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23 Apr 2007 : Column 646

Justine Greening: I am grateful to the Minister for those statistics. If he has looked at the general household survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics, he will know that since 1995 the number of men and women in full-time employment who have occupational or private pensions—in the age bracket about which I asked—has fallen. Many of my constituents in Putney see getting a pension as a luxury to come after having paid off student debt and perhaps having bought their own home. Given that we know from Barclays that the average starting salary fell last year to £13,800, does the Minister agree that it was particularly unhelpful and counter-productive for the Chancellor to increase income tax on low earners when his Department seeks to introduce personal accounts in which those people are expected to save money?

James Purnell: Obviously, taxation policy is a matter for Treasury questions. I believe, however, that the hon. Lady shares in the consensus that personal accounts should be introduced. I have read with interest the helpful and serious report on that by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, of which she is a member, and we shall examine that in detail. The right response to the issue of pension saving is automatic enrolment and a matching employer contribution—both of which I think that she agrees with—and the introduction of the national pensions saving scheme, which is the right model to deliver low charges and good returns for those saving in it.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): I was visited recently by a constituent who has lost not one, but two, pensions, and who falls outside the FAS. He complained to me that when he chided his daughters for not contributing to a pension scheme, they replied that he was a mug for having done so. Until Ministers are prepared to grasp the nettle, which our amendments last week offered them the opportunity to do, there is every likelihood that people who save for a pension will simply be told that it is a mug’s game.

James Purnell: We have grasped the nettle. We have introduced an amendment that guarantees at least 80 per cent. of what people have lost. We are examining how that can be supplemented. We are not prepared to make empty promises, which have been described by the Association of British Insurers as robbing Peter to pay Paul, or as yet another raid on pensions, which should not be done. We are saying that we should have a proper review. I would say to his constituent’s daughters that we now have the Pension Protection Fund, which does provide a safety net for people in the future. The Labour party tabled proposals for that in the 1995 Pensions Bill. If the hon. Gentleman’s party had supported them, we would be in a very different situation now.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): Does not the Minister realise the terrible damage done to long-term confidence in pensions by this Government’s failure to ensure prompt and adequate compensation for people who have lost pensions? Does he think that the under-40s in particular will be encouraged to participate in personal accounts by the sad spectacle of some pensions victims dying before help reaches them, while the Government conduct yet another review?

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James Purnell: It is not right to promise people money that we do not know how to deliver. That is not the right type of politics. The shadow Chancellor said that a test of the Opposition’s credibility as a Government was whether they were going to come up with more unfunded promises on pensions. That is exactly what they have done. Voters will draw their own conclusions on the credibility of the Opposition party to be in government.

Welfare to Work

9. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What recent progress has been made in implementing city strategies on welfare to work. [132670]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): We announced on 2 April that city strategy pathfinders have now succeeded in bringing together new partnerships capable of planning and driving through real change to local employment and skills services. We are now working with them to agree ambitious targets to tackle worklessness and expect to finalise these targets by the end of May.

Mr. Allen: I thank the Minister for that answer and congratulate him again on the work that he has done in getting the city strategies under way—certainly in my city of Nottingham, with 31,000 incapacity claimants and those on related benefits, we need it. However, does he share with me a small degree of impatience that in setting up the city strategies over many months, we have yet to begin the delivery? What does he expect in terms of targets and outcomes, not least in respect of my city?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend has championed the city strategy approach for some months now, not least because Nottingham is, uniquely, the sixth richest city in the country and the seventh poorest. He also chairs the consortium in Nottingham. Let me say to him and, through him, to the partnership in Nottingham that we are looking for a real change in outcomes. Of course we have to get the processes right, but it is the transformation of people’s lives that is important. In that sense, we have set aside additional money to incentivise further success so that the consortiums can share in the success of getting people off benefit and into work. That announcement was made to the 15 city consortium pathfinders when we set out the details of the flexibilities to them recently.

Pension Credit

10. Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): How many pensioners in Waveney constituency are in receipt of pension credit. [132671]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (James Purnell): Our latest estimates show that in November 2006 there were 6,130 households—7,810 individuals—in the parliamentary constituency of Waveney receiving pension credit. Across Great Britain, there were 2.7 million households—3.3 million individuals—receiving pension credit. This is nearly 1 million more than received the minimum income guarantee that preceded it.

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Mr. Blizzard: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Has he estimated how much extra money per annum those figures amount to in terms of what comes into the Waveney constituency? It strikes me that it is not just good news for pensioners, but good news for the local economy in which my constituents spend their money. They remember the time when there was no such thing as pension credit.

James Purnell: The average amount that people get from pension credit is just under £50 a week. A quick off-the-top-of-the-head calculation would suggest that about £13 million a year goes into the Waveney constituency from pension credit—a measure that was opposed by the Conservatives and was described last week by their Front Bench as a cancer.

Child Support Agency

11. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to reduce the number of Child Support Agency cases waiting to be processed. [132672]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): The main steps are increased staffing levels and improvements in the agency’s IT, and those steps are working.

At the commencement of the improvement plan, there were some 220,000 new scheme cases uncleared. By last December, that was down to 186,000. The immediate target is to get it down to 160,000 by the end of the first full year of the plan—and given that clearances have exceeded intake for nine consecutive months, I am confident that the target will be met and that there will be continued improvement thereafter.

Bob Spink: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s response. He will recall that earlier today his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that there was a backlog of 200,000 cases with the CSA. What assessment does the hon. Gentleman make of the work of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, which indicates a far higher level of problems and backlog? Does he accept that the backlog is causing real problems for vulnerable people in all our constituencies? What further will he do to clear that backlog quickly?

Mr. Plaskitt: As I told the hon. Gentleman, the backlog is now being reduced. It was reduced by 13 per cent. in just the first year of our operational improvement plan, and the targets that we have set for the agency include the clearing of 80 per cent. of cases within 12 weeks by 2009. The substantial improvement achieved in the first year will continue. If the hon. Gentleman wants to know what more is being done to support that improvement, I suggest that he read the detailed information that we have made available about reforms to the agency’s information technology system. When we examined it at the start of the operational improvement plan, it contained 500 defects. More than half those defects have now been fixed, including all the important ones. Additional investment, new processes and new ways of working for staff are helping us to make rapid progress in reducing the backlog.

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Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Early-day Motions

19. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the merits of establishing an online system for tabling and signing early-day motions. [132696]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Paddy Tipping): My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—who, unfortunately, is abroad today—is aware of both possible advantages and possible problems associated with e-tabling of and signatures to early-day motions. The Procedure Committee is examining the matter, and I understand that it is due to consider a report in the near future. The Government will pay close attention to any recommendations that the Committee makes, and will respond in the normal way.

Mr. Allen: Does the Minister accept that the currency of the early-day motion is now considerably devalued? It is now little more than parliamentary graffiti, and is used as the equivalent of parliamentary snout in this place. Could it not be returned to a central position in our deliberations? Perhaps the early-day motion that has the most cross-party signatures each week could be debated without a vote on a Friday.

Paddy Tipping: My hon. Friend is right to stress the value of the currency of both early-day motions and questions. There is concern in the House about the number of questions tabled. Another Committee of the House, the Modernisation Committee, is examining the use of non-legislative time, and among the issues that it is considering are early-day motions and the number of signatures to them. I understand that its report may be available before the summer recess, and will provide an opportunity for discussion of my hon. Friend’s point.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The Deputy Leader of the House will know that, for the reasons given by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), many Members on both sides of the House do not sign early-day motions at all. Before we adopt the proposal in the question and make it even easier to table and sign early-day motions, does it not make sense to wait for the more substantive review to which the Deputy Leader of the House has referred?

Paddy Tipping: I agree. That is precisely why the Procedure Committee is examining the matter, and I understand that its report is fairly imminent. As the right hon. Gentleman says, it is important for early-day motions not to be abused and to have significance, and I hope that we shall be in a position to reinforce that in the future.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): In echoing the concern expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), may I reinforce the argument by suggesting that the problem with the current system—and it would also be a
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problem with a system allowing early-day motions to be tabled online—is that it appears to many people to be profoundly ritualistic and to have no end result? Will the Deputy Leader of the House consider again the idea that if a decent number of signatures is achieved, that should be the threshold for a substantive debate, as suggested by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen)—but preferably not on a Friday? Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday would do.

Paddy Tipping: The hon. Gentleman can name the day, as long as it happens. He will not mind my saying that he gave evidence to the Modernisation Committee fairly recently, and one of the issues discussed in the session that he attended was giving effect to early-day motions. I am not sure what the Committee will recommend, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman, fairly forcefully, that we will look carefully at any recommendation that the Committee makes.

Business Committee

20. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): If he will instigate discussions with all political parties represented in the House about the establishment of a business Committee. [132697]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Paddy Tipping): As the hon. Gentleman is aware, my right hon. Friend has received regular representations about the case for a business Committee. The proposal has been raised in evidence to the Modernisation Committee’s current inquiries into the role of Back Benchers and the use of non-legislative time. I think it best to let the Committee make its recommendations on the matter.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I welcome the Deputy Leader of the House back to the Front Bench. He is a thoughtful and kindly man who is deeply committed to the procedures of this House. Does he not accept that people are increasingly concerned that what takes place in this House is not topical, and does he not agree that if Back Benchers were represented on a business Committee of this House not only would more topical debate be part of debate during the week—not only on a Friday, although I support the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) in his question—but that would be more relevant and topical for the people of this country? That is one of the objectives of the current Modernisation Committee inquiry.

Paddy Tipping: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about me, and let me reciprocate by saying that he is a long-standing and influential member of the Modernisation Committee and that I am sure that he will use all his powers to ensure that the report that comes forward addresses the case he makes that the Chamber should be more relevant and that there must be greater involvement of all the political parties in a more structured way. Because of his background, he will also understand that it is important, too, to persuade people that there should be an appropriate and agreed time for Government legislation and for their programme in general.

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Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that if such a business Committee were already in existence it might well have come to the conclusion, and have made recommendations to the House, that to exempt the House of Commons from the Freedom of Information Act 2000 would be totally against the interests of the House of Commons, and that therefore circumstances would not arise such as those that arose last Friday where Whips on both political sides were trying to bring about a situation whereby the Freedom of Information Act applies to everybody else but not to Parliament—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call Mr. Heath.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The former Leader of the House, the late Robin Cook, was a strong supporter of introducing a business Committee. Indeed, he said that

Given that a business Committee is normal for most democracies and legislatures, and that there is a business Committee in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, why is it taking so long for this Government to consider properly the merits of having a business Committee for this House?

Paddy Tipping: The hon. Gentleman rightly says that the late Leader of the House, my friend Robin Cook, was a great advocate of that. The simple answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that there are different voices and views in Government. That is why I believe that the Modernisation Committee report is important. I speculate that it will say something about a business Committee although, clearly, I cannot make commitments; the only commitment that I can give is that the matter will be explored carefully and thoughtfully.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): This House gave up without a whimper various very important powers that would have enabled us to vote, as we originally did, on resolutions of the House and Back-Bench motions. My hon. Friend will accept that we are one of the last legislatures not to have control of its own business programme, which is unacceptable, pointless and damaging—and may I add that I, too, think that he is lovely?

Paddy Tipping: Well, let me agree with that last point, and say to my hon. Friend that she has been a strong supporter over many years of more motions coming before the House and of the debates being on substantive motions, not motions for the Adjournment. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is committed to trying to ensure that that happens further.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): Under this Government, there has been an ever-increasing amount of legislation. Since 1997, the number of pages of secondary legislation has increased by almost 20 per cent. and the number of pages of primary legislation has increased by 125 per cent. What
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measures do the Government intend to introduce to ensure that there can be proper and effective scrutiny of all those laws?

Paddy Tipping: This is a matter not just for the Government, but for the whole House. The whole process of timetabling of motions and business—I know that it has been controversial—gives the opportunity to the Opposition to highlight the important areas of concern. This is a two-way street, and I am clear that we could use the way in which we timetable our business in a more effective and efficient way than we do at present.

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