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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, as my noble friend and noble Lords will know well, the difficulty with the earnings link is that the provision would go to everyone. The Government face the following choice: were the earnings link to be restored, a pensioner couple over 75 would receive about £5 extra a week; if, however, we targeted help through the minimum income guarantee--which is what we are doing--a poorer pensioner couple over 75 would receive £18 a week. That is the choice: £5 for all couples over 75 or £18 for the poorest. Given my beliefs and commitments, I know which measure is most necessary to address the poverty of our older people.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, does the Minister agree that we are dodging the issue? If one wants to consider the poorest people, the interesting figure is the cost of providing state pensions for the higher rate taxpayers--the better off in this country--which is something in the region of £7 billion per year. Meanwhile, we have a situation where the state pension for non-taxpayers is clearly inadequate on any

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basis. Is it not time that we looked at this fundamental problem, which has existed under both parties for a long time?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I believe that the implication of the noble Lord's question is that state pensions should be means tested along with MIG. That is not the position of the Government. We are very clear that the state pension should remain a universal pension and a building block for the prosperity of our older people.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, with the benefit of hindsight, does the noble Baroness agree that, rather than providing a £50 addition to the fuel allowance for all pensioners, it would have been wiser to increase the basic pension by, let us say, £1.25 a week beyond the £75 provided last October?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, it is certainly the case that the winter fuel payment goes to all pensioner households. This autumn it will average £150 a year; £3 a week. I am sure your Lordships will accept that the reason the Chancellor went for, so to speak, a hypothecated sum associated with winter fuel is that we know that pensioners need more heat; we know that they spend more time in their homes; we know that their homes are more poorly insulated; and the noble Lord will know from the questions put to me by his noble friend Lord Russell that there are some 30,000 additional winter deaths of pensioners due to hypothermia over the course of the winter. For those under 65, there are 8,000 additional deaths. So pensioners need extra help with their heating. It seems appropriate to target the money in this way, given what we know about pensioner hypothermia.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn: Will the Government give an undertaking that there will be no further cuts in the employers' contribution to the National Insurance Fund until the basic state pension has been brought up to at least the level of the minimum income guarantee?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: No, my Lords.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us much appreciate her constant efforts to explain the Government's social policy and to keep us fully informed of its cost and other implications? But, looking beyond Parliament to the reactions of pensioners outside, will she, as opportunity arises, remind her colleagues more directly responsible for deciding the Government's priorities of the instructive subtlety of Oscar Wilde's self-mockery after the first night of one of his plays when he said:

    "My play was a great success but the audience a failure"?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I accept the reproach of my noble friend that the Government so far have not been able successfully to persuade pensioners of the purpose and effectiveness of the Government's strategy. We know that, as a result of

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the increase in winter fuel allowance, pensioner families will be receiving an extra £3 a week for those over 75 and an extra £2 a week for their television licences. That £5 is equivalent to the earnings link rise. In addition, the poorest pensioners will receive another £10 to £20 on top. We have not only a good story to tell but a decent and honourable one, which mixes universal and targeted benefits in ways that address real need. I accept the reproach of my noble friend that, if we fail to persuade pensioners of that, we must make sure that our story is communicated more accurately and effectively.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, is there any truth in the rumours being spun in the newspapers recently that Gordon Brown now believes that it was a mistake to increase the winter payment and to introduce free television licences and so on, and that it would have been far better to increase the weekly pension? Is he going to change his mind? Is he going to go for an increase in the weekly pension and abolish these one off payments?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, obviously the noble Lord knows more about the Chancellor's state of mind than I do. Certainly I have no reason either to challenge or accept his assertions today. The Chancellor will determine what he proposes to do in the pre-Budget statement in the autumn.


3.4 p.m.

Lord Burnham asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What talks have been held with the Cypriot Government with regard to the withdrawal of British sovereign base areas in Cyprus.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, there have been no talks between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Republic of Cyprus with regard to the withdrawal of British sovereign base areas in Cyprus, nor do we have any intention to hold such talks. The sovereign base areas are British sovereign territory, as recognised by the 1960 Treaty of Establishment of the Republic of Cyprus between the United Kingdom, Greece, Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, I am very glad to hear the Minister's reply because there have been strong rumours that talks have taken place. Can the noble Baroness confirm unequivocally--I believe that she will have no difficulty in so doing--the importance of the sovereign base areas to all British interests in the Near and Middle East?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I am happy to confirm what the noble Lord has said. As the noble Lord knows, the SBAs are military bases. They remain

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key, strategic assets in a troubled region; their logistic benefit as a forward mounting base was demonstrated during the Gulf War; and they provide valuable training facilities. I am happy to confirm everything that the noble Lord said.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, can the Minister explain how Cypriot negotiations for membership of the European Union fit in with the continuing use of the sovereign bases? If Cyprus is to join the European Union among the first group--which will require negotiations also with Turkey--will that in any way alter the status of those bases? Or is that the subject of an entirely different set of discussions?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, as the noble Lord said, it is an entirely different set of discussions. None of the countries has raised the issue of our bases; they remain British territory. They do not in any way impinge on the negotiations.

Disability Information Trust

3.6 p.m.

Lord Walton of Detchant asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will reconsider the decision of the Department of Health to withdraw funding from the Disability Information Trust.

Lord Burlison: My Lords, each year the Department of Health makes discretionary grants to support activities to help people with physical disabilities and sensory impairments, which this year totalled £2 million. Voluntary organisations submit applications, which are considered on merit as funds are limited. The Disability Information Trust has received grants for many years. This year the trust submitted three project applications: one, jointly with the Disabled Living Foundation, attracted funding of £20,000; the other two were unsuccessful.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that somewhat disappointing reply. I must declare an interest: until two years ago I was chairman of this trust based at the Mary Marlborough Lodge in Oxford. Does the Minister accept that this charity has for many years, with core funding from the Department of Health, produced invaluable publications which have been widely commended by disabled people and by those who care for them? Does he further accept that the withdrawal of core funding of some £80,000 will inevitably result in the winding-up of this trust, which provides a valuable service, and in rendering redundant its three dedicated staff?

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Lord Burlison: My Lords, I acknowledge the role played by the noble Lord, Lord Walton, in the trust and the value that the department places on its work in the past. The formula for reducing the payment on a tapering basis over the past three years was decided in 1996. This year the applications were rejected, generally, because of the high level of demand on our cash-limited funds and because there are several existing Section 64 grants to organisations which provide information about disability equipment. I agree with the noble Lord that the publications from the trust have been informative and well appreciated. However, other organisations have made similar applications to those of the trust.

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