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The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) for the opportunity to discuss the issue of pensioner poverty in Belfast, North. I am also pleased to see his colleagues the hon. Members
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for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson), for Upper Bann (David Simpson), for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) and for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) in their places, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound), who is an honoured member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) is also in his place on the Opposition Front Bench for the debate, and the attendance at this late hour shows the real interest in pensioner poverty in Belfast, North and throughout Northern Ireland.

I am acutely aware of the important issues that the hon. Member for Belfast, North mentioned. I hope that the Government are developing solutions to those problems while recognising that many issues are still of concern to him and his colleagues. I was pleased to note that he referred to the fact that the Government have done considerable work on providing support for pensioners in our time in office. He mentioned the winter fuel payments, which are still available and will be paid this very month. He also mentioned the free travel throughout Northern Ireland for over-65s, the free television licences, the free leisure facilities, the pension credit, the minimum income guarantee, free prescriptions for over-65s and several other important issues. I recognise that more needs to be done, and that is why the Government are keen to tackle some of the issues that he mentioned.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the north Belfast senior citizens forum. If the opportunity arises as part of my visits to north Belfast, I would be happy to meet the forum to discuss some of the issues, if that would be helpful. I know, because I have discussed it with my officials, that the forum has funding difficulties and I assure him that officials in the Department for Social Development are keen to consider how we can resolve those difficulties at an early opportunity. The forum fulfils a useful function and I pay tribute to those colleagues whom he mentioned this evening.

It is clear that older people have specific needs in health, personal social services, economic support and community care, and the hon. Gentleman mentioned a range of important issues. It may be helpful if I explain to the House the Government's policy on tackling poverty among older people. In doing so, I shall try, in the limited time available, to refer to some of the points that he mentioned.

I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention—I am sure that he is already aware of it—to the document entitled "Ageing in an Inclusive Society". The Government have put a lot of work into that strategy and are looking at holistic action across health, employment, transport and community safety to ensure collaboration between Departments and the voluntary and community sector on a wide-ranging action plan that will be reviewed later this month by Lord Rooker. One of the key action points in that document is the establishment of a champion for older people. We are examining how we can progress that. I have every confidence that during this financial year we will be able to come to some conclusions on the establishment of that figure.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are keen to target resources to improve the living standards of older people—in particular, the poorest pensioners. He mentioned means-testing, and I would say to him that
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the Department is making great efforts to reach older people to enhance the take-up of benefits. I know through my Benefits Agency role in Northern Ireland that we are trying to improve the uptake of benefits so that people get the benefits to which they are entitled, whether means-tested or otherwise. Indeed, there are three outreach services in Belfast—in Shankill, north Belfast and Newtownabbey—and the jobs and benefit offices are looking at how to improve benefit uptake.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned fuel poverty, which my Department and I are committed to tackling. Because he once had the honour—and I hope that he will have it again soon—of doing in the Assembly the job that I do now, he will know that we are taking a keen and active role in ensuring that we eradicate fuel poverty in vulnerable households by 2010. The budget for the warm homes scheme has increased over the past four years from just over £3 million in 2001 to just under £15 million in the current financial year. In Belfast, North about £1.6 million has been spent on more than 634 heating opportunities and about £472,000 on more than 1,600 insulation schemes. That will be replicated in constituencies across Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the increase in rates and water rates. In rushing through my speech in a limited time, I do not want to avoid the topic. He will be aware that the budget is currently open to consultation. I should welcome the comments of his colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party and we shall have an opportunity to debate the budget in detail in the Grand Committee next week. The Government recognise that the rate increase and the water charge proposals for 2007 will have an impact, so we have announced that a new rate relief scheme will be introduced in April 2007. We are working on the scheme and, as part of the consultation process, we should welcome suggestions about how we can target the scheme effectively to ensure that we mitigate the impact of rate rises and water rate rises on vulnerable households and among pensioners.

I forgot to mention at the beginning of the debate that I should declare a sort of interest. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Age Concern, and my wife works for that organisation.
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There are a range of concerns about the rate increase, but we are committed to ensuring that we minimise the effects on vulnerable individuals, including people on low incomes and pensioner households, especially in relation to water charges, which are due to be introduced in April 2007. We are looking to phase in the charges over a three-year period, to skew the highest charges towards more affluent areas and to develop a special hardship scheme for people facing exceptional circumstances. The Government are determined to ensure that water charges are fair and affordable for consumers and that low-income households are protected.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned investment in health and social care. That is a large topic to cover in a few minutes, but I can say that during the last five years health spending in Northern Ireland has risen from £2.2 billion a year to £3.3 billion a year and it will rise to £3.6 billion a year by 2008. The national health service accounts for more than 40 per cent. of the Northern Ireland budget and, over the next two years, we have planned above-inflation increases of 6.8 and 5.3 per cent. That will not only help to reduce in-patient and out-patient waiting lists, but enhance community care services so that people in Northern Ireland have support to enable them to remain in their own homes, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman would want. A key health and social services priority for my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), is the development of integrated primary and community care services.

The time for the debate is running out, so I conclude by assuring the hon. Member for Belfast, North that the Government are committed to developing services for older people. We believe that we are doing a reasonable job, although there are always more challenges. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage in that debate, which I hope will continue outside the House. I am grateful for the support of him and his colleagues. The debate will continue next week and I am pleased to have had this opportunity to outline the Government's case.

Question put and agreed to.

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