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9. Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): What the total value of national insurance rebates paid into contracted-out pension funds was in the most recent year for which figures are available. 
Mr. Lilley: Given that the national savings ratio has halved under this Government, is it not sad that the sum that the Minister mentioned, which is still very large, has declined from its peak? Does he recognise that national insurance rebates still make a major contribution to the nation's savings and are a vital element of individuals' savings for retirement? Will he resist the temptation to steal that money to improve benefits for current pensioners at the expense of future pensioners? Stealing that money would turn savings into spending; instead, he should encourage more people to save.
Malcolm Wicks: The question was addressed to the Government Front Bench, but I am not sure what official Conservative party policy is on that matterit might be to use the money in some other way. National insurance rebates are an important way in which private and occupational pension schemes are funded. As the former Secretary of State knows only too well, legislation requires that rebate rates be reviewed at least once every five years. Later this year, we will start the review process with the Government Actuary's Department to set the new rebate levels from 2007.
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that we will make more progress in tackling fraud within the benefit system and ensuring that people can get the benefits to which they are entitled when all computers within the system can speak to each other?
Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): May I follow up the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who did not get a clear answer? Does the Minister agree that it would be wrong to raid contracted-out rebates in order to finance the citizen's pensionwe know from a previous exchange in this House that the Secretary of State is interested in that policy? We seek such an assurance from the Minister, and it is a pity that we did not hear it in answer to the previous question. Will he now give such an assurance?
Our position remains that we regard the contracted-out rebate as a valuable way in which to fund those who choose a private occupational pension scheme. The debate about the future of state pensions is altogether different.
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The Minister for Work (Jane Kennedy): Since 1997, over 1.1 million more people from that age group are in work, which accounts for more than half of the growth in employment over that period. Without question, that is because of a combination of the back-to-work help provided by Jobcentre Plus, new deal 50-plus and strong labour market conditions, all of which could so easily be placed in jeopardy.
Jim Sheridan: My right hon. Friend knows that many elderly workers are currently on incapacity benefit through no fault of their own because of injuries or illnesses that they have picked up during the course of their working lives. Will she offer an incentive to those with skills and experience to return to industries such as construction to help to train young people in the skills that we need in this country?
Jane Kennedy: That is an interesting suggestion. My hon. Friend is right. Of the 950,000 people who claim incapacity benefit and severe disablement allowance, around a quarter would like to workthat is, those who are in the age group of over-50 to state pension age. Our pathways to work pilots are testing and developing the best ways in which to help those people to achieve their goals, and the initial results are very encouraging. However, my hon. Friend is rightthis group of people has a wealth of experience and knowledge that could be harnessed in the labour market in the interesting way that he suggests.
Jim Knight: The Minister may be aware that in September the fashion retailer, New Look, will close its distribution centre in my constituency, with the loss of 580 jobs to the Weymouth area. Many of those workers are older or of low skill. What help can the Department offer them to give them the belief that they have a future in work? Would a member of the ministerial team, ideally the Minister herself, be willing to visit New Look in the next couple of months to see the situation on the ground?
Jane Kennedy: I am pleased to receive that invitation from my hon. Friend. I was not aware that the announcement about New Look had been made, but I know that Jobcentre Plus is standing by with a rapid response service to offer precisely the training for reskilling that my hon. Friend is calling for. The full Jobcentre Plus package of support is ready to help that company and those of its employees who face the uncertain future that he describes. I would be more than happy to visit his constituency to meet the workers affected.
Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South)
(Lab): Has my right hon. Friend seen the latest political bulletin from
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Age Concern, which congratulates the Government with the words, "Queen's Speech Brings Good News for Older People"? That document refers to the mandatory retirement age. Will my right hon. Friend carefully consider the loss of skills and experience that results from the mandatory retirement age and think about creating some flexibility to allow older people to remain in the work force?
Jane Kennedy: I have not seen the article, but I should obviously read it, because it would cheer me up. We know that 1 million people have already chosen to carry on working past state pension age, many of them in part-time work, and our research shows that people do want the choice and flexibility that my hon. Friend is calling for. Our Age Positive programme encourages employers to work towards that in the spirit, not just the letter of the law. To help them to do that, our campaign and its associated website strongly promotes the business benefits of employing older people as part of a mixed-age work force. The promotion of the benefits of employing people in this older age group is clearly beginning to be heard by businesses.
The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): We do not have the data on pension credit eligibility at constituency level, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that at 31 October 2004, 5,368 pensioner households, including 6,720 individuals, in Leicester, South were receiving pension credit. The average award was around more than £58 a week.
Mr. Gill: I thank the Minister for his response. However, is he aware that one assessment found that more than 1,000 pensioner households in Leicester, South are eligible to claim pension credit but are not doing so although they are clearly in need of the money? What steps will the Minister take to help to bridge that gap?
Malcolm Wicks: We do not have the data on eligibility, so I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman does. Undoubtedly, there will be people in Leicester, South and in all our constituencies who are eligible for pension credit and should be claiming it. Members of Parliament have a role to play in working with the local Pension Service in that regard. It is interesting that among those with the most to gain from pension creditthose eligible for guarantee leveltake-up is extremely high. I think, from memory, that at least 250,000 more people now get the guarantee than under the old days of income support. We would not have achieved that success had we listened to the Liberal Democrats on pension credit.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)
(Lab/ Co-op): The pension credit scheme will certainly have done a great deal to tackle pensioner poverty in the constituency of Leicester, South, which I know very well and is quite close to mine. However, does the
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Minister accept that in Leicester, South and similar constituencies substantial numbers of older pensioners, often women over 80, still endure poverty? Would not it be a good idea, for their benefit, at least to revisit the possibility of making the boost to pensions at the age of 80 more significant than 25p and of re-linking some pensioners' levels of income to the level of income in the economy?
Malcolm Wicks: We need to bear it in mind that pensioner households where one or more people are over 80 receive £400 as part of the winter fuel payment package. We are successfully targeting a group of peopleelderly women over 80through pension credit. Pension credit means that state pension money is more or less equal now for men and women in old age, I am pleased to say.
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