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House of Commons

Monday 10 December 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Double Taxation Relief

The Vice-Chamberlain Of The Household reported Her Majesty's Answer to the Address, as follows:

I have received your Addresses praying that the Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Lithuania) Order 2001 and the Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan) Order 2001 be made in the form of the drafts laid before your House.

I will comply with your request.


Mr. Speaker: I regret to have to report to the House the death of Sir Raymond Powell, Member for Ogmore. I am sure that hon. Members in all parts of the House will join me in mourning the loss of a colleague and in extending our sympathy to the hon. Member's family and friends.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Information and Communications Technology

1. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): What plans he has to enable the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service to use common IT communications. [19141]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown): Mr. Speaker, may I identify Government Front-Bench Members with your remarks about our colleague, Sir Ray Powell? As a former Chief Whip, may I add that Sir Ray will be very much missed on our side?

We are bringing the Employment Service together with those parts of the Benefits Agency that support people of working age, to create Jobcentre Plus. The first 49 Jobcentre Plus pathfinders went live on 22 October. I am pleased to announce that the Brent Jobcentre Plus pathfinder, a group of four offices, opened this morning. That brings the total to 53. We plan progressively to extend that integration nation wide, beginning next year.

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We are investing to upgrade and replace the Department's outdated computer systems. We want to ensure that everyone, including people who use Jobcentre Plus, receives a modern service. The new and improved information technology that we are developing will allow us to capture the necessary information from people face to face or over the phone, instead of getting them to fill in multiple benefit claims forms. We will replace the main income support and jobseeker's allowance benefit processing systems and modernise the payments system, to improve the efficiency of the service that we provide.

Brian White: The new deal worked because it had good IT support. One of the lessons of the state earnings-related pension scheme debacle was the failure to communicate with Department of Social Security offices. The permanent secretary said that we needed to bring it up to date. Given that major progress has been made, will the Minister confirm that it remains a key priority for the Government?

Mr. Brown: Yes, I can confirm that. We want to ensure that all the new desktop infrastructure that we are rolling out into the Benefits Agency offices can run the major Employment Service systems. We are targeting the end of next year for having everything in place.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant): Mr. Speaker, I associate Conservative Members with your remarks about the former Member for Ogmore. He was a character who brought a distinctive flavour to the House and we shall miss him.

We agree with the Minister that it is important that the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service communicate with each other. The ONE project was supposed to be about that. Last week, the Department placed in the Library a copy of its evaluation of ONE. Does the Minister acknowledge its results? The conclusions state:

either for jobseekers or

Ministers say that they believe in evidence-based policy. Now that the Minister has the evidence, will he change the policy?

Mr. Brown: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his words about our former colleague, the Member for Ogmore, not least because Sir Ray Powell had dealings with his Opposition counterpart through the Whips Office. I agree that he will be sorely missed.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government would change their policy. The answer is no. It is not fair of him to dip into the evaluation of the ONE pilot and partially quote from it. He missed out many of the evaluation's positive points about working across Departments and with stakeholders. Our actions are partly based on the evaluation, but events have moved on and we intend Jobcentre Plus and the IT that supports it to be focused on moving people from welfare to work.

It was implicit in the hon. Gentleman's question that some of the equipment with which we have to work is 20 years old. I agree that it is long overdue for overhaul

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and modernisation. It would be reasonable to pause and consider why the equipment was not upgraded and modernised in 18 years of Conservative Administrations.

Winter Fuel Allowance (Wales)

2. Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): How many pensioners in Wales will receive the winter fuel allowance this winter. [19142]

The Minister for Pensions (Mr. Ian McCartney): Last winter in Wales, just over 600,000 people aged 60 and over received a winter fuel payment. A similar number will receive the payment this winter, and about 18,000 people will benefit in my hon. Friend's constituency.

Mr. Edwards: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and to the Government for their decision to increase the winter fuel allowance for the rest of this Parliament. Does he agree that this will be particularly welcome in Wales, where an awful lot of pensioners are really quite poor, and where more than 50 per cent. of women pensioners do not receive the full state pension because of disadvantages in the labour market when they were younger, or because of some of the disadvantages in the social security system? Does he agree that targeted measures such as the winter fuel allowance, the minimum income guarantee for pensioners and the pension credit will work in the interests of Wales' pensioners?

Mr. McCartney: My hon. Friend's description of the history of a low-paying Wales is absolutely right. Before the universal benefit of the national minimum wage, Wales was the low-pay capital of Europe. From 2003, the pension credit will replace the current benefit, and two thirds of its recipients will be women. The state second pension, which commences in April next year, will right a wrong perpetrated many years ago when 2 million carers and 14 million low-paid workers—the majority of them women—were excluded. The Government are committed to righting the wrongs of previous Administrations and to ensuring that women get a retirement settlement.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): How many pensioners are still waiting for last year's payment or, indeed, payment from previous years?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman's question must be related to Wales.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to emphasise that the winter fuel allowance is available not only to pensioners but to males and females over the age of 60? Will he also assure the House that sufficient attention will be given to publicising that fact throughout the country, so that all people over 60 are aware of their eligibility?

Mr. McCartney: We are publicising that fact. [Interruption.] I notice that Conservative Members are denying that Wales is a country. As a Celt, I certainly do not do so.

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There will be a £200 winter fuel allowance for each eligible household, worth £4 a week. The Chancellor made it clear in his statement that the payment will remain at £200 for the remainder of this Parliament. About 11.5 million pensioner households will benefit from the measure, this winter and beyond. That will be a significant factor in reducing fuel poverty among the elderly.

Universal Bank

3. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): If he will make a statement on the progress of the universal bank. [19143]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling): Steady progress is being made on the implementation of universal banking services, which are on schedule for introduction in April 2003.

Dr. Cable: May I ask the Minister, in relation to the April 2003 launch, whether the Post Office card account will be ready at that time? Will he also tell the House how many of those card accounts he is planning to introduce?

Mr. Darling: The card account is an integral part of the universal banking services. The number of such accounts is the subject of negotiations between the Post Office and its various partners, and it would not be right to air the content of those discussions on the Floor of the House, for obvious reasons.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Will the Secretary of State confirm that, when the universal bank was announced, it was intended to provide revenues to fill the black hole of £400 million in the finances of sub-post offices caused by the Government's decision to force people to have their benefit payments made into their bank accounts? Will he also confirm that, far from contributing revenues to make good that lost income, the universal bank will cost £180 million over its first five years? Will he, therefore, assure the House that neither he nor the universal bank will try to obtain revenues from the poorest of the poor by charging the bank's users, who will, by and large, be benefit recipients who previously had no bank account? Is it not monstrous that he should even think of getting money from such a source?

Mr. Darling: I admire the right hon. Gentleman's gall. I thought that he might have wanted to refer to the benefit payment card, which I see has yet again been the subject of damning criticism by a Select Committee, and for which he was responsible. He says that people are being forced to move to automated credit transfer, but as a former Secretary of State for Social Security, he must be aware that about 40 per cent. of benefit and pension recipients already receive their money by ACT. In relation to child benefit, something like 57 per cent. of new applicants ask that the money be paid directly into a bank account. Because of that, we needed to put in place measures that would protect the position of the Post Office. The universal bank is designed to do just that.

The right hon. Gentleman presided over a situation in which benefit card costs rocketed out of control and he came up with a product that was virtually obsolete before it was delivered; but I believe that the universal banking service provides the Post Office with the best opportunity to manage the change that is already taking place.

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