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House of Commons

Tuesday 30 January 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]



Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Winter Fuel Payment

1. Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston): How many pensioners in Scotland are benefiting from the winter fuel payment scheme. [146179]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Helen Liddell): About 1 million people aged 60 or over will benefit from the winter fuel payment scheme in Scotland. My hon. Friend will be interested to know that that includes about 11,500 people in his Shettleston constituency.

Mr. Marshall: I welcome the Secretary of State and the Minister of State back to the reality of Scottish politics and wish them every success in their new roles. Their political opponents will be in for a rough ride in the months ahead.

Does the Secretary of State agree that pensioners throughout the United Kingdom and especially in Scotland gave a warm welcome to the winter fuel payment of £200 this winter, particularly because of the severe cold weather of the past five weeks? For once, it was not a choice for some of them between eating and heating, as it was under the Tories. Does my right hon. Friend also agree that if the Tories were ever to regain power--God forbid that that should happen--the winter fuel allowance could be part of the £16 billion-worth of public expenditure cuts that they promise?

Mrs. Liddell: I thank my hon. Friend for his generous comments. I pay tribute to my predecessor, who is now

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Secretary of State for Northern Ireland--a job in which all Scotland wishes him well. As not only the first woman to be Secretary of State for Scotland, but the first mother, I am conscious of the fact that this afternoon I am to welcome to Dover House six young people who are to recite Burns for me. That is an appropriate start to my role.

My hon. Friend is correct about the importance of the winter fuel allowance. Like me, he was a Member of the House before the 1997 general election and witnessed the official Opposition's introduction of VAT on fuel. I am pleased that a Labour Government cut VAT on fuel, pleased that a Labour Chancellor is ensuring that every pensioner receives a £200 winter fuel allowance and pleased that, across government, Labour is seeking to deal with fuel poverty. That represents a significant dividing line between this side of the House and that side. We have practical solutions for real problems.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): I offer my congratulations to the Secretary of State and my good wishes to her predecessor in his new role.

Does the Secretary of State realise that those pensioners are receiving a non-means-tested benefit? Can she explain to them why the Government think that personal care should not also be non-means-tested? She proudly referred to the £200. Can she explain to pensioners why the Government plan to cut that back to £150 next winter?

Mrs. Liddell: The hon. Gentleman seems to forget that the Government have spent more than £9 billion on pensioners in the lifetime of this Parliament. That goes way beyond the proposals on which he fought the last election. He knows that matters of personal care are for the Scottish Parliament and it underlines the power of the devolution settlement that the Scottish Parliament can take such decisions. The Government have made progress in creating a stable economy, low interest rates and low unemployment so we are in a position to benefit every pensioner in the country. We shall do so with fairness and compassion. We shall not pull the wool over their eyes.

Mrs. Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth): I also congratulate the Secretary of State and the Minister of State.

The Secretary of State will be aware that in my constituency as in hers, many pensioners are not yet taking up fully the benefits to which they are entitled. We must remind pensioners about the minimum income guarantee because taking it up would give them £100 more in disposable income than they had when the Government were elected. Will she remind pensioners that they ought to take up the minimum income guarantee, especially as the application forms have been simplified?

Mrs. Liddell: Predictably, my hon. Friend makes a sensible point. Many pensioners are too shy to apply for the benefits that are available to them. Indeed, some may not have received their winter fuel allowance, and I urge them to take it up. There is a helpline, and I am sure that the House will not mind me reading out the number, which is 0845-915-1515. Help is available for pensioners and it is important that they realise that the minimum income guarantee is their due. It is not charity; it is their due. Many pensioners are not aware that, from April 2001, pensioners who have savings of up to £6,000 before their

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minimum income guarantee award can still receive the minimum income guarantee. The savings limit is to go up to £12,000. That is very important for every pensioner: the Opposition do not like it, but pensioners do.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): I too welcome the Secretary of State to her post. May I ask her how the issue of fuel payments relates to the welcome announcement of free personal care? Although extracted at the point of a parliamentary gun, and humiliating for the Secretary of State, it was welcome none the less.

Was the Secretary of State kept in the dark about the announcement yesterday, as suggested by that fine newspaper the Daily Record this morning? If not, can she explain why she said on yesterday's "Today" programme that the Scottish Executive were still considering the matter and would report back--just a few minutes before the First Minister's announcement?

Mrs. Liddell: What a pleasure it is to see the hon. Gentleman back in his place. We have not seen him here for a long time. Indeed, when he last left he said that he was going to Holyrood because this place was--what was it?--an outdated irrelevance. Apparently we were soon to be extinct, but now the hon. Gentleman is coming back. Edinburgh is not big enough for him and his hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney).

In the context of personal care and the Sutherland report, it is a sign of the strength of the devolution settlement that the Government have provided a Scottish Parliament with the will of the Scottish people. As for what I said yesterday on the "Today" programme, the hon. Gentleman will today hear from the Scottish Executive about their arrangements for the Chisholm committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Chisholm) is present now.

Labour Members believe in devolution as something that strengthens the United Kingdom, unlike the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who wants to split Scotland from the United Kingdom and has been chased back down here by his hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside. He is the weakest link; goodbye.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): I add my welcome and congratulations to those extended to the Secretary of State and the Minister.

Does the Secretary of State believe that the winter fuel payment, together with other relevant Government measures, can help to cut the tragic incidence of hypothermia and other cold-related serious illnesses among the elderly, not least in the cold north-east of Scotland?

Mrs. Liddell: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The whole issue of fuel poverty has been at the forefront of the Government's thinking. A fuel poverty taskforce, working across Government and with the devolved Administrations, has come up with real proposals to deal with the problem. It is estimated that some 35,000 deaths in the United Kingdom are caused by diseases related to cold, which is why what the official Opposition propose is such an unpleasant prospect. They intend to get rid of a winter fuel payment that puts £200 into the pockets of pensioners--the people who need it most.

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Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I welcome the Secretary of State and the Minister to their new responsibilities.

May I raise again the question of benefits to pensioners from free personal care? The right hon. Lady says that the Executive are looking at the Sutherland proposals, whereas the First Minister is embracing the Sutherland principles in full. Is there not an incompatibility between those two expressed viewpoints? And what on earth was Lord Lipsey doing in Scotland over the last few weeks if he was not seeking to influence the decision of the Executive? My impression was not that he was there to learn reeling from the White Heather club.

Mrs. Liddell: I suspect that the hon. Gentleman does not even know what the White Heather club is.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): Oh yes he does.

Mrs. Liddell: Perhaps I was being over-generous: I did not think the hon. Gentleman was of that vintage. Anyway, I thank him for his good wishes.

As for the Sutherland proposals for personal care, because of the devolved settlement which the hon. Gentleman's party opposed, the Scottish Executive are in a position to make their own arrangements for care of the elderly. I believe in devolution; I have been committed to it for many years. The opponents of devolution sit on the Conservative Benches, and link themselves to the separatists.

Lord Lipsey is free to go to Scotland and say whatever he wants. Unlike some Opposition parties, we do not seek to cut Scotland off from the rest of the United Kingdom. As the Scottish Executive take further their proposals on the Sutherland report, they will have to consider the means whereby those proposals are implemented. That is common sense: it is what I said yesterday, and what the First Minister said yesterday.

I have known the First Minister for 30 years, and I have a good deal of respect and affection for him. He is leading Scotland along with this Westminster Government, because we believe that together we can create a better Scotland and a better United Kingdom.

Mr. Grieve: I thank the right hon. Lady; I find those remarks reassuring. However, what seems to have occurred in the past 18 months has been the operation of a system in which the Government have given devolution with one hand, but tried to claw it back through the back door--through the mechanism of Labour party control--with the other. May we have some reassurance that that USSR style of Government will not be hers, and that in future there will be transparency and a respect for the arrangements to which devolution inevitably leads?

Mrs. Liddell: I was over-generous in assuming that the hon. Gentleman was much younger than he is, because he obviously lives in some sort of dark age. The reality of devolution is that the Scottish Parliament can take its own decisions. It was Conservative Members who opposed devolution, and who--in some of their wilder proposals--would seek to reduce the powers of Scottish Members in this Chamber. They will be going into the next general election saying, "Please vote for me because I will not be voting at Westminster on your behalf." Those are the

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bizarre proposals that the hon. Gentleman promotes. Labour Members believe in partnership--a partnership of the Scottish Parliament with this Parliament, a partnership that rights a 300-year-old wrong, and a partnership that strengthens the United Kingdom.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): May I also congratulate my right hon. Friend on becoming the Secretary of State? Does she agree with me--my constituency has one of the highest proportion of over-60s--that over-60s and pensioners are far better off under this Government than they would be if any Opposition party had control?

Mrs. Liddell: I well remember going at the end of last year to a pensioners' club in my hon. Friend's constituency. It was obvious from the support that he was enjoying that his pensioner community very much recognises what the Government are doing for them. As election fever is whipped up and we see the posturing of Conservative Members, of course we have to examine what they would do for the pensioners of Scotland--such as removing the winter fuel allowance. However, many pensioners are interested not only in pensioner issues, but in issues such as the working families tax credit--which is under threat from Conservative Members. Pensioners are also interested in the new deal--which is under threat from Conservative Members. All the communities of Scotland, including the communities in my hon. Friend's constituency and in mine, recognise that the Labour Government are working for the people of Scotland.

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