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10 Dec 2009 : Column 514

It was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith). The final sentence reads that

From my experience of bereavement because of a sudden accidental death, I know that it would certainly have helped me to have known that my late husband's organs had been used to save the lives of other people.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I said to the House last week that we would look into whether information about signing up to the register of organ donors could be made available at polling stations. I am interested in my hon. Friend's comments about the Christmas party. Did they have karaoke at it, I wonder?

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): This is not a politically sexy subject, but it is an essential one that underpins freedom of speech, innovation and research, and societal change. Scientists and academics have a duty to criticise publicly the poor research and unsubstantiated claims of others in the public domain, but it seems to me that they are often silenced through fear and threat of lengthy and costly libel actions. May I urge the right hon. and learned Lady to hold a debate as soon as possible on UK libel laws?

Ms Harman: I shall raise the hon. Gentleman's point with the Justice Secretary.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The shadow Leader of the House's song should, of course, be "Young Love".

May we have a debate on the private finance initiative? As each successive report comes out, it appears that it is prohibitive in cost, flawed in concept and intolerable in consequence for our nation. With hundreds of billions of pounds stored up over the generations, it would help if we were to reform or abolish it. It would certainly assist the Chancellor in bridging the various financial gaps that he described to the House yesterday.

Ms Harman: The private finance initiative is massively changed from when it was originally embarked on. The reality is that in every constituency throughout the country we have really important capital projects-hospitals, schools and housing-that have been brought forward earlier because of the PFI system.

The question gives me an opportunity to reply to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who asked me to translate "Putting the Frontline First". On his point-I will not read it all out again-the quotation basically concerned the fact that performance management indicators should be common across the different Departments, rather than each Department having a different performance management indicator, pulling in different directions. It is really about partnership working towards common objectives, which is probably gobbledegook in itself.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): During the holocaust, a Foreign Office official infamously wrote a minute in which he referred to the time being wasted
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by what he called "wailing Jews". When Mr. Rowan Laxton, the head of the south Asia desk at the Foreign Office, was convicted in September of an outburst in which he referred to "f- Jews" and was fined £350, his barrister said that that was

and that

Given that he has been reinstated in the Foreign Office and appointed to a new job and that that job has not been revealed, may we have a statement confirming that the job will have nothing whatsoever to do with the middle east?

Ms Harman: In the sort of situation that the hon. Gentleman has raised, which concerns an individual employee of the civil service, I am not in a position to answer the question. However, as regards his overall point about the horror of anti-Semitism, I know that I can look to him to support the measures that we will introduce in the Equality Bill to give proper, strong legal protection so that people are not discriminated against or harassed on the grounds of their religion.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Is the Leader of the House aware that every day this week, thanks to your good offices, Mr. Speaker, school choirs have been able to sing in Portcullis House? At 1 o'clock today, Priory school from my constituency will be singing. Will my right hon. and learned Friend be able to join me in the audience and encourage other Members to be there, too?

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): They are up against the quality of Chorley yesterday.

Ms Harman: I, too, pay tribute to all the schools who have come to Portcullis House, to you, Mr. Speaker, for initiating this, and to those hon. Members who have brought their schools here. I thank my hon. Friend for the invitation and I shall go.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Chorley school was excellent yesterday-I heard them.

Is it possible to have an early debate on the importance of community hospitals? Clitheroe hospital in my constituency provides a tremendous service to local people. A lot of rural villages use it and, as the Leader of the House knows, we do not have the same bus service as everyone else and a lot of people do not have access to cars to be able to go to the main hospitals. It was due to be replaced with a £12 million new hospital, but that has now been frozen while the trust considers the availability and provision of new services. Please may we have a debate on this subject? It is supposed to be a national health service that also includes rural areas.

Ms Harman: Absolutely it should. People locally, through the local health service organisations in consultation with hon. Members, patients' organisations and the local community should decide where those services are put. I suggest that if the hon. Gentleman is not happy with the proposals, he should write to the Secretary of State and ask to meet him to discuss this.

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Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): May we have a debate on sentencing so that we can discuss the case of Gregory Davis, who killed my constituent, Dorothy Rogers, by stabbing her 31 times and then chased her son, Michael, into the school playground and killed him, too? Does the Leader of the House at least understand the anger of my constituents at the news that after just six years, Mr. Davis is now enjoying unsupervised day visits to Oxford and could be released within weeks?

Ms Harman: Everyone will have absolute heartfelt sympathy for the relatives of Dorothy Rogers and her son Michael and will appreciate the concerns that have been raised by the hon. Gentleman on behalf of his constituents about the situation as regards Gregory Davis. Because the hon. Gentleman was able to give me notice of his question, I have already talked about this matter with the Justice Secretary, who has been looking into it this morning. He is happy to invite the hon. Gentleman to a meeting on this subject. The sentence was handed down by the courts but Gregory Davis was then transferred to a psychiatric facility. I think that we can all understand the concerns and a meeting with the Justice Secretary will be very important.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Under Standing Order No. 14, the Government are required to bring forward 13 days for private Members' business. Private Members' Bills will be presented next Wednesday, and unless by then the Government have nominated dates on which their Second Readings may be taken, the system will collapse. Will the Leader of the House name those 13 days, or provide a debate on changing the Standing Order?

Ms Harman: A motion has been tabled to amend the Standing Orders to provide for private Members' business in a Session that will inevitably be shorter than usual. However, the system will certainly not fall into chaos; it will proceed in an orderly and democratic way.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): May we have a debate on winter fuel payments and the need for regular review and uprating of those payments to pensioners? In that debate, we could also address the issue highlighted in early-day motion 407, which points out that those who reach the age of 80 after 27 September will not qualify for payments in the following year.

[That this House congratulates the Government on the provision of winter fuel payments for those aged 60 and over; further congratulates the Government on providing an increase in the payment for those aged 80 and over; notes with concern, however, that those people who turn 80 after the arbitrary date of 27 September are not eligible for the increased payments throughout the following winter; and therefore calls on the Government to change the qualifying date to ensure that those aged 80 on or before 31 December receive the increased payment in the year they are 80.]

Ms Harman: There will be a benefits uprating statement this afternoon, and the Prime Minister spoke about the matter during yesterday's Prime Minister's questions. If there is anything further that the hon. Gentleman would like to raise, perhaps he will write to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and keep the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland informed about his concerns.

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Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): The Leader of the House was asked whether we could have a debate-or a statement at least-about the fiasco involving the Student Loans Company. It is not good enough for her to say that there is, coincidentally, a general debate on higher education this afternoon. There is a damning report about the Student Loans Company and ministerial involvement in it. It might be just one of those things for the right hon. and learned Lady, but students are suffering fear and hardship, night and day, and we want a statement in the House.

Ms Harman: Hon. Members will have an opportunity to ask their questions and to get them answered by a Minister during this afternoon's estimates debate. I would have thought that the point for Members is whether it is possible for them to raise the issue and get a response, whether that is as part of a topical debate, an estimates day or any other business. The question is whether there is an opportunity, and the answer is yes.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): As this is meant to be the season of good will, is it not extremely mean-spirited and Scrooge-like of the Leader of the House to try to restrict debate on private Members' business in the new year to just eight days, instead of the statutory 13, especially when most of the Bills at the top of the list are being promoted by Labour Members?

Ms Harman: If we have a shorter Session, there are fewer days for private Members' business, so this is just proportionality-there is nothing unusual at all.

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Benefits Uprating

12.13 pm

The Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society (Angela Eagle): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about benefits uprating and how that supports the action that the Government have taken to help people through the global recession. I shall place full details of the uprating in the Vote Office and arrange for the figures to be published in the Official Report at the earliest opportunity.

As the global recession, which had its origins in the US sub-prime market, began, we said that we would act to protect people in the UK. Since then, the Government have taken decisive action to support families, jobs and businesses. As the effects of the credit crunch spread to the real economy, we acted to protect people's deposits in banks and to stabilise the wider financial system. Then we acted by making available an additional £5 billion to help people in the labour market to remain in work or get back to work as quickly as possible. We ensured that the Jobcentre Plus network and our providers could not only maintain but increase our support to the increased numbers needing help.

We were determined not to lose a generation of young people to work, which is why we set up the future jobs fund and why we will now guarantee every 18 to 24 year-old who has been unemployed for six months a job, a training place or a volunteering opportunity. The action that we have taken has had an impact. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will lay out further measures in our "Back to Work" White Paper next week.

Let me turn to the statement. I wish to tell the House that we will act to provide real help for people when they need it most during the early stages of recovery. People of working age who are claiming income-related benefits will have their benefits uprated in line with the Rossi index, which is the retail prices index less housing costs. That means that people who receive benefits such as jobseeker's allowance, employment and support allowance, and incapacity benefit will receive an increase of 1.8 per cent from April 2010.

For those benefits that are traditionally uprated in line with the retail prices index, this year, as a consequence of the extraordinary global conditions, the RPI has moved into negative territory-it stood at minus 1.4 per cent in September. That means that those who rely on benefits being uprated by the retail prices index could have expected to see their benefits frozen in cash terms, which would have meant no increase at all next April. However, because the Government continue to demonstrate their commitment to helping the poorest and most vulnerable in society, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has decided that those benefits should be increased by 1.5 per cent. from April 2010. That means that we will increase benefits for disabled people and carers, and statutory payments for parents and others who receive national insurance-linked benefits, by 1.5 per cent from next April. Recipients of attendance allowance, carer's allowance, disability living allowance, and maternity allowances will have those important benefits uprated to ensure that they do not fall behind.

The basic state pension is traditionally uprated in line with the retail prices index, but as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor confirmed in yesterday's pre-Budget
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statement, the basic state pension will be uprated by 2.5 per cent from April 2010. That means that, from April next year, the basic state pension for a single person will rise by £2.40 to £97.65 a week, while the standard rate based on spouse's or civil partner's contribution will increase to £58.50, giving a pensioner couple a total of £156.15 a week. That above-inflation increase, which is delivered as a result of a commitment by this Government, will ensure that more than 11 million pensioners receive a real-terms increase in the value of their basic state pension.

The uprating of state additional pension feeds directly through to public service pensions and to some aspects of occupational pension schemes. As a result, we are unable to uprate those benefits without creating unintended consequences for occupational pension schemes. In the circumstances, we plan to hold state additional pension flat in cash terms this year. However, the 2.5 per cent increase in the basic state pension will mean that, on average, pensioners in Great Britain will see an overall increase of 2 per cent in their state pension.

For the poorest pensioners, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor also confirmed that the standard minimum guarantee in pension credit will rise from next April by £2.60 a week for single pensioners and £3.95 for couples. That means that, from April next year, no single pensioner need live on less than £132.60 a week, and no couple on less than £202.40 a week. That represents a real-terms increase of more than a third for the poorest pensioners since 1997. The above-earnings increase in the pension credit guarantee underlines the Government's ongoing commitment to tackling pensioner poverty, which has already ensured that there are 900,000 fewer pensioners in relative poverty today than there were in 1998-99. In fact, the Government have spent around £100 billion more on pensioners since 1997 than we would have done if we had simply allowed the policies of the previous Government to continue.

We have taken action, and we will continue to take action to ensure that people do not have to face the recession alone-abandoned, as happened so often in the past. We have learned the lessons from the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, which is why our upcoming White Paper will set out the next steps in our continuing determination to invest in people and give them the help they need because, for this Government, unemployment will never be a price worth paying.

The package of uprating proposals, which is worth around £2 billion for 2010-11, represents significant and worthwhile help for those who are among the poorest and most vulnerable in society. It provides real help in a challenging year, and I commend the statement to the House.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement. This recession has hit families hard throughout the country, and, as we heard yesterday, low and middle earners, particularly those earning £20,000 and above, will pay the price for the Government's fiscal irresponsibility.

The Minister's statement comes at a time of great challenges. Unemployment has reached 2.5 million, with youth unemployment being higher before the recession than when the Government came to power. There are 2.5 million pensioners living in poverty, and the rate of child poverty has increased by 400,000 since 2004. We
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welcome any action that provides greater support to the innocent victims of Labour's failure to tackle poverty, but does the Minister agree that it is completely unacceptable and deeply cynical for the Government to increase benefit levels before an election, only to cut them after an election? That is exactly what they appear to be doing.

The Government are committed to a 1.5 per cent. rise in child benefit, disability living allowance, carer's allowance and incapacity benefit, but they have no funding to continue the measure after the election. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has made it clear that

and the pre-Budget report confirms that the policy

It is a pre-election con, paid for by a real-terms cut in benefits following the election. Does the Minister understand that such sleight of hand is exactly what we have come to expect from her Government and one reason why so many hold politics in such low esteem? Will she also confirm that this year there is no £60 Christmas bonus, which many pensioners valued this time last year, and explain the reason for its absence?

We welcome the increase in the basic state pension, which will be a relief to pensioners who have seen their savings hit by low interest rates. Will the Minister confirm when the Government plan to restore the earnings link for the basic state pension and will she explain how the Government plan to pay for it, having set their face against a state pension age increase that would save £13 billion a year?

There was a hidden threat to pensions in yesterday's pre-Budget report. The Chancellor's opaque reference to

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