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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Skelmersdale and Lord Addington, for their comments. We have had an interesting tour around a number of issues, including overriding financial policy and electoral turnout at the previous general election, and one or two interesting points, such as NHS productivity, to which I am tempted to respond, but probably should not.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, for his welcome of some of the work that the Government have undertaken in this area. In the area of disability, he particularly mentioned the dignity of work, which I much appreciate. He then went into the question of financial stewardship. Thinking of the financial stewardship for which this Government have been responsible since 1997, the record is pretty impressive in terms of growth, containing inflation and stability, and we look forward to more of the same in future. I repeat what my right honourable friend the Chancellor said in another place yesterday: we are on course to meet the inflation target of 2 per cent, not just this year, but next year and the year after that. In terms
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of uprating in accordance with the indexes, what this Government have done is no different from what his government did. I have confidence in what my right honourable friend the Chancellor said.
On help with council tax, I have already refuted the point that he raised when we debated the regulations. A helpful contribution is being made this year. He knows that no commitment has been made for future years. This matter will have to be considered in due course.
The noble Lord asked about the sustainability of credits and, in particular, pension credits. First, the issue of uptake is of course important. My department has taken part in an extensive programme to encourage further uptake. We have enlisted the help of Members of Parliament and local organisations but I accept that there is more to do. We have tried to make applying for pension credit as easy as possible. Staff are well trained to deal with pension credit applications. We have adopted a phased and steady approach to taking applications for pension credit. We wrote to all pensioner households. That was supported by comprehensive advertising and media activity to ensure that people were made aware of their new entitlement. I accept that we cannot be complacent and we clearly need to continue to consider that very carefully.
The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, then raised more general pointsthis is our third discussion of basic state pension, upgrading, pension credit and the direction of policy in the past four weeks. I cannot say anything more than the remarks that I made in our debate on the pension Statement last week. We are now engaged in a process of discussion with key stakeholders. We will be producing a White Paper in due course. As I said last week pension credit has been an incredibly important way in which we have reduced pensioner poverty. Of course we are looking very carefully at the recommendations of the Pensions Commission, and its recommendation on indexation of basic state pensions is clearly an important part of that. At the same time, we must consider affordability and the benefits of specific targeting. I cannot say much more on that at this stage.
I turn to the noble Lord, Lord Addington. He thanked me for the benefits uprating, for which I was most appreciative. I accept his point about progress on disability issues generally. Yes, we have made considerable progress, but it has taken time and there is a lot more to do and we cannot afford to be complacent. I fully accept those comments. There is no more expert audience than Members of your Lordships' House on disability issues. However, we can look back with some satisfaction on what has been achieved. The work of the Disability Rights Commission will be extremely helpful in monitoring the progress that we are making. I assure the noble Lord that monitoring progress on disability issues in general, and considering the delivery of systems in particular, is of key importance to both my department and the Government as a whole.
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The noble Lord raised the question of the delivery system. We are committed to improving delivery systems. Jobcentre Plus and the introduction of the Pension Service has ensured dedicated services through agencies to groups of people who require first-class services. The establishment of an office of disability issues will ensure that the Government are in a strong position to monitor performance across government.
I realise that I have gone over the 18 minutes allowed for the three Front-Benchers. Perhaps I may respond to two points raised by noble Lords about the complexity of the system. Anyone considering the benefit system would agree that it is complex. As a new Minister in the department, I sign up to the fact of the complexity of the system without question. The dilemma is this. All Ministers want to make the system simpler, but making it simpler means that it is less sensitive to individual needs. In agreeing to pursue the question of simplicity, we must also have in mind the need to be sensitive to individual need.
Finally, in relation to the national pension savings fund suggested by the Turner commission, annual management charges were proposed at about 0.3 per cent. In making it clear to the pensions industry that we invite it to come forward we, of course, will have to bear in mind that one of the very strong pointers that the noble Lord, Lord Turner, made is the need for any low-cost pension scheme to keep management charges as low as possible.
Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the success of the Pathways to Work programme reflects great credit on the Government? But it covers only one-third of the country. What are the problems in expanding the scheme and when does my noble friend estimate that it will cover the whole country?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for raising Pathways to Work. I visited the pilot in Derby and met members of the public who have, through Pathways to Work, got back into work. I endorse everything that he says about the benefit of personal advice, incentives and encouragement, but I cannot give him the answer to his question. We of course are committed to publishing a paper fairly shortly on that matter, which will contain further details.
Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: My Lords, perhaps the Minister will lend me a fiver so that I can buy the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, a drink to cheer him up. He says that this is a boring parliamentary occasion, but nearly £80,000 million or £90,000 million of taxpayers' money is spent. It should be a cardinal feature of every
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annual parliamentary calendar. I am prepared to take him to the Bishops' Bar to try to cheer him up later, but I might need help with the cost.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I said "usually boring", but I equally said that this was rather different.
Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: Maybe, my Lords. The simplicity argument has been going on in the department for 20 years to my certain knowledge. Every year at this Statement, Ministers should come to that Dispatch Box and say what they have done in the past year to try to simplify the system. Simply saying that it is all too difficult and that it is rough justice will not do any longer. The changes to the tax regime have been very welcome as far as they went. But it will not do. Ministers should get hold of this agenda and go for simplification in a serious way over a period of time. The House should demand that, year on year, the system should get simpler and not more complicated.
The Government are right to claim some successes on child and pensioner poverty, which I acknowledge. I also agree with my noble friend when he welcomed this Statement. But there are groups within the benefit cohorts who are losing out systematically. I declare an interest as a non-remunerative director of the Wise Group. People who are merely on jobseekers' allowance and nothing elsechildless households or single male adults usually aged in their mid-30sare being left with next to no help other than training for work in Scotland or work-based learning in England. The Minister said a little about pilots to try to get hold of those people before their six months are up. Will he expand on that because that group has been left behind systematically as the benefits programme unfolds?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, on that latter point, the noble Lord raises a very important issue and, perhaps to one extent, answers his first point about simplicity. The noble Lord is absolutely right. I cannot go into the details of the pilots, but I will be happy to let him know as soon as I can. My experience in the department is that the pilots that have been undertakenwe have already referred to the Pathways to Work pilotshave been extremely useful and have enabled us to learn much for detailing future policy. I am not sure that I can afford the request for £5 on a ministerial salary, but I shall do my best. I want to cheer the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, up as much as possible.
I do not run away from the question about simplicity and I do not suggest either that it is too difficult or that every ministerial colleague occupying my position has come in saying, "Let's make it simpler". I see my noble friend Lady Hollis in her place. No doubt she has gone through a similar exercise. I see also the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington. Indeed, this is a reunion of Members from the DHSS, the DSS and so on. While of course I accept that we want the system to be more straightforward and simple, there are trade-offs here. We have to be honest and accept that if we go for a
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much simpler system, there are bound to be more borderline cases where problems can arise. But in looking at the future of the benefits system, of course we want to see if it can be simplified.
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