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14 Nov 2002 : Column 243—continued

James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman is referring to his time as an adviser to the Conservative Government. In April, I asked him whether he would apologise for the fact that, when he advised that Government, the income of the bottom 10 per cent. fell by 17 per cent. in absolute terms. He said that he did not recognise those figures. Does he recognise them now, and how does he square them with his commitment to the vulnerable?

Mr. Willetts: If the hon. Gentleman is talking about the absolute income of the poorest members of our society, and if we are to measure that in the way that the Prime Minister now wishes to measure it—in other words, considering not the measure of poverty with which the Prime Minister began, but median income in 1997 and whether more or fewer people are poor against that measure years later, which is what he now talks about—I believe that, on the Prime Minister's chosen measure of poverty, we succeeded in reducing poverty during our period in office. If the hon. Gentleman wants to use a relative measure, we can argue about the case for relativity; if he wants to use the Prime Minister's preferred measure, I think that we have a proud record.

I want to speak briefly about the health agenda before discussing welfare reform. On our Front Bench, we have at least one new health spokesman—I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) to his post—and that shows how much talent we have on this side of the House. We have fresh faces who will carry

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forward the battle—[Interruption.] I also welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who has also joined our Front-Bench health team. We believe that more centralised control is not the right way to reform health. The way to improve the quality of our health service is to have greater freedom for hospitals. That must be the right way forward.

There are many Bills dealing with health in the Queen's Speech. There is also a Bill dealing with antisocial behaviour. I hope that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will be able to tell us whether his proposals on antisocial behaviour will include measures that concern the benefit entitlements of families who may be suspected of involvement in such behaviour. The right hon. Gentleman knows the history. At one point the Prime Minister proposed that child benefit should be taken away from families who were suspected of involvement with antisocial behaviour. It was one of those classic front-page Xcrackdown" stories. We all heard how the right hon. Gentleman was going to get tough on antisocial behaviour. Then he beat a hasty retreat. As often happens, it was the right hon. Member for Birkenhead who proposed an alternative that looked as if it might rescue the Prime Minister. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead said that housing benefit should be used instead, as it was the most effective device in using the benefit system to tackle antisocial behaviour.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House who have serious problems of antisocial behaviour in their constituencies know that one of the things that most concentrates the minds of the families who, sadly, seem to be responsible for such behaviour is the thought that if they carry on they may lose their house. None of us wants them to lose their houses, but the threat must be credible. If it is, it often leads to parents at last getting a grip on their children.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead took the measure into Committee as a private Member's Bill. The Conservatives approached it constructively.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) indicated assent.

Mr. Willetts: I am pleased to see the right hon. Gentleman nod. I want to hear from the Secretary of State whether a proposal for withdrawal of housing benefit from people who behave in an antisocial way will be part of the legislation on antisocial behaviour. Will there be a proposal on child benefit as the Prime Minister originally suggested, or have the Government completely given up on the idea of using benefits to tackle that serious problem? I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to tell us about that. The Conservatives have no objection in principle to using the benefit system as a lever to tackle the problem. We want to hear what the Government's approach is.

Although there is that measure on antisocial behaviour, we do not have anything in the Queen's Speech on pensions—I declare the interests that appear in the Register of Members' Interests. I hope that the Secretary of State will offer us some account of what policies he will put before the House to tackle the pension crisis. So far, we have had confusion and uncertainty about what exactly the Government will do.

We have had debates about compulsion. Some Ministers are supposed to favour compulsion, others not. Will there be any reduction of the tax incentives for

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people to save? It is good to see a Treasury Minister on the Front Bench as I ask these questions. Do the Government recognise that, especially at a time like this, we need to give people more incentives to save, rather than taking away the modest incentives that exist? Is the Secretary of State looking at other incentives to encourage people to save? Does he recognise the serious long-term effects of the spread of means-testing on people's incentives to save—something on which the right hon. Member for Birkenhead has spoken eloquently?

Mr. Field: May I ask the hon. Gentleman to move a stage backwards in his argument? When he asks whether the Government will move on compulsion, is he not posing the wrong question? We have compulsion in the system. The question is how should we levy that compulsion? At the moment, because previous Governments have failed to ensure that everyone has a decent pension, taxpayers compulsorily pay 5p on each standard rate of tax to make good that deficit. Surely the question before the Government is whether we should continue with that form of compulsion to add to failure, or switch the compulsion to build for success?

Mr. Willetts: The right hon. Gentleman has put forward ambitious proposals to compel people to build funded pension saving. As he knows from the many discussions we have had on the matter, I do not agree with his proposals—I shall not detain the House by explaining why—but at least he has made a bold contribution to the debate. So have organisations such as—most recently—the National Association of Pension Funds and the Association of British Insurers. The one voice missing from that debate has been the Government's. We have not heard what the Department for Work and Pensions plans to do about the crisis. We want to hear what the Secretary of State thinks he can do. That might be too much to hope for, however. It might be over-ambitious to expect the Secretary of State to have a policy on pensions, although I must say that in the conditions of this debate we could promise him almost complete secrecy. He could unveil a confidential draft discussion document this evening and I am sure that we could assure him that there would be absolutely no media coverage, but even if a promise of complete confidentiality is not good enough and the Secretary of State feels unable to offer us any policies, could we make two more modest requests? First, will he at least accept that there is a crisis?

One thing that we have found most frustrating as we have debated the subject over the years is the sort of approach that is captured very well in a quote from the Secretary of State's colleague the Minister for Pensions, who said in May, when quoting one of the many sets of figures on pension saving which were subsequently shown to be wrong:

It is reasonable to ask the Secretary of State whether he registers the scale of the problem. Does he plan to continue on working on the basis that the basic structure is right, that it does not need to change and that we should just tinker at the edges, or will he measure up to

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the scale of the crisis by proposing something big, bold and radical, which is what the crisis requires in order for it to be tackled? If I lower my expectations, and settle for the Secretary of State not offering a policy, will he at least offer some frank assessment of the scale of the problem?

Finally, if the Secretary of State is not going to offer us a policy or any assessment of the scale of the crisis, will he at least tell us how the Government propose to set about formulating policies to solve the problem? Will he at least tell us the framework within which he will set out the policies? Not only are we unsure about the Government's policies, we are not even sure about how they will unveil the policies that may emerge in future.

Kevin Brennan: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willetts: No. I have only three minutes to conclude my speech.

We have had endless consultation documents—Pickering, Sandler and Myners. We have had various legislation too, yet we now have a debate in the press about whether there will be a Green Paper at the time of the pre-Budget report, whether there will be a separate Inland Revenue document and whether the Government will set up a royal commission. My view on royal commissions is that Harold Wilson put it very well when he said:

We do not have the time to wait for a royal commission, but if the Secretary of State can offer a framework that we can work within to try to tackle the crisis, I will end with the assurance that Opposition Members recognise that this is a problem that can be solved only with long-term planning and on the basis of some recognition of the need for stability in future, just as I gave an assurance that we would not get rid of stakeholder pensions. When the industry came to us and said, XWe need to know that stakeholder pensions will continue" we gave that assurance, despite our concerns about stakeholder pensions. I hope that the Secretary of State will set out at least the framework within which he will approach the problem. So there we are. I have lowered my expectations. I am not asking for a policy. I do not necessarily expect an assessment of the scale of the problem. Even an account of how the Secretary of State might set about thinking about how to solve the problem would in itself constitute progress.

I am sorry that I have not had time to comment on the many speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House. I was particularly struck by the number of speeches from Opposition Members on the subject of health. I particularly enjoyed the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) on pensions. I always listen attentively to him and to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) on poverty and social capital. We now look forward to hearing whether the Secretary of State can at least inch us forward by setting out the framework within which he will solve the problem.

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