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Mr. Simon Hughes: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Rooker: No, I will not. Let me finish this point.

The hon. Member for Northavon seemed to imply that the winter fuel help would disappear. From his calculations, I thought that it had disappeared. We know that it would disappear under the Tories' plans, and they have the brass neck to complain about us not getting money to men aged between 60 and 64 who have been working when they plan to take that money off them anyway.

This month, the over-75s start to get their free television licences. This week, the cheques start to go out for the winter fuel allowances. Those are not celebrated by Opposition parties. All they do is come here to whinge and moan. There will be good news later this week and we will be able to rebut in detail many of the assertions made by the hon. Member for Northavon.

The hon. Member for Northavon has not outlined to the House a cohesive strategy for pensioners. He let it slip that the Liberal Democrats' policy would be paid for by taxing those on £100,000. Earlier this year, they said that they would pay for the policy by abolishing SERPS--the additional pension. We have not heard that rebutted, so our assumption must be that the Liberal Democrats would still have to abolish SERPS to make their policy work. Those who have been on average earnings for the past 20-odd years will get SERPS payments of £70 a week. The Liberal Democrats are offering to take that away. That is more drivel.

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5.2 pm

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): I am glad to follow the Minister, but I hope that I do not get so excited. As all will be revealed on Wednesday, the Minister must feel-- I have a great deal of sympathy with him--a bit like the emperor without any clothes.

I agree with the Minister's analysis of the speech by the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb), which was a classic Liberal Democrat speech--holier-than-thou, sanctimonious to the nth degree and of breathtaking cheek, particularly in the attempt to exempt his party from any electioneering. His speech was guaranteed to be attractive to a certain part of the electorate, without taking any responsibility. Suggestions have come today from the hon. Member for Northavon and, last week, from the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) in Westminster Hall, on how much the Liberal Democrats intend to give pensioners. I cannot think of a better, or more expensive, way of appealing to one particular, but very large, group of the electorate.

It might be worth while to go through some of the information that we elicited from the Liberal Democrats in the debate in Westminster Hall on the exact cost of their proposals.

The hon. Member for Northavon set out what he thought was the cost of the £5, £10 and £15 hike, and he maintains that it can be covered by the 10 per cent. hike in the higher rate of tax for people earning more than £100,000. My calculations show that that hike would raise only £2.6 billion, and that the cost would be £4.5 billion.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): No, £3.1 billion.

Mrs. Lait: Well, I did not want to burden the House with figures, but I am willing to enlighten the Liberals as, judging by the puzzled face of the hon. Member for Northavon, they have not done their sums.

My calculations show that £5 a week for all pensioners would cost £2.8 billion; that the cost of the extra £5 for pensioners aged between 75 and 79 would be £500 million; and that the further £5 for the over-80s would be £1.2 billion: a total of £4.5 billion. The Liberals are £1.9 billion adrift on the total that they plan to spend.

Last week in Westminster Hall, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam declared that the Liberal Democrats' target was to offer single pensioners £90 a week and couples £135 a week. That was all hedged around with phrases about growth in the economy and not reaching that stage in one go. In fact, growth in the economy is usually linked to earnings. Despite the hon. Gentleman trying to obfuscate the situation, we know that the Liberal Democrat conference chucked out that proposal, possibly because the delegates did not want to frighten their supporters with the consequences, which, as worked out by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research--not a body known to favour Conservative philosophy--would be to put 5p on the basic rate of income tax.

The Liberal Democrats have adjusted their figure, as we heard last Tuesday. I was surprised that the hon. Member for Northavon did not use the figure, because it represented such a clear commitment and, given how much they are pandering to the pensioner vote, I should have thought that they would want to re-emphasise it.

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However, the total cost of increasing the basic state pension to £90 for single pensioners and £135 for couples is £8.5 billion. I am prepared to subtract from that the £2.6 billion that we have already agreed would be raised by the tax hike, so that we get a difference of £5.9 billion, which is the equivalent of an increase of 2.3p in the basic rate of tax. Or are the Liberals planning to increase the higher rate of tax on those earning more than £100,000 to the 73p in the pound that I have calculated it would cost? Those of us of a certain age remember what that did to public finances in the 1970s.

We have heard a speech of such breathtaking electioneering cheek that the House can treat the suggestions in it with the contempt that they deserve and get back to the real world of trying to help pensioners.

I am concerned about a broader matter mentioned in the motion: long-term care policy. Most of us would agree that paying for nursing care in England and Wales is a recipe for bureaucracy. Anyone who has had anything to do with defining what is nursing care and what is not will know the difficulties.

In recent days, we have seen emerging the very difficulty that we warned about all along when we were debating the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. The Scots are being promised that all their care costs will be covered. They are in charge of their own budget and can make their own decisions; the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish people have to pay for it. We can clearly see a battle royal taking place between the Scottish and English Executives--between No. 10 and the Scottish Parliament. Scots are able to vote on English and Welsh issues but not the other way around. We will also have the dubious pleasure of watching those with a dual mandate having to vote against their Scottish parliamentary colleagues and for the London Government, or for the Scottish Parliament and against the London Government. It will be most interesting to see what happens when people who sit in both Parliaments have to vote.

Mr. Burstow: Is it now the Conservative party's official position in this House that personal care should be free on the basis of assessment of need, as the royal commission recommends?

Mrs. Lait: The point that I was making, which the hon. Gentleman obviously missed, was about the constitutional position known to many as the West Lothian question, which is the key to the illogicality of devolution. What happens on long-term care, as the hon. Gentleman should know, is the responsibility of the Department of Health, and some elements of social security may well be included. If he is not careful, he will get the same lecture on annuities as he got last Tuesday. He gave me the opportunity to give it then, and I am happy to give it again now, but I know that a number of Back Benchers wish to contribute to this debate on pensioners' income.

Many of us have seen the statistics arising from the Government's annual poverty report, which show that, since 1997, the number of pensioners in poverty has increased from 28 per cent. to 30 per cent.--[Interruption.] Indeed, it is not mentioned by the Government. Their attempts to change it--although who knows what will happen on Wednesday--appear to be falling on stony ground. We still see pensioners losing out, as has been discussed, from the minimum income guarantee.

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We have all seen the Thora Hird advertisements on television. On my way here today, listening to BBC Radio Kent, I heard someone from the Benefits Agency explaining the minimum income guarantee and how it will work. I know that many letters have gone out to pensioners who could claim. From surgery experience, I am aware that some have still not received their letter or, if they have, that they thought that it was junk mail and chucked it in the bin. However, this past week has seen the figures so far emerging and they have not been a pretty sight.

In last Tuesday's debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley), told us that 500,000 people have inquired about the campaign. However, it has taken parliamentary questions to extract the answers as to how many have been successful. On 31 October, we were told that 24,746 claimants had been successful so far and that 22,988 had been unsuccessful. Therefore, barely 10 per cent. of eligible people have replied; only half are getting anything, and the rumours are that they are finding the sums pretty small. I would be most interested to know the largest and smallest sums awarded so far, and the average payment.

Mr. Rooker: Because of the lack of time, I did not deal earlier with the take-up. The last time that I looked at the average figure of those successfully claiming, it was just over £20 a week. Furthermore, not all the 2.3 million letters have gone out; they are still being sent out at the rate of 30,000 a day.


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