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Ms Keeble: Yes, but the difficulties that women faced before the CSA was set up often went unrecognised, while the difficulties that arose afterwards are all too well known because they arrive in our advice surgeries.
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Several hon. Members seem to assume that the benign economic climate that we have enjoyed dropped down out of a tree into our laps, whereas it was entirely due to the policies that this Labour Government have pursued since 1997.

Mr. Philip Hammond: Can the hon. Lady remind the House when the unprecedented period of economic growth that the Chancellor keeps boasting about began?

Ms Keeble: Let me give a specific example. The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone)—I was about to call him my hon. Friend because he is one of my neighbours—mentioned unemployment figures. Those started to come down very quickly because the windfall tax on privatised utilities went into the new deal, which the Conservatives have opposed consistently right down the line. The new deal has been very successful in getting people, particularly lone parents, into work and, for the first time, turning around the figures for lone parents out of work so that an increasing number are now in work. Even the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) would have to accept that at this stage of the Tory Government we had already had a catastrophic recession and were heading for a second one. Against that background, some of the statistics looked good. The figures on productivity and public services looked good at a time when grass cutters had to be paid only £1.20 an hour because they could be shipped up from Kent into London to work for rates that no one else would work for. The Conservatives have never really boasted about this, but even the statistics on international development looked good because the amount given was a proportion of gross national income at a time when GNI was going down rather than up. Nevertheless, I urge my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary not to think that it is worth having a massive recession just to improve some statistics to which the Conservatives like to turn.

My constituents have enjoyed an amount of security and stability as a result of the sound economy. People tend to take it for granted that they have been able to pay their mortgages, while those with small businesses have been able to manage them. Yes, they have slightly more complex tax forms, but that goes with people having tax credits and other proper support mechanisms that have been delivered by the Government and have kept people out of poverty.

The pensions system is another aspect of long-term security that we must ensure that we get right. The welcome proposals heralded in the Queen’s Speech will be extremely important for my constituents. When I first became an MP, I held special advice surgeries in pensioners’ sheltered housing estates where I was confronted by elderly women who were destitute—the amounts that they were living on were unspeakable. Most of them had worked for most of their adult lives and perceived that they had had two jobs because they had been looking after families as well. I remember getting a letter from a lady who berated me for comments that I had made about child care. She said: “That is complete rubbish. People should look after their own children, as my husband and I always did. I
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stayed at home while he worked, and when he came home he looked after the children and I went out to work.” She had been working for all her adult life but still did not get a pension because the hours did not fit, she had paid the married women’s stamp, and so on. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions Reform is here. His proposals to deal with pensioner poverty among women are extremely important and will be welcome to people in my constituency. I also congratulate the Fawcett Society on the campaign that it has run and the lobbies and information that it has provided in taking the issue forward.

Women pensioners have faced particular problems and have been hit in many different ways. First, they do not get the state pension. That is why I have always disagreed with those who say that we should simply increase the basic state pension because that is what pensioners need. Only 17 per cent. of women who work get the full state pension. It has always been clear that index-linking the state pension and compensating people for what they lost after the Tories broke the earnings link is not the way forward because it would not tackle the problems that women face. In addition, a disproportionate number of women have not had occupational pensions or they have not been sizeable. On average, men will get £103 a week from their occupational pension while women will get only £17. That is a telling figure, because occupational pensions have always been the bedrock of our successful pension arrangements in this country. However, because women will disproportionately work for smaller employers, who might not have had an occupational pension scheme, or will work shorter hours, they will not have that pension provision to back them up.

The other finding from research is that women will tend to save for their children, instead of for their retirements. That is quite an obvious point when one thinks about one’s own experience and what one does with one’s own money. It has been found that although women might make pension provision, once their children come along they either spend their money on what their children need straight away or if they do put money by, they put it by for their children instead of for their pensions.

For those reasons, women have ended up in a particular position in terms of pensions; although that does not take into account all the things that people perhaps know much more about, such as career breaks to look after children or elderly people, part-time work and so on. The Government were absolutely right to go for the minimum income guarantee and the pension credit at the early stages.

Mr. Newmark: Before the Chancellor became the Chancellor, he made a big to-do about ending means-testing. As soon as he became Chancellor, he failed to live up to his pledge. Surely the hon. Lady will recognise that many pensioners are not collecting their due because they find the means-testing process incredibly demeaning.

Ms Keeble: The Conservative party was very cruel to pensioners in running that nonsense about means-testing. The means test and the assessments that people have to undertake for pension credit are two completely different animals. People who went through the means-testing
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process know exactly how humiliating and degrading it was, but the process for claiming the pension credit was completely different. People could do it over the phone and talk it through.

Mr. Newmark rose—

Ms Keeble: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a minute.

Before I started campaigning with pensioners on claiming the pension credit, I got some friends of mine who are pensioners to go through it for themselves, to see whether it worked. The process did work—they could fill the forms in over the phone and they got the forms back, which was light years away from what had been done previously.

Mr. Ian Austin: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Ms Keeble: I want to have a go at the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) again, and then I will give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Newmark: Notwithstanding what the hon. Lady says, the fact of the matter is that up to 5 million pensioners are still not collecting what is their due, because they do not like the whole means-testing process.

Ms Keeble: Some people do not take the process up. I agree that that is an issue, just as it is an issue with the child trust fund. However, the figures for success show that the pension credit helps 1.9 million pensioners, of whom, significantly, 1.3 million are women. That is because it targets—[ Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. We are getting continuous sedentary comments from those on the Front Benches, which simply disrupts the debate, and I am not going to have any more of that.

Ms Keeble: The pension credit puts the money where it is most needed and, in particular, meets the problem of women who have a bit of money, but not enough to live on in retirement. The pension credit has been a real boon for those who have received it.

Mr. Ian Austin: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I agree with her that there is an issue if people are not claiming benefits to which they are entitled, such as the pension credit. I commend her for the work that she has done in encouraging her constituents to claim it, but does she agree that part of the problem lies with people such as the hon. Member for Braintree, who wander round telling pensioners how difficult it is to claim such benefits, how the means test is a scandal and that it is impossible for them to get the money that they are owed? Would it not be much better if he, like my hon. Friend, spent his time encouraging his constituents to get what they are owed, instead of dissuading them from claiming it?

Ms Keeble: Yes, my hon. Friend is right and the Government were right to target the money where it was needed, rather than blanketing it across the system.

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Mr. Philip Hammond rose—

Ms Keeble: I give way to the hon. Gentleman, but after that I want to get on with what I want to say.

Mr. Hammond: I want to be clear that I understand what the hon. Lady is saying. The Chancellor said in 1994:

Is she trying to make a qualitative distinction between means-testing before the Chancellor and means-testing under him?

Ms Keeble: The old means test was an unpleasant and undignified process, but the means of claiming benefits that people have to claim was very straight forward. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not propose a blanket high level of pensions throughout the whole community, as that would be completely wrong. Targeting the money where it was most needed was absolutely the right thing to deal with the problem of ending pensioner poverty and, although I do not have the statistics on that written on this piece of paper, they are extremely good.

I am glad that the proposals that are coming forward will not be about the universal or citizen’s pension. That is the Liberal Democrats’ proposal, although the Scottish National party also referred to it. Although superficially it looks attractive because everybody receives it, there are two objections. The obvious one is cost. I understand that to do what is wanted—that is, to get a universal pension up to the pension credit level—would account for some £60 billion a year by 2050. The second problem is to do with a deeply ingrained sense of justice among my constituents that if people make more effort, that should be recognised. It is important to keep that, albeit with a contributory principle, although one that is not quite as onerous as what we have now. Although I was initially attracted to the idea of a universal pension, it is right that we should retain a pensions process that recognises the contributions that people have made during their working lives, be that at home, through caring or in work.

I also welcome the proposed improvements to home responsibilities protection and the fact that more women will have much longer full-time working records when that is introduced. Some of the problems that women have faced previously because of the restrictions on part-time work—partly because they could not get child care, as they can now—will, I hope, have worked their way out of the system.

Finally, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions Reform please to ensure that he addresses the problem of building women’s confidence in pensions when those proposals are brought forward. A lot of women paid the national insurance stamp all their working lives, but received nothing. They took out private pension plans because they did not have occupational plans, but those plans were mis-sold. Women have also seen the state earnings-related pension scheme widow’s pension largely disappear through changes that were made. It is important that women have the sense that if they pay into the system, it will pay out to them as well, and that it is
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worth putting money into their pension, so that they can see it as something for them, not just for their husbands or their partners.

Apart from that, I look forward to seeing the proposals online, because they will address a burning sense of injustice that many of my constituents feel about the lack of pensions for them.

8.19 pm

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I have enjoyed this debate, from the thoughtful, measured contributions of the Back Benchers to the shallow, knockabout stuff that we heard at the beginning from the two Front Benchers. This has been a good, enjoyable debate. Some people have objected to the Punch and Judy or knockabout stuff that we heard at the very beginning. However, if we cannot score political points in this House, there is hardly anywhere else that we can score them, so I have no great objection. People should not be surprised either, because the Prime Minister has promised us that we will get that sort of debate. He has told us that the Chancellor will at some stage deliver a great “clunking fist” to the jaw of the Leader of the Opposition. Listening to the Chancellor’s laboured, ponderous response to the shadow Chancellor today, however, he did not strike me as much of a Muhammad Ali. Certainly, there was not much evidence of dancing like a butterfly or stinging like a bee. Perhaps—who knows—the knock-out blow will come at some stage.

I am in a unique position. Since neither of the two main political parties is a rival to my party in Northern Ireland, as they do not stand for election there, I do not need to get involved in their economic squabbling. I just want to make some observations about the economy in Northern Ireland and the content of the Queen’s Speech.

Although the Democratic Unionist party believes in devolution for Northern Ireland, we must and do accept that a significant change in the economy has taken place under direct rule. In my constituency, for example, unemployment is now down to 4 per cent., the lowest it has ever been, and the growth rate in Northern Ireland is the highest of any region in the United Kingdom. I must be careful with Government-supplied statistics, as I notice that the Queen’s Speech mentions legislation to enhance confidence in those, implying that there is not too much confidence, but anecdotal and visual evidence such as new building cannot but lead one to accept that there has been an improvement in the economy—

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): Since the DUP became the largest party.

Sammy Wilson: As my hon. Friend suggests, that progress has accelerated since the DUP became the largest party in 2003. We do not even control the place yet—we are not in government—so let us just wait until March, June or whenever, and we might see a difference.

There are real concerns about the Northern Ireland economy, however, which is why we support the amendment. The economy will require a structural shift away from the public sector, on which we are heavily
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dependent, to the private sector. The Government have said that, local parties believe that and local business men want that. If there is to be that movement, however, the right conditions must be in place. Given the changes already introduced under direct rule, such as the review of public administration and cuts in the number of quangos, councils and bodies controlling health and education, people will need to be redeployed quickly from the public sector into the private sector. For that to happen, certain conditions will have to be met.

First, Northern Ireland must become competitive. As we have heard, the competitiveness of the United Kingdom as a whole has dropped from fourth to 10th in the world. As we share a land boundary with the Irish Republic, which has had rapid growth, it is important that we have the right economic conditions. I was glad to hear the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) indicate that one of the changes required was to reduce the level of corporation tax. The level of taxation, including stealth taxes and so on, has never been higher in the United Kingdom. That is one of the reasons for our decreased competitiveness.

Several Labour Members have talked about the threat to the environment, and it is significant that that argument has appeared just when the Chancellor is running out of stealth taxes and must find a new excuse to get us to open our wallets and pay more. The threat of freezing or drowning—or frying, if we are talking about global warming—seems to be the Chancellor’s next ploy to get his hands in our pockets. It is essential that we have a low tax base.

Mr. Devine: The hon. Gentleman is a staunch supporter of the Union, but he seems to be arguing for Northern Ireland to have a different taxation policy that is more akin to that in the Republic. Is that correct?

Sammy Wilson: Absolutely not. I was about to say that I support the comments of the right hon. Member for Wokingham, who, I am glad to say, has not fallen under the spell of Polly Toynbee, as some of his colleagues seem to have done. He was arguing for a low tax base for the United Kingdom economy as a whole, as that is believed to be one way of attracting and keeping industry in the United Kingdom. If Northern Ireland is to be the guinea pig, of course, we would welcome that. The Government seem to be willing to use Northern Ireland as a guinea pig for many other kinds of taxes. We will provide the testing ground for a new council tax, so we would be more than happy to test the effects of a new corporation tax.

Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman suggests powerfully that a low-tax economy is a successful economy, and that the way to achieve competitiveness is to have low taxes. Why, then, are some of the highest taxes in Europe paid in the Scandinavian countries, which have successful economies and high economic growth? Is there some mistake?

Sammy Wilson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point, but as has been accepted in today’s debate, the economy of the Irish Republic, which is based on a low tax rate for industry, is one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe.

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