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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): This year the discretionary social fund budget is based on £138 million of new money being paid into the fund. This, together with expected loan repayments of £458 million, provides a gross discretionary budget of £596 million.
Mr. Benn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. As she will be aware, it is the discretionary social fund to which poor people in desperate circumstances turn to buy a bed, some furniture, a cooker or other household essentials. What would be the effect on those people of a £90 million reduction in the funds available to the social fund, which I understand to be Conservative party policy?
Angela Eagle: My hon. Friend is right to point out that this £90 million raid would decimate the fund. It would wipe out the entire grants budget, if that is where it was taken from, and hit the most vulnerable the hardest. In other words, it is a typical Tory policy.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley): We recently announced a broad package of measures to improve financial support for carers. We intend to increase the carer premium in the income-related benefits by £10 on top of inflation, to increase the earnings limit in invalid care allowance from the current £50 to the lower earnings limit--currently £67--to allow ICA to continue for up to eight weeks after the death of the person being cared for,
Helen Jones: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Carers in my constituency will certainly be pleased that their valuable work is being recognised at last, but will he assure me and the House that carers will benefit from the increase in the carer premium and that it will not be clawed back in reduced housing benefit or council tax benefit?
Mr. Bayley: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I, too, have heard carers welcome the changes. They were warmly welcomed at the annual general meeting of the Carers National Association. The chief executive of the association assured me that it gave him "great pleasure" to welcome the announcement last week, which would boost carers benefits. The measures provide a sensible balance between targeting support on those most in need and giving those who are able to work the opportunity to continue to do so. The changes will benefit 300,000 carers at a cost of about £500 million over three years.
[Relevant Documents: the Seventh Report from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, Session 1997-98 on London Underground, HC715-I, and the Government's response thereto, Cm4093; and the Fourteenth Report from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, Session 1999-2000, on the Funding of London Underground, HC411, and the Government's Response thereto, Cm4877.]
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not know whether you can delay the debate until the Secretary of State arrives, or if you have been made aware that yet again, the Secretary of State will not attend the debate. Can you advise us on what we have to do to get him to come to the House, participate in such debates and account for the actions of his Department? So far we have completely failed to do that.
Mr. Campbell-Savours: Mr. Speaker, I think that it should be drawn to your attention that, following the privatisation of British Rail in the 1990s and the disasters on today's rail network, many Members have great difficulty getting to the House of Commons. People are making all sorts of arrangements throughout the country to get to Parliament. Some of us have to get up at 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning simply to get here. That is why some Members are not here.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the acute embarrassment caused to the Government during the weekend by the leaking of the detailed note of the Cabinet meeting in June 1997 regarding the millennium dome, have you received any request from the Prime Minister to come to the House and share his embarrassment with us?
Mr. Jenkin: The motion is about how the Government are conducting themselves in relation to the elected representatives of Londoners and Transport for London--a body that the Government established. The motion is not about which scheme for the tube may be the best or worst option. It is about whether the Government are so blinded by their political prejudices against the Mayor of London--I am glad to see the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) in his place--who so humiliated them in the London elections that they are making themselves incapable of rational judgment.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): The hon. Gentleman says that the motion is not about privatisation. Given that decisions on that matter will affect the future of the underground, why is it not about privatisation?
Mr. Jenkin: I am inviting the House to give its opinion on a motion about how the Government should conduct themselves in relation to Transport for London as regards the PPP, or whatever other scheme eventually goes ahead. The Transport Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, which the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) chairs, has already passed judgment on these matters, describing the PPP as a "convoluted compromise", and I hope that she would welcome input from someone such as Mr. Kiley--input that we invite the Government to accept.
Mr. Jenkin: The Government are pursuing the London Underground PPP without proper consideration of the full range of alternatives and without proper consultation with Londoners and their representatives. They are acting
I have great affection for the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), and it is always a pleasure to tangle with him on the Floor of the House or in Committee. I must say, however, with the greatest of respect for him, that he is not the driving force behind the policy. He is not the dominant influence at the Department. He is not the organ grinder--although my respect and affection for him prevent me from continuing with that metaphor.
The failure of the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to appear at the Dispatch Box is not just a snub to the House of Commons; it is a snub to the British people, to Londoners and to their elected representatives. Why is he not here? Where is he? Despite the point of order raised a few moments ago by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell- Savours), I do not think that the Secretary of State has had any difficulty reaching his office today, and it is a few hundred yards from this place. He could easily be here.
The botched privatisation of the tube is the Secretary of State's baby. He is the Minister forcing the scheme on Londoners. He keeps insisting that the PPP is right. He wrote to the Evening Standard last week to say:
If I raised my eyes towards the camera, I should probably be looking at the Secretary of State from the television screen in his office--but he cannot be bothered to come to the House to explain his policies. The man responsible for the policy will not debate it in the proper place and in the proper way.
This is not the first time that the Deputy Prime Minister has ducked the challenge of the House. Ten days ago he declined to show up for a debate on the September fuel crisis, when my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) challenged him about a major plank of Government policy. The right hon. Gentleman ducked that challenge as he does this one. He will duck the challenge again on Wednesday when we debate the privatisation of National Air Traffic Services.