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Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman suggests that the Disability Discrimination Bill is better late than never, but we promised it in our last manifesto and said that it would be introduced in this Parliament—as, with a fair wind, it will be. That is why we gave it a First Reading the day after the Queen's Speech, and why it will have its Second Reading shortly.
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The hon. Gentleman also mentioned that another £30 million is going into assisting some of the problems identified by the Shaw Trust, and by other charities.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman about sanctions. The pathways to work project has the backing of the disability lobby on the basis of rights and responsibilities. There is a responsibility to attend a work-focused interview. The £11 sanction for not turning up is fair and reasonable, given that the programme involves condition management and assistance such as a £40-a-week in-work credit to help disabled people once they get into work. I understand that insistence that they attend, to the extent of using the £11 sanction, is very rare. When I went to Gateshead I asked the people there how many times they had had to implement it, and they find not only that they do not have to do so, but that people who are not even part of the project, because they have been on IB for longer than a year, beat a path to their door to ask for help. The rights and responsibilities approach must continue. If there are any specific problems I should like to consider them, but that is the right approach, and we have wide support for it.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart) (Lab): The Government's ambition to abolish child poverty is the most important that we have, and I welcome my right hon. Friend's comments on child tax credit. However, will he address the concerns of a constituent of mine to whom I spoke at the weekend, who had her initial award for child tax credit reduced by 80 per cent. in subsequent years because officials overestimated what she was due? She is not alone in that. What can my right hon. Friend and his Department do to ensure that such overestimates, and the misery and distress that they inevitably cause, are minimised?

Alan Johnson: I understand that my hon. Friend has an interest in these matters, his partner having given birth to a child quite recently. Every MP has examples of such problems, and we are working closely with the Treasury to try to solve them. To see what we have done to tackle child poverty, one need only look at the level of income support and child allowance that existed in 1997. Then, for a child of 0 to 11 years it was £16.90; next year, it will be £43.88—an increase of 127 per cent. We have to work to eradicate the genuine problems that my hon. Friend has identified, but that must not detract from the success of our attempts to eradicate child poverty.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): In the context of welfare reform, the Secretary of State will be aware that the working tax credit leaves many couples, and therefore any children that they have, up to £36 per week worse off than if they were on their own. That is in marked contrast to other social security systems, such as that in Australia. Will the Secretary of State investigate that anomaly to ensure that tax credit or benefit recipients are not worse off by living together than by being on their own? It must surely be wrong to penalise people for coming together as couples if they choose to do so.
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Alan Johnson: I am not absolutely sure whether the hon. Gentleman is right—but he spoke with such panache and was so positive that I shall assume that he is, and the issue needs to be examined. However, the working tax credit and child tax credit have meant an enormous increase in reducing poverty. There are anomalies in the system, and they need to be tackled.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend knows that I support 100 per cent. the Government's pension credit policy, which helps the poorest pensioners. I also acknowledge that the pension centres have helped many pensioners in all our constituencies to get other benefits to which they are entitled. My right hon. Friend said that take-up was 80 per cent. That means that 20 per cent. do not get the credit to which they are entitled and which, in many cases, they desperately need. How do we reach that 20 per cent. and ensure that 100 per cent. of the pensioners who most need the help get it?

Alan Johnson: The first thing that we can do is knock on the door of every pensioner who we believe should claim the credit, but does not. That was suggested to us, and we will do it. On the point about the 80 per cent., we expected to have a rate of 70 per cent. take-up at this stage. The other point was that we are missing the poorest pensioners, and we must consider that carefully. Every indication that I have received suggests that part of the problem arises because some people are not sure whether the savings credit element, which can sometimes be £5 or £6, is sufficient. There is some confusion about that. There is also a belief among some people that if they claim pension credit they will lose housing benefit or some other payment. We must deal with that. We are also considering whether small payments could be paid as a one-off annual payment rather than a weekly payment, thus making the credit more attractive to claim. We are considering all those aspects, and we want to get 100 per cent. take-up if possible.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): I welcome the success of the pathways to work pilots in helping people on incapacity benefit to get back into work. As my right hon. Friend rolls out and broadens the programme throughout the country, will he further consider the way in which medical rehabilitation services for people of working age could help to get them back to work? That could be an important part of the process.

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend is right. That is why the Health and Safety Executive has a project under way. Rehabilitation has been underplayed by employers, who could use it to continue a link with people on long-term sickness, and do more to maintain that link and give them help. However, in pathways to work we also find that it is important for people to have not only the expertise of a personal adviser who is looking to place them in work, but condition management from the national health service, as well as GPs' awareness that getting them back into work could help their health. The suicide rate among those who are long-term unemployed is 35 times higher than that of people in work. For people with mental conditions, for example, being in work will be better than being out of work. When we all realise that and work together, that will be a success for pathways to work.
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Orders of the Day

Railways Bill

[Relevant documents: The Seventh Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2003–04, The Future of the Railway, HC 145-I; and Fourth Special Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2003–04, Government, Health and Safety Commission and Executive, and Office of the Rail Regulator Responses to the Seventh Report from the Committee, HC 1200.]

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

4.18 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The White Paper, "The Future of Rail", which I published in July this year, set out new proposals for reorganising the structure of Britain's railways. The Bill takes forward the legislative elements to implement that White Paper to simplify and restructure the railways and put right many of the problems caused by a botched privatisation 10 years ago.

The main provisions of the Bill are to wind up the Strategic Rail Authority; to transfer the railway safety functions to the Office of Rail Regulation; to change the way in which access charge reviews are calculated; to give the devolved Administrations more responsibility; to allow passenger transport executives and London to take greater responsibilities for services in their areas; to establish a rail passenger council as a single national body and end the formal federal structure of the passengers' committees; and to put in place a better way of changing rail services to allow more flexibility and to provide for rail, light rail and bus schemes. I shall return to all those points in greater detail shortly. Before I do, I should point out that other important changes need to be made, which were set out in the White Paper but do not require legislation, and I shall return to those later as well.

Before I turn to the provisions of the Bill, I want to put the proposed legislative changes in context. The railways are a vital public service and an essential part of the country's transport infrastructure. Whereas the railway industry was seen as an industry in decline in the early 1990s, today it is growing. Last year, more than 1 billion journeys were made—the first time that that milestone has been reached since 1961.

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