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Women Pensioners

12. Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): What steps he is taking to increase the number of women who receive a full basic state pension in their own right. [5084]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): The proportion of women retiring with a full basic state pension will rise substantially over the next 20 years or so, although many will still not have a full record. The introduction of home responsibilities protection in 1978 and other recent measures, including the minimum wage, tax credits and better child care, have improved women's ability to build up their own state pension.

Vera Baird: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Does she accept, however, that the credits given to women while they are caring for children or elders as well as holding down one or perhaps two part-time jobs are hopelessly inadequate for the provision of a basic state pension? The amounts involved are growing only very slightly and very slowly. In a recent debate in Westminster Hall, it was estimated that at the current rate of progress, it would take about 70 years for all women to receive a basic state pension. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's predecessor referred to this problem as a national disgrace. How is it going to be tackled?

Mrs. McGuire: One of the principles behind our reform is that any new system should deliver for women and carers, and all options for reform will be assessed against that criterion. My hon. and learned Friend is quite correct; many women have been left behind in regard to their eligibility for a full state pension, largely as a result of the demographic, cultural and social situations in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. There is now a commitment to make pensions work for women, and I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will participate in forming the consensus that we are trying to establish around creating a pension scheme that truly delivers for women and carers.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I welcome the Minister to her new position and agree with a great deal of the comments about the historical basis of the problem of women's pensions, which is not in dispute. Will she acknowledge, however, that it is not necessary to jettison the contributory principle in order to address the problem? The way forward already suggested by the Conservatives would involve the better acknowledgement of any cash contributions made, the re-examination of the provision that rules out any pension unless a quarter of the record has been completed, and the proposal that there should be
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better acknowledgement of all the different kinds of family responsibility that people undertake as part of their normal life cycle. In that way, women could build up good credits and the problem would begin to reverse itself more quickly.

Mrs. McGuire: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I agree that we need to look at ways in which women and carers who are not in employment build up their state pension eligibility. Part of the solution will be delivered by the home responsibilities protection; another part will come from carers' allowances and from credit on the majority of benefits, such as jobseeker's allowance. We have an open mind about how we are going to ensure that tomorrow's pensioners have a decent and fair income in retirement. That is why we have undertaken to publish our own analysis and to look at the specific issue of women and pensions.

Economic Inactivity (South Wales)

14. Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): If he will meet Ministers in the National Assembly for Wales Government and in Westminster to discuss economic inactivity in south Wales valleys. [5086]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr.   David Blunkett): I very much look forward to returning to Wales shortly, and to visiting the want to work pilots. I shall be able to point out, as will my hon. Friend in his constituency in the Bridgend local authority area, that inactivity rates have been reduced and that activity rates have risen from 66.5 per cent. when we were elected in 1997 to 72 per cent. today.

My hon. Friend will know, as I do from representing a south Yorkshire seat, that many of those who are inactive today were made redundant by the Conservative party in the 1980s and 1990s and have languished on incapacity benefit ever since. We need to ensure that that never happens again.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank my right hon. Friend for that comprehensive answer. He will know of a report published last year with the catchy title "The Socio-economic Characteristics of the South Wales Valleys in a Broader Context". It points out that the south Wales valleys are lagging behind not just the rest of Wales but most of England, owing to poor education, poor transport and the large number of people on long-term incapacity benefit. Huge progress has been made, but in reforming incapacity benefit, should we not adopt an approach that recognises the worth of every individual, and recognises that the best way of ensuring the mental and physical well-being of many is to ensure that they return to work? Should we not also give much better protection to those who cannot return to work?

Mr. Blunkett: I entirely agree. The best form of welfare is work. We need to help those who can and protect those who cannot. We will do that, which is a promise and not a threat. Seven years ago in south Wales I met someone who had had a heart bypass and who thought, at the age of 42, that he should write himself off and never work again. I never again want to meet someone in that position. If people do not write themselves off, we will not write them off.
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Child Tax Credit

15. Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): If he will make a statement on the transfer to child tax credit of the remaining families with children in receipt of income support and income-based jobseeker's allowance. [5087]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): All new claimants for income support and jobseeker's allowance receive child tax credits rather than an increase in their benefits. We have always made it clear that the timing of the transfer of cases to tax credits will be subject to a final review. We are concluding that review, and an announcement will be made in due course. Meanwhile, I stress that no one is losing out: the increases in the benefits associated with children are set at the same level as child tax credit.

Danny Alexander: I am grateful for the Minister's confirmation that the transfer has been delayed yet again. Given the problems and the real hardship caused to nearly 2 million families by tax credit overpayments and the reclaiming of the amounts involved, has the Minister spoken to the Treasury about the level of income protection in the tax credit system that is available to families who are among the most vulnerable in society?

Mr. Plaskitt: I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General has asked HM Revenue and Customs to look at ways of helping families to understand when they should report income changes.


17. Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): If he will make a statement on support for carers. [5089]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): Depending on their personal circumstances, carers have access to the full range of social security benefits. Special help is also available for carers on low incomes through the carer premium in income-related benefits and the additional amount for carers in pension credit. We have made carer's allowance available to carers aged over 65. We have also increased the carer premium by £10 a week in addition to annual increases. Other support services are provided by the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills in England, and the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales.

Mr. Hoyle: I am sure my hon. Friend would agree that carers are unsung heroes and that the health service would grind to a halt without them. What can she do to ensure that the allowance is taken up? We know that money is available, but we also know that people do not claim their entitlement. What can my hon. Friend do to help those people to claim the money due to them and to ensure that more funds are available for the future?

Mrs. McGuire: I agree with my hon. Friend about the role of carers in society. Like many Members, I was pleased to celebrate carers week last week, and I am sure that many of us visited our local carer centres.
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About 437,000 carers currently receive carer's allowance, but as my hon. Friend says, carers' individual circumstances vary. The Department has stressed the need for us to ensure that they find out exactly what they are entitled to, and we are making every effort to provide information through our departmental networks, through doctors' surgeries and through citizens advice bureaux in order to increase take-up where appropriate.

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