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10 Feb 2003 : Column 637—continued

Means-tested Benefits

12. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): What percentage of pensioners are claiming means-tested benefits. [96329]

The Minister for Pensions (Mr. Ian McCartney) rose—

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Hon. Members: Hear, hear!

Mr. McCartney: Supersub! Ole Gunnar Solskjaer! Mr. MacIntyre of The Times probably thinks I speak Norwegian better than English.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Say that again.

Mr. McCartney: Touché. Speak up a bit!

About 30 per cent. of pensioner families have been in receipt of income-related benefits over the past five years. From April 2003, a single pensioner will be at least £17 a week—and a couple nearly £28 a week—better off in real terms from the rises in the minimum income guarantee. Those pensioners eligible for pension credit will gain about £400 a year. From April 2002, we are spending an extra £6 billion a year in real terms on pensioners as a result of our policies introduced since 1997. This includes £2.5 billion more on the poorest third of pensioners. In the hon. Gentleman's constituency, about 1,700 people are in receipt of the minimum income guarantee, and some 18,300 people received a winter fuel payment for last winter.

Richard Ottaway: The Minister will be aware that the Prime Minister, no less, highlighted the problems of having too much means-testing when he spoke recently about the number of pensioners who do not take up income support. Why, therefore, is the Minister introducing a means-tested pension credit, which increases dependency and acts as a disincentive to save? Would it not be better if the Minister followed the lead of the Prime Minister?

Mr. McCartney: I never deviate from any line that the Prime Minister takes and hon. Members should know that.

What belies the hon. Gentleman's question is the fact that the Tory party does not want to continue with special investments to tackle pensioner poverty. His party would abolish the minimum income guarantee. The Tories do not like pension credit either, but they cannot bring themselves publicly to tell pensioners that they would rather cut the additional £400 a year, which pensioners are receiving from this Government, than accept the responsibility of supporting the scheme. The Government are slashing away the weekly means test and replacing it with one telephone call, four months before people retire, thus ensuring not only a basic state pension but a minimum income guarantee as well. Furthermore, unlike the Conservative Government, we will pay additional money to take account of people's small savings. When the hon. Gentleman had a clawback, for every pound of small savings people lost £1 in benefit. We have removed the anomaly that was created by the Tory Government.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the alternatives to the Government's plans—namely, targeting additional help in ways that are not based on income but on age? Does he agree that such a policy would do nothing to help younger, poorer pensioners—who would have to wait until they were 75 or more to receive any significant extra help—and that the policy

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would condemn 65 to 75-year-olds to weekly means-testing—which all the parties opposite pretend to dislike?

Mr. McCartney: My hon. Friend is right. The Government are targeting poverty—whether someone is a pensioner of 60 or a pensioner of 85. Some of the proposals that my hon. Friend mentions would lead to a reduction of £17 a week for the poorest pensioners. Hon. Members on the opposite side of the House always try to do one thing—con pensioners. On this side, we do not con pensioners; we are on their side.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth): The Minister will be aware of significant problems in the take-up of means-tested pensioner benefit in Scotland—a country in which, after nearly six years of Labour Government, one in four pensioners is languishing in poverty, to use the Secretary of State's words. The Minister must be concerned that the Government's planned massive extension of means-testing will exacerbate the problem of take-up.

Mr. McCartney: I have good news for the hon. Lady. Under that Labour Government, nearly 1 million pensioners in Scotland benefit from winter fuel payments, and hundreds of thousands of them are now benefiting from the minimum income guarantee. In addition, the creation of the new Pension Service has meant new jobs in Dundee, Motherwell and Glasgow. In other words, not only have new jobs been created in areas of high unemployment, but there are better services for the pensioners of Scotland.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire): Does the Minister accept that there is any disincentive-to-save effect inherent in the pension credit?

Mr. McCartney: No.


13. Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): What recent assessment he has made of trends in the rate of unemployment in the north of England. [96330]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown): Over the past year, claimant unemployment has fallen by 12 per cent. in the north-east and by 6 per cent. in the north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside regions. In the hon. Gentleman's constituency, claimant unemployment has fallen by 13 per cent. These figures are evidence of the strength of our labour market policies, which have contributed to national employment rising to record levels and unemployment falling in every region since 1997.

Mr. Streeter : How does the Minister feel about being part of the first Labour Government in history to have turned its back so blatantly on trying to tackle the north/south divide? Rather than building hundreds of thousands of new homes in the south to cope with the migration of people who cannot find jobs in the north, why do the Minister and his Department not focus on

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stimulating economic growth? His party is simply throwing in the towel and turning its back on its natural constituents.

Mr. Brown: The fact is that unemployment is falling the furthest and the fastest in the region where it was previously the highest. That is a good thing and should be welcomed on both sides of the House.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I, too, have undertaken an analysis of unemployment trends in my constituency in the north-west of England. One factor stands out in my constituency, and that is the effect of the working families tax credit. It has had a direct result in reducing unemployment now that there has been new investment in the retail and leisure sector. Is that trend seen elsewhere in the north of England; and is my right hon. Friend intent on publishing the research that he has carried out?

Mr. Brown: The information that the Department has available has been put in the Library of the House. The broad trends in employment are similar right across the United Kingdom. The move from manufacturing and agricultural employment towards employment in the service sector is a universal trend that is not just true of the United Kingdom. It is true also of the European Union and the United States of America. In other words, it is a worldwide trend.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point to the underpinning policy of making work pay. The fact that the jobs are there and that it pays people to take them has enabled us to achieve record levels of employment.

Carers Allowance

15. Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): What plans he has further to assist people on carers' allowance to take part-time work. [96332]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): We have increased the earnings limits for invalid care allowance so that carers who combine work with their caring responsibilities can earn £75 a week plus allowable expenses before it affects their benefit. Carers are also benefiting from the introduction of our new Jobcentre Plus service in which personal advisers can help carers to find training or employment that is suitable and tailored to their circumstances.

Dr. Palmer : I declare an interest: one of my staff is a full-time carer, but she is able to help me with internet inquiries by working from home. It is becoming increasingly possible for full-time carers to contribute usefully to society, so does my hon. Friend foresee further improvements that will enable carers working from home to supplement the income of the home through earning a decent wage?

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend will be aware that, to qualify for the invalid care allowance, carers have to do at least 35 hours a week of caring. That is quite a lot. We have already increased the earnings limit, which means that, in addition to the £75 and allowable expenses, carers can keep in touch with the labour market.

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However, of the 450,000 carers, only 30,000 or so manage to combine part-time work with caring. We want to encourage them to do that when possible, but as I have said, they qualify for the benefit only if they work in a caring role for at least 35 hours a week. That leaves them with only a certain amount of spare time in which to work.

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