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17 Mar 2003 : Column 620—continued

Disabled People (Pension Payments)

10. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South): What plans he has to assist disabled people with access to pension payments. [102954]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): For convenience and safety, many disabled people and pensioners already have their money paid straight into a bank or building society account, and others will want to have their money paid into an account that they can use at the Post Office. I was disappointed therefore to note that the Post Office's new PIN pad is not as user friendly as it should be. We are working closely with the Post Office and customer organisations to ensure that the new arrangements fully meet the needs of all our customers, particularly those of disabled people and pensioners.

Mr. Cunningham : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Which disabled groups did she consult prior to the introduction of the smart card?

Maria Eagle: The Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Post Office consulted the usual disability organisations, including the Royal National Institute of the Blind. Today, I am laying before Parliament the Visually Impaired (Blind and Partially Sighted) Regulations 2003, which automatically include more blind and partially sighted people in the definition of disability in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 without them having to prove that they fit the definition. That should make it clear that under the DDA there are legal obligations on service providers such as the Post Office to make their services accessible to disabled people, including those with a visual impairment, and not to ignore them. All customers with a disability will still be able to access their payments at a post office, if that is what they want.

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Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): Can the Minister explain what happens in circumstances where a disabled pensioner becomes ill and has not previously nominated somebody to operate their Post Office card account, and thus cannot attend in person to enter their number? Will pensioners in those circumstances be able to gain access to their pension? What is the arrangement? At present, it is not clear whether the exemption scheme will cover that situation. It is not clear how people will get their pensions in such circumstances.

Maria Eagle: The Post Office has admitted that it needs to examine more closely the way in which the PIN pad works. It is examining how to make it more user friendly, and other ways of accessing the Post Office card account without a PIN pad. The circumstances that the hon. Gentleman has described are no different from those that currently apply when a pensioner cannot get to the post office: they are able to nominate someone else to get their money for them.

Children's Centres

11. Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport): What assessment he has made of the future impact of the new children's centres on supporting parents in work. [102955]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): Local authorities are just beginning their strategic planning for children's centres, so it is too early for such an assessment to have been made. However, we are expecting them to make a significant impact. Every children's centre must provide day care suitable for working parents, five days a week, 10 hours a day, for a minimum of 48 weeks a year. They will also act as service hubs for providers of child care services for children of all ages, linking to Jobcentre Plus offices, and offer support to parents who wish to consider training options.

Ms Coffey: I welcome the funding for the new children's centres, which for the first time will enable child care, early-years education and support for parents to be provided in the same place. Such children's centres will be especially welcome in Brinnington in my constituency, which has the highest number of parents on income support and the lowest number of childminders. There are jobs available, but child care continues to be an issue. Can my hon. Friend say when decisions are likely to be made about where the children's centres will be? When she makes the decisions, will she bear Brinnington in mind?

Maria Eagle: As usual, my hon. Friend has been early in the queue of hon. Members to see my noble Friend Baroness Ashton of Upholland, who is responsible for those matters, to make representations to us. We expect local authority proposals to be with us by October, and we shall make decisions shortly thereafter. My hon. Friend's council, Stockport, has already had an indicative allocation of more than £1 million to make the children's centres work in her constituency. I am sure that both the council and my noble Friend will

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consider the Brinnington ward when the decisions come to be made, especially in view of what my hon. Friend has said today.

Child Care

12. Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): What role Jobcentre Plus has in ensuring that advice and information on child care is available to parents looking for work. [102956]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown): Child care partnership managers are being introduced to all Jobcentre Plus districts from April 2003 to ensure that parents are provided with the advice and information that they need on child care. In Stockton, South, that means that parents moving into work will be able to take advantage of nearly 700 new child care places created in the past three years, providing care for more than 1,100 children in my hon. Friend's constituency.

Ms Taylor : I thank my right hon. Friend for that thoughtful and valuable response, especially his reference to my constituency. Will he comment further about affordability and quality, which are two of the most crucial features that persuade parents that they can leave their children to seek work further away from home? Has any research been conducted to assess the impact of child care provision in terms of the numbers of people getting back to work?

Mr. Nicholas Brown: My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue, and I acknowledge that she is a long-standing campaigner on those issues. This is an important labour market issue—child care must be affordable, which is why the child tax credit, which is available both to employed and self-employed people, pays up to 70 per cent. of eligible child care costs.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): What steps are the Government taking to make child care more accessible in rural areas, where there are particular problems with the provision and accessibility of child care, and where there is certainly not equity of provision?

Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that matter. There are obviously difficulties with child care provision in rural areas, but he will know that the Government are proposing a substantial expansion in the number of places. We aim to increase help so that it covers 2 million children by 2006. The hon. Gentleman is of course right that that expansion should encompass rural areas as well.

Pensions/Benefits (Uprating)

13. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): What account is taken of the average level of council tax for the purposes of calculating pensions and benefit uprating. [102957]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): The retail prices index, by which most non income-related benefits are uprated, takes account of rises in council tax. Other income-related benefits are uprated by the Rossi index, which

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excludes housing costs and local taxes. That is because those costs are met through separate benefits—for example, housing benefit for rent and council tax benefit.

Mr. Heath : Is the Minister aware that the average council tax increase for councils of all political persuasions across the country is likely to be about 14 per cent. this year, which is very hard indeed for people living on fixed incomes such as state pensions? The Office for National Statistics announced today that it is changing the basis on which inflation is calculated for pensions purposes—not to give a greater weighting to council tax, but to include takeaway latte coffee, kebabs and hair gel, none of which, I suspect, figure highly in a pensioner's average weekly budget. When will we get a price index that deals with the real expenditure of real pensioners?

Malcolm Wicks: It is not for my Department but for the ONS to alter or possibly kebab the index according to its own criteria. Council tax is set by individual councils of all political colours, not by central Government. Council funding has gone up by 25 per cent. in real terms in the past six years, whereas in the four years before 1997 it was cut by 7 per cent. Also, as a result of the interaction between pension credit and the applicable amounts for housing benefit and council tax benefit, we estimate that about 700,000 pensioner households who will not get pension credit itself in future will gain from the changes, which is welcome news.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): While I understand the problems that would arise if pensions and benefits had to be adjusted simply on the basis of council tax, does the Minister nevertheless agree that it is unfair to have a national level of pensions and benefits in particularly high-cost areas? London weighting, however ham-fisted it is, is now evident in virtually every job in our capital city, so should not that principle be looked at and perhaps extended to pensions?

Malcolm Wicks: I do not know whether that is an announcement of a new policy, but the index is not a matter for us. It is based on precedent, and historians in the Opposition will remember Hugh Rossi, the ministerial author of the index. On the point made by the hon. Gentleman, council tax benefit goes to 4.6 million recipients, is worth on average £11 a week, and is a particularly important benefit at this time.

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