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Schools (Vending Machines)

Mr. Jon Owen Jones accordingly presented a Bill to prohibit the sale of high fat and high sugar content food in vending machines in schools: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 30 April, and to be printed [Bill 58].

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Social Security and Pensions

1.26 pm

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith): I beg to move,

Mr. Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following motion:

Mr. Smith: I am satisfied that the orders are compatible with the European convention on human rights.

On uprating, I can confirm that national insurance benefits will rise in line with the retail prices index, which is 2.8 per cent. Most income-related benefits will rise by the Rossi index—1.8 per cent.—in the normal way. That will add more than £2 billion of extra Government spending to help those in most need and to tackle poverty. Of the £1.2 billion extra for pensioners, £140 million is above price inflation, as is £180 million of the extra for children.

In 1997, we said that we would cut the costs of economic and social failure—and we have. Despite the downturn in the world economy, employment in the United Kingdom has continued to grow. We have more people in jobs than ever before and, for the first time in nearly half a century, the highest employment rate and lowest unemployment rate of the major industrialised countries.

Through our investment in the new deal and Jobcentre Plus, we have tackled the legacy of mass unemployment that we inherited from the Conservative Government, whose leader, when masterminding their employment strategy, increased unemployment by more than 1 million. Since 1997, we have increased the number of people in jobs by more than 1.5 million, and we have invested to tackle poverty the £5 billion that has been saved from the cost of unemployment.

Combining that amount with the savings from tackling benefit fraud and error—overpayments alone now cost £400 million less a year than was the case in 1997—we can ensure that more money is available to invest in services. Staff working for the Pension Service, the first ever dedicated service for pensioners in this country, have made more than 300,000 home visits and held more than 220,000 community-based surgeries. Our investment in Jobcentre Plus is helping to deliver the lowest unemployment in the G7. Each day, our offices receive 13,000 vacancies, conduct 36,000 work-focused interviews and help 4,700 people into jobs, including more than 400 lone parents and more than 120 incapacity benefit clients. So we are not only uprating benefits but upgrading the service that we are able to give to our clients.

Our tax and benefit measures, combined with our successful employment policies, are helping to get more parents into work. We have reversed the generation-long trend of rising child poverty, which more than doubled during the 18 years when the Conservatives were in power. Since 1997, we have reduced the number

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of children living in low-income households by more than 500,000, and we are determined to do more. From April, the child element of the child tax credit will rise by £180 to £1,625 a year, equivalent to a weekly increase of £3.50. That will benefit 7.2 million children, including all families on income support and jobseeker's allowance.

Building on these measures, I announced in December how we would judge longer-term progress towards our ambition to eliminate child poverty altogether. The new measure recognises that poverty is about more than money. We will strive to eliminate material deprivation entirely, but we are also firmly committed to keeping up the drive to increase the incomes of the poorest children right through to 2020. Let us remember that in 1997, the Tories left us bottom of the European child poverty league table. As a result of the measures this Government have introduced, the UK has already moved four places up that table, and we are committed to go further so that we move beyond the EU average to be among the very best in Europe.

What of the Conservatives? We need to know whether they share our ambition that no child should be left behind, or whether they plan to repeat their performance of the 18 long years during which child poverty more than doubled.

On pensions, we are taking action to tackle pensioner poverty, boost security and provide people with more choice about when they retire. This year the basic state pension—the foundation of pensioners' incomes—will rise by a further £2.15 a week. That is £111.80 a year, which more than meets our guarantee that future rises will be at least £100 a year for single pensioners.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): On pension increases, can my right hon. Friend make a comparison in monetary terms and percentage-wise between 1997 and now, so that the House can get a good idea of the increases since then? How do they compare with the record of the previous Conservative Government?

Mr. Smith: The truth is that the Conservatives increased the real value of the state pension only once. That was at the time when they put VAT on fuel. If ever there was a case of giving with one hand while taking away with the other, that was it. In total, the real increase in the state pension since we came to office is now more than £5 a week for a single pensioner and more than £8 a week for a couple.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): The Minister has moved on from his laudable aim of ending child poverty by 2020 to talk about pensioners. Is it his aim to end pensioner poverty, and if so, by when?

Mr. Smith: We have already set out our ambition to erode and remove those aspects of pensioner poverty that we inherited from the Conservatives, and we are making enormous progress in that endeavour, thanks to increases in the real value of the basic state pension and to the introduction of pension credit, the impact of which I shall come to in a moment. The hon. Gentleman will know from the statistics that we have already cut the pensioner poverty that we inherited by some 60 per cent. in absolute terms. Even in relative terms, at a time when

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median incomes have been growing quite rapidly—so this is quite a demanding test—more than 500,000 pensioners have moved out of relative poverty. Of course we are committed to driving that forward.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): The Secretary of State is telling us how the Government wish to treat pensioners and about their laudable aim in that regard. Can he tell us how many pensioners were threatened with prison sentences under the previous Government—[Hon. Members: " Hundreds."] How many does he anticipate being threatened with prison sentences for not paying their council tax under this Government?

Mr. Smith: My hon. Friends suggest that hundreds, if not thousands, of pensioners were threatened with prison when the hon. Gentleman's party imposed the poll tax on them. If he is alluding to recent reports in the press, I am sure that he will understand that I am not at liberty to go into the individual circumstances of any recipient of pensions or benefits, no matter how much publicity those circumstances have received. I can assure him, however, that in that particular case, as in others, every endeavour is being made to ensure that the pensioner in question receives in full the entitlements that are her due. If some reports are to be believed, that has clearly not yet happened, for whatever reason. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree with me—I see him nodding—that pensioners should gain their pension credit, their council tax benefit and their housing benefit whenever they are entitled to do so.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): Without my going into that individual case in any more depth than the Minister for Local and Regional Government already has, if it is right, as has been suggested, that that pensioner would not have had to pay any council tax, or would have had help with it, through council tax benefit, does not that underline the massive failure of council tax benefit having the lowest take-up of any means-tested benefit, and the underlying problem of the growth in mean-tested benefits under this Government?

Mr. Smith: I have already said how important it is that all pensioners and others get the help to which they are entitled. This time last year, Opposition Front Benchers questioned us about the work of the local Pension Service, asking whether people who needed a home visit would be able to get one. They have gone quiet on that now. There have been 300,000 home visits, and more than 220,000 surgeries. Never has so much effort gone in to raising the take-up of people's entitlements. When the Conservatives were in Government, they seemed to operate an effective target of keeping take-up as low as possible. There is a big contrast between that and the efforts that we are putting in and the impact that they are having.

We have recognised that more needs to be done to improve the take-up of council tax benefit. That is why an information and advertising campaign is due to start shortly, as well as the extra advice being given through the local Pension Service. Thanks to the introduction of pension credit, 1.9 million pensioners are receiving help with housing benefit and council tax benefit for the first

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time, or getting significantly more than they were before. We recognise that more needs to be done, but we are making good progress.

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