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Mr. O’Brien: We are trying to get as much support as possible to pensioners, and I have made changes to the rules in the past month—for example, agreeing that trustees will be able to make payments directly rather
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than having to go to the financial assistance scheme first. The FAS has now paid out just under £9.1 million to 2,560 qualifying members. A further 868 members will be paid as soon as they have confirmed their personal details, and an additional 814 members have been assessed as eligible for FAS payments when they reach 65.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): The Conservative party promised last week to refloat the lifeboat and ensure that pensioners receive a payment within three months of a Conservative Government taking office. Does the Minister recognise that the British people feel cheated of the opportunity to vote for an incoming Government who could bring justice to pensioners rather than the injustice that they have suffered under Labour?

Mr. O’Brien: Tory fantasy finances will not help those pensioners. Last week, the Conservatives tried to refloat a lifeboat proposal that sank last July following Andrew Young’s report. It was sunk not by the Government, but simply by the fact that the cost of increasing the fund to PPF levels, as proposed by the Tories, is £2.7 billion in cash terms over 50 years. The Tories have not shown how they can provide that money, and fantasy finances will help no one. There are two realistic ways of providing finances: one is better use of assets in the failed schemes; the other is through the taxpayer. We are awaiting further information from Andrew Young on how we can better use those assets, and we have indicated that we will provide Government funding. That is the realistic way of getting justice for pensioners. The proposals that the Tories have made will achieve nothing: they are pure fantasy.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): Why does the Minister show passion only when he says no to pension victims? Why cannot he have the courage of his convictions and follow what the Conservative party pledged to do if it won the election, but which the Prime Minister bottled out of—get the first payments to victims from a proper lifeboat fund within three months, by 1 February? Why cannot he do the same?

Mr. O’Brien: The Conservative party made a proposal that simply does not float. The Government Actuary clearly set out why it is not credible to try to manufacture such funding from something vaguely called unclaimed assets. The Government have offered taxpayers’ money and a realistic proposal to bring together the assets of failed pension schemes better to ensure that they can provide for those who need justice. The Tories proposed nothing realistic; it was pure fantasy. This Government are determined to do justice to pensioners, and to do it properly.

Child Maintenance

10. Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): What changes he plans to make to the system of calculating maintenance payments to reduce avoidance of payments by self-employed non-resident parents; and if he will make a statement. [156112]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): With the compliance rate among self-employed non-resident parents at 59 per cent., it is clearly important to take further measures, which we are doing in the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill. For example, the use of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs information and fixed-term maintenance awards will speed up the process and help to prevent self-employed non-resident parents from providing delayed or misleading information.

Rosie Cooper: As well as accurate assessments, enforcement of the assessments is vital. Every week, I see cases where it is obvious that the tax return information and the figures that are submitted to the CSA are quite unrelated. I have spoken to the CSA, which does not use Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs departments as well as it might. What can be done to ensure that people do not use self-employment deliberately to delay or obstruct the enforcement of their child maintenance liability?

Mr. Plaskitt: I thank my hon. Friend for that further point. We have all seen similar cases in our constituency surgeries. That is why we are introducing additional powers in the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill, which is now going through Parliament: first, the power to use gross income information from HMRC, which will give us a more robust and reliable source of information about real income than what some self-employed non-resident parents tell us; secondly, the power to use fixed-term awards; and, thirdly—and importantly for those who are still inclined not to co-operate—powers to deduct money directly from accounts that self-employed people might have with various financial institutions.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The Minister will be aware, however, that much of the problem arises when someone’s lifestyle is obviously at variance with their declared income. He said that we would use HMRC data, but one of the problems is that when there is evidence of a difference between lifestyle and declared income, the CSA often does not properly investigate it. Will the HMRC data be treated as sacrosanct or will CMEC have powers to investigate further when there is evidence that they do not equate with the lifestyle of the person involved?

Mr. Plaskitt: The hon. Gentleman identifies a correct point. One of the problems was that the CSA was, in a sense, originally designed and set up to be an investigatory agency, but was never given the powers to be one. The difference with the new commission is that it will have the right to access HMRC data, which are far more reliable on real income levels than the evidence that self-employed non-resident parents submit to the agency. With the use of HMRC data and the other steps we are taking, especially the power to have direct access to finance accounts, we are confident that we can certainly make it far more difficult for self-employed non-resident parents to evade their responsibility to maintain their children.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): What would the Minister say to the gentleman—I will call him Mr. X—who came to my surgery on Saturday, a
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self-employed individual who has supplied all his information to the CSA, which has lost his file on two separate occasions? He has asked for a statement of what he has paid and how the calculation has been made, only to be told that that information is not available to him or his solicitor. He is now being taken to court, on Friday, by a debt collection agency. I rang the MP hotline this morning, only to be told that I would have to put the case in writing to the CSA, which would have to contact the debt collection agency, which would then write back—a process taking four weeks. Does not the system cut MPs out of the loop? Should it not be a bit more responsive to the situation in which my constituent has found himself?

Mr. Plaskitt: My hon. Friend highlights an extremely complex case, of which there are still a fair number in the system. The length of time that it is taking to resolve the case that he outlined is, of course, not satisfactory. I should be more than happy to meet him urgently, to see whether I can make any intervention that might speed matters up.

Long-term Benefits

11. Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to ensure that there are jobs available for those leaving long-term benefits. [156113]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Peter Hain): There are currently around 650,000 unfilled vacancies across the economy. Jobcentre Plus alone takes over 10,000 new vacancies every working day, and at least as many again come up through other recruitment channels. However, we are redoubling our efforts to help jobless people by rapidly expanding local employment partnerships, to help 250,000 people from the most disadvantaged groups into work over the next three years.

Mrs. Dorries: Will the Secretary of State implement any of the proposals outlined in David Freud’s report “Reducing dependency, increasing opportunity”, which the Government commissioned? Has he discussed the report with the Prime Minister? If the recommendations are not to be implemented, will he tell us why not?

Mr. Hain: I have indeed discussed the report with the Prime Minister, and I have also discussed it with David Freud. Most of it has been accepted in our Green Paper. It makes an important contribution to ensuring that there are serious reductions in the number of people on long-term benefits and people who are not in the jobs market or even in job-focused benefit environments. I will not, however, follow the Tory path, which I assume the hon. Lady supports, of unfunded, uncosted programmes that will leave an enormous black hole in public finances, and which omit to point out that it is necessary to spend to save. That is what worried me about some of the announcements at the Tory party conference last week.

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Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Parliamentary Questions

20. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): How many and what percentage of questions tabled for answer on the three September answer days received a substantive answer on the due day. [156073]

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): Written questions were tabled, under the new arrangements for September questions, by 136 hon. Members. Fifty-nine per cent. were answered on the specified answering day, with a further 24 per cent. answered subsequently in September. That amounts to 83 per cent. of questions answered in September.

Mr. Harper: That woeful performance—40 per cent. of questions not answered on the day on which answers were due—shows that the Government are failing to provide the answers that the country needs in a range of policy areas. That, no doubt, is why the Prime Minister was frightened to go to the country to receive the answer to the question that we all want to ask.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that under the last Government no questions were answered in September, although hon. Members could table them. This is a new procedure. More Members have asked questions on September question days than did so last year. The time taken to answer them, on average, is about the same as the time taken on non-September sitting days. Obviously, we all want all questions to be answered as quickly as possible.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Only in Parliament, during September, was there no debate about an early election. Only in Parliament was there no debate about an international credit crunch, a run on a bank in Britain, foot and mouth disease for the second time, the bluetongue virus and the speculation about when we should call the election. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that written answers are not a suitable alternative to substantive debate about the big issues of the day, and that Parliament should sit in September?

Ms Harman: The House did sit in September for two years as an experiment. My hon. Friend will know that on 1 November last year, in a free vote, the House decided not to continue September sittings. He will probably also know that the Modernisation Committee is to consider whether the arrangements for recall of Parliament are sufficiently accessible to Members.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Does the Leader of the House accept that while of course it is helpful to be able to table written questions during a recess, it would be even more helpful if Prime Ministers and other Ministers made major statements to Parliament, rather than to the country from abroad, when a few days later they could be accountable here?

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Ms Harman: If the House is not sitting and Ministers need to give out information, they have no option but to give it out publicly and not to this House. When the House is sitting, we very much take the view that information should be given to Parliament first.

House of Commons Commission

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

Bottled Water

23. Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): How much bottled water was (a) sold and (b) provided within the House in the most recent year for which figures are available. [156077]

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): A total of 105,957 litres of bottled water was sold by the House of Commons Refreshment Department in 2006-07. In the same year, 16,200 litres of bottled water were supplied to the Department of the Serjeant at Arms for use in Committee Rooms, and 34,000 litres of bottled water were provided mainly in water coolers to staff of the House.

Mr. Spellar: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer, but is it not time, when we are looking at environmental change and the enormous environmental costs of bottled water, that the House of Commons stopped preaching to the rest of the country and started to reduce its use of bottled water, to use tap water and to stop all the waste of the empty bottles, too?

Nick Harvey: I have a lot of sympathy with what the right hon. Gentleman says. Of course, in the restaurants and bars of the House, this is a matter of choice for the individual consumer. Tap water is available free of charge in all Refreshment Department outlets. In March, the Administration Committee studied the issue of Committees using water and concluded that logistical constraints, health and safety issues and staffing costs meant that there was quite a complex issue to be considered. If he wishes to look at that report and to make further suggestions, I assure him that it need not necessarily be viewed as the last word on the matter.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Would it not be a good idea, if we have to have bottles, to have them refilled from the tap in the House rather than their being carried from one part of the country to another?

Nick Harvey: As I say, I have a lot of sympathy with that proposition. That was exactly what the Administration Committee looked at. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make further proposals to the Committee, I am sure that it will be pleased to listen to them.

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Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

European Scrutiny Procedures

24. Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): What recent proposals she has made for the reform of European scrutiny procedures. [156078]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): The Government are well aware that there is dissatisfaction in many quarters about the scrutiny of European measures in this House. In its 2005 report, the Modernisation Committee identified the need to look at how to reinvigorate the work of the European Standing Committees. We are continuing to examine possible ways forward, and the Government expect to make proposals in due course.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: That will not do. It was two and a half years ago that the Modernisation Committee brought out that report, chaired by the then Leader of the House, now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Since then, absolutely nothing has been done. The report referred to

More than 1,000 new measures are being proposed every year, and only a tiny fraction is scrutinised or debated properly. Rather than talk about the powers and rights of this House, will the Government do something about them and make some proposals?

Helen Goodman: The right hon. Gentleman is an experienced member of the European Scrutiny Committee. As such, he must know that it is very important that we get the proposals and any changes right. As with the management of all business before the House, it is partly a matter of balancing resources, including Members’ time. The Government are well aware of the concerns and continue to give the matter proper attention.

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Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I echo the sentiments that were expressed by the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), who is a very active member of my Committee. The arrangements were that, if any European business was referred by our Committee, so that its merits could be considered, it would go to the Standing Committees of the House, three of which were established with fixed memberships and agendas. One of the great problems that face Parliament is that, for two Sessions now, Sessional Orders have turned that scrutiny process into nothing but another kind of statutory instrument process. May I have an assurance that Sessional Orders will not be laid this year and that Committees with agendas and fixed memberships will be re-established to give some decent scrutiny to European business?

Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend is a most diligent Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee. I pay tribute to him for the work that he has done in that role. The difficulties to which he refers relate to the difficulties in finding Members who are prepared to serve on the Standing Committees as they are currently structured. That is why the Government are looking more widely at structural reforms.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): The Prime Minister has said that he wishes to make Parliament the crucible of public life and that he wants open government, but the European Scrutiny Committee continues to meet in private. Will the Deputy Leader of the House commit to opening up this Committee, or is she going to bottle it, just like the Prime Minister?

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman is right: as with many Select Committees, some sittings of the European Scrutiny Committee are held in private. When discussions have been held about making all sessions open to the public, the votes have proved contradictory. The issue is extremely controversial but the point is well understood.

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