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Mr. Boswell: We will not debate the tone of our response, but the Minister of State has given information that was not in his press release. I ask him to go back to the organisations representing older people and look with them long and hard at whether he can to some extent either ease the requirements or improve the performance of the Department in ensuring that benefit is restored quickly where it is withdrawn. That is the major outstanding concern. It would help everyone if he gave an assurance that he will at least look at that.
Mr. McCartney: We have a common approach in our Department. We work with all the stakeholders regularly. That work is about not just policy but how we can manage the service better. If the hon. Gentleman wants an assurance, that is exactly what we are doing. We are involving stakeholders in the design of the pension service locally. There is potential for them to be involved in our outreach work in the community with older people. It is part of the Government's strategy of engaging with older people: not just providing services passively but being proactive and involved where pensioners are basedin their local communityworking with pensioner organisations and stakeholders. It has been an ongoing policy of the Government since we won the general election in 1997.
We have created the better government for older people project and a Cabinet sub-Committee on older people. We are the first Government ever to have a strategy for people over 50, working across Government to introduce better services, to develop policy and initiatives. This Government are alive to the needs of pensionersunlike the previous Government, who ignored them.
The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) asked about long-term care and hospital downrating. Those in long-term care are generally left with a personal expenses allowance after paying their care home fees. That is intended to strike a fair balance between financial help and state providers, and avoid double provision.
In addition, a great deal of work has been done in connection with residential care in nursing homes. The abolition of preserved rights gives registered protection for local authorities' contractual arrangements for the first time. The phasing out of residential and part III accommodation rates will provide a fairer system of funding for long-term care. At the moment, about half of all preserved rights customers do not have enough public support to cover their fees. Many have to pay some of their personal allowance towards the fees. The new arrangements will mean that those customers no longer have to do that.
Some questions were asked about the uprating of disability and carers benefits in connection with invalid care allowance. The regulatory reform order currently before the deregulation Committees of the House of Lords and the House of Commons will provide for the removal
The hon. Gentleman also asked what had happened to housing benefit reform. The strategy for housing benefit was set out in response to the consultation on the housing Green Paper in December 2000. First, we are working with local authorities to drive up standards of service, tackle fraud and error and reduce barriers to work. Secondly, we have begun rent restructuring in the social rented sector. We believe that it is essential to level those two stages before considering more fundamental structural reform.
The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) asked about improving the take-up of housing benefits. Local authorities have been given a legal duty to encourage take-up of housing benefit and council tax benefit. Much of that is achieved in day-to-day business rather than through special campaignsbut we are not complacent, and we support local campaigns when they take place.
We do a lot of campaigning about entitlementsbut when we do, the Opposition usually complain that we are spending money. What is wrong with giving people an entitlement and then telling them about it? When we do that the Opposition complain, but when they come to a debate here, they complain that we are not doing enough of it. What do they want? Do they want us to let people know or not? My colleagues and I are prepared to work with the stakeholders to produce effective innovative approaches to campaigning on take-up, and we continue to do that on a regular basisand when we do, the Opposition spokesman complains.
I think that on pensions strategy we agree that there must be partnership, but I must make one point about the scaremongering that we have heard: 66 per cent. of large employers still have some form of pension provision. We have introduced the simplification review, the Myners review, the minimum funding requirement and the Sandler review. We are the first Government in history to take seriously the need to carry out a fundamental review of ways to help the providers of pensions to continue to provide them on a basis of partnership.
I think that we will come back to this debate when the Sandler review is in the public domain. There is also the simplification review, and the implementation of the minimum funding requirement arrangements following the Myners report, to which we are already committed.
Let us be clear: the Government support and are alert to the need to increase the pool of employees who have a vehicle for their pension, whether that be a stakeholder pension, a defined benefit, a defined contribution or some other form. It is important to work with employers to continue that provision.
It is interesting to note that contributions to non-state pensions are at their highest ever£19 billion up in real terms since the 1997 election. We are not complacent, but we are the first Government ever to participate effectively with the industry on an ongoing basis to find ways of improving and maintaining pension funds and access to pensions. For those who did not have access, we have created the stakeholder pension to give them access for the first time. Six hundred thousand people who this time
That is progress. This is the first Government in a generation to make progress and benefit large numbers of people who were abandoned by the Conservatives with no hope of a pensionand the Liberals had no view about that at all.
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): On defined benefit pensions and final salary pensions, some companies are saying that times are hard and that they are going to get rid of the schemesas a constituent who visited my surgery on Friday has been toldso will the Minister point out to those companies that when times were good they took a contributions holiday? The Government will have to work with such companies to honour the moral contract. At present, employers are saying, "I wasn't around then so I don't have to pay the consequences".
Mr. McCartney: Another Liberal Democrat campaign tactic! We have held Adjournment debates on those issues recently and the hon. Gentleman's party did not participate. If the hon. Gentleman had serious points to make, he should have listened to his hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) who spoke earlier and whose pensions policy was economic illiteracy. The Liberals' pensions policy is economic illiteracy. The problem for the Liberals is that the hon. Member for Northavon cannot agree with the leader of his party on their policy for the next election. He came to plead for support from the House because he cannot get it from the leader of the Liberal Democrat party.
I ask my hon. Friends to support both orders. I commend the orders to the House. We are the first Government in more than a generation with a strategy to end poverty among children, a strategy to tackle and end poverty among older people and a strategy to make work pay. At last, we have a Government who are on the side of all the citizens of this countrynot like the last Government, who abandoned them.