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11 Dec 2008 : Column 688

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I am about to write to the hundreds of Equitable Life policyholders who have written to me about their concerns. Could the right hon. and learned Lady offer me a form of words so that I can explain to them, first, that they will have to spend another Christmas in a state of uncertainty and, secondly, why her promise that there will be a statement in the first week back in January is any better than the Prime Minister’s statement of a week ago or than her statement last July that this would be dealt with in the autumn?

May I also emphasise to the Leader of the House that the treatment of today’s written statement on defence equipment is disgraceful? May I suggest that she take some advice on the difference between personnel and equipment when she suggests that we will debate this next January?

Ms Harman: The question of defence spending is a question of prioritisation between different sorts of equipment available for our armed forces personnel. Therefore, I was assuming that if Members were to catch the Speaker’s eye during the debate that will be held in our first week back, the question of what equipment is available for our armed forces would be within the remit of that debate. I was trying to assist hon. Members by saying that there would be an opportunity to debate these concerns. The hon. Gentleman does not need to patronise me and assume that I do not know the difference between a tank and somebody serving in the Army—I do.

On Equitable Life, I can only say what I have already said; I do not want to repeat it too often, but this was an expectation —[Interruption.] There was an expectation of when the statement would be ready, and I tried to assist the House by sharing that expectation with it. Hon. Members should be focused not only on the timing, but on what we are focused on: the substance of ensuring that we get the answer right on Equitable Life.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): May we have a debate on the issues in early-day motion 229, which is about mobile termination rates?

[ That this House notes that mobile telephones remain a popular gift for Christmas time, with an estimated one million telephones waiting under the tree this year; but regrets that in spite of this popularity, fixed and mobile customers in the UK will be charged in excess of £3 billion in unnecessary call charges in 2009 due to mobile termination rates; and calls on Ofcom to take immediate action to lower these outdated and unnecessary charges so that consumers can get a better deal from their new mobiles this Christmas. ]

This Christmas many of our constituents will receive mobile telephones as presents, but £3 billion of unnecessary call charges will also be under the Christmas tree. May we therefore have a debate to explore those costs and expose the companies responsible, either on the Floor of the House or elsewhere with the Minister for Trade, Investment and Consumer Affairs?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friends in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform have been looking into the issue to ensure that there is no unfair charging. One of the things that my hon. Friend and others will welcome is the fact that the VAT reduction
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of 21/2 per cent., which I am afraid Opposition Members have so derided, will help people with their mobile phone bills.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): There is a sense of betrayal on the island of St. Helena at the Government’s failure to build an airport, which has been promised for many years. On Monday, there was a written statement, which said that there had been “a pause in negotiations”. For “pause” read: the dead hand of the Treasury cancelling the project. May I refer the Leader of the House to early-day motion 175, which is about the airport for the island of St. Helena, an overseas dependency, and reinstating the airport project?

[ That this House agrees with the people and government of the island of St Helena that the construction of an airport is crucial for the island's economic future; notes that the British Government has for many years promised that an airport would be constructed, and that plans had reached an advanced stage where the award of a contract to build an airport was imminent; is therefore appalled at the announcement, by means of a Written Statement on 8 December 2008 by the Secretary of State for International Development, that there is now a pause in negotiations over the St Helena airport project which brings it to a halt; believes that the dead hand of the Treasury is responsible for the betrayal of this loyal overseas dependent territory; and calls on the Government to proceed with the award of a contract for the construction of an airport on the island of St Helena without further delay. ]

Getting an airport is the only way in which the island and its people can have an economic future.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to raise the matter if he seeks to intervene on the relevant Treasury Minister in the debate next Monday.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend assist the Minister for the West Midlands in securing a meeting between the Coventry MPs and Mr. Adam Crozier, with whom we have been trying to arrange a meeting for many months about the relocation of the sorting office in Coventry to Northampton? The proposed relocation has the potential to cause an industrial dispute and, equally, has generated vast public concern in Coventry.

Ms Harman: I will draw those points to the attention of my hon. Friends the Ministers concerned and ask them to write to my hon. Friend.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House, as I asked her colleague the Deputy Leader of the House some time ago, to investigate why the Department for Transport seems to be incapable of meeting deadlines for freedom of information requests? I know of at least two outstanding requests that took several months to receive a substantive answer. Today the Department will breach the 40-day maximum limit on internal reviews, and those answers that I have received have been shoddy. Will she investigate the matter and ask the Department why it seems to feel that it is above all guidelines set by the Information Commissioner?

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Ms Harman: My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House says that he has been looking into those questions on behalf of the hon. Lady. I will ask that she meet him, so that they can pursue the matter jointly with the Department for Transport.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Just over two hours ago, in the most important lottery in central London, 20 hon. Members were successful in the private Members’ Bills ballot. Assuming that none of them decides to adopt the excellent draft autism Bill, which the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) introduced on 7 October, may we have what is by now a long-delayed debate on autism and in particular on improving the local planning and commissioning of services for people with autism? Two thirds of adults with autism say that they do not have access to appropriate services and only one in seven is in work. We need to ensure that they do not have to struggle to access the services that they deserve, so let us have a proper debate.

Ms Harman: This issue could be raised in the six-hour Christmas Adjournment debate. I am sure that hon. Members will have the opportunity to raise the important issues of support services for those with autism and their families on that occasion.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): May I take the Leader of the House back to the plight of the hundreds of small businesses in Britain’s ports and the enormous backdated rating demand, which many of them are quite unable to pay? I understand that since I raised the matter last week some informal guidance has been issued saying that they may not have to declare that on their balance sheets. However, all the legal and accounting advice is that the requirement remains. Those businesses will have to close on 1 January unless the Government improve their offer of simply phasing the payments.

Ms Harman: The issue has been raised by a number of hon. Members and is obviously an important one, so I will raise it with Ministers in the Treasury and the Department for Transport.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) asked the Prime Minister for a “concrete date” for when the Equitable Life statement would be made. The Prime Minister said:

If we cannot believe the Prime Minister’s word, whose can we believe?

Ms Harman: The point was that at the time he said that, obviously the statement was not ready; otherwise it would already have been before the House. The statement will be ready, we hope, shortly, but the important thing is not only that it comes forward as soon as it is ready, but that the substance is right.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Is it possible to have an early debate on the “Alice in Wonderland” workings of the Child Support Agency? I have a constituent
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with four children who is separated from her husband. She made a claim from the father, who built up arrears, but when one of the children went to live with the father temporarily while he was doing an education or training course, the father claimed from the mother, who had to pay him. That is absolutely nonsensical. As BT said, “It’s good to talk.” Is there any chance of the people in the Child Support Agency talking to one another, at least so that the payments that the mother would otherwise have made could be taken out of his arrears?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman should not minimise the important work done through the Child Support Agency. If people have children, they should be responsible for their financial upkeep and should not expect the taxpayer to foot the bill. The Child Support Agency has to deal with complex family circumstances, and he has just illustrated that. The more people there are who do not pay up and have to be chased, the more difficult it is for the CSA to devote its time to sorting out those sensitive and difficult cases. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will welcome the fact that the Queen’s Speech said that we will introduce a Bill—this was the subject of yesterday’s statement by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—so that all child support payments will be disregarded in income-related benefits. That means that when parents—usually fathers—pay up, all the money will go to the children.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I received a letter this week with a postscript in the handwriting of the Minister concerned saying that the Government would make a statement to the House on Equitable Life. If the Minister who sent me that letter, which I received 48 hours ago, cannot be accurate, why has there been such a delay in bringing forward a statement from the appropriate Minister? To my mind, that is unacceptable. I do hope that the Leader of the House will accept that the matter is one of deep concern to hon. Members in all parts of the House. This has gone on long enough. The statement should be delivered to the House before Christmas.

Ms Harman: I hear what hon. Members are saying and I know where they are coming from. I understand what the concerns are. We know where we are on this issue, which is that we will hopefully have a statement in the week of 15 January.

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Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): Today is the third anniversary of the Buncefield disaster in my constituency and I know that the Leader of the House will not be surprised that I am raising it with her. Today, Lord Newton will conclude his inquiry, which has been conducted behind closed doors. The Department for Work and Pensions has washed its hands of the explosion, yet we still have problems, with people who will never be able to return to their homes and thousands of workers, at this difficult time, with businesses that are just not safe enough to return to. Which Department will take responsibility from today onwards, and may we have a statement from a Minister from whichever Department that happens to be?

Ms Harman: As the hon. Gentleman says, the third report—the major incident report—will be concluded today. The first two have already been published and the Government have responded to them. There is no question of the Government washing their hands of that important incident. We will reflect on the report and take the appropriate action.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Next week, will the Leader of the House investigate and make a statement on what seems to be a significant problem relating to the setting up of the regional Select Committees, resulting from the sloppy drafting of an amendment? If she looks at Hansard for 12 November, she will see that amendment (a) to her main motion, tabled by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), inserted the words:

I understand the intention of that amendment, but because of its sloppy drafting, it means that no hon. Member can be the Chairman of a regional Select Committee—because all hon. Members are paid, as Members of Parliament.

Ms Harman: The intention of the amendment was clear. It means that the Chairs should not be paid for their work as the Chair. It does not refer to their being paid in respect of their work as Members. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is right to say that it will not be possible for Members to chair those Committees because they would then lose their parliamentary salaries as Members; they will not.

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Benefits Uprating

12.30 pm

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Tony McNulty): With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish to make a statement on benefits uprating, particularly in the context of the Government’s commitment to provide real support to people in the current economic climate. I will, as usual, place full details of the uprating in the Vote Office and arrange for the figures to be published in the Official Report.

As in previous years, I can confirm that most national insurance benefits will rise by September’s retail prices index, which is up by 5 per cent. Most income-related benefits will be uprated by September’s Rossi index, which is RPI less housing costs, and is up by 6.3 per cent.

We are not alone in experiencing the shock waves reverberating through the world’s economic systems. Effects emanating from the epicentre of the American banking system are being felt around the globe. We believe that when the economic situation is more difficult, people need all the help they can get to deal with the situation. When things get tougher, people need more help, which is why our response to the current climate is twofold.

We are not only focusing on providing immediate support for those who lose their jobs; we are also determined to continue with our radical programme of welfare reform, to ensure that those further away from the labour market are not forgotten, as they have been in the past. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made clear yesterday in his statement to the House, we are not going to repeat the mistakes of the past. During the recessions of the ’80s and ’90s, hundreds of thousands were shuffled on to inactive benefits to keep the unemployment count down. They were trapped there without support, and abandoned. In contrast, we are investing an extra £1.3 billion in helping people to find work now, and we are bringing forward proposals to increase requirements on people the longer they are out of a job, to ensure that they do not fall out of touch with the world of work.

We believe that work is the best welfare, and we are committed to ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to improve their prospects and those of their families. The proposals in our White Paper are based on the simple ideas that no one should be left behind, and that virtually everyone should be required to take up the support that we know works, to help them to prepare for and look for work. But we recognise that, for those who are receiving benefits, we need to uprate the value of this safety net to reflect changes in the cost of living.

We propose, therefore, that most working-age income-related benefits will increase in line with the Rossi index, at 6.3 per cent. This means, for example, that the personal allowance for a single person over the age of 25 will increase from £60.50 a week to £64.30 a week. The amount for a couple will increase from £94.95 to £100.95. Child-related allowances that may be payable in the income-related benefits will be increased in parallel with child tax credit rates by almost 7 per cent., from £52.59 to £56.11. This is essential to ensure that families receiving these benefits see the full value of any increase in child tax credit. We have already announced in the pre-Budget report that we are bringing forward April’s
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increase in child benefit to January. This will be worth an additional £22, on average, to families. The standard rate of statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance will increase in line with prices by 5 per cent., from £117.18 to £123.06.

In April 2009, incapacity benefit will be uprated by the same index as the employment and support allowance—the Rossi index, instead of the retail prices index—in order to prevent rate differences widening over time. No incapacity benefit customers with age additions will, as we proposed in the welfare reform Green Paper, have their rates frozen. Instead, the cash increase in their overall benefit will be at least half of Rossi, until they are transferred to the employment and support allowance. The additions will therefore be phased out more gradually than previously planned. Incapacity benefit claimants with an age addition, including those formerly on invalidity benefit, will not receive less than £95.15 a week—the same as someone in the support group on contributory employment and support allowance.

In these difficult times, we must also continue our strategy of providing support for all, and more for those who need it most. This means that for older people, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced recently, from April 2009, the basic state pension will increase to £95.25 per week, which is up by £4.55. For couples, the standard rate will rise to £152.30. These increases, against a backdrop of falling inflation, are in line with the highest level of inflation this year—5 per cent.—and represent a real-terms rise in the state pension of 7 per cent. since 1997. And for pensioners on the lowest incomes, from April 2009 we will see the biggest increase in the pension credit guarantee since its introduction in 2003. The standard minimum guarantee will rise from next April by £5.95 a week for single pensioners and £9.10 for couples. That means that from April next year, no single pensioner need live on less than £130 a week, and no couple on less than £198.45 a week. That is an increase of £31 for a single pensioner and £45 for couples since 1997.

This above-earnings increase in the guarantee credit underlines our ongoing determination to tackle pensioner poverty, with 900,000 pensioners lifted out of relatively low income since 1998, after housing costs, and £13 billion more will be spent on pensioners in 2008-09, compared with what would have been spent if we had continued the policies that we inherited in 1997, over half of which is going on the poorest third of pensioners. Tax and benefit changes will mean that the poorest one third of pensioner households will be on average £2,100 a year, or about £40 per week, better off in 2008-09 than under the 1997 system.

But of course, the Government recognise the difficulties that pensioners face when prices increase. That is why, alongside the winter fuel payment, which is worth £200 for those aged 60 to 79 and £300 for those aged 80 or over, this winter there will be additional payments of £50 for those aged 60 to 79 and £100 for households with someone aged 80 and over. This will take the total direct help with fuel costs for pensioners this year to £250 for those aged between 60 and 79 and £400 for those aged 80 or over.

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