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It was perhaps slightly unwise of the Minister to nod her agreement that she would be prepared to repeat everything that she said without reference to notes. I say that not least because when Lord Falconer was similarly challenged, he said that it would not be possible, because
Like the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton- Brown), I pay tribute to the many organisations that have done the House a great service by providing briefings to all parties during our lengthy deliberations on this important Bill. I, too, wish the Bill a speedy progress to the statute book. It is much needed and many people have been arguing for it for a long time. I am delighted that it can now move rapidly to Royal Assent, and rightly so.
Ms Keeble: When I nodded in response to what the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) was saying, I was suggesting that he was making a good joke, rather than that I could repeat all that I had said without notes. He asked about the homelessness strategy; it will be out very soon. Following on from that will be the priority needs order, setting out the new categories of people who will be entitled to housing, and other broad strategies to improve the provision of social housing and the position of people in the private sector.
People have repeatedly statedas did the hon. Member for Bath just nowthat this is the last time we shall debate this Bill, but there has been a continuous process of improving the Bill in all our discussions and debates, which shows that scrutiny in this place works. It has worked to great effect, even at this late stage, to improve the position of homeless families, children and people who are not in priority need, and of groups who previously had no help from the state with their housing.
I echo what other hon. Members have said about the enormous service that all the Officers of the House have given to us. I also echo what they have said about the importance of the Bill; it will lead to a dramatic improvement in the rights of people to housing and to housing advice. Despite some of the things that have been said, there has been all-party support for the Bill, and I look forward to seeing those rights in action out in the community.
Mr. Darling: These orders will uprate most benefits in the normal way, but, as in every year since 1998, this year I am able to increase some benefits by more than the rate of inflation. We are able to do that because of our success in helping people into work. By making work pay and by making work possible, we now have the lowest unemployment rate of any of the major industrialised countries for the first time in more than half a century.
Since 1997, claimant unemployment has fallen by over a third, and long-term unemployment is down by more than two thirds. As a result of that, we have saved £4 billion on the cost of unemployment and £0.5 billion has been saved by getting more lone parents into work, thanks, to a large extent, to the new deal. We have also started to bear down on fraud. All that has meant more money to invest in front-line public services, and more money to provide extra help where it is needed.
Our objective is to ensure that we do everything that we can to help all those who can work to do so and provide greater security for those who are unable to work or who are retired. I shall set out briefly how we are able to do more in line with our priorities. First, we want to do more to help families with children, and to enable parents to balance their work and home lives. So, from this April, we are raising the standard rate of maternity allowance and statutory maternity pay from £62.20 to £75 a week. As I told the House in November, that is the largest increase in maternity benefit since 1958.
Next year, we will raise maternity benefit again, to £100 a week, and at the same time we will also increase the payment period from 18 to 26 weeks, and increase the ordinary maternity leave to 26 weeks followed by the option of a further 26 weeks unpaid. That will allow women to take up to a year off work when their children are born. At the same time, we shall introduce a new right to two weeks paid paternity leave, and a new right to 26 weeks paid adoption leave plus a further 26 weeks unpaid leave.
We want to do more for families with children, as we have done in each of the last four years. Our objective is to end child poverty in a generation, and to halve it in 10 years. That is why we have increased child benefit by 25 per cent. more than inflation since 1997, and it will rise again this year. We have also increased the income support allowances for children under the age of 11 by 80 per cent. in real terms, which provides real help to families on low incomes.
As a result of these and other tax and benefit measures, along with policies that are helping more parents into work, we have started to make significant inroads into tackling child poverty. Next year, in addition to further measures, the child tax credit will also help us move along
We have already extended benefits for severely disabled three and four-year-olds. Some 6,000 children and their families are now better off by more than £38 a week. But we want to do more than that to help those on the lowest incomes. When we came to office, the extra money paid to low-income families with a disabled child was just £21 a week. Last year, we increased that by more than £7 a week. This year, we intend to increase it by a further £5 on top of the normal uprating to a new rate of £35.50, which will benefit about 80,000 children. Next year, it will rise again by a further £5 more than inflation, to more than £40 a week, benefiting a large number of children who need that help. That will help families on low incomes, both in and out of work, and provide greater security where it is most needed.
I can also confirm that the orders include the provision to remove barriers to work for severely disabled people, by making sure that work pays. From April we will no longer take into account the earnings of disabled people, or their partners, in the independent living fund. For the small number of families affected, that will be worth an average of £130 a week. We have also set out plans substantially to increase the capital limits, by extending help to people with savings of up to £18,500.
There is one new measure that I would like to draw to the attention of the House, which we propose to introduce alongside the pension credit. Members on all sides have argued that the hospital downrating rules can cause difficulties and distress for those affected, and for their families. Indeed, I am sure that most of us have come across cases in our constituencies in which that has happened. We said that we would review the rules, and we have. Amendments to the State Pension Credit Bill in another place urged us to change the rules for pensioners, and we have decided to go further and include other benefits paid to help people with the cost of everyday living.
The principle of avoiding double payment, which has been a feature of the welfare system since 1948, is important, and I do not intend to undermine that principle. But we recognise that people have continuing financial commitments when they go into hospital. I have therefore decided to change the rules, so that no reduction in pensions occurs until someone has been in hospital for 13 weeks, rather than the current six weeks. An estimated 26,000 people will benefit from this measure, at a cost of around £40 million a year.
On pensions, it is important to look at the uprating measures as part of the wider pensions strategy. The basic state pension is, and will remain, the foundation of pensioner incomes, and this year it will rise again in real terms by £3 for single pensioners and £4.80 for couples, on top of the last year's increases, which makes a total rise of 7 per cent. above inflation. We have also guaranteed that future rises in the basic state pension will be at least £100 a year for single pensioners and at least £160 a year for couples, and I can confirm that today.
Next year, the minimum income guarantee will rise again to at least £100, and it will rise in line with earnings for the rest of this Parliament. That represents real progress towards ending pensioner poverty. Around £2.5 billion of the cost of this uprating will go to the poorest third of pensioners, which is three times more than an earnings link would have given them. Since 1997, 98 per cent. of pensioners are better off than they would have been if we had returned to an earnings link.
The House will shortly debate the principles and details of the State Pension Credit Bill, which has now passed through all its stages in another place. That will, of course, remove the disincentives inherent in the system that we inherited, because it addresses the long-standing tension between providing a floor below which pensioner incomes should not fall and encouraging people to save for retirement. It will also reward thrift and about 5 million pensioners on low or modest incomes will gain, on average, £400 a year. More than half the beneficiaries are women. Those who oppose the pension credit might want to reflect on what a difference its success would make. The pension credit will rectify a long-standing anomaly in the social security system and benefit a large number of pensioners.
The state second pension will also be introduced in April, which will benefit some 18 million people 2 million disabled people, 2 million carers and 14 million people on low earnings. A combination of what we have done on the basic state pension; the minimum income guarantee, which will rise again; the pension credit, which will reward savings; and the state second pension means that we can do far more than ever to ensure that we help all pensioners, but especially those facing poverty and those living on modest savings and modest incomes, who ought to be helped for their efforts rather than held back by the system that we inherited.
The measures before the House will be welcomed by a large number of people of working and of pension age as well as by families with children. They mark another stage in our reforms of the welfare state. We have been able to release funds by getting more people into work and by cutting fraud. We are able to spend more money where it is needed most. I commend the orders to the House.