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14 Nov 2002 : Column 243continued
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 itin 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 aboutI 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 spokesmanI welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) to his postand that shows how much talent we have on this side of the House. We have fresh faces who will carry
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.
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 pensionsI 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.
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 proposalsI shall not detain the House by explaining whybut at least he has made a bold contribution to the debate. So have organisations such asmost recentlythe 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:
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.
We have had endless consultation documentsPickering, 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:
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.