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Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): May we have an early debate on the Government's policy towards pensioners? We have just concluded a four-day debate on the Budget, but the Government at no time explained why a £200 rebate was appropriate last year but not this year, when the council tax is even higher. Can we have an early debate so that Ministers can explain, to the House and to the nation's pensioners, why all of next month's increase in the state retirement pension has been wiped out by the removal of the rebate?
Mr. Hoon: The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that last year's payment was a one-off provision of additional support. That was made clear at the time. He will also be aware that the Government have spent a substantial amount of extra money on pensioners, and that the very poorest pensioners in our society are £39 a week better off than in 1997. We have targeted extra resources on those pensioners who struggled up to that date, and at the same time we are looking at the question of local government funding and the arrangements for the council tax. That is a comprehensive approach, both to pensioners and the question of local government finance.
Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): Post Office card accounts have been the subject of some debate in the House. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to speak to Ministers in the Department of Work and Pensions and the Treasury to ensure that, post-2010 and irrespective of what happens with those accounts, every person claiming benefit who wants to get those benefits via the post office will be able to do so?
Mr. Hoon: That issue is a regular feature of business questions on a Thursday, and I am delighted to be able to give my hon. Friend my regular answer. We absolutely agree that it is important that pensioners should be able to use the post office to receive payment and conduct necessary financial transactions. The Post Office account was always designed as an interim measure to ensure that pensioners would get used to the idea of using the post office in that way. Some 25 different Post Office accounts are available, so pensioners will be able to continue to use the post office as they do today, and to derive interest and financial benefits from the process. That seems to me to be something that the whole House should support.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Will the Leader of the House review the arrangements for the Electoral Administration Bill? As far as I understand it, the Government will now seek to amend the legislation as it passes through the House of Lords to require all political parties to register all loans.
Neither the Scottish National party nor Plaid Cymru have any places in the House of Lordswe simply cannot afford it. Given that we are perhaps the only political party unsullied by this dirty money, we have
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quite a lot to say on this issue. In view of the public interest in the issue and the serious allegations, surely the Bill should come back to this House.
Mr. Hoon: I have never noticed on the Benches, or I should say Bench, occupied by SNP Members any difficulty in hon. Members raising their voice, setting out their views or getting their ideas across. If the hon. Gentleman feels frustrated about his inability or indeed his isolation, I will be delighted to hear from him and I will ensure that his representations are passed to the appropriate quarter.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend consider an early debate after our return from the Easter break on the nature and quality of corporate social responsibility, particularly in respect of what we used to regard as the public utilities of this country? More and more we are dominated by a small number of large companies in every sectorenergy, retailing and so much elsebut public utilities are particularly important. Are we sure that, among companies, we still have a standard of investing back into the communities the money, resource and volunteer effort that we used to have?
Mr. Hoon: It is an important issue. I recognise that all companies make some contribution back to the community. I recognise equally in the modern world that more companies could do that. I am well aware, for example, of the energy companies engaging more in ensuring that we all properly insulate our homes. We can all congratulate them on that, but I recognise that they could do more.
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): May I amplify the call that my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) made for a debate on the plight of older people? It is necessary in view of the long-term care issues that Wanless highlights and which the Prime Minister first promised to deal with in 1997 at the Labour party conference. There is also the issue of old people who find it increasingly hard to access public services, who cannot get an adapted home because the Government have cut the number of social houses being built, and who will not be getting the £200 that they were given last year before the election when the Government exercised largesse, which has curiously metamorphosed into heartless parsimony.
Mr. Hoon: I simply do not recognise what the hon. Gentleman is describing. He talks about support in the home. Forty per cent. more people are today supported to live in their own home than in 199798. I do not know what is his experience with his constituents, but my experience is that most people appreciate that support. They believe that they are best in their own home surrounded by friends and family and familiar circumstances. That is what the overwhelming majority of my constituents say that they want and why the Government have responded. I simply do not recognise the description that he gives.
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab):
Now that the tectonic plates appear to be shifting in respect of the
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Government's attitude to House of Lords reform and in view of the heightened public awareness of the composition of the House of Lords and related issues, does my right hon. Friend remember that the last time this House was given an opportunity to vote on Lords reform we could not reach agreement on any of the seven options? Does that not provide a powerful argument for an early debate on the subject in this House before the Joint Committee is established to do its work so that we avoid the risk of once again not being able to agree on any of the options that the Committee may bring forward.
Mr. Hoon: It is fair to say that on other technical issues my hon. Friend often confuses me, but on this one he does not. I invite him to look carefully at the experience that not only Robin Cook but previous Governments had in bringing forward options. The reason for establishing a Joint Committee is to avoid the problems that occurred in the past. No result could be achieved because no one believed that the various options were suitable in the light of the powers enjoyed by the second Chamber under the present arrangements. That is why it is so important to achieve an agreed understanding of the relationship between the two Houses and the powers of the second Chamber before those options are put.
I invite my hon. Friend to look carefully at the manifesto, because it sets out a clear process for achieving that. Only once there is a shared understanding of the relationship between the two Houses does it seem sensible to bring forward options. On that basis, we can then have a clearer and more definitive vote on those options, on a free vote.
Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): As the Leader of the House presumably believes in ministerial collective responsibility, will he arrange for a personal statement at the Dispatch Box from the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, who this week said that taxpayers were at the limit of what they were prepared to pay for public services, which was then repudiated by Treasury Ministers at Question Time only an hour ago.
Mr. Hoon: The right hon. Gentleman raises the question of collective responsibility as if it is some form of theological doctrine. As a former Minister, he will know that all Ministers are bound by the principle and all Ministers, including Ministers of education and at the Treasury pursue it consistently.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op):
In a few hours the Division bell will ring for the last time and hundreds of Members will pour out of Carriage Gates back to their constituencies for the 18-day recess. Many will spend all of that time in their constituencies and will need good access to information and equipment to continue to give the high level of service that constituents rightly demand. Will the Leader of the House arrange time for a debate on the stability and range of services given remotely by the parliamentary and data video network PDVNto Members in their constituencies? On the parliamentary estate, the quality of service is reasonable
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and improving, but remotely that is much less true. We need to give a far better standard of service in the third millennium than we are able to give now with the current equipment.
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