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The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) intervened to ask whether local Conservative-controlled councils have read the Conservatives’ policy, and if so whether they would stop cutting their grants to local voluntary organisations. That gives me the opportunity to remind the House about the new local government performance framework, which includes two indicators in a national set, one on volunteering and one on a thriving third sector. Two thirds of the 35 local area agreements will have at least one of those indicators as priority indicators to pursue. We wish to see voluntary organisations locally playing a strong and equal part in
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local city partnerships, deciding local priorities, delivering local services and holding local government to account.

The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire complained that we were not listening. In 2006, the Government undertook the largest ever single consultation, involving more organisations, voluntary groups, social enterprises, community groups and charities than on any other occasion in drawing up the third sector review, which spells out a 10-year strategy to ensure that we have stronger communities, better public services, flourishing social enterprises and a flourishing third sector.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about the commission, we have not only listened to it, but have responded directly. I have announced the CRB guidance today, and there is more money for training and more help for disabled volunteers. New benefits guidance is to be published as well. He is right to say that the Prime Minister spent a great deal of time with Baroness Julia Neuberger. One of the Prime Minister’s first acts on being appointed was to appoint Baroness Neuberger as the Government’s champion for volunteering. To say that we have not listened, do not know the issues or have not responded is so far from the truth as to be laughable. Baroness Neuberger has recently produced a groundbreaking report on the development of volunteering in health and social care services and is now working on the role that volunteers can play in criminal justice.

We have demonstrated not only that we are celebrating success, but that we continue to listen to representations from voluntary organisations, third sector organisations and even Opposition MPs who make some clear—

Alistair Burt rose—

Phil Hope: I have not got time to give way now, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be able to write to me afterwards.

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) is one of the most knowledgeable, experienced and committed Members of the House in his support for the voluntary sector. We hugely welcome not only his contribution this afternoon, but the work he does tirelessly behind the scenes, in all-party groups and across the board, for which I sincerely thank him. He gave a forensic analysis of the Opposition’s proposals, particularly in respect of how the Big Lottery Fund might be disadvantaging organisations that are doing a good job. He talked a lot about the role of organisations becoming the voice of the voiceless, but he rightly said that we have more to do on ensuring that contracts really do take into account the needs of third sector organisations and that we can do a lot better on employee volunteering.

Whenever I visit voluntary organisations and volunteers, it is a privilege to meet those often unsung heroes, who, day in, day out, provide vital services to the community, not least to those who experience most disadvantage. I agree with the Opposition Members who say that volunteers are at the heart of our communities, because, as they rightly say, volunteers are the glue that binds us together and they have a huge impact on people’s lives. I am delighted that Justin Davis Smith, the chief executive of Volunteering England, who continues to press us to do more, has said that volunteering has never had it so good. I think that he is right.

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The report that the Conservatives published yesterday is a missed opportunity. It looks good, but frankly it has little substance. It is slick salesmanship and a good performance, but it is little more than a literature review that plagiarises a great deal of Government policy that has put us on track. A point was made about the report’s recommendations with which I disagree, so I should say that the absence of any remarks about campaigning would take us back to an era of silent and grateful charities, and that is not the way in which we should progress in the future.

I ask the Opposition to listen to organisations such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which has already registered its concern that

We have a strong, forward-looking agenda for change, which was drawn up in partnership with the sector. I think that the Conservatives would like us to have that relationship break down, and that is what would happen were they ever to get into power.

Our relationship with the sector should be deepened and strengthened. Our vision for the next 10 years is one of building stronger communities where people can and do make a difference; building a stronger third sector; investing in capacity to provide services; and creating new mechanisms for inward investment and transforming public services. This is a Government who have ensured, and will continue to ensure, that we have a thriving third sector and that volunteering is at the heart of stronger communities.

Question put and agreed to.


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Pensioner Poverty

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I should report to the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.58 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): I beg to move,

This is a timely debate, not least because the pensioners’ parliament is currently meeting in Blackpool. Perhaps the best starting point for this debate is the amendment tabled by the Government, which reeks of self-satisfaction, self-delusion and a dismal level of complacency. Indeed, why should any of us support the amendment when the Secretary of State could not even bring himself to add his name to it?

The perfect illustration of how out of touch with pensioners this Government have become was the 10p tax rate fiasco. Even their belated efforts to right that wrong will not help all the pensioners affected, will not take effect straight away and will be for one year only. This debate is, to a large extent, Hamlet without the prince. The publication of the crucial statistics on both pensioner and child poverty has been held up. They were originally due out in March, and now we are promised them next week. Only this Monday, the Secretary of State was clearly rattled by the suggestion that they might have been suppressed for political reasons. We will have to wait and see. If the figures show that the Government are still failing to hit their poverty targets, any suspicions about the timing of the release could be strengthened. Presumably, they might have been suppressed to help Labour in the local and London mayoral elections and in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election—I am pleased to see in his place my hon. Friend the new Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson).

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Mike O'Brien): Before the hon. Gentleman makes any more points about things being suppressed, he should know that the statistics were the subject of a review by the DWP statistics head of profession, which decided to delay publication because of an inaccuracy. That was independently verified by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and by Karen Dunnell, the national statistician. Unless the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that they are all engaged in a political conspiracy, he needs to apologise and withdraw the remarks he has just made.

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Mr. Waterson: As I have said, let us wait and see what the figures tell us. If there was any political reason to hold them up—I accept, for the moment, the Minister’s personal assurance—it has not done the Government much good in any event.

The bad news is that as Labour sinks to new historic lows in the polls, the likely date of a general election moves further into the distance. That is really bad news for the country as a whole, but it is especially bad news for pensioners. Ministers like to boast—the amendment is a good example—about their alleged successes in this field. All too often, however, they quote figures based on redefining a problem rather than solving it. For example, they boast about lower youth unemployment, while recycling many young people through the new deal. They boast about child poverty while moving the goalposts. As Disraeli said, there are

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): It was Churchill.

Mr. Waterson: I think that the right hon. Gentleman will find that it was Disraeli: I looked it up this morning.

Sir Gerald Kaufman: Well, it takes someone from Leeds grammar school to teach me something.

Mr. Waterson: As a fellow alumnus, I always bow to the right hon. Gentleman. He might well have been there when Disraeli said it.

Ministers boast of removing 2 million pensioners from poverty. But if the same criteria are applied to pensioner poverty as to child poverty, it is a very different story. If pensioner poverty is measured as 60 per cent. of contemporary median income before housing costs—the measure that Ministers use to test the success of their child poverty targets—just 200,000 pensioners have been lifted out of poverty since 1997, a tenth of the figure claimed in the amendment.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has not mentioned—perhaps he will do so—the winter fuel payment. In 1996, the last Christmas before Labour came to power—it was a bitterly cold winter—some of my hon. Friends and I went to No. 10 Downing street to plead for help for pensioners in the winter months, as there was no such allowance. The then Prime Minister, John Major, was not there, but I noticed that No.10 was very warm.

Mr. Waterson: I will come on to the issue of fuel poverty and I will be happy to take another intervention, but in 1996 gas prices were not rising at the rate they are at the moment.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Perhaps I may go back a little further and remind my hon. Friend that it was a Conservative Government who first introduced special heating grants, and a Labour Government, under Denis Healey, who abolished them.

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Mr. Waterson: I am delighted that we have colleagues on both sides of the House who can give us a long-term view on such matters and put them firmly into perspective—

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Waterson: I am going to make some progress.

Let us look at the figures that we do have. Even according to the Government’s statistics, some 2 million pensioners are living in poverty—in the fifth richest economy on the planet during the 21st century and on the 100th anniversary of the first state pension. About two thirds of those pensioners living in poverty are women. Between 1997 and 2006, the number of people living in severe poverty—defined as living on less than 40 per cent. of median income—increased by 600,000. The poorest quarter of pensioner households saw their incomes rise by less than 1 per cent. last year, which is well below inflation. That means that their incomes are dropping in real terms. The worst off single pensioners saw their real incomes drop by about 4 per cent.

Bob Spink: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Waterson: According to recent EU statistics, only pensioners—

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Waterson: Yes, of course.

Angela Browning: Only a week ago, I was canvassing with my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson) in Crewe, and we met two pensioner ladies. I was struck by the fact that they had worked hard all their lives and worked in the armaments factory in Crewe during the war, but one told us how, at 74, she had to go out and do a cleaning job just to keep her head above water for the basic requirements. When we talk about poverty, it is about money, but it is also about quality of life, which is quite intolerable for people of that age who have to work.

Mr. Waterson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We can all tell similar stories of canvassing in Crewe and Nantwich where such issues were raised on the doorstep. Ordinary working people, and retired people even more so, felt that Labour had lost touch with them and their priorities.

I was going to say that according to recent EU statistics only pensioners in Latvia, Spain and Cyprus are more likely to fall into poverty than those in the UK. The surge in food, energy and fuel prices and council tax bills, which have on average doubled under this Government, has hit pensioners hard. Some experts reckon that the true rate of inflation for pensioners is more like 9 per cent.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Has my hon. Friend noticed how the Government are very much at fault? They impose taxes, especially on motor fuels that are needed to deliver products and services to the elderly, and they increase the tax at the very time
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when the market price is going up, too. They are pocketing more money than they were budgeting for, and they are too mean to give it back.

Mr. Waterson: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Treasury is quietly doing rather well out of the rises in fuel prices.

For many pensioners, the true rate of inflation is way above the official rate of inflation, because such a disproportionate amount of their income is spent on utility bills, council tax, food and fuel.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) was talking about quality of life issues. The Welsh Assembly Government, which has been Labour-led for many years, introduced the free bus transport concession for pensioners, which has now been implemented across the UK. Does the Conservative party support that, and, if so, why did the Conservative group in the Assembly not support it early on?

Mr. Waterson: I do not want to get too diverted, but in Eastbourne the Chancellor’s largesse has landed council tax payers with an extra burden because the policy of free bus travel that was announced by the Government did not include the full price of the ticket.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Is it not also true that in rural areas the Government have taken away the money that used to come to local authorities in order to give it to Labour authorities elsewhere, which means that the poor in rural areas now have to pay council taxes way beyond those paid by the poor in other areas and that the services that they get as a result are far worse?

Mr. Waterson: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is growing evidence of a huge transfer of resources from Conservative areas, and rural areas in particular, to Labour-controlled areas. That situation needs to be addressed rapidly by the next Conservative Government.

It is no wonder that there has been a dramatic rise in the number of pensioners going bankrupt—from only 900 in 2002 to nearly 8,000 in 2007. That shows how, at a time of their lives when they are entitled to some peace of mind, money worries are preying on our elderly citizens. Even the new figures—when they emerge—will not take any account of the surge in energy and fuel prices that has occurred since the Prime Minister took over.

What of the longer term? A recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies does not make comfortable reading. It concludes that the proportion of pensioners below the poverty threshold will remain at its current level, despite the Government’s reforms, for at least the next decade. Are Ministers embarrassed or ashamed? Not a bit of it. They persist in making extravagant claims about their alleged successes while many pensioners sink deeper into poverty, debt and despair.

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