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The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Women Bishops

24. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment the commissioners have made of the funding implications of a General Synod vote to allow women bishops; and if he will make a statement. [201750]

Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): None. By way of a statement, the General Synod has yet to decide whether in principle it wants to embark on the legislative process that would be necessary to enable women to be bishops.

David Taylor: It is very appropriate for the Church, in this season of Advent, to prepare for the arrival of female bishops, and it is proper and reasonable to provide for those who cannot accept the ministry of women in the episcopate. But in addition to its theological and practical flaws, would not the proposal for a new, third province parallel to Canterbury and York cause serious financial damage to the Anglican Church at every level—from the lowest and humblest parochial church council, such as that on which I serve, to the most elevated of bodies, such as the Church Commissioners, on which my hon. Friend serves?

Sir Stuart Bell: The question of a third province would doubtless appeal to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), who is in his place. The
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General Synod will be asked at its February meeting to take note of the report, and in principle, the decision as to whether it wishes to remove the legal obstacles to women's ministry in the episcopate will come later in the session. The wider point that my hon. Friend makes will of course be taken fully into account.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): But does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the Church of England should have learned its lesson about separate arrangements for those who disagree with the general opinion of Synod, and that it would be very helpful if, in the interest of the good governance of the Church, the commissioners undertook a survey of the options mentioned by the Bishop of Rochester in his recent report? That survey will hopefully show that people will not be forced to come to a particular conclusion that is based on money, rather than on the very good sense that the Synod will demonstrate when it agrees to women bishops.

Sir Stuart Bell: I take note of the hon. Gentleman's point, which reminds me of a comment that you will be very familiar with, Mr. Speaker. I have no instructions to give other than this House directeth me, although in this case it is question of how the Church of England directeth me. On the financial implications, the Church is giving the Bishop of Rochester's report serious consideration and the archbishops have commended it for prayerful study. There is a very long synodical process through which we shall reach the question of women bishops, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's point, along with the other points raised, will be taken fully into account when Synod meets in February.

Terms of Employment (Clergy)

Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): What recent assessment the commissioners have made of the work of the Department of Trade and Industry working group looking at terms of employment for members of the clergy. [201752]

Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): No concrete proposals have emerged from the DTI working group's meetings to date.

Mr. Chapman: Does my hon. Friend think that satisfactory? I recognise that the wheels turn exceedingly slowly in respect of Church matters, but can he indicate whether any progress has been made, what direction the working group is taking, and when we might expect some form of announcement?

Sir Stuart Bell: The thrust of my hon. Friend's question is a matter for the DTI, since it is up to its working group to introduce concrete proposals. The working group's discussions concerning the service review have been reported back to the clergy, and a report on the second phase of its work will be submitted to the Archbishops Council later this month.

I would submit that, at the end of the day, we may reach the conclusion that my hon. Friend wishes.
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Church Appointments

27. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): If he will make a statement on the consultation procedures for Church appointments. [201753]

Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Stuart Bell): Different procedures are used for different appointments. In all cases, consultation is extensive whether it be for the appointment of diocesan bishops, other senior clerical appointments or parish appointments.

Miss McIntosh: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that reply. Will he join me and, I hope, the whole House in paying fulsome tribute to the present Archbishop of York and wish him God speed in his new parochial duties when he steps down from his current position? Will the hon. Gentleman assure the House that the consultation to which he just referred will be as wide as possible in respect of the succeeding Archbishop of York? Will he have regard to the turmoil in the Church of England, to which the archbishop referred, and ensure that both wings of the Church—the traditional and the modern—are represented?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning the retirement of the Archbishop of York, who will take up his position as a parish priest on 15 January. I am sure that all hon. Members will wish him God speed in his new role and will welcome and appreciate the work that he has done up to now on behalf of the Church. We all read with great interest his interview, published in The Sunday Telegraph yesterday.
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As to the consultation process, I doubt whether there has ever been one as wide and far-reaching as the present one. It includes the hon. Lady herself, who was asked to give her views, as have others within the Church. As a result of the extensive consultation period, I am sure that, when it comes, the appointment will represent the widest interests of the Church.


The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Local Referendums

28. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): What advice the Electoral Commission gives to local authorities on the conduct of local referendums. [201754]

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) : I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that local referendums are held under the auspices of the Local Government Act 2003 and, as such, are outside the remit of the Electoral Commission.

Hugh Bayley: Does not the hon. Gentleman nevertheless have a view that it would be good practice, when the local referendum takes place, for the question and supporting documents to be agreed on an all-party basis?

Mr. Viggers: It is not really my role to have views, Mr. Speaker, but I can say that the Electoral Commission can give advice where it has expertise and knowledge. It will no doubt take account of the point that the hon. Gentleman has made.
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Benefits Uprating and Welfare Reform

3.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Alan Johnson): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on benefits uprating in the context of this Government's continued fight against poverty and our aim of employment opportunity for all. I shall place full details of the uprating in the Vote Office and arrange for figures to be published in the Official Report. I can confirm that most national insurance benefits will rise by the retail prices index, which is 3.1 per cent. and most income-related benefits will be uprated by the Rossi index, which is 1 per cent. From next April, retirement pension will go up by £2.45 a week for single pensioners and £3.95 a week for couples. When we came to office, the pension was just £62.45 for a single person: from April it will be £82.05, and £131.20 for couples.

As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor set out in last week's pre-Budget report, both next year and in the spending round to 2008, the pension credit will rise faster than inflation by average earnings, meaning that there will be 600,000 fewer pensioners in poverty than if the guarantee was uprated only in line with prices. Next year, the guarantee credit of pension credit will rise so that no single pensioner need live on less than £109.45 a week and no couple on less than £167.05 a week.

The threshold for the savings element of pension credit will be uprated so that it remains equal to the basic state pension. That means that a typical single pensioner will now gain from pension credit if they have an income of up to £150 a week, while a typical couple will gain on an income of up to £220 a week.

More than 3.1 million pensioners are now in receipt of pension credit, with an average award of more than £41 and with average arrears payments running at around £1,000. Each week, the Pension Service works to help pensioners access their entitlements in their local communities. It is a personalised service that has also led to increases in the take-up of attendance allowance, carers allowance, council tax benefit and housing benefit.

Take-up of pension credit has been strongest among the very poorest pensioners. The definitive national statistics figures on take-up rates will not be available for some time, but among those whose incomes would otherwise be below the guarantee element—currently £105—our best estimate is that take-up rates are running at more than 80 per cent. Among those with incomes at or below the basic state pension who do not gain from the savings element, we are now outstripping our expectations at the time of the spending review, in case load terms, by 25,000 households, or by at least £40 million this year in expenditure terms.

Following all the measures introduced since 1997, the average pensioner household will be £1,350 per year better off in 2005–06 as a result of our tax and benefit policies than they would have been under the 1997 system, while the poorest third will be £1,900 per year better off. In total, there will be an extra £10 billion spent on pensioners in 2005–06. That is £7 billion more than an earnings link would have given them, with almost half of the £10 billion extra spending going to the poorest third of pensioners.
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As well as targeting our help at the poorest, we have done more for all pensioners than an earnings link would allow. Take for example, a single pensioner aged 76, living alone and with an income too high to be eligible for pension credit. A straight earnings-related uprating would give her £9.90 extra a week. Instead, this year, as a result of our reforms, she has a basic state pension increased in real terms by 7 per cent., a £200 fuel allowance and a free TV licence worth £121 a year. That adds up to an extra £11.62—or £1.72 a week more than the earnings link would have provided.

With 1.8 million pensioners lifted out of absolute poverty since 1997, we have made remarkable strides in tacking the pernicious pensioner poverty that we inherited in 1997, and we will continue to make its eradication our priority. We reject proposals that would see the poorest pensioners fall back into poverty and that would be an unsustainable burden on the public finances.

Around three quarters of individuals below the poverty line live in households with a pensioner or a child, so as well as tackling pensioner poverty, we are right to focus on child poverty. We have lifted more than half a million children out of relative low income since 1997. The child tax credit will increase by earnings, and the maximum eligible child care costs covered by the working tax credit have increased by 50 per cent. to £300 for two or more children.

The standard rate of maternity allowance and statutory maternity pay will be increased by the retail prices index to £106 a week. Last week my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced the extension of paid maternity leave. Instead of the 16 weeks in 1997, it will rise from six months today to nine months in April 2007, with a goal of an entire year of paid maternity leave. Whereas the maximum maternity pay and child benefit for mothers at home with their first baby in 1997 was just £2,610 for the first year, it will rise by 2007 to £8,300—a real-terms increase of £5,000.

In addition, the pre-Budget report also announced our new measures for child care, including an extra 1 million child care places being made available by 2010 and an increase in the number of Sure Start centres from 600 to 3,500 over the same period. That will not only improve the education opportunities of children but help parents to get into work.

A job is the best route out of poverty, and continued investment in the new deal and Jobcentre Plus will help us to move even further towards full employment and away from the mass unemployment of the 80s and 90s. We have the highest employment rate of the major industrialised nations, with unemployment at its lowest level for 30 years. There are 2 million more jobs than in 1997, with 1 million people helped into work through our new deal programmes. We have seen an increased employment rate for lone parents, disabled people, ethnic minorities, the low skilled and people aged 50 and over. For the fifth successive year, I can announce that we are freezing non-dependent deductions to relieve the pressure on low-income parents who are housing their adult children.

We are determined to ensure that everyone has the opportunity and the incentives to work. Our pathways to work pilots have achieved outstanding early results, with twice as many sick and disabled people getting
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back to work in pilot areas compared with non-pilot areas. The pre-Budget report announced our intention to build on that success by extending the scheme to a third of the country, covering the areas with the greatest concentration of incapacity benefit claimants, starting from October 2005.

With nine out of 10 people expecting to work again when they first claim incapacity benefits, pathways is helping them to meet their aspirations, fostering a culture change where sickness and disability need no longer mean a withdrawal from work. We are committed to extending that culture change by working with GPs and other health care professionals to embed a more positive attitude towards the beneficial effects of work. We will make a range of support available to GPs, including improved training materials for new and existing doctors to help them to support patients in getting back to work effectively.

We are piloting a scheme, based on innovative projects such as those undertaken in Glasgow, Bristol and Camden, to place employment advisers in GP surgeries. We are allocating £30 million more to expand the number who can benefit from the new deal for disabled people. We want to try to reduce bureaucracy for GPs, but also to build up our understanding of the most effective ways that GPs are helping their patients to manage a return to work.

A key part of that culture change is eliminating discrimination. We are proud to have introduced our Disability Discrimination Bill, which is today being debated on Second Reading in the other place. Combined with our extension of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in October, we are radically transforming the rights and opportunities of disabled people. We are also committed to breaking down the barriers that older workers face by taking steps to tackle age discrimination and improve the financial inducements for people who decline to take their basic state pension at the age of 65.

The Pensions Act 2004 improves the rewards for deferring the state pension and gives people the new choice of taking an enhanced pension or a lump sum of, on average, £20,000 to £30,000 for people who choose to delay taking their state pension for five years. Furthermore, the rewards are significant even for choosing to defer for a period of substantially less than five years. For example, a 65-year-old single man entitled to a state pension of £105 a week who defers for two years would be entitled to an increased pension of more than £126 a week, or a lump sum of £11,600.

With today's uprating, we continue our commitment to and progress towards a fair and inclusive society of opportunity and independence for all, tackling poverty and breaking down the barriers that prevent people from realising their own aspirations in the workplace. I commend this statement to the House.

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