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The hon. Lady referred to the middle east and suggested that the Government go quiet when there is not a big row going on in the world, but that is far from the truth. Ministers are actively engaged on a day-to-day basis in trying to pursue the middle east peace process on precisely the grounds that she suggested, namely that we must have a two-state solution, which means an Israel secure
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and safe in its borders, and a sustainable Palestinian state. Those are difficult to achieve, but—who knows?—perhaps with the change of Administration in the United States of America, a brighter dawn might appear along the road. The hon. Lady also referred to the beer tax and the fact that she spends a great deal of time above a pub.

The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who, again, often takes part in these debates, graced us—I think that that is the best way to put it—with his presence having just come from His Grace. He referred to how the House used to sit for five days a week and that one sitting went on for 48 hours. I am not sure that that was necessarily a golden age or that it led to the better scrutiny of legislation, but one thing that I am certain of is that the job of a Member of Parliament has radically altered over the past 20 to 30 years. Whereas in the past it was sufficient to visit one’s constituency twice a year and constituents did not mind if it was only once a year, now constituents have a completely different expectation of how much time we spend in our constituency, and, to be honest, of how much we bring up their specific concerns in the House. In the 19th century, hon. Members just did not do that, so we must acknowledge that there is a very changed environment. If we were to surrender all Fridays to being here and not in our constituencies, our constituents would find that odd.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, and I too want to pay tribute to him. I first met him in Lima in Peru in 1986 at about 11 o’clock in the evening, when I think he was imbued with the holy spirit—let me put it that way. I was an Anglican, but he was not very keen to get up for the 8 o’clock mass the next morning and suggested that he might ordain me on the spot so that I could say mass instead. I pointed out that as far as his church was concerned, I was a schismatic who had not even been properly baptised, so we did not proceed with the ordination.

The hon. Gentleman referred to issues relating to Southend airport, which I will pass on to the relevant Minister. Likewise he talked a great deal about alcohol and young people, which is a matter that many of us have wanted to address because the issues of teenage pregnancy and antisocial behaviour that flow from the large amount of alcohol that many young people in the country drink fill us all with concern.

The hon. Gentleman also raised a specific issue about which I know little, I am afraid—namely, who monitors and pursues the Independent Police Complaints Commission. I shall raise those matters, as well as the matter of the Warm Front budget, with the relevant Ministers.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) also graced us, finally, having spent some time with Joanna Lumley—another person whom I first met many years ago. Indeed, I met her a few weeks ago, when she fired the starting gun for the House of Commons versus the House of Lords swimming competition—which I won. She is a very fine woman, and the whole House will want to acknowledge that, today, we have made significant progress on the issue of the Gurkhas. Indeed, everybody has already paid tribute to that work.

The hon. Gentleman referred to retail sales and small shops in towns. Again, as one who has a constituency that comprises a string of smallish towns, I recognise
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that such facilities are absolutely essential. People need local shops and a local community. Although many people want to shop at Tesco, Sainsbury’s or wherever, or to go to a big, multi-screen cinema, because they want that degree of choice, it is important to ensure that, with local regeneration, we have strong town-centre policies.

The hon. Gentleman said that a new town is to be built in his constituency, but I think that he exaggerated matters a little. I know that it is in the nature of Liberal Democrats to exaggerate, but— [ Interruption. ] Yes, he is allowed to smile. [ Interruption. ] You see? He agrees with me: he agrees that it is in the nature of Liberal Democrats to exaggerate. [ Interruption. ] No, they are all smiling now, so they all agree that is in the nature of Liberal Democrats to exaggerate. However, the hon. Gentleman exaggerated a bit when he said that people have to get planning permission for a porch. It would have to be a pretty big porch, although we have learned, of course, that quite a few MPs do have quite large porches.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the potential gravel pit on Hamble airfield, and spoke about the regulation of buses. I shall pass on those issues to the relevant Ministers.

I am developing a growing sense of fondness for the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara), my opposite number, although it was hampered this afternoon by his clear inability to understand the role of the Speaker, and by his gratuitous demand for money for the A14—when he did not choose to mention that the Rhondda Fach relief road also needs to be completed. He was a bit rude about the hon. Member for Colchester, and, although it is always fun to be rude to him, none the less, I did not think that he quite deserved it on this occasion.

Interestingly, the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire said, “perhaps” it is time for a general election, so the Conservative party is already sliding away from the Leader of the Opposition’s formal position yesterday, when he shouted and screamed across the Chamber, demanding a general election. Now, it is only, “perhaps it is time for a general election.” The hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire also said that it is time for a party with concrete proposals for this country—well, if only even he himself believed that his party had such concrete proposals. The truth of the matter is that his party has absolutely no proposals—even for its own self.

Mr. Vara rose—

Chris Bryant: No, I shall not take any more from the hon. Gentleman, because he knows that he has got it wrong. My fondness is not so extensive as to allow him to intervene again, because I want to talk briefly about my constituency.

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I shall raise three brief issues. For my constituents, the single most important issue affecting them is the recession, and I think that they want us to look at how we can help them in their individual situations and ensure that people do not have their homes repossessed. I was struck a few weeks ago by somebody who came to my surgery and said that he had just passed the 13-week mark after being made unemployed and was therefore able to get support for his mortgage, meaning that he would not lose his home. We sometimes forget that the things that we change in Parliament dramatically and personally affect people’s life opportunities.

The same goes for employment opportunities in my area. Historically, my constituency has had a high level of incapacity benefit claimants, so it is important that jobs are available to people, and that is why I am very supportive of one of the major projects that the Ministry of Defence still wants to advance—namely, the defence training academy at St. Athan, which I know would make a dramatic difference to my patch.

Finally— [ Interruption. ] I can see out of my left eye, my Whip, whose eyebrow is rising with expectation at “Finally”. I should like to extend my thanks and those of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House to all the staff of the House and, in particular at the moment, because it has felt like we have been under siege over the past few days, to the police, who have been policing in Parliament square. It is very difficult to strike that complex balance between ensuring that Parliament can do its business and allowing people to demonstrate and exercise their democratic freedoms.

We also thank the Clerks of the House, whether wigged or not, the Doorkeepers and all those who serve us with food and drink. I extend my good wishes for Whitsun to all Members. Whitsun was originally always conceived of as Pentecost—as a moment for inspiration. For most people, it then became just a holiday. I should like to end by reciting “Whitsun”, a poem by Sylvia Plath:

The Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household (Claire Ward): I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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Council Tax Benefit

3.45 pm

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): I rise to present a petition on behalf of the Royal British Legion and others. It reads as follows:


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Council Tax Benefit

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Claire Ward.)

3.47 pm

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): My theme in this Adjournment debate is similar, if not identical, to that of the petition that I have just presented. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter of interest not only to my constituents but to those of all hon. Members right across the country. This debate is about a modest measure, but one that could make a significant difference.

I want to urge the Minister to change a name, but not my name, her name or your name, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I urge the Minister to rename council tax benefit “council tax rebate” or “council tax relief”. Some might ask, “What’s in a name?”, but I think that, at a stroke, the Minister could help hundreds of thousands of the poorest people in our country by means of this simple measure. Furthermore, doing so should not cost a great deal of money, although forms and the like would have to be reprinted. A huge amount of money that goes unclaimed every year could be unlocked.

In far too many cases, people living in poverty are still paying full council tax although many of them are eligible for council tax benefit. They either do not know that or choose not to claim it, and that is what this debate is about. Words really matter; they can change behaviour and affect the level of take-up. Calling the financial assistance available to mitigate the full cost of council tax a “benefit” is a deterrent and depresses the level of take-up.

Council tax benefit has the lowest take-up of any of the means-tested benefits, and according to the research presented to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions and its predecessors, it has been falling for the past 10 years. As many as 2.95 million people are missing out on this benefit, which would go some way towards helping them to reduce and cope with the burden of paying council tax. The Department’s own estimates put the amount of unclaimed council tax benefit at £1.8 billion overall. If we drill down into that figure to try to understand what it means for pensioners and other groups within the population, we find that many retired people who are entitled to council tax benefit do not claim. Indeed, the Lyons inquiry into how we should reform or, in my view, replace council tax found that as many as 1.3 million eligible pensioners are not claiming. According to the research, that would add up to about £1.5 billion left unclaimed—the figure cited in the petition I presented on behalf of the Royal British Legion.

After a decade of falling take-up, it is now vital that everything possible is done to boost take-up and help hard-pressed families and pensioners. A recent poll conducted by ComRes on behalf of the Royal British Legion, partly to give the Minister the evidence that she feels is necessary, found that seven out of 10 people believe that the stigma attached to that label of “benefit” is a major obstacle to the claiming of council tax benefit. That is clearly a serious problem. The Minister will know how discredited and unpopular council tax is. I am sure that, like me, she receives letters from constituents unhappy with the level of council tax, and there is a lot
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behind that. A lot needs to be understood and changed about the system, not least the fact that it does not reflect people’s ability to pay.

Falling take-up of the financial relief available to help poorer households makes matters worse for them. That is why I chose to raise this matter on the Adjournment, particularly following my discussions with the Royal British Legion, which does a truly tremendous job on behalf of veterans and Army service personnel in this country. Research that it has commissioned showed that 38 per cent. of older veterans and their spouses, widows and widowers are living on an income below that necessary for healthy living. On the day that the Home Secretary came to this House and rightly acknowledged the strength of feeling and support in the country for the Gurkhas—a change of heart that is welcome but was triggered by a debate and a defeat for the Government on a Liberal Democrat motion—it is very important that we recognise the debt that we owe not only to the Gurkhas but to all service personnel. The Legion’s research, which found that veterans and their families who are eligible for council tax benefit would be more likely to claim it if it were called a rebate rather than a benefit, should be weighed heavily in the balance in the Minister’s response.

I have just presented a petition on behalf of 25,000 people calling on the Government to rebrand council tax benefit as a rebate. It is important to bear in mind how many people think that this is a logical and simple but small step that can help many of our fellow citizens. The piece of research that was done at the request of the Minister—the ComRes poll—also found that three quarters of people believe that such a renaming would help to boost take-up. Only last week, at the Legion’s annual conference, its director general, Chris Simpkins, called for the Government to announce a timetable for making this change. I hope we can hear something about that in the Minister’s reply.

The Minister will know that the Select Committee’s work on this issue has been important; indeed, there is clearly cross-party support for the change. In its most recent report, it said:

In response to the Committee’s clear recommendation, the Minister’s Department said:

To be honest, that is where the Department’s response should have stopped, because it was encouraging. However, having acknowledged the value of renaming the benefit as a rebate, it began to question that and contradict itself. I took heart, however, because the final sentence of that part of the response went on to say that it would be kept in mind as a suggestion. I hope that having kept it in mind and continued to reflect upon it, the Government can make progress.

In 2004, the then Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister concluded that the

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