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Child Poverty

6. Mr. Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough): What plans he has to increase the income of the parents of children living in poverty. [150485]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley): "Opportunity for All" describes a range of measures that we are taking to

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reduce the number of children living in poverty. From April this year, the working families tax credit, for instance, will guarantee a family with one child and one adult in full-time work a minimum income of £214 a week. The effect of all the changes that we have made means that, by April, all families with children will be better off, on average, by £15 per week in real terms compared to 1997, with the poorest gaining, on average, twice that amount.

Mr. Ennis: Is my hon. Friend aware that since the Government came to power, more than 100,000 children have been lifted out of poverty in Yorkshire and Humberside alone? That is good news for my constituency, which, as he knows, has the lowest level of gross domestic product per capita in the UK. Does he agree that one group of parents who face particular difficulty are those of disabled children? How do the Government intend to help those parents?

Mr. Bayley: I can confirm that my hon. Friend is right. In Yorkshire, 100,000 children are now living above, rather than below, the poverty level. The number is far greater throughout the country as a whole, where1.1 million children have now moved above the poverty line. In last week's Child Poverty Action Group report, Jonathan Bradshaw, who wrote the child poverty chapter, stated:

We are this year increasing the disabled child premium in income-related benefits, which are received by the poorest families with disabled children. We are doing so because we recognise the need to target more help on families with disabled children.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): The close association between poverty and disability has already been mentioned; I suspect that it applies especially when breadwinners and families are involved. Given that association, what consideration is the Under-Secretary giving to the fears expressed by the Remploy unions and others that incentives to so-called progression under the workstep scheme may lead to deskilling and poorer incomes for disabled people who are now in supported employment?

Mr. Bayley: The Government continue to support Remploy through my colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment, who have introduced new leadership for the company and are planning a long-term secure future for supported employment. However, that is only part of the picture of what the Government are doing to improve employment opportunities for disabled people. We introduced the disabled persons tax credit and, through the new deal for disabled people, we have been piloting ways of enabling the many hundreds of thousands of disabled people who are on incapacity benefits and want to get back into work to achieve that ambition.

Winter Fuel Allowance

7. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): How many people he expects will benefit from the winter fuel allowance for 2001-02. [150486]

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The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (

Mr. Jeff Rooker): As I have told the House, we have issued about 11 million payments this winter, about 21,000 of which were made in my hon. Friend's constituency. We will announce our proposals for next winter in due course, in the usual way.

Mr. Marsden: Does my right hon. Friend agree that those figures are a striking testament to the effectiveness of the Government's policy in pursuing the winter fuel payment? Given that extraordinarily high take-up, does he have any estimates of the cost that would be incurred by civil servants if they had to disaggregate and question every single pensioner in the country about whether to retain the separate winter fuel payment or to incorporate it in pensions?

Mr. Rooker: It would amount to a crass waste of public money, even if the Opposition were to ask the civil service to carry out the assessment, as they are entitled to do in the run-up to an election. Making such a change would collapse the income tax and social security systems. It would be merely a figleaf, as there would be no consistent uprating policy for pensions and the winter fuel payment. A tax-free cash payment that is made to everybody and that has proved extremely popular seems the best way to continue.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): In considering the number of claimants of this year's winter fuel payments, will the Minister of State take into account what the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), told me last July? She said that all backdated claims would be paid by the end of September, but I understand that that has now been put back to March. How many claims will still be outstanding in March in respect of last year's payments?

Mr. Rooker: The only people about whom we are talking are men between the ages of 60 and 65 who, generally speaking, happen to have made no contact with my Department. In other words, they will be at work and will not be receiving any benefits, and the Government do not know where they all are. They have to make a claim and they can do so at almost any time. Claims are continually coming in and some remain to be processed.

Some 140,000 claims are currently in the processof being clerically assessed and 70,000 claims are determined and awaiting payment, which is due to be made in the first two weeks of this month. Some 20,000 claims are currently being processed. Some people aged between 60 and 64, including hon. Members, may choose not to claim, but may then change their mind. It is as simple as that.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): Does the Minister agree that the key merit of the winter fuel allowance is that it is not taxed and that it does not hit benefits? That would not be the case if it were added to the basic state pension; many Conservative Members would like us to do that. Is it not time for the Tory party to admit that the winter fuel allowance works and that it should be here to stay?

Mr. Rooker: My hon. Friend is right. If everything were subsumed in the way Conservative Members advocate, the winter fuel allowance would wither on the

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vine, and in future people would not be able to tell what had happened to it. Under a Labour Government, people can tell--because we are paying it.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): The Government should be congratulated on the increase in the winter fuel allowance. However, what assessment has the Minister made, in the run-up to the Budget on Wednesday, of a proposed extension of the winter fuel allowance to disabled people? Do the Government realise that approximately 1 million people under the age of 60 would benefit from an extension of the winter fuel allowance to those on the higher rate of disability living allowance? That is not covered by the mobility and care components of DLA.

Mr. Rooker: No, but the cost of fuel is already covered in the benefits, as the hon. Gentleman knows. He is not living in the real world if he believes that he could confine an extension of the winter fuel allowance to selected, targeted groups of disabled people.

Minimum Income Guarantee

8. Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): What his most recent estimate is of the number of pensioners in receipt of the minimum income guarantee and the number of eligible pensioners who have not applied. [150487]

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling): Nearly 2 million pensioners currently benefit from the minimum income guarantee. I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that it is difficult to be sure of exactly how many people might be eligible for it or of how many never apply.

Mr. Williams: In view of the massive increase in the minimum income guarantee in April, from £78 to £92 a week for single people, and from £121 to £140 a week for couples, will there be an advertising campaign, similar to last year's Thora Hird campaign, to try to ensure that those who are eligible but do not apply are told of their rights and receive that superlative increase?

Mr. Darling: Yes. As my hon. Friend knows, we have been advertising the minimum income guarantee over the past few months, and the campaign will continue. Indeed, we are about to write to pensioners who, until now, have been excluded by the low level of the capital rules. They are being increased to £12,000; that means that more pensioners will be eligible for the minimum income guarantee.

When the capital rules disappear from the social security system for the first time in 2003, many more pensioners will benefit from the minimum income guarantee as part of the pension credit. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State told the House a few moments ago, that will result in 5.5 million pensioners benefiting from a significant step forward in tackling pensioner poverty as well as ensuring that the millions of pensioners who have been thrifty and saved all their lives are rewarded, not punished, for their efforts.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): It is surprising that the Secretary of State does not know the number of

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pensioners who could benefit from the minimum income guarantee. It is a big flaw in the Government's strategy for tackling pensioner poverty if he cannot tell hon. Members the number of people who are eligible and the number who receive that minimum income.

On the broader question, does not the Secretary of State agree that the majority of pensioners want a guarantee not of a minimum income, but of a decent pension? In the light of what he has told the House, does he have faith that the social security system will provide that? Should not the Government re-examine their support for the state pension system?

Mr. Darling: Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman's two points. First, as he should know, estimates of the number of people who might be eligible for the minimum income guarantee vary widely. The state does not hold information on everybody's bank accounts or on people who do not choose to contact it; that has always been the case.

On pensioner support, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to remind the House and him that, in April, pensions will increase by £5 a week for a single person and £8 a week for a couple; the following year, they will increase by a further £3 a week for a single person and £4.80 for a couple--the Conservative party could never do that because it would not have the requisite money. On top of that, we are increasing help for the poorest pensioners. In this day and age, it is scandalous that so many pensioners live in poverty; that is why we are increasing the minimum income guarantee to £92 a week in April. From 2003, it will increase to £100 a week.

When it comes to the bit, British pensioners will know which party in government can do the right thing: eradicate pensioner poverty and help all pensioners, including thrifty pensioners through the pension credit, and which party in government would have the money to make that decision in the first place. The Tories most certainly would not.

Mr. Eddie O'Hara (Knowsley, South): While encouraging the Government to do all they can to increase the state retirement pension, may I also thank the Secretary of State for what he has done for the poorest pensioners in my constituency? About 14 per cent. of those who benefit from the minimum income guarantee are in the north-west, and they are most heavily concentrated in Merseyside constituencies such as mine. My right hon. Friend has targeted the poorest pensioners in my constituency, who are the most significant group, and the new thresholds will target the next most significant group of pensioners. Will he assure the House that he will continue to target the pensioners whom I represent?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right. Unfortunately, far too many pensioners--particularly in parts of the country where wages were historically low, or where there were long periods of high unemployment--were being expected to live on nothing but the basic state pension. That was not enough. The Government's first priority on being elected was to begin to tackle pensioner poverty. That is why we introduced the minimum income guarantee, which was opposed by the Conservatives. It is interesting that their proposals are designed to benefit the top 10 per cent. of the pensioner population and not the others.

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On top of introducing the minimum income guarantee, the second stage of our policy is to help the millions of pensioners--some of whom live in my hon. Friend's constituency--who are by no means well off but who have saved a little money, only to find that the social security system that we inherited penalises them for what they have done. The pension credit, on top of the minimum income guarantee, will mean not only that we help millions of pensioners out of poverty, but that we help the hard-working men and women of this country who have scrimped and saved throughout their lives. They will now receive extra help that was never there in the past.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): Following the end of the £15 million take-up campaign, will the Secretary of State confirm that only about 100,000 people have benefited from the minimum income guarantee? Although we are pleased that those people have some extra money, will he tell us what he plans to do to contact the 400,000 missing people whom Ministers said were legally entitled to an increased minimum income guarantee?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Lady should not be so patronising towards people who have applied for and obtained money under the minimum income guarantee. The average amount that they receive is about £20 a week, which makes a big difference to pensioners who qualify. Let me repeat--as the hon. Lady is evidently hard of understanding, if not hard of hearing--the point that I have made on many occasions. The reason many people do not qualify at the moment is that, under the present system that we inherited, the capital rules hit anybody who saves a modest amount of money. [Interruption.] We want to ensure, through the minimum income guarantee, that from 2003 no pensioner will have to live on less than £100 a week. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady has asked a question; she should listen to the answer.

Mr. Darling: The Conservative party is having some difficulty in coping with a Government who have a consistent pension policy that lasts more than nine months, and has not had to be torn up because it is discovered to be all wrong. Our policy is delivering more money to millions of pensioners, as well as overhauling the pension system to ensure that, for the first time ever, we not only eradicate pensioner poverty but help millions of pensioners who have put a little money by and who should be rewarded for their thrift, not punished for it as they were under the Conservatives.

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