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5.45 pm

In particular, I hope that the Minister will be able to comment now on the regard that the provisions will have for how the assessments are carried out. For example, those carrying out the assessment might look at the number of people being cared for, and at the type of disability involved. Rather than looking at just one or the other, however, they should be able to look at a complex situation in the round, to see exactly what the person is doing. For example, a woman might be looking after a number of neighbours, none of whom receives any of the qualifying benefits, and none of whom would be able to manage without her support. She would thereby be excluded from taking a job, but she should be able to benefit because of the type of care she is providing, and the range of conditions and the number of people involved.

I would hope that such provision would include family members. For example, a woman might have a number of older children with a range of disabilities for whom she still cares. They might still need day-to-day care, but would not qualify for the types of benefit specified in the present legislation. I want to
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press my hon. Friend the Minister on this issue. It involves a range of issues about disability benefits and carers benefits, but this specific question regarding pensions is really important.

This usually affects women, although I accept that it can involve men as well. Often, women who have spent their whole lives caring for people and been unable to go out to work as a result will have to go out to work after retirement because they do not have the appropriate pension entitlements and cannot get benefits. They have to find an income somehow, but just at the time when they should be looking for more support from the state, they have to go out to work. A small cost would achieve a massive gain for this vulnerable group of pensioners. They make a huge contribution to society and are completely entitled to our support in retirement. I hope that my hon. Friend will make clear his commitment to establishing a proper process and a robust certification procedure to ensure that these people and the service that they provide to people with disabilities and to the wider society are properly recognised in their retirement.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): I will endeavour to be brief, as we do not have much time. New clause 28 and amendment No. 15 cover ground that was well covered by our deliberations on clause 3 in the Public Bill Committee. However, it is worth mentioning again the predicament of carers and the reasons why my hon. Friends and I are pleased to support the measures in the Bill that support them, some of which were in our 2005 manifesto.

There are 6 million carers in the United Kingdom, one in five of whom give up employment to care and have gaps in their pension record as a result. Carers UK estimates that, by 2037, there could be as many as 9 million carers—an increase of 3 million. The Government estimate that the effect of clause 3—which new clause 28 and amendment No. 15 seek to amend—will be that, by 2010, an additional 120,000 carers who care for more than 20 hours a week will gain entitlement to the basic state pension, and that an additional 180,000 such carers will gain entitlement to the state second pension. As the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) has pointed out, that leaves 40,000 people who might not accrue rights to the basic state pension and 60,000 who might not accrue rights to the state second pension, if they do not have 30 qualifying years at pensionable age. It is odd that the Government have sought to base the eligibility criteria for carers’ credits on the benefits of the person being cared for, rather than on the circumstances of the carer.

In Committee, the Minister was big enough to say that the measure in the Bill was not perfect. He said:

He also said

We all wait eagerly to hear what the Minister will say now that he has had a chance to think about the matter further.

The net cost per year of providing carers national insurance credit for those caring for more than 20 hours per week for people who are receiving attendance allowance,
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constant attendance allowance, or the middle or higher-rate care component of disability living allowance will be £800 million by 2050. That was revealed on 29 March in written answer 303 in the House of Lords, asked by Lady Hollis. The Government have already made a considerable financial commitment. Is there a maximum amount that the Government are prepared to spend per year on carers national insurance credit? Will the Minister also tell us, in as much detail as possible, how he proposes to widen the eligibility criteria for the credit?

I hope that the answers to those questions will be given here rather than in another place, because I think that it would be a courtesy to this House to give us the information now.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I shall be extremely brief. We have heard some excellent speeches, and I do not want to duplicate what has been said by other Members, all of whom have spoken in favour of new clause 28.

The principle is that carers credit is for the carer, not the person being cared for. Carers UK believes that a system of certification can be made to work, and that carers should not be punished for the inflexibility of the current system. As was explained by the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), some people are not covered through no fault of their own. Someone caring for several people on the lower rate of disability living allowance, or a woman who looks after a schizophrenic husband who is not prepared to claim disability living allowance but needs constant care, cannot claim carers allowance, home responsibilities protection or carers national insurance credit .

Many organisations recommend a system of accreditation, involving a standard form with a space for an approved professional to certify that a carer is working for 20 or more hours a week. In Committee, we had a fairly long discussion on whether a doctor would be an appropriate person. I think that appropriate people would be those who were involved with the disabled person and his or her carer at home, such as members of social services departments, local education authorities—in the case of those with special educational needs—and community mental health teams, or community nurses and other health professionals who are in constant contact with patient and carer.

The Women’s Pensions Network, which includes groups such as Age Concern, Help the Aged and the Equal Opportunities Campaign, agrees that justice is needed for the people affected by the present system—40,000 according to Carers UK, although the EOC estimates that the number is closer to 50,000. In fact, it is not merely a question of the number of people affected; it is a question of justice for those who have fallen through the net of an inflexible framework. The Minister has kindly said that he is prepared to reflect seriously on the possibility of encapsulating those deserving individuals in the framework, and we await the outcome of his reflections with bated breath.

James Purnell: It is good to end the Report stage on a similar consensual note to that which characterised most of our Committee proceedings. In the brief
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amount of time that is available I will try to respond positively to this group of amendments and to the campaigning of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble).

New clause 28 and amendment No. 15 introduce a new regulation-making power that would be used to extend the carers credit to those certified as engaged in at least 20 hours of caring a week by health or social care professionals. There has been an attempt to encapsulate the spirit of some of my remarks in Committee, and it is therefore unsurprising that we are sympathetic to the intention behind the amendments. The amendments are, however, not strictly necessary. The regulation power under the Bill is drawn widely enough to allow us to include people engaged in caring. We therefore would not need to introduce further legislation to put into practice the intention of these amendments.

As I said in Committee, our plan is that in order to be eligible for the carers credit people would have to self-certify. There is no perfect way of doing that: the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said that it was not a perfect measure, but there is no perfect measure. We are trying to avoid the carer having to have a time sheet and therefore we want to have a self-certification process, but we need a lock in the system which is why they will have to identify someone for whom they are caring, and we say that that should be someone in receipt of attendance allowance, the highest or middle rate of disability living allowance or constant attendance allowance.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire asked how much we are prepared to spend on this. We are prepared to spend—and have costed in—enough to get to that population whose hours are above 20 a week but who are not building up a full state pension. Everybody shares the goal of enabling those 40,000 people to qualify for the basic state pension and, more importantly, for their state second pension, and the intention is to do exactly that. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he needs. This is not a question of finance; it is a question of trying to find a way of getting people to self-certify and to get the qualification that they need.

Committee members will recall our discussion on this subject and particularly the heartfelt and persuasive speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North, who has campaigned on it assiduously and passionately.

Mr. Laws: And my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt).

James Purnell: Indeed, I also pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who made a persuasive speech, too, and who joined in the consensus in our discussion.

I am pleased to be able to announce that we will explore how health and social care professionals might be involved in certifying that someone is caring for at least 20 hours a week through the review of the 1999 national carers strategy, and that we will report back before the end of the year. We are committed to doing that; it is not a question of whether this can be done, but of how.

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Andrew Selous: In Committee, the Minister kindly said that he would report back before the end of the passage of the Bill through both Houses of Parliament, but he has now said that he will do so before the end of the year. Will he clarify that difference?

James Purnell: I am reporting now and saying that we are committed to doing that. The way to do it is through the carers strategy review, which will report by the end of the year. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), has announced that. It is the right forum. Our commitment to doing this is absolutely clear. We are happy to work with the hon. Member for Solihull and with other Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party, as well as with Carers UK and the Equal Opportunities Commission, on exactly how it can be done, but this is the right way to fill what is just a small gap in the provisions that we have put forward. Everybody shares the same goal. The review will be published before the end of the year. What this will do is put in place the final building block of our carers’ strategy to ensure that people can build up a full state pension and a state second pension through caring contributions. Our proposals to reduce the number of qualifying years to 30 will make the major difference, but the carers credit is an important part of putting the roof on the policy, to use the earlier analogy.

Mr. Laws: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Kate Hoey: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Can you advise us of any way in which we might be able to vote on the amendments on the uprating of state pensions? That is an incredibly important issue for pensioners throughout the country and they will be amazed that we have not had a vote on it during the entire debate on the Bill.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I understand the concerns of the hon. Lady, but I have to be guided by the terms of the programme motion as decided by the House. I am afraid that there is no provision for such a vote.

Following the inquiries that were made about the difficulties that Members had in voting in the last Division, I am advised that a door on the estate was malfunctioning. A police officer is now standing by that door so that in the event that any more votes take place this evening, Members will be able to gain access. Efforts will be made to repair the door by tomorrow.

Order for Third Reading read.—[Queen’s Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]

6.1 pm

James Purnell: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Bill implements the most ambitious reform of our pensions system in modern times. It provides the basis for a sustainable and affordable system that strikes a new balance between the responsibility that Government have for retirement and the responsibility of individuals and their employers. It addresses past inequalities and inadequacies, and embeds in our pensions system the crucial values of fairness and
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simplicity. Above all, it is based on the foundation of consensus. We have an opportunity to send out a signal to people listening to this debate and reading it in the future that the Bill received a Third Reading on the basis of consensus and agreement on the direction of travel in our pension system and, in particular, on giving people who are putting their money away for the future greater certainty that the system will endure and can be relied on.

I wish to take this opportunity to thank the many individuals and organisations who have played their part in the Bill’s passage. I particularly thank all the members of the Committee for their good humour and dedication to our proceedings. I also wish to thank the two Chairmen who presided over the proceedings. Of course, I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for his support, and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), who led on many clauses in Committee. I also wish to put on record my appreciation—I am sure that it is shared by all my hon. Friends—of my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary, who played an important part in the early formulation of the Bill. On a personal note, I particularly wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks), whose support and wise advice throughout the Bill’s passage has been invaluable. Finally, I wish to thank the Bill team, which has done a fantastic job, and all those in my Department who have worked on the Bill.

What will the Bill do? It comes after 10 years of progress in reducing the poverty that we inherited and that had all too often become associated with old age. Since 1997, 1 million pensioners have escaped from relative poverty, and more than 2 million from absolute poverty. We are spending more than £10 billion—or about 1 per cent. of gross domestic product—more on pensioners than we would have had we continued the policies that we inherited in 1997.

As a result, pensioners’ incomes have grown roughly in line with those of people in work. In effect, they have tracked earnings over the past 10 years. For the first time in a generation, therefore, pensioners are less likely to be poor than other groups in society, even though they are not in work and even though people who are in work benefit from increases in earnings. That is a remarkable achievement.

Earlier this afternoon, the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) said that means-testing was a cancer. I do not agree: on the contrary, it is the generosity of the pension credit system that has enabled us to achieve such an improvement. It must be accepted that mechanisms such as the pension credit system must be introduced if we are to reduce poverty. After all, that is why the Conservative party has supported the uprating of pension credit in line with earnings that will be guaranteed by this Bill.

The Government have an ambitious vision, and it is one that makes a clear break with the past. Conservative and Labour Governments in the 1980s and 1990s pursued a voluntary approach to retirement provision. I am not trying to score any political points, but the link between earnings and the basic state pension was broken in the early 1980s and, for many years, people—including people in the Labour
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movement—campaigned for its restoration. However, that was resisted by both the Conservative and Labour parties, because it was not possible to make a formal commitment to a long-term link between earnings and the basic state pension without making clear how that could be afforded. There would have been no point in talking about plans to restore the link if it was not possible to tell pensioners how that would be done.

It is the hard choice at the heart of the Bill that will make the Government’s approach affordable. Because we have raised the state pension age, we know that it will now be possible formally to restore the link between earnings and pensions, in a way that is both sustainable and affordable. Moreover, we will not place an unfair tax burden on our children and grandchildren as we arrange a more generous retirement for ourselves.

Mark Pritchard: Today has been very enlightening, and I am pleased that the Bill has reached this stage. However, I hope that the Minister will answer a question that I have raised many times. The Government have introduced a new 30-year qualifying rule for the basic state pension, but about 2 million people have come here from other parts of Europe since 1997. The Secretary of State has said that migrants who do not qualify under the new rule will have their pensions topped up through pension credit. Has there been any calculation of the size of that bill, which I believe will be significant?

James Purnell: I answered that question in Committee. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that there are reciprocal rules between different parts of the EU. Acceptance of those rules is a definition of EU membership, and I regret that the hon. Gentleman continues to raise that question. I should be interested to know why he does so, but it is possible that he would prefer the UK to withdraw from the EU, even though that would mean that our citizens could not benefit from the ability to move freely around it. In fact, apart from that intervention, I believe that the Bill has achieved a fairly good consensus, and that is something that we want to develop.

The Bill marks the most significant move towards equality between men and women since Barbara Castle introduced home responsibilities protection in the 1970s. It ends the inequality between men and women in the state pension by putting working and caring contributions on the same basis. Today, only about 30 per cent. of women retire on a full state pension—a staggering figure—compared with about 90 per cent. of men. That is completely unjustifiable and we will put it right through the Bill.

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