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The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Graham Stringer): The Government take listening and responding to older people very seriously. That is why we launched last May our "Listening to Older People" programme. Eleven "Listening to Older People" events took place throughout the country last year. This stage of the programme culminates in a national listening event in London on 17 May, where we will launch a programme of action to respond to the issues raised during the listening programme.
Mr. Burstow: Can the Minister tell the House whether at any of the "Listening to Older People" meetings the question of the wide variation in home-care charges was raised with Ministers? Today, the Audit Commission has revealed the stark reality of exceedingly wide variations of charges throughout the country. It has exposed the fact also that one in three councils are driving pensioners into poverty by their charging policies. What will the Government do about this? Will they announce concrete action at the final conference on 17 May?
Mr. Stringer: Yes, care charges were discussed at the events that took place. The Government will respond later this year to the Audit Commission's report, which was published today, as we will respond to the royal commission report on care later this year.
Ms Linda Perham (Ilford, North): Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that this series of events proves that we are widening the debate beyond pensions issues for older people and engaging with ordinary individuals? We have already introduced a wide range of measures for
Mr. Stringer: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She is right. The 28 pilot projects that arose from the better government for older people programme covered a range of areas of concern for elderly people, from action against crime to better responsiveness by the health service, better transport and precise care for Asian elders in Bolton. The projects are at the end of their natural life, but I suspect that the local authorities that sponsored them will continue with much of the work that was undertaken while the Government assess and evaluate the projects.
Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): Does the Minister realise that pensioners do not believe that the Government are listening to them? In the document that launched his programme, the Prime Minister said:
Mr. Stringer: From my experience of listening to elderly people, they know exactly what the Conservative party did during its time in office. They remember that the Conservative Government removed the link between earnings and pensions and thereby created the greatest diversity of income among pensioners in western Europe. They know also--I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge and confirm this--that the Conservatives propose to abolish the minimum income guarantee, which has benefited more than 1 million pensioners, and also oppose the winter fuel payment. They certainly would not have brought those benefits to pensioners had they been in power.
Mr. Lansley: Pensioners will not be diverted by the Minister from their experience of what has happened under the Government. When it comes to experience, will the Minister confirm that one of his 28 pilot projects is in Hartlepool? Will he explain why it makes any sense to have a pilot project of listening to older people in Hartlepool while the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) is attending Labour party meetings and saying that there is no mileage for the Labour party in pensioners? The consequence of that was a one-third reduction in the Labour vote in Hartlepool last Thursday. That will continue while the Labour party fails to deliver to pensioners.
Mr. Stringer: The pensioners to whom I listened are aware of the damage that the Conservative party has done to pensioners and the damage that it would do if it were ever to return to power. They recognise also that the £6.5 billion that the Government have put into pensioners' pockets would not have reached them had the Conservatives been in power. None of those initiatives would have been taken by the hon. Gentleman's party.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Marjorie Mowlam): The targets contained in the social exclusion unit's reports on rough sleeping, school exclusion and truancy and teenage pregnancy are included in the relevant Departments' public service agreements. That means that the targets will form an integral part of the mainstream business of each Department. The framework consultation document on the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal proposes that core public services, such as schools, police and health services, should be the Government's main weapon against deprivation.
Ms Blears: I am grateful for that reply, but is my right hon. Friend aware that, in Salford, we have an education action zone, a health action zone, a single regeneration budget programme and the sure start initiative, all of which tackle social exclusion? That can mean that families in crisis are visited by a health visitor, a welfare rights officer, a housing officer and a social worker. One of our ideas is that multi-skilled workers should carry out that range of tasks so that families in difficulty have a single worker who is their advocate and ambassador, helping to improve their lives and ensuring that all the initiatives work for them.
Marjorie Mowlam: I thank my hon. Friend for that example. Many local authorities choose different mechanisms to deliver the policies that now exist for them to implement in their communities. We have cited Salford as an example of good practice, but other authorities use different mechanisms more suited to their communities. We are doing our best nationally to join up the policy targets as well as ensuring that the money available from different Departments goes down to local areas in one go. I am sure that that will make a difference.
On regeneration, some communities and local authorities have community focus and leadership. I firmly believe that there must be a buy-in from the community if those programmes are to work. In communities where that is not happening, we are trying, through the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal, to spread good practice, encourage leadership and make progress in all local communities.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Graham Stringer): On 31 March, we published "e-government"--a strategic framework for public services in the information age. Departments have been asked to set
Mr. Quinn: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. May I urge him in developing Government policy on the information age to have due regard to all those in our society who have difficulties and find information technology a challenge? May I also urge him to ensure that we make use of the possibilities of the new computer platforms that will be available in post offices, especially in rural and suburban communities?
Mr. Stringer: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. E-business and e-government are meant to provide an additional service, not to exclude anyone. While there is a demand for face-to-face meetings, the Government are committed to providing such services. The e-service is an additional service.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): In the distractions of last Thursday, we were unable to obtain a statement on the implications of the love bug computer virus, which is obviously important in the context of the Government's IT programme. Can we be assured that the work that is being done following on from realising the benefits of Y2K will take account of threats from such bugs? When will a statement be placed in the Library on the implications of that virus for government?
Mr. Stringer: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. What happened last Thursday with the love bug is being assessed in the Cabinet Office. When that assessment has taken place, it will be possible to make a full statement, except on security matters.
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): Can the Minister tell us exactly when the love bug hit government technology; whether, as in the United States, the Government received any prior warning; and whether they warned business as a result of any such prior warning?
Mr. Stringer: There was no prior warning. The first time that the Cabinet Office knew about the love bug was on the morning of 4 May. We took immediate action, and because of the defences against viruses already in place in the Cabinet Office, less damage and destruction was done to the systems than otherwise would have been.