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Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security and we shall certainly be out there making sure that every pensioner who is eligible for the minimum income guarantee will know of its availability and will be helped to claim what is theirs--not as a privilege from the Government, but as a 100 per cent. right for senior members of the community.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): The Minister is absolutely right and so is the hon. Member for Glasgow, Baillieston (Mr. Wray): the winter fuel payment is good because everyone receives it. The Minister was also right to say that Ministers need to do much more work to get take-up properly promoted. The Government have said for some time that pilot schemes--one is in the west coast of Scotland--are trying to find out why men over 65 and women over 60 do not claim the benefits to which they are entitled. What will be done about that, and when will we start to see some results?

Mr. Wilson: The hon. Gentleman has an honourable record on these matters and he knows the problem of uptake. There is a complex pattern of reasons for that. Sometimes, older people simply do not want to claim everything that is due to them. I would strongly discourage that attitude. People who have given their life's work and commitment to this society are entitled to every penny that the law allows them to take.

Perhaps I can use this medium to encourage people who think that they might be entitled to benefits that they do not receive to find out about them. They can go to their local Member of Parliament, a citizens advice bureau or Help the Aged to obtain the information that they require. There is no cost in getting that advice. If people, particularly at this time of year, do not receive everything to which they are entitled, we want to know about it and we want to assist. I have spoken recently to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security--there is an intention to promote uptake and we shall continue to do that.

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems facing pensioners in the highlands and islands, in particular, is the high fuel prices that they have to pay for domestic heating? Will he therefore undertake to talk to the Office of Fair Trading to make sure that its current inquiry into petrol prices also considers the important problem of high fuel prices for domestic heating?

Mr. Wilson: My hon. Friend makes his point powerfully. I am aware that, in some places, the cost of domestic heating oil has doubled. I do not think that that is justifiable in terms of the market in oil, and I shall certainly pass my hon. Friend's comments to the Office of Fair Trading. We are doing many things to attack the general problem of exceptionally high fuel prices in the remoter areas of the country.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I welcome what has been done to help pensioners. However, has the Minister been assured that staff in pensions offices and in post offices are aware of the situation? What steps have been taken to deal with men of over-60, who are on pensions but who are not pensioners in the state sense, so that they can receive their entitlement? How far have we

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gone down the road to rectifying that problem and protecting those who were in respite care on about 20 September and who have been disqualified from the winter fuel allowance at a time when they need it?

Mr. Wilson: On the hon. Gentleman's latter point, I am sure that he knows of the legal action that was raised. As a result of that, 190,000 pensioners in Scotland will be eligible for backdated payments and 150,000 will be eligible for future payments. As he will recognise, the Government have quickly accepted that judgment.

On all fronts, we are doing our best to make sure that pensioners get what they are entitled to. I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's comments about men over the age of 60 to the attention of colleagues at the Department of Social Security.

Working Families Tax Credit

2. Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): What steps the Government are taking to publicise the working families tax credit in Scotland. [104928]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Dr. John Reid): We have launched a major press and media campaign to inform those who will benefit from the working families tax credit of their right to assistance. As a result, the helpline has received more than 45,000 inquiries in Scotland alone.

Mr. Tynan: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, and on behalf of 2,089 families in my constituency I want to express gratitude for the introduction of the working families tax credit--which will make those families, on average, £1,250 better-off this year than last. Will my right hon. Friend give the House a commitment that the Government will continue to do all they can to publicise the working families tax credit, so as to ensure maximum take-up?

Dr. Reid: Yes, I can assure my hon. Friend of that. We are proud of the fact that this Labour Government are the first ever to have committed themselves to the abolition of poverty. The working families tax credit plays a major part in that effort, as do the minimum wage and our assistance to pensioners. It is significant that, every time the great issue of tackling poverty is raised in the House, there is a complete lack of response from Opposition Members. Today, not one Conservative or Scottish National party Member has attempted to participate in discussion of poverty or the working families tax credit.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the best thing--

Madam Speaker: Order. I am calling question 3.

National Minimum Wage

3. Mr. Davidson: How many people in Scotland have benefited from the introduction of the national minimum wage. [104929]

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I apologise for not having asked the question at the proper time, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: Thank you. I like the House to make progress, but not quite that speedily.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Dr. John Reid): I agree with both what my hon. Friend tried to say and what he is about to say. We anticipate that as many as 145,000 employees in Scotland might benefit from the introduction of the national minimum wage.

Mr. Davidson: Does my right hon. Friend recall all those siren voices that told us that, if the national minimum wage were introduced, economic disaster would result and jobs would be lost in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom? Is he aware that since the general election, unemployment in my constituency has been cut by 30 per cent.? That is something of which the Government should be proud. Does he agree that, if a national minimum wage of £3.60 is good, a national minimum wage of even more in the current year would be even better?

Dr. Reid: On the first part of his second statement, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The scare stories put around about the detrimental effects of introducing a national minimum wage have been proved false. For example, far from falling, staff levels in small firms have risen by 11 per cent. in the past year. As my hon. Friend will be aware, unemployment in Scotland is at its lowest level for almost a quarter of a century, and many jobs have been created. It is important to set the minimum wage at a level that assists hundreds of thousands of people, but is not so high that it affects employment. We have succeeded in doing that.

Again, I note that, as we work through those difficult issues, hon. Members representing the Scottish National party and the Conservative party show no interest in measures designed to help people in Scotland out of poverty.

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