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House of Commons

Tuesday 11 March 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Index of Multiple Deprivation Report

1. Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston): What plans she has to meet the Scottish Executive to discuss the Scottish index of multiple deprivation report; and if she will make a statement. [101095]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Anne McGuire): Both the Government and the Scottish Executive are committed to the fight against poverty. Publication of the index and other indicators reflects our determination to measure the impact of our policies and the progress achieved.

Mr. Marshall : I thank the Minister for her reply. Is she aware that 16 of the 20 most deprived areas in Scotland are in the city of Glasgow? Does she agree that the only way in which Glasgow's deprivation and poverty problems can be tackled successfully is if the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Executive get together, agree that Glasgow is indeed a special case and allocate resources accordingly? Will she and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State do all that they can to ensure that that comes to pass?

Mrs. McGuire: There is a great deal of collective working in Glasgow through social inclusion partnerships and the better neighbourhood services fund. UK Departments contribute to, and are involved in, some aspects of that work. The Scottish Executive have certainly contributed to a city growth fund of £40 million for better neighbourhood services in Glasgow and, as I said, the social inclusion partnership. My hon. Friend may well have ideas about more collective and cohesive working, and I would certainly be pleased to discuss that with him afterwards with a view to giving information to UK Ministries and colleagues in the Scottish Executive.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth): Can the Minister explain to the people of Scotland why, after nearly six years of a Labour Government in London and four years of a

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Labour Government in Edinburgh one in three children in Scotland are being brought up in poverty, and one in four of our pensioners are living in poverty?

Mrs. McGuire: That is rather a myopic question. The hon. Lady has failed to take into account the impact on poverty of the national minimum wage, the working families tax credit and children's credits. Before she bandies figures around in the House, she would do well to look at the actual figures on the proportion of Scottish children in low-income households which, using the absolute measure, fell by 21 per cent. in 2001—13 percentage points better than in 1997 and significantly better than it would be if we had to deal with a £4.5 billion hole in Scottish finances because we had divorced from the United Kingdom.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): The Minister will know that the income deprivation indices for the economy are largely made up of figures on benefit take-up, including working families tax credit. The Government have not released any figures, but is she aware that the Library estimates that approximately 100,000 people in Scotland who are eligible for working families tax credit have not taken up their entitlement? With the introduction of the new regime in three weeks, what will the Government do to ensure that that inadequate take-up is improved?

Mrs. McGuire: I share the hon. Gentleman's views on the importance of take-up. It is Government policy to try to encourage people to take up tax credits, and I encourage hon. Members to promote those tax credits, as they have access to local media and community groups, which could do much to promote the beneficial aspects of Government policy on which most of us in the House agree.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): May I bring to the Minister's attention the concentration of poverty and deprivation in Glasgow? While considerable cuts in unemployment in Glasgow have gone a great way towards alleviating deprivation, does she accept that there is a substantial need for additional funding for the city? Those of us who are city Members do not want to call for independence for Glasgow, but we want additional resources for the city, both from Westminster and the Scottish Executive. Does my hon. Friend agree that partnership working is undoubtedly the way forward in the city, but it must be fully funded and must involve elected representatives at all levels?

Mrs. McGuire: I agree that partnership working is important, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend also recognised the importance of the drop in unemployment and, by implication, all the measures that we put in place to alleviate poverty. In view of the fact that two of my colleagues from Glasgow have highlighted specific issues relating to the city, I would be delighted to meet them and discuss some of those issues further as we have only a short time this morning.

Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): May I tell the Government that we welcome the fact that the indices are much better than they were? With those better figures, policy makers are better armed to deal

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with some of the problems. However, there are still problems concerning rurality, as some parts of the country face depopulation, which is not reflected in the indices as currently cast. If the Minister is generously offering to meet Members to discuss what, I accept, are real problems in Glasgow will she extend the favour to those of us who represent rural areas?

Mrs. McGuire: As a Member from a rural area, I offer to meet myself and any other rural Members who wish to meet me, in both capacities.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): As the hon. Lady has—rather plaintively, I thought—invited us to sell the child tax credit to our constituents, and as she has said that she is prepared to talk to UK Ministers, will she take up the issue of the simplification of means-tested benefits, so that the many people, including pensioners, who are entitled to them can find their way through the benefit forms and claim them?

Mrs. McGuire: The Government are constantly looking at ways in which to improve the form-filling involved, but the message that I am giving today is that I hope that hon. Members recognise that these benefits are of great value to our constituents and that they really ought to exercise just a little leadership in going out and making people aware of what they are entitled to.

Postal Services

2. Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute): What discussions she has had with Royal Mail concerning (a) postal services and (b) post offices in Scotland. [101096]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Anne McGuire): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met Allan Leighton, the chairman of Royal Mail Group, in November to discuss postal services and post offices in Scotland.

Mr. Reid : There is widespread concern that many rural post offices will be forced to close when the Government introduce the new method of paying pensions and benefits in three weeks' time. Will the Minister assure the House that the rather sinisterly named customer conversion centres will give unbiased information to pensioners? Will she also ensure that automated credit transfer will not be introduced until the computer systems have been properly tested? Finally, will the Government run a high-profile campaign to promote the new Post Office card account before it is introduced?

Mrs. McGuire: May I reassure the House that the net figure for post office closures in Scotland in 2001–02 was 26, compared with 63 in the previous year? That is a 59 per cent. reduction. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the Government have invested a great many resources in trying to maintain the network. What we are trying to do with the new way of paying benefits is to institute a far more secure—and, in many ways, easier—system, particularly for pensioners. If anyone suggests that the Government are somehow hiding this new initiative under some kind of collective bushel, I would ask them to look at some of the

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information that is out there in the post offices in the communities, and to be more positive about the move. The single most important message is that pensioners will still be able to collect the same money from the same place at the same time, but they will have more choice when they do so.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): Is not the truth that most post offices close because the postmasters or postmistresses retire, and it is then incumbent on the Post Office to find someone to take over? That involves a great responsibility for the local Member of Parliament. In Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, the local Member of Parliament liaises very closely with the Post Office, and tries to find someone to take over. If Opposition Members did that instead of coming along here and whingeing, there might be fewer post offices closing.

Mrs. McGuire: I could not have put it better myself.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): I know that, given the way things are going for the Government, the Minister will have given some thought to how, where and when her benefits will be paid in retirement. Does she appreciate, however, that Scots are increasingly finding it easier to open a bank cash card account than a Post Office card account? What exactly is the Scotland Office doing to preserve the future of these vital small businesses throughout Scotland, to which the right hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) referred? Do she and the Secretary of State consider the key target of Government policy to be the maximisation or the minimisation of benefits being paid through post offices?

Mrs. McGuire: Speaking as someone who collected her family allowance through the post office every week on the button for many years, I have a strong commitment to the continuing service that the post offices provide. May I reassure the hon. Gentleman that, as recently as last week, I spoke to Ministers from the Department for Work and Pensions to highlight some of these concerns, and sought the reassurances that he seeks. The reality is, however, that people are voting with their feet in terms of the collection of benefits. More and more people are moving towards bank transfers, and we are trying to ensure that those people who are outside the banking system are brought into it. I would have thought that he would have supported that.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): What would the Minister say to the pensioner in my constituency who received information from the Department for Work and Pensions regarding her pension, found the small part that referred to the Post Office card account, phoned the helpline and asked about opening such an account, and when it was discovered that she had a bank account, was pressed to have her pension paid into that account, rather than at the post office? Why do the Government seem so hell-bent on transferring business from post offices to banks?

Mrs. McGuire: One of the aims behind the move to the new banking system is to end financial exclusion. [Interruption.] Having asked a question, the hon.

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Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) ought at least to listen to the answer. The Department for Work and Pensions helpline is trying to guide people to the account that would be best for them. In some circumstances, the Post Office card account may not be the best option for a pensioner. I am sorry that hon. Members are seeking to pursue a panic agenda on the move to a far simpler system for paying benefits.

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