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17 Mar 2003 : Column 613—continued

Means-tested Benefits

4. Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): What percentage of the population are in receipt of means-tested benefits. [102948]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): About 17 per cent. of individuals in Great Britain over the age of 16 are in receipt of one or more income-related benefits. This Government are committed to targeting help at those who need it most, while putting in place a range of initiatives to help people back into work, such as new

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deals, improvements in child care, the national minimum wage and our new tax credits. All are about making work possible, but also about making work pay.

Mr. Streeter : Once the changes in April and October come into play, will not some 40 per cent. of the population—about 20 million Britons, according to House of Commons Library figures—be subject to means-tested benefits? Does that not horrify the Minister? Rather than luring more and more people into the sticky and complicated web of welfare dependency, would it not be better to reduce the burden of tax on hard-working families and set them free to make their own choices?

Malcolm Wicks: The reality is that we are seeking successfully to get people out of benefit dependency and into work. The number of people receiving income-based jobseeker's allowance, for example, fell from 1.2 million to 600,000 between 1997 and 2002. It is wholly appropriate, however, that we support children and work, so that when people make the often difficult transition into work, we can guarantee that it pays. That is the purpose of the tax credit system.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant): Has the Minister seen today's powerful report from the Association of British Insurers, which says that eventually 80 per cent. of pensioners could be on means-tested benefits and that

The association joins a long list of organisations—the National Association of Pension Funds, Help the Aged and many others—that have warned about the spread of means-testing under this Government. Instead of reforming benefits and making them simpler, all Ministers do is to introduce yet more means-testing. Why will not the Government join the growing consensus that benefits for pensioners need to be made simpler, instead of introducing ever more means-testing and complexity?

Malcolm Wicks: We have published our proposals in our Green Paper on pensions. Our strategy—to reduce means-tested dependency for those who are out of work by providing them with work—is the right one. However, it is wholly appropriate that we have a strategy, for both pensioners and those of working age, to support savings and to support those who are in work, but often on low wages, through the tax credit regime. It is an appropriate and consistent strategy to attack poverty in this country.

Mr. Willetts: It is not a strategy at all. The Minister spoke of means-testing dependency for the unemployed, but it is the same for pensioners. Why will not the Minister listen to what so many outside groups are saying? Why are the Government so confident that they have got it right when everybody else is warning about the implications of their system? More means-testing means weaker incentives to work and save and a system that is so complicated that fewer and fewer people get

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the benefits to which they are entitled. Why will the Minister not listen to those powerful warnings from everyone else?

Malcolm Wicks: We listen to many groups. In opposition, we listened to the oldest and poorest, whom the last Tory Government did so little to support. Our targeted strategy has brought huge gains to some of the poorest and most deserving among our elders. The Opposition need to explain why they would take away pension credit from many hundreds of thousands of people who need and deserve it.

Contaminated Blood Products (Compensation)

5. Annabelle Ewing (Perth): When he will reach a conclusion as to the impact on the payment of social security benefit of the Scottish Executive's proposals to compensate people who have contracted hepatitis C from contaminated blood products. [102949]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): Discussions about those proposals and their impact on the payment of social security benefits are still ongoing. No conclusions have yet been reached and it would not be appropriate for me to comment further.

Annabelle Ewing : I thank the Minister for his answer, which I find deeply disappointing. He will be aware that the Scottish Parliament and Executive have made clear their wish to compensate hepatitis C sufferers. As there is already a precedent for exempting similar payments from the operation of the clawback system, why will not the Minister today confirm that Westminster will not frustrate the will of the Scottish Parliament to pay compensation to hepatitis C sufferers?

Malcolm Wicks: Although suffering from hepatitis C is a serious matter, the hon. Lady's question raises a number of complex issues, not least to do with the legal competence of the Scottish Executive. That point has been acknowledged by the Scottish Minister for Health and Community Care. We need to consider advice carefully and I am not yet in a position to make a decision.

Child Support Agency

6. Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): How many Child Support Agency cases of arrears of maintenance payment were taken to court in each of the past five years; and if he will make a statement. [102950]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): The total number of cases taken to court in the past five years has ranged from approximately 2,800 per annum to more than 4,600 per annum. I will send my hon. Friend the precise figures.

Mr. O'Brien: My question concerns the procedure that the Secretary of State has set out on deduction of earnings orders. We are advised that, before a case goes to court, the Child Support Agency, following the directions of the Secretary of State, should ask the

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absent parent if a deduction of earnings order would be applicable. How many cases have been taken to court without the deduction of earnings order having been applied in the first instance? If that is happening, what will the Minister do to ensure that the regulations that have been set out by Parliament, through the Secretary of State, will be adhered to, ensuring that attachment of earnings orders are applied before cases go to court?

Malcolm Wicks: Whenever possible, it is sensible to use methods such as deduction of earnings orders before resorting to going to court. Going to court is the last resort. We have used more than 100,000 deduction of earnings orders. I know that my hon. Friend has a constituency case in mind. Obviously, I will not comment on that case now. When someone changes employer, it can be difficult to use a deduction of earnings order. In such cases, on behalf of the parent with care, we have to go to court, but we do that only as the last resort. Outside the Chamber, I will be happy to discuss particular cases with my hon. Friend.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): Hon. Members in all parts of the House are concerned about a minority of parents who persistently and deliberately refuse to pay child support that they are able to pay. In extreme cases, the CSA has the power to remove driving licences, but it has done so in only two cases. Will the Minister seek to ensure that that happens more frequently?

Malcolm Wicks: The purpose of the new powers is to deter. Nine people have gone to prison as a result. Others, when threatened with the loss of their driving licence, have paid up. That is the whole purpose of the policy. It is one of the weapons in our armoury to ensure that absent parents recognise their responsibilities towards their children.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Is it not the case that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) mentioned a moment ago, there are serious flaws in the CSA's recovery process in relation to self-employed people? Would closer co-operation and co-ordination between the Department for Work and Pensions, the CSA, the Inland Revenue and others not lead to more certainty in the contacting of non-resident parents who are clever at avoiding paying what they should be paying?

Malcolm Wicks: I have considerable sympathy with that point. We all have cases in our constituencies where fathers—it is normally fathers—have not paid up. Many of those people are self-employed. We are doing what my hon. Friend suggests: we now have close working relations with the Inland Revenue. It is, after all, up to the Revenue to determine the income of a self-employed person. However, in cases where there are grounds for thinking that the lifestyle of the man—or, sometimes, the woman—is inconsistent with their reported earnings, we can pursue the matter using the new powers. We have to ensure that all parents, whatever their employment status, acknowledge their responsibilities to their children.

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