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Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): My hon. Friend said that the best way out of poverty is through jobsa welcome contrast to the old Tory practice of throwing people on to incapacity benefit to reduce the dole queues. The fall in the number of people claiming IB is welcome, but will my hon. Friend confirm that it has been achieved by incentivising the pathway back into work? Will he therefore reject a proposal from any source that incapacity benefit should be reduced in a punitive attempt to get people back to work, which would reflect the old Tory methodology, not Labour values?
Mr. Timms: Yes, I agree. That is why there has been so much support for our approach among organisations representing disabled people. The Green Paper will be about giving people extra help to allow them to get into work. As my hon. Friend rightly said, the pathways areas are seeing double the number of recorded job entries compared to other areas. The pilots are working well to help incapacity benefit customers into work. They have been popular in those areas and we want to expand that approach across the country.
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC):
Given the Chancellor's welcome but belated U-turn on tax relief to buy second homes for pension funds, will the Minister confirm that in the great pensions debate the whole
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question of tax relief on pensions, which is unduly weighted towards higher rate taxpayers, will be ruled in, or will it be set aside somehow?
Mr. Timms: As I said earlier, nothing is being ruled in or out and we shall be interested in any suggestions that the hon. Gentleman or his hon. Friends make, although I draw his attention to the points made in the Turner report about the difficulties involved in radical change. However, if he has some proposals I should be interested in seeing them.
Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): I congratulate the Government and local authorities such as mine in Waltham Forest on their important efforts to improve entitlement take-up, but a huge number of people still do not receive their entitlement. Now that partnership teams have been rolled out in many areas, will my hon. Friend make a change so that they can make allocations to people who are entitled and that each case does not have to go back to a central agency to be worked out? Will he undertake to look at a possible policy change whereby people who are entitled can receive their money whether they claim or not? It is not just that they are stubbornthey may have early dementia or all sorts of other problems. Will my hon. Friend undertake to have a look at that?
Mr. Timms: Yes. We are doing a lot in exactly the direction advocated by my hon. Friend. There is a good joint team in Waltham Forest, the area that he represents. I have visited the team and had a look at its work; it is a particularly effective example. We are considering delegating a greater role to people other than staff in our Department, including enabling voluntary sector organisations to validate documents and check claims, thereby taking on some of the work that has had to be done in the Department in the past. I agree that it would be helpful to move in that direction. I also agree that we should increasingly be moving towards making payments automatic, if we are able to do so. That, of course, depends on our being able to access data that may not be in the systems that the Department uses, but there is much potential. My hon. Friend is on to something important and we are looking actively at it.
Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): Will the Minister take a look at the fact that people with learning disabilities and autistic spectrum disorder are required to claim incapacity benefit? Before the Government abolished severe disablement allowance and replaced it with incapacity benefit, there was recognition of the fact that such people are born with that condition and will almost certainly die with it. I do not say for one minute that there should not be every opportunity to help them get into work if possible, but at present they have to go to their GP every two or three months just to prove that they still have the condition with which they were born. That is rather cruel and unnecessary. Will the Minister look into it?
Yes, I should be happy to discuss that matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, although, like the hon. Lady, I want to underline the importance of not writing anybody off, and not
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assuming that some people will be unable to work. She makes a fair point and I shall certainly discuss it with my right hon. Friend.
Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on being part of a Government who ended the historic link between poverty and old agea truly magnificent achievement. May I, in the same vein, ask him to provide us with a few more details on the warm homes grant extensions, particularly for the installation of central heating in the properties of pension credit recipients who do not have such heating? Will applications have to be made, or will attempts be made to reach such properties and ensure a more automatic system?
Mr. Timms: I welcome what my hon. Friend says and I agree with her. The announcements that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made yesterday will be taken forward through the existing warm front programme, which, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, in many areas has been very active in going out to people and encouraging them to take up their entitlements. The scheme will provide free installation of central heating for households on pension credit who do not have it, and for other households not on pension credit there will be a contribution of £300 towards the cost of installing it. I agree about the need to work hard and ensure that people are aware of that opportunity, which represents a major breakthrough and a major improvement in the way we address the problem of heating for those who are above pensionable age.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) mentioned Liberal Democrats voting against the benefit uprating; he may remember that it was the infamous 75p pension uprating, and we would do the same if the Minister proposed it again.
May I bring the Minister back to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), which I do not think he responded to? My hon. Friend asked whether the Government had considered extending the winter fuel payment to severely disabled people. While the Minister is replying to that, he may also reply to the point about whether the warm front scheme extends to severely disabled people.
Mr. Timms: First, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the retirement pension will go up by £2.20 a week on this occasion, which I am sure he will welcome.
We have received a number of representations asking for the availability of winter fuel payments to be extended. We do not propose to do so. Disability living allowance helps to defray the additional costs of disability, which might include heating. The warm front schemes help people other than those above state pension age, but the announcements that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made yesterday were specifically about people who are above state pension age.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab):
Am I the only one to be astonished at the dismissive way in which the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) brushed aside the
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statement made by my Friend that pensioners are no more likely to be poor now than any other people in society, which I think is a remarkable achievement?
Council tax can be a very heavy burden for pensioners on modest fixed incomes who do not receive the pension credit. Now that the review of council tax has been abandoned, will my Friend tell me whether there is any fresh thinking within the Government on how pensioners of modest means can cope with above-inflation council tax rises?
Mr. Timms: I am sure that my hon. Friend will very much welcome the additional payment being made this year to help with council tax. I do not think that it is right to say that the review has been abolished; work is continuing that will contribute to the outcome of the forthcoming spending review. I anticipate that an announcement will be made in the Budget about whether additional payments will be made in future years.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Although I appreciate the Government's noble intentions on the reduction of child poverty, will the Minister confirm the number of children whom he estimates remain in absolute poverty? Has he had a chance to see today's press reports that quote research from Save the Children that, despite their best efforts, the Government are unlikely to meet their target to eliminate child poverty by 2020?
Mr. Timms: We are on track to hit our first milestone, which was to reduce child poverty by a quarter by last year. We will know the details of that by the spring. That is a welcome step forward, and I am glad the hon. Gentleman supports the aim that we have set out. I agree that it is a very important aim, and we are determined to make further progress. We have already succeeded in arresting and reversing the long-term trend of rising child poverty. By 200304, about 500,000 fewer children were in low-income households compared with 199899. We are determined to maintain that progress towards our target of abolishing child poverty by 2020.
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