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Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, this is about more than equalising the pension age between men and women in 2020. Does the Minister agree with various of his colleagues in government who have said that it is inevitable that the state pension age for everyone will have to be extended after 2020?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Lord has probably spotted that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said in a speech two days ago that, in his view, some increase in the state pension age from 2020 was now inevitable. He went on to say that any rise would be acceptable to people only if it came as part of a package to improve pension provision in other key areas that the report by the noble Lord, Lord Turner, addressed. As I have said, we will bring forward our proposals on pensions later in the spring.

Lord Addington: My Lords, many good projects are planned and are in the pipeline to help the disabled travel to work and be in the workplace. If they were implemented more quickly, would not many of the problems of those few frail or disabled elderly people in the workplace be greatly reduced?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Lord will know that the number of disabled people in work has increased considerably in the past few years, but at 46 per cent it is considerably less than other people in work. In general, about 75 per cent of the working-age population are in work. There is clearly a long way to go. He will know of course of the work of the DRC and of the Office for Disability Issues in my department. We clearly want to encourage employers as much as possible to recognise the benefits for them of employing more disabled people.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, as all parties are concerned, is there not a need for an all-party recommendation on this? When the Government have looked at the Turner report, should not a royal commission look at it from an all-party point of view, as took place with the Education Act 1944, when the policy was agreed by all concerned? The Education Act 1944 made such a difference to education in this country.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I certainly agree with my noble friend that it is important to achieve as much consensus as possible on pension
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policy. In our proposals, we will set down a policy on pensions for many years ahead. It is clear that, over the past 20 or 30 years, inconsistency and changes in pension policy have played a part in reducing public confidence. I agree with my noble friend there, but I do not agree with him about a royal commission. We have had the Turner commission, and it is now time for the Government to bring forward our proposals. We will do so.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, one of the concerns has been the lack of research and co-ordination in workplace design. What further plans are there for co-operation in design and better rapport between the Department for Work and Pensions, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Economic and Social Research Council?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I have already referred to two pieces of research that the Government are concerned with, but I agree with the noble Baroness that more needs to be undertaken. I am happy to write to her about the research that is being done. I also agree that we need a cross-government approach, as illustrated by the work and transport issues that the noble Baroness raised. We are consulting on the establishment of an observatory on ageing, which will go some way to meeting the requirement that she mentioned.

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood: My Lords, the Mobility and Inclusion Unit is running a research programme on the design of motorcars, with a view to making it easier for older drivers with impairment to travel. When are recommendations expected; and, if not soon, can they be hurried up?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that information. I do not know when the report is likely to be received, but I will find out and let him know.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, the Minister will remember that, in his answers on the Statement on the publication of the Turner report, he said he would negotiate with the Chief Whip for a debate. This Question has almost turned into such a debate, but would he agree that we now need a full debate before the White Paper is published?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, of course, as the Chief Whip has just reminded me, that is a matter for the usual channels rather than myself, but I have said to the noble Lord, as I have to other noble Lords, that I would welcome a debate at any time on the Pensions Commission's report. After the Government have produced their proposals, no doubt, there will be further opportunities for debate.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, does not my noble friend's comment about creating a new observatory show the Government's 20-20 vision on this point?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my noble friend is as accurate as ever about the Government's programme in this area.
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Energy: Domestic Supplies

11.20 am

Baroness Trumpington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What financial assistance they give to those who find themselves without power or heating in their homes due to exceptional circumstances such as the oil depot explosion at Hemel Hempstead.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 requires local authorities, the emergency services and other prime responders to develop appropriate contingency plans to respond to major disruptive incidents, such as the depot explosion at Hemel Hempstead. Financial assistance to affected local authorities is available from the Government, under the Bellwin scheme, operated by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Under the scheme, assistance is limited to 85 per cent of eligible costs above an annual threshold of 0.2 per cent of the authorities' non-capital budget.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, on Hemel Hempstead—I apologise if my Question is a bit long, but it is too important to shorten—is the Minister aware that over 2,000 people were evacuated and eight families are still homeless? Is he aware that many windows are still boarded up, thus making any heating inefficient, and fuel costs have rocketed phenomenally for people who are not well off? In the present cold weather, are there no funds from the Government that can help those people?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, obviously I am aware of the considerable damage caused by the explosion. The Government's reaction has been much praised for its swiftness and the way in which it has worked. Much credit should go to the local authority, which has worked hard to ensure that people return as soon as possible to their home. My information is that four families are still occupying temporary but good quality accommodation and that a number of households are still in need of important repairs. Funds are of course available through the Jobcentre Plus scheme to assist families that are in particular hardship, and efforts have been strenuously made by the local office to ensure that they receive funds as quickly as possible. Indeed, the information that I have suggests that all fire-related claims that went through the Jobcentre Plus scheme were dealt with on the same day.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the cost to Hertfordshire County Council has been in the region of £2.5 million? Can he tell the House whether the council will receive the full 85 per cent towards that cost? Can he assure the House that, if the council has to meet the shortfall from its own resources, that will be taken into account by the Government when they set the capping regime?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, this is obviously a delicate area, and careful considerations
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have to be made. My understanding is that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, through its officials, has advised the local authorities that have been affected. I must say that that is a welcome change from the days when I was a local authority leader, when we did not get much external advice to help us with Bellwin schemes. These exchanges have enabled the ODPM to give the authorities early help with the procedures to follow what would constitute eligible costs. Of course, they will be entitled to receive all those eligible costs above the 0.2 per cent threshold, which I mentioned in my initial response.

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