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Winter Fuel Payments

15. Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): How much has been allocated for winter fuel payments in 2007-08; and if he will make a statement. [118088]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): The forecast for spending on winter fuel payments for winter 2007-08 is just over £2 billion.

Greg Mulholland: I thank the Minister for her answer, but is she aware that last November, my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) received a written answer from the Department of Trade and Industry saying that, rather than moving towards the
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target to eradicate fuel poverty by 2016, the number of houses in fuel poverty was due to increase by 1 million? Given that, what plans does her Department have to ensure that vulnerable groups such as pensioners and the severely disabled will not spend next winter in fuel poverty?

Mrs. McGuire: Of course, 11.5 million pensioner households receive the winter fuel allowance every year in November or December, and those payments are significant and well timed in order for older citizens to meet their heating bills. This Government do not have any apologies to make for ensuring that that £200 winter fuel allowance—it is more than £300 if a person is over 80—is paid regularly to older people’s households, particularly if one considers that, as recently as 10 years ago, the only thing that pensioner households could look forward to was a £69 pension and a £10 Christmas bonus.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): What would the Minister say to my constituent Sue Woods, whose brother celebrated his 60th birthday in the autumn, did not get the fuel allowance and died before he was 61? Now, £200 is a lot of money for any family, but it is the principle that rankles with my constituent.

Mrs. McGuire: I can appreciate the disappointment of somebody whose birthday falls the day before whatever date we have as a cut-off, but there has to be a qualification date and that date is set. I appreciate that people cannot change their birthdays to suit the qualification date, but this is just something that we all have to live with—we are either on one side of the birthday threshold, or the other. The important issue is that when the hon. Gentleman’s constituent reaches the age of 61, he will receive his £200 winter fuel allowance.

Equal Opportunities

16. Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to increase employment opportunities for older workers; and if he will make a statement. [118089]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (James Purnell): The Government have put in place a range of measures to help older people to remain in, or return to, work. Since 1997, the employment rate of people aged 50 to 69 has increased by 6.7 per cent. We are tackling age discrimination through our “Age Positive” campaign, which promotes good practice and the benefits of an age-diverse work force to employers. Last October, we brought the age regulations into force, which introduced a default retirement age of 65, together with a right for employees to request to work beyond this age. We will be monitoring those regulations’ effect on the employment of older workers.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I thank the Minister for his reply and I welcome the increased opportunities for older people. A constituent of mine was very disappointed, on reaching his 65th birthday, to be told that he had to retire, and his request was not considered. Does the Minister agree that, as people are living for longer and in better health, employers’ perceptions of what is old will have to be revised?


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James Purnell: That is absolutely right and it is exactly why the age discrimination regulations are so important. We try to communicate to people the benefits of having a work force with a range of ages because older workers bring all sorts of benefits, such as expertise and job loyalty. It is also worth noting that more than half the increase in employment overall has come from people aged between 50 and 69, and that more than a third has come from those over the state pension age. So real progress is being made in helping people to work for longer when they are older.

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): In tackling the problems of age-related discrimination in employment in the welcome way that the Minister describes, will he also pay particular attention to the need to tackle disability discrimination in employment? The older that someone gets, the more likely they are to be disabled, and disability discrimination can often be a major reason that older workers are not as welcome in the workplace as younger ones. Will he make sure that, in addition to the measures he has taken to deal with age discrimination, there are publicity campaigns aimed at disability discrimination among employers?

James Purnell: We obviously have to tackle discrimination wherever it happens. The pathways to work programme will help people in that situation, and Jobcentre Plus can help people with a range of measures whether their issues are to do with occupational health or disability more generally.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): What advice can my hon. Friend give me to give the constituents who attended my surgery last Friday? They worked in an abattoir run by a Mr. Kenny Henderson, but a few days ago the factory door was locked against them. Many of them are in the older age group. They had to pay for their own protective clothing and knives and had also been paid less than the minimum wage for years. How can I initiate a prosecution?

James Purnell rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is out of order.

Benefits System

18. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What plans he has for simplifying the benefits system for people with disabilities. [118091]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): We agree that the welfare system should be simpler, more transparent and accessible for all our customers, not least for disabled people. For those with health problems and disabilities, the new employment and support allowance will integrate into a single structure both earnings replacement and income-related benefits.

Angela Watkinson: Does the Minister think that it is wrong that people who suffer from deteriorating conditions such as multiple sclerosis are still sent complicated forms from time to time when there is no prospect of them improving or getting better?


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Mrs. McGuire: I hope that the hon. Lady will accept that in any benefits system there is a need for review, on a regular or irregular basis. I hope that she will also accept that sometimes the review process identifies additional benefits to which a person—she gives the example of someone with multiple sclerosis—may be entitled. We should not always put a negative slant on the review of disability benefits. The review process often picks up that someone may be entitled to additional support through the benefit system.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Lords Reform

20. Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): What representations he has received on the appropriateness of clerics sitting in a reformed second Chamber purely on the basis of their position in their religious organisations. [118065]

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): I have received three letters on that subject.

Dr. Harris: I thank the Leader of the House for his full answer. Will he accept my representation on the issue? He will recognise that the UK is the only democratic country to give seats in its legislature to religious representatives as of right. Giving seats to religious leaders, including those of the Church of England, as of right embeds sexism in our legislature, because of the male/female ratio of those leaders. If individuals are to be appointed, it should be on their own merits and not on the basis that they lead a particular organisation.

Mr. Straw: I have a number of things to say to the hon. Gentleman. First, we are by no means the only country in the world with the equivalent of a state Church, as many European countries have one. Secondly, we may be an exception, but we are also an exception in being the only country in Europe that I can think of that has survived for three centuries without a bloody revolution, occupation or the humiliation of neutrality in a just war. We can have lengthy discussions on the issue, but my view is that Lord Wakeham and his fellow commissioners were correct when they said:

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): There would be very welcome consequences if we looked into that issue. My right hon. Friend said that we are not the only country that has a state Church. That is true, but England is the only country that allows its Church’s prelates to sit in the House of Lords. Representatives of the Church of Scotland, the Church of Ireland and the Church of Wales are not there, and they should not be there. Hands up all those people who are communicants of the Church of England—


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Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman should be quiet for a while and let the Leader of the House answer.

Mr. Straw: As the Church of Scotland is Presbyterian, it by definition does not have bishops. It is in a very privileged position under the Church of Scotland Act 1921. Its liturgy was laid down in the other place, as I recall from a lecture by the late Donald Dewar. We will have some big debates about the future of the House of Lords. If folk want to pursue the disestablishment of the Church of England, that is fine, but we should not do that by the back door and we should take account of the fact that most of the other faith groups want to keep some representation of the Anglican bishops in the House.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that further reform to remove clerics from the other place will not guarantee that Parliament is improved—quite the contrary? Does he accept that perhaps it is time to pause for thought and that the status quo might be the best way forward for the other place?

Mr. Straw: Opinions differ on this issue in all parties. I think that the hon. Gentleman’s party is committed to a substantially elected Chamber. I have a letter from one of his party leaders saying that that means 80 per cent. We will see whether that is backed by sentiment on the Opposition Benches. What I am seeking to do, and what I will make further announcements about quickly, is to provide an opportunity for the issue to be debated thoroughly and for the House then to come to a decision one way or another.

War

21. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What consideration he has given to proposals for requiring the House’s approval for going to war; and if he will make a statement. [118066]

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): My hon. Friend is aware that the Government have considered and responded to the report of the Lords Constitution Committee, “Waging war: Parliament’s role and responsibility”. As I said to him during oral questions on 8 January,

Mr. Allen: You will recall, Mr. Speaker, that at the last oral questions there was a very positive and constructive response from both sides of the House on settling on a sensible basis the relationship between Parliament and the Executive in times of war. The House of Lords has now contributed its view, too. Does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House agree that we are ever closer to a point at which a resolution or a statute will be put before this House, so that the matter can be resolved once and for all?


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Mr. Straw: I hope so. I do not think that there is an argument of principle. Everybody accepts that when it comes to decisions in principle to go to war, the House, as the elected Chamber, has to make the decision. Everybody also accepts that there could be emergency situations and other circumstances relating to the safety of our personnel in which that decision would have to happen retrospectively, but I do not believe that it is impossible to square that circle.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I welcome what the Leader of the House has said and I endorse his sentiments, but may I press him again, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) did, to incorporate those sentiments in a firm resolution of the House, alternatively, in statutory language?

Mr. Straw: As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know, in the Government response to the Lords Constitution Committee, we said that we were considering carefully what it had proposed, which is essentially a resolution that would lie on the Standing Orders. We are giving that further and active consideration at the moment.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am grateful to the Leader of the House for his positive comments. I thought back to what he said on the last occasion, on 8 January, but I have to say that the idea of a developing convention simply will not wash, not least because we have a substantial deployment in Afghanistan, which has never been subject to a resolution of the House, although I and my colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches would vote for it. The matter of urgency, too, can be dealt with easily; it is in most European legislatures—for example, the instrument of Government that deals with it in the Riksdag in Sweden. Would it be worth the Leader of the House revisiting the Executive Powers and Civil Service Bill, introduced by my noble Friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill? That seems to be a potential statutory basis for the proposals that the Leader of the House is suggesting.

Mr. Straw: I have great regard for Lord Lester of Herne Hill—I am very happy to revisit what he said—but this is an issue on which senior officers and others in the Ministry of Defence are anxious, not because they want to bypass Parliament’s decisions, but because they do not want to get into the situation that other European countries have got into and which I have seen, where there is amendment to the rules of engagement by the elected Parliament. That can lead to risible circumstances—for example, some members of the NATO international security assistance force cannot do their job—so we must be careful. When we are asking our armed forces to put their lives in harm’s way in a number of theatres, we must be very careful to ensure that we take them with us, and that is something that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is very anxious about.


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Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): This matter of war touches on the prerogative powers of Ministers and, as such, addresses the crucial issue of the balance of power between the Government and Parliament. For example, last week, air passenger duty was doubled without any approval from Parliament. What precisely is the Leader of the House doing to restore the balance of power between Parliament and the Government and to ensure that we, the elected representatives, can speak up effectively in the Chamber for the British people?

Mr. Straw: We have done a great deal to restrict and reduce the royal prerogative, which goes back to the powers exercised by the monarch before the Glorious Revolution and the Rill of Rights of 1689, and we should make further progress in that respect, but the hon. Gentleman is wrong about air passenger duty, because that is dealt with under statutes that have been passed by the House.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Printing Costs

22. Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): How much was spent on printing (a) early-day motions and (b) written parliamentary questions in the last period for which figures are available. [118067]

Nick Harvey (North Devon): The last period for which figures are available is the 2005-06 financial year, when the cost of printing early-day motions was £627,000 and of written questions approximately £1,464,000.

Chris Bryant: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer, but there are 36 pages of early-day motions today, despite the fact that only two of them are new, having been tabled last Thursday, and there are seven pages of written questions. Would it not make far more sense for us to publish most of those on the parliamentary website, rather than every day in the Order Paper, so that Parliament does not look hypocritical when it tries to persuade people to save money and trees?

Nick Harvey: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. There has been huge growth in the popularity of early-day motions and in the number of written questions tabled, in consequence of which a lot more pages are being printed, but the Procedure Committee took evidence in December about just the sort of matters to which he is giving his attention, and I urge him to make any suggestion that he might have to that Committee in advance of it reporting to the House and making any suggestions that it might have for change.


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