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12 Feb 2009 : Column 1541

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend will know that the city of Sheffield has a long history of manufacturing and that many of its people have skills in engineering. I understand that he cannot say anything more about the location of the manufacturing and assembly plant, but Sheffield would indeed be an excellent area in which to place it. Is he able to say a little more about the types of job that will be available and particularly whether there will be opportunities for younger people to get training, as in these difficult economic times opportunities for apprentices and others to come into industry are enormously important?

Mr. Hoon: Knowing the excellence of manufacturing experience in the city of Sheffield, I made it clear that it is one of the places being looked at very closely by the consortium for the location of a manufacturing plant. It will be keen to take advantage of the significant skills available in the Sheffield area, not least because the plant will be designed to bring advanced railway technology into the United Kingdom, just as, as I mentioned in my statement, Japanese car companies brought advanced manufacturing production techniques for the automotive industry into the UK. That is very much the model that we want to see for our railways.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): May I help the Secretary of State for Transport? On Radio 4’s “Today” programme, it was announced that hybrid trains—diesel and electric—will be operated, so will he confirm that they will be available on the east coast route? How many will there be in proportion to pure electric and diesel trains? Will he respond to another of my concerns? I understand that Pendolino trains are the safest in existence because the carriages are so heavy; they withstood the rail disaster on the west coast route. The trains that he has announced today are to be 17 per cent. lighter. Will he reassure the travelling public that they will meet the highest safety criteria? Will he pledge to remove the bottleneck north of Newcastle so that even more freight and passenger trains can travel on the east coast main line route?

Mr. Hoon: I am always grateful for help from the hon. Lady, who has always been an enthusiastic supporter of the European Union and has argued that case from her days as a Member of the European Parliament. She seems to have been rather quieter on the subject of Europe in recent times— [Interruption.] The relevance of Europe comes from the importance of having rail manufacturing facilities in the UK that can successfully compete right across the European Union—a policy that might be in jeopardy if her party’s policy on the European Union were ever to prevail.

What is important to safety, without getting into too much technical detail, is not so much the weight of the train but its construction. The hon. Lady is right that the way Pendolino trains are constructed means that passengers enjoy much greater protection, as we have seen in one or two recent incidents. In the Grayrigg accident, for example, the construction of the Pendolino train almost certainly provided protection to passengers. We want that same level of safety and security available to all passengers on all our trains.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Many of my constituents who, like myself, are regular users of the east coast main line will warmly
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welcome today’s announcement. Will my right hon. Friend do what he can to ensure that those responsible for setting the timetables of the new services take full advantage of the opportunity for faster journey times? He will know that trains from Edinburgh to London are capable of journeys much quicker than they are timetabled for. The new trains provide an opportunity, perhaps with minor track improvements, to reduce journey times to under three and three quarter hours. I am sure that the same is true elsewhere. Therefore, it would be a tragedy if we did not make full use of the faster trains to provide shorter journey times. Will my right hon. Friend guarantee that that is done by the operators when the new trains come into operation?

Mr. Hoon: I am most grateful for my hon. Friend’s observations. Clearly, the train operating companies, which are ultimately responsible for paying for the trains, will want to use them to the maximum advantage. That will not only mean shorter journey times, but should allow more frequent services to destinations such as Edinburgh and others along that route.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): For those of us who are daily commuters by train, any announcement of new investment in the railways is very welcome. However, the lack of capacity in the British train manufacturing industry and the lack of rolling stock are problems right now. Will what the Secretary of State has announced bring to an end the constant delays in securing new rolling stock, which have prevented important improvements in services throughout the whole country, and especially on the absurdly overcrowded trains that I use every day between Cambridge and King’s Cross?

Mr. Hoon: That was the whole point of the announcement, which provides not only more rolling stock on the network but the means of constructing it, by providing for the United Kingdom extra train-making capability.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I welcome the general thrust of the Secretary of State’s statement and take the opportunity to thank him for meeting the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) and myself to discuss these matters two weeks ago. He was very kind and helpful. May I ask how this statement might impact on the services provided for long-suffering commuters from Northampton? Will he give us some specific help in that respect, because I know that my constituents would welcome a light at the end of the railway tunnel?

Mr. Hoon: I return the compliment. I found the conversation about services to Northampton very interesting and I rather think that I gave a promise to visit and see the services there. Investing, not in the particular Northampton line, but in other lines across the country, will clearly have knock-on effects for capacity in the UK. We need more investment in railways; I accept the observations that have been made. That is why the Government are committed to spending £20 billion to improve capacity, which will benefit people in Northampton as it will those in other parts of the country.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I share a line with my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk), and in the morning it is hell in
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Broxbourne, beyond hell in Cheshunt and simply miserable for commuters from Edmonton and Enfield into London. I am delighted that there is to be new rolling stock. May I ask the Secretary of State whether I could meet his officials or one of his junior Ministers for a gentle discussion about timings?

Mr. Hoon: I regard it as the responsibility of any Minister to meet right hon. and hon. Members to discuss their issues of concern. I do not recall ever having turned down a meeting, and I will ensure that one is arranged for the hon. Gentleman.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): The Transport Committee strategy report states:

What is being done about the old, unsafe 142s that shunt between Southport and Manchester on the Northern rail franchise, which are acknowledged to be the very oldest on the entire network?

Mr. Hoon: There is a constant programme of upgrading our rolling stock. I would not accept for a moment, however, that any of that rolling stock is unsafe.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Faster trains between London and Leeds are clearly welcome, but the biggest problem experienced by my constituents is getting to and from Leeds on horribly overcrowded trains on the Airedale and Wharfedale lines. Can the Secretary of State tell me when extra carriages will be available on those two lines in particular, and also, crucially, how much money will be allocated to providing the longer platforms that will be required to take them?

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Mr. Hoon: I note that making an announcement about capacity on a particular line has laid me open to a general discussion abut capacity on all our lines. I repeat that I recognise that there are capacity issues to be addressed. We have a very significant programme of investment in capacity, along with a programme to establish where new lines will be required to relieve those capacity problems. That is something to which the Government are committed. I have to say that those on the hon. Gentleman’s Front Bench are not committed to spending the same amount on transport infrastructure as we are spending.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): Will the Secretary of State ask his officials to look again at the delays in reaching a decision on new train services for platform 20 at Waterloo? As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), the platform is ready for domestic commuter trains, but there could be a delay of over a year before it is actually used.

Will the Secretary of State also write to me and let me know whether his Department has finally confirmed with South West Trains and Network Rail the investment for the new 10-car commuter trains, including investment in all the related platform-lengthening and infrastructure works that are essential to reducing the chronic overcrowding that is being suffered every day by commuters to Waterloo?

Mr. Hoon: I should be delighted to send the hon. Gentleman a letter about that. I shall also send a copy to his hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer).

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Social Security

1.11 pm

The Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society (Ms Rosie Winterton): I beg to move,

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this we shall take the following motion, on pensions:

Ms Winterton: I am satisfied that the orders are compatible with the European convention on human rights.

This year’s social security benefits uprating order increases support for people on pensions and benefits by more than £6 billion. It reinforces our commitment to providing real help in the current economic climate, taking total benefit expenditure for the next financial year to an estimated £142 billion. We are committed to doing everything we can to get real help to people, taking action now when it matters most.

The headline figures are generous, and I hope that they will be welcomed throughout the House. Pension credit will rise by the highest amount since its introduction, targeting the most vulnerable, and we will increase the basic state pension by 5 per cent. in April. That means more cash in pensioners’ pockets, and it comes at an important time for them. The order will add some £6.2 billion to Government expenditure, of which almost £4 billion will support pensioners, £1.2 billion will help working-age people, £890 million will go to disabled people and carers and £70 million will go to children.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): How much of the money will go to pensioners automatically, and how much will they have to claim? I ask because, as the Minister will know, a number of elderly people are not aware of all the benefits that are available to them, with the result that a substantial amount that could benefit them is not claimed.

Ms Winterton: The hon. Gentleman is right. We need to ensure that pension credit is claimed by those who are entitled to it. Later in my speech I shall say more about the type of assistance that we are trying to give people to ensure that they claim.

The order will increase most national insurance benefits in line with the retail prices index. As we have done in earlier years, we will base the uprating exercise on data produced in September, when the retail prices index stood at 5 per cent. I should emphasise that the September RPI of 5 per cent. was the peak of last year, higher than earnings.

Let me explain what this means for British pensioners. The basic state pension will increase by £4.55 to £95.25 a week, while the standard rate for couples will rise by £7.25 to £152.30. That is the biggest increase since 2001.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): There has been considerable concern about the true rate of inflation for pensioners. Obviously the Minister is using a recognised measure—the RPI—but the Rossi
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index, surprisingly, was much higher than the RPI this year because of rises in food and heating costs. Is the Minister satisfied that 5 per cent. is a true reflection of the price rises that pensioners are facing and have faced over the last year?

Ms Winterton: It is true that there have been extra pressures, especially this year. I am about to describe some of the other measures that we have taken—particularly in regard to the winter fuel allowance—to reflect some of those increased pressures, while, as the hon. Gentleman says, sticking to the formula. That, as I am sure he knows, is the way in which a number of Administrations have worked.

As I have said, from April 2009 pensioners on the lowest incomes will see the biggest increase in the pension credit standard minimum guarantee since its introduction in 2003. It will rise by £5.95 a week for single pensioners and by £9.10 a week for couples, which means that no single pensioner need live on less than £130 a week, and no couple on less than £198.45 a week. That underlines our determination to target help on the people who need it most—those with the lowest incomes. This year we will spend more than £13 billion more on pensioners than we would be spending if we had retained the policies we inherited from the last Government. As a result of those tax and benefit changes, the average pensioner household is £1,600 a year, or £31 a week, better off, while the poorest pensioner households are, on average, around £2,200 a year better off.

As the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) pointed out, it is vital for us to do all that we can to ensure that benefit recipients and pensioners receive the support to which they are entitled. That is why we have tried to simplify the claims process, removing the need for people to complete and sign claim forms: claims for housing benefit, council tax benefit and pension credit can now be made together by means of a single telephone call.

We are considering a number of other ways we can ensure that people receive their entitlement, such as the use of data matching to identify those who may be entitled to pension credit but do not currently receive it, provision for around 13,000 home visits a week by the local pensions service to vulnerable customers, and the promotion of take-up through a range of activities including direct mail initiatives, local partnership work, and regional radio, press and outdoor advertising. We also intend to support Members of Parliament who run their own campaigns locally. Those campaigns in themselves can be quite successful.

Mr. Evans: Today the Lancashire Telegraph, a newspaper that covers my constituency and several others in east Lancashire, is launching its own campaign on behalf of the elderly and pensioners to raise the profile of all the issues that cause problems to them. The Minister will be concerned to learn that over the past six weeks, during the very cold spell that we have experienced, there has been an enormous increase in the percentage of elderly people who have died as a result of, for instance, respiratory problems and lack of heating. What more does she think could be done, particularly during the current bad weather, to ensure that no pensioner will have to make the choice between food and turning the fire on?

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Ms Winterton: One of the key measures that we have taken this year is the tripling of cold weather payments from £8.25 to £25 a week. That has meant that whereas last year we paid out about £4 million in cold weather payments, this year we have already paid out about £166 million. We are trying to ensure that extra help is provided. I shall discuss some of the other changes that we have made to ensure that real action is taken now.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): The Minister mentioned that a lot of pensioners are able to access information about benefits by telephone. One of the issues raised in the equivalent debate last year was the poor quality of service given by a number of call centres. Is she convinced that things have moved on and that when people phone up for help they get the support and advice they need?

Ms Winterton: When I visited one of the headquarters of the Pension, Disability and Carers Service—perhaps the hon. Gentleman should pay it a visit, if he has not already done so—I was certainly very impressed with the way pensioners were dealt with carefully: people tried to take their details and talk them through their eligibility. I constantly keep in touch with the directors of the service and so on, not only to ensure that the service provision targets are being met, but to examine all the time what else can be done to improve the system. It is vital that we examine different methods—for example, working with organisations such as Age Concern or Help the Aged, and, in particular, with local centres that older people—perhaps those on lower incomes—might frequent, so that we get the services and the information to these people, with a particular emphasis on the fact that these are entitlements. We must encourage them to take up their entitlements.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Before we move off the issue of call centres, may I point out that some of the most vulnerable people who will be affected by the benefits uprated in this order have to approach the social fund, and its telephone service is a lot worse than that in other parts of the Department? Will the Minister look into that with her colleagues, and ask the relevant Minister to write to me on that specific point?

Ms Winterton: Yes, of course. If the hon. Gentleman has particular examples, I would be more than happy to pass them on to ministerial colleagues.

I wish to touch on the points that have been raised about the extra help that we have provided this year. We have, for example, increased the winter fuel payments by £50 for households with someone aged between 60 and 79, and by £100 for households with someone aged 80 and over. That means that the total direct help with fuel costs this year for pensioners aged between 60 and 79 will be £250—the figure will be £400 for those aged 80 or over. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor also announced, in the pre-Budget report, a one-off increase of £60 to the annual £10 Christmas bonus. That is additional direct financial support that will benefit not just pensioners, but all 15 million people who receive the Christmas bonus, including those on disability and bereavement benefits.

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