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17 Mar 2003 : Column 623—continued

Means-tested Benefits

14. Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): What percentage of pensioners are dependent on means-tested support. [102958]

The Minister for Pensions (Mr. Ian McCartney): About 30 per cent. of pensioner families are in receipt of income-related benefits. Our priority has always been to focus help on those who need it most, which is why we introduced the minimum income guarantee. Almost 2 million people are benefiting from the guarantee, and the take-up campaign has put an extra £20 a week on average in the pockets of 149,000 people who would not

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have received it otherwise. In the hon. Gentleman's constituency, around 1,500 people are in receipt of the minimum income guarantee. We are now going a step further and introducing pension credit, which will reward—not penalise—saving. As a consequence of that change, the poorest pensioners will receive an average extra income of £400 a year.

Chris Grayling : Does the Minister not realise the disservice that the Government are doing to pensioners in my constituency and elsewhere? Through their new credits they are creating a complicated mechanism for pensioners to get some money back from the Government, but extra taxation, particularly the council tax, is taking much more out of pensioners' pockets. Will the Government adjust means-tested benefits to make them simpler to access and to make them reflect the huge extra cost of living that pensioners are absorbing this year because of the tax rises?

Mr. McCartney: The Government have swept away the Tories' means-tested, mean-minded approach to pensioners' income. Consequently, come October this year, a pensioner in the hon. Gentleman's constituency can make one phone call, complete an application with a civil servant trained to act as their advocate, sign a commitment that the information given is correct, and receive pension credit. In addition, we have changed the rules with regard to council tax and housing benefit, so unlike the situation under the Conservatives, who gave benefit with one hand and took it away with the other, pensioners will qualify for housing benefit and council tax benefit as well.

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East): Will my right hon. Friend pay no attention to Opposition Members' hypocrisy in respect of targeted benefits? Can he confirm that as a result of the targeted benefits and the minimum income guarantee, the poorest pensioners have received weekly increases of up to £30 a week? Can he also confirm that the poorest pensioners are on average 30 per cent. per year better off?

Mr. McCartney: My hon. Friend is correct. Opposition Members, both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, must explain in the next few months why the Conservatives have a secret plan to privatise the basic state pension, and why the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) has a Mickey Mouse Budget under which the youngest pensioners, who he says are the poorest, will lose about £30 a week in benefit to pay for his mad-cap idea of simply increasing pensions for people over the age of 75.

Benefits Sanctions (Antisocial Behaviour)

16. Bob Spink (Castle Point): What plans he has to link benefits to the behaviour of recipients. [102960]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): The Government have previously recognised the case for a role for housing benefit sanctions in tackling bad neighbour nuisance. Many of us have constituents who have suffered from the so-called neighbour from hell. However, sanctions need to be workable and capable of being applied

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decisively—[Laughter.] Our constituents who suffer from antisocial behaviour do not find it a laughing matter. Sanctions need to be workable and capable of being applied decisively in response to antisocial acts in the local community. They must act as a deterrent, not simply as a punishment after the event, and they must not be so cumbersome to administer that the costs outweigh the benefits. We intend to consult on a proposal to sanction housing benefit. If a workable measure can be developed, we will legislate to implement it.

Bob Spink : Having accepted in principle the linking of housing benefit to behaviour, why have the Government rejected the Prime Minister's idea of linking child benefit to behaviour? What is wrong with the Prime Minister?

Hon. Members: Answer!

Malcolm Wicks: What is wrong with the Prime Minister? Nothing at all. I should like to be quoted on that. There is a serious issue about the measures we can employ to tackle antisocial behaviour of different kinds. That is the purpose of the recent White Paper and that will be the purpose of legislation. If housing benefit sanctions can be made to be a workable instrument of policy, we will do that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has made other proposals to ensure that truancy, which is big problem and a contributory factor in our shopping centres, can be tackled.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): Does my hon. Friend agree that the original setting up of the Child Support Agency is a bad precedent for the judicial function being taken over by an administrative body? Does he not worry that decisions about who is telling the truth in behaviour disputes and whether the alleged antisocial behaviour is acceptable or unacceptable are matters not for administrators, but for courts, to decide?

Malcolm Wicks: The reality is that the Child Support Agency, with the agreement of the whole House, is delivering maintenance more effectively than the old court-based system, which simply did not work. However, I have said that we will take great care to ensure that the Government's concern to tackle antisocial behaviour, which I think is shared on the Conservative Benches but not the Liberal Democrat ones, is workable. That is why we shall consult very carefully to ensure that aspirations to tackle the yob neighbour can be translated into something that is workable, legal and effective.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): The Minister has chosen to interpret the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) in terms of antisocial behaviour as it is conventionally understood. However, can he tell the House in what number or proportion of cases jobseeker's allowance has been withdrawn from those recipients of it who have thrice refused decent job offers?

Malcolm Wicks: The sanctions regime in Jobcentre Plus and new deals has been very effective. There are different sanctions regimes and I shall send the hon.

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Gentleman the data, but I have met unemployed people who admitted that the sanctions regime made them seek employment. Instead of playing party games on this one, what the British public—not least those living in fear of the yob neighbour—want to know is whether this Parliament can bring forward workable solutions. We are determined to do that, and I think that most of the House is. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would prefer to play the party political game.

Unemployment (North-West Leicestershire)

18. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): What the change in the level of unemployment in the North-West Leicestershire constituency has been since May 1997. [102962]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown): Since 1997, in my hon. Friend's constituency, claimant unemployment has been more than halved and long-term unemployment cut by more than 80 per cent. Those figures are clear evidence of the strength of our labour market policies, which have helped to deliver record levels of employment across the country and unemployment at its lowest levels since the 1970s.

David Taylor : The reductions in unemployment in the former mining constituency of North-West Leicestershire are most welcome, but recent downturns in areas such as textiles, engineering and food manufacturing are a source of concern. Will the Minister receive a delegation including local Members of Parliament and workers at the United Biscuits factory in Ashby, where a planned phased run-down in 2004 could lead to the loss of 900 jobs? Economic success must not be holed below the waterline in that way.

Mr. Brown: I am sympathetic to what my hon. Friend says and I congratulate him on getting in twice at Work and Pensions Question Time. I represent a constituency with similar problems to those to which he alludes. I shall receive his delegation, and whatever Jobcentre Plus can do to help in the difficult circumstances that he describes, we will do.

Carers' Benefits

19. Mr. David Cameron (Witney): What recent representations he has received on the level of benefits paid to carers; and if he will make a statement. [102963]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): There have been no recent representations from national organisations, but there have been 16 written representations about the level of invalid care allowance, which is to be renamed the carer's allowance in April, from MPs writing on behalf of their constituents in the past six months, although to my knowledge, they do not include the hon. Gentleman. We have already made substantial changes to carers'

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benefit and we are in the final stages of implementing the carer's package, which improves financial support for carers by an estimated £500 million over three years.

Mr. Cameron : May I thank the Minister for that response? I should also declare an interest—I forgot when I tabled the question that I am a recipient of carers' benefit.

Does the Minister agree that as important as the level of benefit is the very poor take-up that we still have in this country and the desperate need for respite care? Is she aware that almost all the carers who come to my surgery are investigating or making points about respite care and its availability? Given that the Government are now providing more money to local authorities in terms of carers' grants, which I welcome, is it not now time for some mandatory requirements for respite care for those who are looking after elderly relatives or disabled children?

Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman is right that respite care can be an important part of keeping carers going and I shall certainly pass on his remarks and suggestions to the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), who has responsibility for that.

In respect of numbers, it is estimated that at the outturn of this year some 421,000 people are in receipt of ICA, which is an increase over the past year resulting from our extension of eligibility for ICA to those who are over 65 years old.

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