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Mr. Hutton: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the changes that I have described will operate from 2010. Between now and 2010, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I will be considering the position of existing women pensioners. One of our announcements in the pensions White Paper confirms that pension
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credit will increase in line with earnings from 2008. That will deal with the situation of many of the people to whom the hon. Gentleman refers. It will not affect entitlement to a full basic state pension, but it will ensure that we prioritise the needs of women who do not have a full pension and do what we can to ensure that they do not retire in poverty.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): The Secretary of State mentioned the importance of the carers credit. How will the new system compare with the current system of home responsibility protection, which already benefits women?

Mr. Hutton: We are consulting on some issues, but I hope that my hon. Friend welcomes the announcement in the White Paper that we will convert the home responsibility protections into a new system of weekly credit, which will make a significant contribution to extending entitlement to the full basic state pension to many more women.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): As the Secretary of State is a noted humanitarian, does he agree that the moral case for retrospective assistance is compelling?

Mr. Hutton: The injustice that many women have experienced with the basic state pension needs a proper solution and we have proposed one. Lord Turner proposed a series of changes, which would also have taken effect from 2010, because he and the Government were considering long-term reform of the pension system. I strongly believe that reforms to the contributory principle will have a much more immediate impact than the introduction of a residency test, which, by its nature, would only build up a series of future accruals. It would not affect the position of women retiring in 2010, especially that key cohort of women aged 45 and over, who basically have no time left to acquire a full basic state pension.

Pension credit will largely cover women who retire now without a basic state pension and, from 2010, we will move to a system whereby more women retire with a full basic state pension in their own right. I believe that that strikes the right balance between equity and affordability.


6. Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): What further discussions he plans to have with employers on the pensions White Paper. [83303]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (James Purnell): We plan detailed discussions with employers. We are holding a summit on the design of personal accounts on 17 July, followed by a programme of seminars with employers on the implementation of the proposals in the White Paper.

Mr. Love: Employers have a critical role to play in persuading their employees to take up the national pension saving scheme. Is my hon. Friend in a position to inform hon. Members that, in his discussions with employers, he can tell them that there is a consensus in the House on compulsory employer contributions?

James Purnell: My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is important that we build a consensus on those
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proposals. When people put their money in pension schemes, they lock it away for 20, 30 or 40 years and that will be easier if the policy remains stable. I am happy to say that all the main parties support compulsory pension contributions from employers.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): Has the Minister seen the Aon Consulting survey, which shows that only a third of final salary schemes remain open to new members and that more than 70 per cent. expect to close in three years? Has he, like me, received representations from employers’ organisations on behalf of responsible employers who want to keep their final salary schemes going by amending their conditions yet feel undermined by the Government’s sweetheart deal with the public sector unions?

James Purnell: I do not believe that there is a link between those issues. We rightly want to work with people on a review of the regulatory costs of occupational pension schemes. If we can find methods of reducing those costs that balance employee protection and the cost to employers, we will do that. That will encourage people to keep occupational pension schemes open, and we would like to work with them on that, too.

Welfare Reform

7. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): If he will make a statement on his plans for the Welfare Reform Bill. [83304]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): We published the Welfare Reform Bill on 4 July. That marks the next stage in our plans to modernise the welfare state and break down the barriers to work. Electronic copies of the Bill are available and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be reassured to know that they are readily e-mailable.

Mr. Swayne: How will the Minister respond to an amendment to include on the face of the Bill the provisions that the Prime Minister e-mailed to the former Secretary of State last summer, calling for time-limiting and means-testing incapacity benefit and naming and shaming doctors who, in the Department’s view, have been a soft touch?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman asked how I intend to reply. I am tempted to say that I shall do so by e-mail, but that might be taking things too far. For a man who spends so much time with modern technology, he is sadly out of date so far as our proposals are concerned. We have published our Bill, which builds on the Green Paper, and is about no longer writing people off to a life of inactivity on benefits.

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) in this question, particularly as he has expressed his disappointment in the Conservative party being unable to maintain its regeneration initiative that was launched in Liverpool. I have seen
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the lives of many hundreds of my constituents transformed by the reforms that this Government have introduced. Will my hon. Friend meet me and representatives of the voluntary and charitable sector in Liverpool—who are working exceptionally well with some of the hardest to help groups—to look at how the employment zone initiative is structured and to talk about innovative ways in which we could improve how it is working?

Mr. Murphy: I would be happy to do so. The innovative city strategy, of which we will publish more details later this month, is one of the further opportunities that Liverpool and some of our other big cities will be able to use to lift their employment rates. I would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss what more can be done in Liverpool and our other great cities.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Whether we look at the Bill in electronic form or on paper, there are key areas that we cannot read simply because they have not been included. Examples include the proposals to withhold benefits from those who do not comply with its conditions, and the regulations that will follow in statutory instruments. Does the Minister agree that, if the House is to understand fully what the Bill is about, it is important to publish those regulations—at least in draft form—before the Bill’s Second Reading?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that an awful lot of the detail of the Welfare Reform Bill will, rightly, be set out in regulations. We intend to publish many of the key regulations in time for its Committee stage, as has been common practice with many other important pieces of social security legislation.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): The Government have included some welcome reforms to the housing benefit system in the Bill, but, for 3,000 of my constituents who are in temporary accommodation, the housing benefit that they receive for their exceptionally high temporary accommodation charges represents a real disincentive to work. In areas such as mine, those charges can be between £400 and £450 a week. The Government are piloting changes to housing benefit arrangements in east London. Does the Minister recognise that it is essential to roll out those pilots into high-value areas so that my constituents who want to work in order to turn their lives round will have the opportunity to do so, and will not be deterred by those excessive rents?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is well regarded in the House for campaigning on behalf of her constituents, particularly those in the position that she mentioned. The pilots for the local housing allowance are part of our wider agenda of financial inclusion. The additional financial responsibility, the sense of flexibility and the opportunity for financial independence that the reform of housing benefit will provide are a key part of our wider reforms. Of course, if my hon. Friend has specific concerns, other Ministers in the Department and I will be happy to discuss with her how we can roll the programme out around the rest of the country.

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8. Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): What assessment he has made of the latest unemployment figures; and if he will make a statement. [83305]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): There are now many more people in work in the UK than ever before, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has confirmed that we have the highest employment rate and the best combination of employment and unemployment in the G7.

Mr. Wilson: I thank the Minister for that answer. According to the House of Commons Library, unemployment has risen by 23 per cent. in my constituency. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) suggested last week that, if the number of unemployed people was added to the number on incapacity benefit, the resulting inactivity rate would be worse than that of France and about the same as that of Germany—that is, pretty dire. Is not that an indictment of a Chancellor who has blocked reform while spending billions of pounds on keeping millions of people in the grip of state dependency?

Mr. Murphy: I know that the hon. Gentleman is relatively new to the House, but that is a ridiculous claim for him to make about this Government’s economic record. For him to compare today’s unemployment levels with the time when 3 million unemployed was “a price worth paying” is utterly ridiculous. There are now more people in work in the United Kingdom than ever before. In the last quarter, 10,000 more people found work every week, and there are still 600,000 vacancies in the economy. Of course, we have much more to do before we reach our 80 per cent. employment target, but we are now a million miles away from the position that we inherited, with its vast, grotesque and indefensible levels of unemployment throughout the country.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): One area of the country in which unemployment is rising is Hemel Hempstead. It is no fault of the businesses or people seeking work in the area, but is the result of the Buncefield explosion. An inquiry is taking place behind closed doors, which does not aid the local community’s confidence at this time. Will the Minister tell me what his Department is doing to encourage work back into the Hemel Hempstead area after that terrible disaster?

Mr. Murphy: Jobcentre Plus and other Government agencies of the Department for Work and Pensions will, of course, play their full part in supporting people who want the chance to get back into work in Hemel Hempstead and elsewhere. In a wider sense, we are also continuing our review of the skills agenda to ensure that those who do not have the skills to be actively involved in the labour market at the moment do so in the future. It is a particular problem for people who are over 50, where the skills gap is markedly different.

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Council Tax Benefit

9. Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): What progress is being made on improving the take-up of council tax benefit by pensioners. [83306]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (James Purnell): Since last December, people applying for pension credit have been able to get housing benefit and council tax benefit at the same time via one phone call to the Pension Service. As a result, 14 per cent. more pensioners now request these benefits and the resulting number of successful claims through pension credit has gone up by 39 per cent.

Ms Johnson: I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Will he join me in congratulating agencies in Hull such as Age Concern and Carers’ Centre Hull, which spend considerable time assisting people with the quite complicated application process?

James Purnell: That is a very important point, as organisations such as Age Concern and Help the Aged play a key part in helping to deliver the service and finding people who are not claiming their benefits. It is important to remember that those benefits are not a privilege, but an entitlement, and we should do all we can with those organisations to help people to get them. I would like to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Age Concern and the local service on the nearly 1 million face-to-face contacts that they made last year to encourage people to take up their benefits.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): It is excellent news that more pensioners are gaining access to this support, which is vital to them, but will the Minister look further into the use of call centres and dedicated call lines for people applying for benefit assistance? Frankly, in some instances, it is causing real difficulties.

James Purnell: Many people find it easy to claim over the phone, but if my hon. Friend knows of any constituents who are reluctant to use the service, they can, of course, request a visit from the Pension Service locally, which will either visit them at home or find a setting such as Age Concern where they might feel more comfortable about making their claims. I would be happy to write to my hon. Friend with more details.

Affordable Credit

10. Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): What steps he is taking to extend access to affordable credit for low-income families. [83307]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): In addition to the help that the Department gives via the social fund, we are now delivering the £36 million growth fund, which will increase the amount of affordable credit available via credit unions and community
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development financial institutions. That will help tens of thousands of people to avoid having recourse to doorstep lenders and loan sharks.

Rosie Cooper: I thank the Minister for his reply. In my constituency, people do have problems with expensive credit deals, loan sharks and a credit union under severe pressure. What assistance can West Lancashire residents actually expect from the growth fund to promote affordable credit and assistance with credit unions?

Mr. Plaskitt: The first growth fund contracts have been signed in the last few weeks and terms have been agreed with a further 20 organisations, including five in the north-west. Negotiations continue with all other organisations that were successful at the evaluation stage, including a further 12 in the north-west. I think that my hon. Friend can her tell constituents that the situation should improve, once the growth fund contracts begin to come into operation. They will lead to many more affordable loans being available to them, so they should be able to avoid the extortionate interest rates levied by the doorstep lenders and the loan sharks.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Does the Minister agree that one of the biggest problems is that arising from inaccurate information contained in many of the adverts that promote credit and other cards? Quite often, the technical terms disguise the actual annual credit and interest figure.

Mr. Plaskitt: The hon. Gentleman knows that I have got previous on this—I campaigned very hard on the subject in my previous capacity, when I served on the Treasury Select Committee—and he will know that the Government have responded to some of the issues that the Committee raised and some changes were made under the Consumer Credit Act 2006, which has improved the situation. In my personal view, although this is no longer my ministerial responsibility, a great deal more is still to be done.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): The recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on child poverty highlighted the importance of the availability of affordable credit. The three credit unions in Plymouth make their services known largely by word of mouth, and there are real concerns that they are not reaching all the people who are at greatest risk from loan sharks. Does the Minister intend any of the growth fund moneys to be specifically directed at publicising the services available and offered by credit unions nationally?

Mr. Plaskitt: I can help my hon. Friend. What we are doing through the growth fund, of course, is receiving bids that come from credit unions and groups of credit unions, including some in her own part of the world. Many of them are including publicity campaigns in the bids that they put to us and in the contracts that we are negotiating with them. She is quite right to identify the
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problem, and I hope that the money we are investing with the growth fund will go a long way to improve the situation.

Incapacity Benefit

11. Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of pathways to work for people whose primary reason for being on incapacity benefit is mental ill-health. [83308]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. John Hutton): Pathways to work pilot schemes have currently helped at least 6,130 people with mental health problems back into work.

Danny Alexander: I am very grateful indeed to the Secretary of State for that reply, but he will be aware of the evaluation of the pathways to work scheme carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, published in research report 354, which states:

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