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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Minister know about the recent joint campaign by the Fawcett Society and Age Concern? It points out that one in four single pensioner women already live in poverty and that methods of ameliorating that—without relinking—include reducing the lower earnings limit to allow more people access to the national insurance fund, paying pensions to all those with NI contributions, making credit for caring periods more effective and making the state second pension more useful to women. Are not they all worthwhile means of tackling pensioner poverty among the oldest women?

Mr. Browne: I am grateful for that interesting contribution. Of course, my hon. Friend knows that we have extended greater cover to women through the state second pension. We shall keep all the other matters under review.

I am conscious of the time and that some issues will be burning in the minds of those who contributed to the debate. I shall try to deal with them. If I cannot do that because of time constraints, I shall write to hon. Members, as I said earlier.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth) (SNP): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Browne: I shall not give way to the hon. Lady, who made no contribution to the debate, although she was present for all of it. If I make some decent progress, perhaps I shall give way, but people are waiting for answers and I am happy to provide them.

The hon. Member for Northavon made the reasonable request that we should ensure continuity of payment as a priority for those who are transferring to the child tax credit. I assure him that that is our priority. He has been told that the Paymaster General will make a statement about that and its administration in due course. I assure him that there will be no withdrawal of

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benefits until the tax credit award is in place. All families will be informed of the transfer, and I hope that that provides sufficient reassurance.

The hon. Gentleman asked about deferring the state pension and the treatment of capital sums. He made some interesting points, but they were no more interesting than the questions that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was asked in an intervention when opening the debate. He said that he would make clear the way in which the sums would be treated in relation to other benefits and that the Chancellor would make a statement about the tax treatment. When a Secretary of State gives the House such information at the beginning of a debate, it is highly unlikely that a Minister of State will say anything different at the end. I therefore direct the hon. Member for Northavon to my right hon. Friend's comments.

Mr. Willetts: Consistency.

Mr. Browne: We are always consistent. Since the Government have a consistent preferential policy agenda for the poor and we consistently move older people and children out of poverty, there is a lot to be said for consistency in the context of the debate.

Let me deal with the reference to article 22(3), which relates to council tax benefits for pensioners and why the figure of 20 per cent. remains unchanged. There are two aspects to that. First, I point out to the hon. Member for Northavon that the point relates to hospital downrating. He will remember that we changed that from last October so that pensioners and others in hospital would see no reduction in pension credit, council tax benefit and other income-related benefits for a full 52 weeks.

Mr. Webb: I have already said that.

Mr. Browne: Well, some things are important to repeat. That reduction does not kick in until after that period, and the 20 per cent. level is unchanged, because that is simply the amount by which council tax benefit is reduced after 52 weeks.

Secondly—I shall have to check this and write to the hon. Gentleman on it, as I do not want to be accused of accidentally misleading the House—my understanding is that it is highly unlikely that a council tax payer could be in hospital for 52 weeks without having the opportunity to benefit from some other reduction in council tax. As I recollect them, rules relating to council tax set out that when a house is unoccupied or there is a reduction in occupation for a period, there is a right to make an application for a reduction in council tax.

Mr. Webb: Those people still have to contribute.

Mr. Browne: They might not have to contribute the whole amount, only a comparatively small amount. They might not have to contribute at all, although there probably has to be some contribution, as the 20 per cent. must relate to something, as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out. I shall check the detail.

On the housing benefit reform pilots, we are making good progress in applying local housing allowance. All nine local authorities involved have begun

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implementation, which has been smooth to date. It is as yet too early to understand fully the response that tenants and landlords will make, and a comprehensive evaluation strategy will be put in place. Interim findings will be made early in 2005.

Several hon. Members referred to the need for the Government to encourage take-up of council tax benefit, and linked that in particular to pension credit. The Government recognise that there is more to be done. With the introduction of pension credit, almost 1.9 million pensioner households will get more help, or get help for the first time, with their council tax and rent. That is one of the significant consequential by-products of the Pension Service, which is reaching out to pensioners. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, we are launching a campaign to raise awareness of council tax benefit. As well as promotional material, we will provide guidance and advice to local authorities to help to ensure that they have procedures in place to handle inquiries about entitlement and to provide support for those making claims. The hon. Member for Northavon asked why we did not simply use the information that we have from pension credit for council tax benefit, which he said would be easy. I can assure him that it would not be easy, but would be quite complicated. That is not to suggest that the Government have not considered that possibility; we are constantly looking at ways in which we can increase take-up, and the hon. Gentleman can rest assured that we will do what we can on that.

The uprating order continues to deliver on our promises to help those who most need help. We are supporting families, and are continuing our action to tackle pensioner poverty and end child poverty. We continue to give help where it is needed most, and thanks

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to the increase in line with earnings of the guaranteed minimum and of pension credit from April, no single pensioner will need to live on less than £105.45 a week, or a couple on less than £160.95 a week.

Annabelle Ewing: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I apologise for having missed the first 15 minutes of this interesting debate. The Minister is surely concerned about the current take-up of pension credit. Would it not be appropriate to consider putting back the October deadline for the backdating of claims, so that all those currently entitled to receive pension credit receive their full entitlement at some point?

Mr. Browne: I am grateful for the hon. Lady's contribution, although it comes late in the debate. However, I should point out to her that we are not disappointed with take-up. The take-up process is moving very well. As we have not yet written to all pensioners who are entitled, it is premature to be discussing whether the October date is appropriate.

These orders confirm our conviction that it is essential to provide support, respectively, for those who cannot work or who are retired, while promoting the principle of work for those who can. I commend the orders to the House.

Question put and agreed to.



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Pension Scheme Wind-ups

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): We now come to the debate on the Opposition motion. Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

4 pm

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): I beg to move,

I draw the House's attention to the interests that appear in the Register of Members' Interests.

This is our first opportunity in Opposition time to debate pensions since the publication of the Pensions Bill the other day. We look forward—the expression to use is "with relish"—to ranging widely on Second Reading over the many issues covered in that Bill. Today, however, we want to focus on one serious omission from the Bill, which it ought to have tackled. I refer, of course, to the problem facing the tens of thousands of victims of the winding-up of pension schemes. Those are the people whose houses have burned down, and to whom the Government are saying that the solution is fire insurance for the future. However desirable a fire insurance scheme might be, it is of no comfort to someone who has already suffered the losses that these people have suffered.

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