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Lone Parents

10. Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): What plans he has for further measures to encourage lone parents into work. [68277]

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The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): There is a higher proportion of lone parents in work than ever before, but, of course, we want to go further still. Our welfare reform Green Paper builds on the highly successful new deal for lone parents. It sets out proposals for more regular work-focused interviews and the piloting of incentives for those with older children to prepare for a return to work.

Kali Mountford: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer and glad to have the opportunity to be the first to congratulate him on his new post. When he was reading the briefs that he must have had to read this weekend, did he have the opportunity to read the report of the Westminster Hall debate on 2 March during which my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), then the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, and I agreed that a flexible approach for encouraging parents back into work was the best way of dealing with child poverty? If he reads the debate, will he look at the comments of the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) at column 162, and guard against an obligation to work, but allow parents to make proper choices for their families while encouraging them to make the choices that will be best for them?

Mr. Murphy: I thank my hon. Friend for her warm welcome. She is right that I had a number of papers and briefings to read, but I am delighted to discover that one challenge that I do not face is trying to work out the Liberal Democrat policy on this or any other matter. My hon. Friend is right—we must find a system that incentivises work for lone parents, as substantially more lone parents are in work than ever before. We must find the right mix of personal responsibility and support such as child care and incentives to encourage people into work. We must help to manage the transition from welfare to work for lone parents, as that will enable us to challenge the poverty endemic among too many families, particularly lone-parent families.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Lone parents are not alone in facing increasingly complicated benefit entitlement rules. In promising to simplify the system, will the Minister congratulate the volunteers at the Kettering welfare rights advisory service and the Kettering citizens advice bureau, as they are working ever harder to guide people through this increasingly complicated process?

Mr. Murphy: I am happy to congratulate individuals who work hard on behalf of those people, both in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and constituencies the length and breadth of the country. That is one reason why we are seeking new ways of delivering support for people on benefit to enable them to work, involving both the voluntary sector and the private sector. We are determined to work in partnership with everyone in society to deliver a better deal for people on benefit and to support many more people into work.

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): May I also congratulate my hon. Friend on his new post? Does he acknowledge that voluntary sector organisations,
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whether they support lone parents, disabled people or others back into work, face the problem of one-year contracts for their work, which makes it difficult for them to plan quality provision and retain their staff as the contract comes to an end? Can he give an assurance that the Government will remedy that, because their laudable and ever more ambitious employment programmes will be jeopardised unless those one-year contracts become significantly more favourable?

Mr. Murphy: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. In my previous position at the Cabinet Office, that point was made very clearly by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which believed that one of the first responsibilities of a one-year contract was to renegotiate next year’s contract. A large amount of the time was spent negotiating future contracts, so my hon. Friend is quite right. To achieve our ambition of getting ever more people off benefit and supporting them into work in partnership with the voluntary sector, we must provide stability of contract and financial support for the voluntary sector to enable them to deliver that effectively.

Turner Commission

11. Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): When the Government will respond to the final report of the Turner Commission; and if he will make a statement. [68278]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (James Purnell): The Pensions Commission has provided the right framework for delivering a long-term settlement for tomorrow’s pensioners. The key to delivering sustainable reform is whether it promotes personal responsibility, and whether it is fair, affordable, and based on a real national consensus. We have taken steps to build that consensus through the national pensions debate, reaching out to people in communities across the country. We will bring forward a White Paper by the end of the month, setting out our proposals for pensions reform.

Mr. Grogan: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment. The gain for the world of pensions is a loss for the world of liquor licensing. Is there a distinction between his welcome commitment to control the spread of means testing and the Turner Commission’s ambition to make the system as non-means-tested as possible? Is there not much to welcome in the commission’s proposal to link pensions with average earnings from 2010, as has been suggested, possibly financed by the planned increase in the pension age for women?

James Purnell: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words—it certainly makes a change from being the Minister for all-day drinking. I agree that the Turner report set out a comprehensive and well-argued case. Without wanting to sound like a stuck record, we will introduce our proposals shortly.

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Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): Does the Minister agree with the National Audit Office that the complexity of the benefit system deters people from saving for retirement?

James Purnell: We agree that a key test of our proposals is the requirement that they should be simple and sustainable. The current approach, however, is successful in targeting poverty. As I said, we make no apology for lifting 2 million pensioners out of poverty.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): When the Government respond to Turner, will the Minister take account of something that apparently Lord Turner and current Ministers were not aware of—the revelation that when a majority of nationalised industries were privatised in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Government entered into an open-ended and unlimited guarantee of their pension fund liabilities?

James Purnell: I do not think that that was unknown. There are individual issues with individual schemes arising from the way they were privatised by the Conservative Government. I believe that there are now no such guarantees built into privatisations.

Pensions Reform

13. Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): What recent discussions there have been between his Department and the Treasury on pensions reform. [68280]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (James Purnell): DWP Ministers and officials meet regularly with Treasury colleagues on matters of mutual concern, and pensions reform is one of those matters. We will be setting out the Government’s response to the Pensions Commission’s report in a White Paper shortly.

Stephen Hammond: Has the Minister noted the comments of the deputy director of the CBI in response to the Turner Commission, that compelling firms to contribute to pensions would jeopardise jobs and growth and would be counterproductive to improving pensions savings in the long term? Is that the view of the DWP and the Treasury, and if not, why not?

James Purnell: That is certainly not the view of those on the Opposition Front Bench who, I understand, have said that they are looking favourably at backing the compulsion in the package. We look forward to working with them on building that consensus. It is a matter that the hon. Gentleman may want to raise with his own Front-Bench team.

Pension Credit

14. Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): What steps he is taking to increase the take-up of pension credit. [68281]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): We are writing to everyone who we believe may have an entitlement to pension credit, encouraging them to apply and advising how the Pension Service can help them do so. Over 2 million mailings are planned during 2006-07. The Pension Service visits around 20,000 people every week who are likely to be entitled to pension credit and provides advice on a wide range of benefits—not just pension credit.

Mr. Simon: There are 6,700 households in my constituency in receipt of some kind of pension credit, on average £70.70 per household. However, the uptake figure is lower now than it was in November last year. Can my hon. Friend tell me why? Could it be because the forms are too complicated?

Mrs. McGuire: No, I do not think that the forms are too complicated. I would encourage my hon. Friend not to look just at the figures for one quarter. There has been a slight drop of about 100 in his constituency, but we should look at the overall picture. Year on year we are supporting pensioners through the pension credit and we are taking proactive steps to ensure that they get their entitlement through pension credit. Where they are not claiming housing benefit or council tax benefit, we are encouraging them through our new systems to apply for that as well.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I am delighted to be able to tell my hon. Friend that last year or the year before a ward in my constituency had the highest take-up of pensioner benefits of any in the country. Pension credit take-up is too low nationwide, which is partly due to people not knowing what is available, and partly due to people not wanting what they regard as charity. We should take every opportunity to stress people’s right to pension credit. Will my hon. Friend consider putting reminders in council tax demands, television licence reminders and so on, so that people will know it is their right?

Mrs. McGuire: My hon. Friend is right. Language is important, particularly with older people. We have constantly reaffirmed that pension credit is an entitlement, in the same way as council tax benefit and housing benefit are an entitlement. We are working in partnership with a range of voluntary organisations, particularly those that work with older people, to ensure that we get the right message across in the right language. We genuinely want people to claim their entitlement. Members of Parliament also have a key role. The highest uptake in the country in my hon. Friend’s constituency is probably related to the fact that he is an active campaigner on these matters.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): I applaud the Department for visiting 20,000 pensioners a week and trying to explain to them their entitlement, but those are people who opt in. Our big problem is those who do not opt in, who do not believe that there is something there for nothing, and who do not believe that pension credit is an entitlement. What research have my hon. Friend and the Department undertaken to overcome the problem, which leaves so many of our poorest pensioners out on a limb?

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Mrs. McGuire: We are aware of the problem that my hon. Friend has highlighted, and we recognise that some people do not come forward to claim their entitlement. In addition to dealing with incoming calls, the new Pension Service has made 250,000 outgoing calls to older people who, according to data matching, look like they might be entitled to support. There have been some spectacular successes, where people who have been visited in their homes and who have had their benefits checked have found that they are entitled not only to more money every week, but to arrears, which sometimes run into thousands of pounds.

Post Office Card Account

17. Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): What recent discussions he has had on replacing the Post Office card account for recipients of benefits. [68284]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): I regularly meet officials, other Ministers and hon. Members to discuss our payment strategy. I met Alan Cook, the managing director of Post Office Ltd, in March, when we discussed the Post Office’s plans to develop other savings and banking products, which are likely to be more attractive to many of its customers than the current Post Office card account. Post Office Ltd has already introduced its first new savings account.

Jeremy Wright: The Minister has expressed his confidence that the removal of the Post Office card account will have no noticeable impact on the business of, in particular, small and rural post offices. If that is so, why does he think that other hon. Members and I receive so many letters from postmasters and postmistresses who work in such post offices indicating their serious concern that that move will send them out of business?

Mr. Plaskitt: The hon. Gentleman and others should listen to the comments made by Tricia Jenkins, whois president of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters and who has reminded colleagues in her federation that the Post Office card account has “a limited life”. She went on to say that postmasters

Post Office Ltd service, which is starting to happen already. There is no reason to suppose that the end of Government funding for the Post Office card account in 2010 will jeopardise the existence of the Post Office in any way. As I have said, the income stream for sub-postmasters will continue if customers switch to using other post office-accessible accounts or to any successor account to the Post Office card account.

Pension Protection Fund

20. Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): What discussions there have been between his Department and the Treasury on the cost of extending the Pension Protection Fund to schemes that failed before 6 April 2005. [68287]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): Extending the PPF to schemes that failed before 6 April 2005 has not been subject to discussion.

Mr. Goodwill: In rejecting the conclusions of the ombudsman, the Government have let down more than 85,000 people, including those who worked for the failed Scarborough coach builder Henlys, who have had their occupational pensions destroyed. If this is not a contradiction in terms, will the Minister examine Treasury-friendly ways of helping some, if not all, of those whose schemes failed before 2005? May I also ask the Minister to arrange a meeting with the Henlys action group?

Mr. Plaskitt: Other Ministers have already provided thorough answers to the question about the ombudsman, and I shall not repeat answers that have already been given. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the financial assistance scheme is different from the PPF—it is funded by the taxpayer; it does not take on members, as such; and it is retrospective. The financial assistance scheme assists those who are most vulnerable and who are most
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in need of financial support. It has £400 million of Government money behind it; it is under review; and it already supports 17 schemes.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Is it my hon. Friend’s judgment that more money will be needed? When the Government provided £400 million of public money for the fund, did they announce that they were looking to the private sector to contribute, too? Was money sought or received from the private sector? If not, are there any plans to encourage the private sector to contribute?

Mr. Plaskitt: Certainly, prime responsibility for this rests with the private sector and the trustees of the fund, who are involved in supporting the Pension Protection Fund. We have introduced a financial assistance scheme to assist those people who are most vulnerable, most at risk and have most to lose, and who could not be brought within the coverage of thePPF because of its retrospective nature. We put up the £400 million of Government funding to support those people. We have undertaken to review that, and the review will be expedited as soon as possible.

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Iraq (Basra Incident)

3.30 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Des Browne): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the tragic crash of the Lynx helicopter in Iraq on Saturday and the immediate aftermath.

As the House will be aware, on Saturday 6 May at 1350 hours local time, a Lynx mark 7 helicopter on a routine flight came down in Basra city, crash-landing on the roof of an empty building. Five UK personnel on board the aircraft are missing believed killed: Wing Commander John Coxen; Lieutenant Commander Darren Chapman; Flight Lieutenant Sarah-Jayne Mulvihill; Captain David Dobson, Army Air Corps; and Marine Paul Collins. Their next of kin have been informed. I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending my deepest condolences to their families and friends. I also express my sympathy to the families of all those killed in Iraq over the weekend, including those from coalition forces.

I know that there is a natural tendency when such awful events occur to speculate about possible causes. I caution that such speculation is not only unhelpful but can be very distressing to the loved ones of those involved. As is routinely the case in such circumstances, a detailed technical and Royal Military Police investigation is under way. An air accident investigation team is in place, and a full board of inquiry is being conducted. I can, however, confirm at this stage that the helicopter was fitted with a defensive aids suite, as are all our helicopters in Iraq.

British Army units in Basra deployed immediately to the scene of the crash and secured the area with the help of the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police service. A crowd swiftly formed on the streets surrounding the crash site, and the House will have seen television coverage of the volatile situation that developed over the next few hours. I am very grateful to the Iraqi authorities for the assistance provided by the Iraqi army and police to bring the situation under control, including the imposition of a curfew by the provincial governor.

British troops and Iraqi security forces came under attack with a variety of weapons, including stones, gunfire, petrol and blast bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. It is entirely right that our troops take action to defend themselves in such circumstances. I can confirm that British personnel fired baton rounds and a limited amount of live ammunition. Seven UK personnel were injured as a result of the disturbance. According to the information that I have, none of those injuries was serious.

Local reports and our own sources indicate that five Iraqis may have died, and approximately 28 were injured during the civil disorder that followed the crash. The full extent of UK military responsibility for any of those casualties will be clarified in due course, following completion of the post-incident review. In circumstances such as these, such a review is normal.

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