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Mr. Laws: No. I am going to press on and deal with a couple of other issues, as time is short. I hope that reform of the CSA will be an early priority for the Secretary of State, and that he will undertake to make a statement about it to the House of Commons rather than simply to the Select Committee.
The two other issues that I want to mention are reform of the pension system, and reform of incapacity benefit. I do not expect much information on pensions from the Secretary of State as he is entitled to say that he is waiting for the report of Lord Turner's commission. The leaks to various media sources about the contents of that report seem relatively authoritative, but we will see whether they turn out to be as accurate as most people assume. When he responds to the announcement next week of the commission's final conclusion, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not try to give answers to all the points that are raised. We do not expect that of him, but we do expect him to give a signal on two issues.
First, I hope that the Secretary of State will give us an indication as to whether he accepts what seems to be the consensus outside Parliament, and among the three commissionersthat the increasing reliance on a complex, means-tested pension system is unsustainable over the long term. I hope that he will make it clear that, even if means testing has been necessary as a way of targeting money on poor pensioners in the short term, he will move away from it in favour of a simpler state pension system that will incentivise private saving over the long term.
The Secretary of State will also have to address the question of fairness in the public and private sectors. If the leaks about Lord Turner's report are accurate, it is likely that he will suggest an increase in the state pension age to 67 or 69. It would therefore appear very odd for the Government to sign off on a deal with public sector workers that would allow themeven those who have not even joined the public sector yetto continue to retire at the age of 60 for a number of years after the introduction of Lord Turner's proposal to set the state pension age at 67. I hope that the Secretary of State will acknowledge that it may be necessary to return to the issue of public sector pensions reform. The office of the Prime Minister seemed to do as much in comments made to The Times in recent days. The matter needs to be looked at more in a more fundamental way. It is possible that a second independent report will need to be commissionednot necessarily to be compiled by Lord Turneron the future sustainability of the pension system.
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, and I know that other hon. Members want to speak, but I am very struck by his request that we revisit the deal on public sector pensions. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) condemned the Government for proposing that new entrantslet alone existing scheme membersshould
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have their pension age increased to 65. What is his view on that response? His position seems totally inconsistent with it.
Mr. Laws: The Secretary of State will know that the view among Liberal Democrat Front-Bench Members has been perfectly consistent, and that we have criticised the deals struck by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. If he wants to enlighten us in this debate, will the right hon. Gentleman say whether he thinks that the deal that the Government have struck with some major public sector unions has been helpful to him, and to Lord Turner's commission, in moving the debate forward on this key issue?
We await the Secretary of State's comments on 30 November. We will find out then whether his views are in line with those of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, or whether they are more in line with those of the Prime Minister. The latter seems to be very unhappy with the deal that has been struck.
Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the complexity of applying for tax credits and benefits, and of making claims to the CSAall of which requires long forms to be filled indeters the least well off and most vulnerable people in society, who often suffer from dyslexia and similar learning difficulties?
Mr. Laws: I agree precisely on that point. One of the challenges for the Government, and for all political parties, is to simplify the tax and benefits system. A couple of weeks ago, a person came to one of my advice centres from whom a total of between £4,000 and £5,000 in tax credits was being reclaimed. He had learning difficulties, and had been put in a work placement. He had no understanding of how the tax credits system worked, and was therefore facing a very unfair recovery process. Moreover, Government policy is very ambiguous about whether he would be required to repay that money.
Finally, I turn to the question of incapacity benefit reform. We welcome the Government's intention to look at the matter seriously. Over the past 20 years, there has been a turnaround in the number of people on unemployment benefit and incapacity benefit. In the early 1980s, between 2 million and 3 million people claimed unemployment benefit, and very many fewer claimed incapacity benefit. The change since then has been enormous, and the number of people on incapacity benefit is now between 2.6 million and 2.7 million.
Clearly, that is extremely wasteful for the economy, but it is often very undesirable for the people involved as well. As the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea noted, the Government have said for eight years that a million people on incapacity benefit want to get back into employment. The fact that that figure of a million people has been used year after year underlines the lack of an effective policy so far to change the system.
We believe that the Pathways process helps people to get back into employment. I have visited the Pathways centre in my Yeovil constituency and it seems to be working well so far, although relevant statistics are fairly modest, as the system has been in operation for
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only a limited period. However, we hope that the Secretary of State will be willing to fund the Pathways process across the country, and that he will not come under pressure to deliver savings in a way that could damage incapacity benefit reform. Such savings might be achieved by time limiting payments or by turning a portion of the payments into vouchers, but they would hit a very vulnerable group of people.
Although some people on incapacity benefit would like to work, are capable of doing so and would be helped by the Pathways process, I hope that the Secretary of State has got the message that some very vulnerable peoplewhose conditions are often difficult to detectare very worried about the proposals that the Government might bring forward. They are keen to get an assurance that their position and vulnerability will not be threatened by a precipitate attempt to secure savings to fund the Pathways process.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. It is appropriate for me to remind the House now that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. If hon. Members can make do with less than that, they will earn the gratitude of their colleagues.
Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this short debate. I found the contribution from the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) intriguing. It was almost as though he had never been away.
Debates such as this are an opportunity to probe the Opposition. As Opposition Members have spent the past two months touring the country and the television studios with the tale of two Davids, this could be a useful debate. I recently had a glimpse of one David, the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), giving a speech in Birmingham, in which he attacked the Labour party's approach to welfare. He told us that his vision for the future promises a huge expansion of the voluntary sector. I do not know whether that was a code for cuts, but I was a bit disturbed when he went on to say what he thinks the sick, the unemployed and the disabled need. Apparently, they do not need the new deal, access to work or pathway-to-work pilots. No, according to him they need the confidencenote the confidence, not the moneyto buy a new suit. Well, maybe old Etonians whose confidence has taken a bit of a knock need a quick shopping spree and all is okay, but that is not my experience of how we need to deal with some of the hard problems we face today. To parody that speech a little, I could point out that the hon. Gentleman also commented on Labour's DNA in our approach to welfare. It is my view that it is the Tories' DNA that characterises their approach to welfare. They simply despise the welfare state, as we have heard again today.
We know what kind of Britain the Tories want. In the past, their Britain was a place where mass unemployment was a price worth paying. They trumpeted it. They declared war on every British shipyard worker, steel
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worker and miner. They thought that the humbling of a once proud working class was a sign of political strength. Ask my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) what crushing mining communities means. It means a generation reared on heroin. It means taking once stable communities and smashing them into the ground. It means tearing apart the very bonds of family and community that give society its cohesion. So when I hear Opposition Members accuse us of incoherence or incompetence, I wonder whether they have changed at all.
I know that the highest concentrations of people on incapacity benefit are densely clustered in areas of disadvantage in once proud industrial and manufacturing towns, and I know that the record rises in claims in those areas occurred during the period when the Opposition were in power, because of their cynical manipulation of the unemployment figures. The party that today thinks that it can point accusing fingers at us would like the public to forget the fact that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) was once responsible for managing unemployment. Those were the days when GPs signed off healthy men on long-term sickness because their jobs were gone and no one on the other side of the House had any intention of doing anything else for them.
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