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Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): The Minister rightly highlighted the Government's success in redistributing wealth to the poorest pensioners. Will he assure me that, whatever comes out of the discussions about the Turner report and the White Paper, the policy objective of ensuring that the poorest pensioners are the most looked after by the state will continue?

Mr. Timms: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. It was a scandal that so many pensioners were on a means-tested benefit of £69 a week in 1997. We must not head in that direction, where a large number of pensioners were below the generally recognised poverty threshold. That will be a key criterion in our package of reforms, and I am sure that she has been encouraged by Lord Turner's comments about maintaining the pension credit.

To meet the challenges of an ageing society and permanently eradicate poverty in retirement, we must address inequalities during people's working lives. That is why our record in tackling child poverty is so important; that is why we are committed to supporting families in work; that is why our welfare reforms and aspiration of an 80 per cent. employment rate are so important; and that is why we want to see a modern, active and inclusive welfare state.

When I made my statement on today's benefit uprating to this House in December, the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) asked, in a slightly
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sceptical tone, about our proposals for welfare reform. As I said that we would, we set out in the Green Paper in January our ambitious and radical proposals for a welfare state that lets people move out of poverty rather than a welfare state that institutionalises dependency. We want a million fewer people to claim incapacity benefit, a million more older people to be in work and 300,000 lone parents to be able to come off benefits.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), whom I am delighted to see in his place this afternoon, welcomed the proposals and congratulated my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on

He pledged to support the proposals and to work towards a consensus.

That is the consensus that we want to build. I hope that it will not be too long before Opposition Members finally have the grace to support the new deal, which is responsible for helping more than 1.5 million people into work. We will strengthen the new deal so that it offers learning agreements for teenagers in eight areas of the country, extends the new deal pilots to help lone parents back into work and pilots personal action plans for those unemployed for six months or more.

For the sixth successive year, we will freeze non-dependent deductions to relieve the pressure on low-income parents who house their adult children, which will benefit some 30,000 benefit recipients. We want a welfare system that breaks down the barriers to opportunity and enables all those who can work to do so.

Our "Age Positive" campaign has promoted the business case for age diversity in the work force. This year we shall legislate for the first time against age discrimination in the workplace. A new default retirement age will mean employers can no longer compel an employee to retire before the age of 65 without objective justification. In 2011, an evidence-based review will consider the possibility that the default retirement age should go altogether.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I am concerned that an error appears to have built up over the years. The Secretary of State is required to review the increases—of course, pension credit has increased—but because a lot of money from the pension credit has not been taken up, it is sitting in a pot when it should have been distributed. Would it not be right to uprate the basic pension by more than inflation this year to take account of those millions, or possibly billions, of pounds?

Mr. Timms: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that the basic state pension has been uprated well above inflation since 1997—by 8 per cent. in real terms. That is in sharp contrast to what his party did in government. There was no real-terms increase in the basic state pension between 1980 and 1987, except for a single year—the year in which VAT was added to fuel—in which it was increased by 50p a week on top of inflation. That year is vividly recalled by pensioners and, indeed, by us all. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the substantial real-terms increase in the basic state pension that the Government have brought about.
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In April, radical tax simplification on A-day will enable people to draw their occupational pension while continuing to work for the same employer. April will also see the first people benefit from the new state pension deferral option of a lump sum that could be worth £5,000, improving rewards for those who choose to delay taking their state pension even if they do so for only a short time.

In tackling the pernicious poverty of the past, we have opened the door to lifelong opportunity and independence. We are laying foundations for a long-term pensions settlement and have delivered tailored, flexible support to help groups that were previously excluded from work to break out from dependency and realise their ambitions for the first time. We have given families the flexibility and resources to balance the demands of work with those of child care and to ensure that children get the best possible start in life.

The standard rates of statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance have increased by just over 80 per cent. Those improvements complement others such as the increase of maternity leave to 26 weeks, the introduction of an additional period of 26 weeks' maternity leave after that and the introduction of rights to two weeks' paternity leave and pay as well as 26 weeks' adoption leave. It is good to see those opportunities being taken up by Opposition Members. We are giving parents greater choice in how they balance their work and caring responsibilities in the first year of their child's life. The Work and Families Bill will introduce a new entitlement to statutory paternity pay to enable a father to take time off work and receive statutory pay instead of his partner if she returns to work early.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, particularly because I have recently enjoyed a period of paternity leave.

In a system that is both civilised and robust, we should always support the jobless but never subsidise the job-shy. As the Minister was focusing on those matters a few moments ago, what are the Government doing when uprating jobseeker's allowance to ensure that in the minority of cases when people repeatedly refuse reasonable offers of work, there is some stick as well as a carrot?

Mr. Timms: First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the recent birth of his child. I am delighted that he was able to take up the opportunities that I described.

Jobseeker's allowance is going up in line with Rossi, as I announced earlier. Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right that we need a good balance of rights and responsibilities. That approach is reflected in our changes and in the developments in the new deal, which are a good example of precisely the kind of balance that he is looking for. That is why I expressed the hope that his party might come to support the new deal before too long. It represents exactly the approach that he advocated.

We have lifted more than 500,000 children out of relative low income since 1997. Tax credits are benefiting 20 million people, including more than 10 million children. The child tax credit, which will increase by earnings, benefits 6 million families. From
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April, the child allowance, the family premium, the disabled child premium and the enhanced disability premium for a child will all increase, which will directly benefit the least well-off families.

Last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced that he has asked Sir David Henshaw completely to redesign our system of child support. My right hon. Friend announced additional investment up to £120 million to stabilise and improve the performance of the Child Support Agency in the short term. By 2008 we will improve compliance rates, ensure that 200,000 more children benefit from maintenance payments, be on track to help lift an additional 40,000 children out of poverty and see a significant increase in the number of parents who receive the child maintenance premium. As my right hon. Friend made clear, Members will have the opportunity to make their views known to Sir David and his team and I hope that they will do so.

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): The Minister talked about tackling poverty among children. Is he aware that income poverty among disabled people is increasing? He will be aware that the take-up of disability living allowance is about 50 per cent. Does he think that that could be connected to the fact that the form to claim DLA is 51 pages long? Will he urgently look into whether that form can be simplified to increase take-up of DLA among a group for whom income poverty is increasing?

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