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Work And Pensions

Volume 406: debated on Monday 9 June 2003

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The Secretary of State was asked

Benefits Payment

1.

What steps he has taken to ensure that all pensioners have been fully informed about the changes in the methods of paying benefits. [117282]

10.

What steps the Government have taken to inform pensioners of changes regarding direct payment of benefits. [117292]

The Department is writing to all affected pensioners. That started in January and will continue for two years. The letters are backed up by a national advertising campaign, an information phone line and advice through the Pension Service so that people can choose the account that suits them best. No one needs to take any action until contacted. We are honouring the pledge to enable people who want to collect their money in cash at the post office to do that. So far, around half of the pensioners who have responded asked for the Post Office card account. All high street banks are offering basic bank accounts, which are, of course, accessible at the post office. Some main accounts will also be accessible.

The Post Office card account was to be the salvation of many sub-pos0t offices. Why are sub-post offices not allowed to promote it to their customers? I am delighted that half of them have taken up the offer, but it is a pathetic shadow of what it should have been. I have in my constituency a 91-year-old Royal Mail pensioner who cannot pay her pension into a Post Office card account. Perhaps the Post Office is not allowed to promote it because it is so inadequate.

Many sub-postmasters and postmistresses have been energetic in promoting the Post Office card accounts. [Interruption.] As I said, if the hon. Gentleman will listen, in my initial answer, around half of the pensioners who have responded requested the Post Office card account. That hardly points to failure to promote it. All the material that we issue draws the account's availability to pensioners' attention. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that it is not our job to tell pensioners or other benefit claimants what form of account they should have. That is up to them. Instead of harking back to the days when people were forced to use the post office, I hope that Conservative Members will embrace modern options that offer more choice, convenience and flexibility, and less fraud.

My constituents are doubly interested in the matter. The headquarters of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters is based in my constituency, which also has many pensioners. For many years they have been forced to use post offices, but are happy with that system. They are greatly concerned by proposals to introduce key pads, which, as we warned for many months, are not suitable, especially for those with disabilities and those who rely on the help of sub-postmasters.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that key pads that are deemed not to be disabled-friendly are being ripped out? Will he also state when that will happen, the cost of doing it and the reason for the time it has taken to get around to it? Will he confirm that sub-postmasters and mistresses can continue to help people who need guidance to get the benefits that his ridiculous red tape and bureaucratic nonsense prevent them from obtaining?

I will not let the hon. Gentleman's rhetoric get in the way of a sensible answer, because I can reassure him about several points. Like other hon. Members, he knows that 68 per cent. of new pensioners have money paid in to their bank account and that 90 per cent. of pensioners have access to a bank account. That is why the choice that we are making available is so important.

The hon. Gentleman is right that the Post Office is reviewing the PIN pad's adequacy. It is developing a key guard, which will help to guide users who might otherwise have difficulty in using the PIN pad. I assure him that the Post Office will be able to help disabled customers. Moreover, it has put in place specific training programmes to ensure that staff can assist disabled customers.

I assure hon. Members that no one requires those who cannot use the PIN pad to give up their order books. The Post Office is developing alternative technology to ensure that all customers can access cash in the post office in a modern and secure way when the order book is no longer available. We should remember that every week, 100 pensioners have their pension payment books stolen. Modern methods of payment put that theft and fraud behind us.

Is it not the case that, on retiring, many people chose a bank account into which their pension would be paid before direct credit was introduced? Is not it important for the viability of small post offices that they capture the market in banking services?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I have already cited the statistic that 68 per cent. of new pensioners opt to have their pensions paid into bank accounts. My hon. Friend is right to say that there is an opportunity for the Post Office to build on the £2 billion that we are making available for investment, including £450 million to sustain rural networks. This is a major opportunity for the Post Office to expand its banking opportunities and to maximise its footfall, thereby guaranteeing a commercially viable future for a service that every hon. Member values enormously.

This is a complex issue, and it requires a great deal of expenditure of time, effort and money to get across the complexity of the message. Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in discussions that my colleagues on the Trade and Industry Committee and I had with Post Office Counters representatives, we were informed that, based on their experience in private banking, those representatives believed that a move of this radical character would need an expenditure of about £100 million on advertising? I understand that the Department for Work and Pensions has made available barely a third of that amount.

I greatly welcome the contribution that my hon. Friend and his colleagues on the Select Committee are making to the examination of this important issue. It is rare for a Minister at the Dispatch Box to be urged to spend more money on advertising than he is currently doing. However, before we compare our expenditure on the promotion of the Post Office card account and direct payment with what would be spent in the commercial world, we must remember that we are in a position to write to all our customers, as we shall be doing over the next couple of years. I am satisfied that the £25 million that we have allocated to publicity, including national advertising, is a reasonable allocation. Of course we shall be reviewing progress, and I am sure that my hon. Friend's Select Committee will be keeping the matter closely under review as well. Should it be necessary to vary the advertising budget, or the way in which that is organised in the future, I stand ready to do so.

The Secretary of State will know that many people—some of whom are among the most vulnerable in our society—are concerned about this change to direct payment, not least because of the fiasco of the PIN pads. Many pensioners are simply unable or unwilling to make the change that the right hon. Gentleman is asking them to make. Ministers have claimed that those people's interests are to be safeguarded by an exceptions service, but I have asked numerous questions about this and Ministers have given no further details about either the timetable or the nature of the service. Will the Secretary of State now give the House an assurance from the Dispatch Box that the exceptions service will be fully up and running throughout the country by 2005? Will he also, at last, reveal what criteria will determine whether someone will qualify for the service? Will it be restricted to those who are medically unable to open or manage an account, or will those with other genuine concerns about direct payment also be included? The Government must now give answers to these questions. If they do not, they will be providing yet more confirmation that the only exceptional thing about this whole mess is the exceptional incompetence of the Department for Work and Pensions.

The exceptional thing is that such a huge undertaking as the introduction of a universal banking service has got up and running properly and on time. Whatever other criticisms the hon. Gentleman might have, he ought to be congratulating the Post Office and the staff at the Department for Work and Pensions on achieving that. In answer to his questions: yes, we shall have the exceptions service up and running by the time that it is needed, when order books are no longer available. On the criteria, we shall consult closely—as we have done already—with representative groups of older people, disabled people and others to ensure that those criteria are sensible and meet people's needs, so that all those who want to do so can access their cash at the post office, as well as using the other options available to them through bank accounts, building society pass books and cheques.

Private Pension Funds

2.

If he will make a statement on the current value of private pension funds. [117283]

At the end of 2001, the most recent year for which Office for National Statistics figures are available, it was estimated that the total assets of self-administered pension funds were about £712 billion.

One of the concerns that my constituents express when faced with the decline in value of their pension funds relates to how they could live off the annuity that the funds would purchase. What thought have the Government given to relaxing the ways in which such funds can be used, so that pensioners could maximise their income and thus reduce their dependency on means-tested benefits?

The hon. Gentleman will have seen the Green Paper that was published recently. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will publish further proposals soon. As the hon. Gentleman will know, there are suggestions in the Green Paper.

The news that the Minister has given today will be welcomed by about half the population, who have a stake in occupational pensions. But will she give us some idea of what the Government plan to do for those who, having thought that they had a stake, find that their schemes have been wound-up and their claims have either disappeared or largely disappeared? Are the Government thinking of using some of the £13,000 million of unclaimed assets that lie idle in the balances of banks and building societies as an endowment, to ensure that the loss of funds that people thought they had for their retirement can be made good?

As ever, my right hon. Friend has advanced interesting ideas about this in his Pensions (Winding Up) Bill. I know that over the weekend he spoke to the ASW pensioners, who organised a march to draw attention to their circumstances. Such cases bring into sharp focus the need for action to reduce the risk of such developments. There is no doubt that those who lose their pensions—and their families and friends—will be less likely to save for the future. It behoves us all to come up with arrangements that will protect pensions better, otherwise people simply will not save.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned unclaimed assets. "Unclaimed" does not necessarily mean that the assets do not belong to someone. The right hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that these issues are fraught and difficult, especially for those currently affected, but we are willing to consider any suggestions that he or anyone else may have. That has been the aim of our consultation. The response to the Green Paper will enable us to change the arrangements so that similar problems do not occur in the future.

As was pointed out by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), the value of a pension fund to a worker whose employer goes bankrupt is often a tiny fraction of what the worker expected. The Government have let it be known through the media that they are considering an insurance-based solution. Does the Minister agree that any insurance scheme must be underwritten by the Government? Otherwise there could be yet another fraud, and people could not just lose the pensions they had expected but find that the insurance schemes have gone bankrupt as well.

The hon. Gentleman refers to speculation in the press about what might be in the response to the Green Paper. It is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to present that response to Parliament; I cannot speculate on suggestions in the newspapers.

Does the Minister understand—I am sure she does—that when a company goes into administration with the pension fund in tow, as has happened at Chart Industries, Incorporated in my constituency, it takes years for workers to become aware of their pension entitlements? That is a very anxious time for people. Would the Minister consider telling her friends in the Treasury that it might not be a bad idea for those with company pensions to be preferential creditors pari passu with Government demands, rather than ordinary creditors not knowing, at the end of the day, what is left with which to pay the pensions?

That is one of the most distressing aspects of the winding up of pensions—apart from the fact that it occasionally takes far too long. Suggestions in the Green Paper about the time it takes have been welcomed throughout the House, and outside. People are often left not knowing what percentage of their original pensions they will be left with.

This is a crucial challenge. Proposals in the Green Paper for assets to be shared more fairly when schemes are wound up have been widely welcomed, but we need to ensure that action is taken. We also need to speed up the winding up of schemes, and try to ensure that most of the assets of what may be small funds are not swallowed up in fees. We want savers to feel confident that it is sensible to put their money into pensions.

These are serious issues, raised by Members in all parts of the House. I know that the Minister recognises that. Is it not a shame that the Prime Minister appears not to recognise the seriousness of the issues, having failed to appoint a replacement for the Minister for Pensions in the last 60 days?

May I say to the hon. Gentleman and others who have raised this matter in the House that the absence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) makes me the smallest Pensions Minister on the Government Front Bench? I can also assure the House that his absence has not delayed the work that is being done by the Department to deal with the Green Paper and the arrangements that need to be made. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it has not delayed the date at which we shall produce our response to the Green Paper.

Hebburn Offices

3.

If he will make a statement on the future of his Department's offices in Hebburn. [117284]

The Hebburn offices accommodate 607 officials from the Department for Work and Pensions and the Inland Revenue. The lease on the building, which is held by the Inland Revenue, is due to expire on 23 June 2006. The Department for Work and Pensions is working with the Inland Revenue to identify suitable alternative accommodation in the Tyneside area. Alternative accommodation has already been found in Tyneside for more than 500 staff that are based at the Hebburn site. My hon. Friend will also be pleased to learn that the new Jobcentre Plus service in Jarrow will be rolled out by the end of this year. In addition, Gateshead and south Tyneside have been successful in gaining one of the new incapacity benefit pilot areas. That will be welcome news to local people, not least because it will give those who thought they had left the traditional shipbuilding and engineering industries for ever a chance to return to some of the jobs that are coming to the river.

I am aware that more than one Government agency is situated in that building. However, as the Minister stressed, many hundreds of south Tynesiders' jobs are in that building, and the closure will have a massive, adverse economic impact on the local Hebburn shopping centre. Will he get together with his fellow Ministers to review the position and ensure that the offices do not close?

I can give my hon. Friend two assurances. He knows that I want to do everything I can to help. First, I assure him that the jobs will not be lost: they are being relocated on Tyneside. Secondly, I realise the impact that this move is bound to have in the Hebburn area, and if he would like a meeting with me and officials from the Inland Revenue to discuss what can be done to redevelop the site once the lease runs out, I would be happy to arrange a meeting with him to see whether we can find a constructive way forward for the people of Hebburn.

Child Support Agency

4.

How many people have been prosecuted for making false statements to the Child Support Agency. [117285]

5.

If he will make a statement on the Child Support Agency. [117286]

Twelve people have been prosecuted under section 14A of the Child Support Act 1991. The Secretary of State's targets for the Child Support Agency for 2003–04 were published on 29 April in the agency's business plan. Those targets require a further improvement in performance, building on the progress made in recent years. I should add that the agency has more than doubled the amount of maintenance delivered from £300 million in 1995–96 to £770 million in 2001–02.

Is the Minister seriously suggesting that there are only 12 dishonest, lying fathers who, when filling in the forms, try to deprive their children of the maintenance that they should receive? Surely there is a case to be made for some serious prosecutions against fathers who cheat their children, so that they are made to pay. I am talking not about the fathers who go out of their way to provide maintenance for their children, but about those who lie and cheat. The Child Support Agency must know who they are.

Certainly, we must be tough with those who lie and cheat, but the whole purpose of our powers is to ensure that people give the necessary information in the first place. We have tough powers, and we work closely with the Inland Revenue. When we think that the non-resident parent's lifestyle is not compatible with the income they tell us they receive, we can vary the order to make them pay up and pay more maintenance.

When will the new formula for calculating the maintenance be introduced for existing as well as new cases, so that there is equality of treatment for my constituents? Will the new formula in any way reduce the number of successful claims for maladministration, which have soared from 1,389 in 1997–98 to 12,007 in 2001–02?

Where there is maladministration, and we try to cut that, it is right and proper that people have redress. I understand the question. As soon as we can bring all cases on to the new system, the better, but it is a massive operation. The new scheme only started in March. We will publish data on the first quarter in July this year, but the House will have to be patient. Time will pass before we can make a decision on bringing on board the old cases.

Would it be right to say that not all absent parents are fathers—there are mothers who are absent parents? Will my hon. Friend give some idea as to what progress is being made in ensuring that the third of children who are not receiving maintenance receive maintenance through Child Support Agency procedures? Given that the first eight weeks of payment are disregarded, will the absent parent now be responsible for making maintenance payments for the whole period from when the application is made by the parent with care?

The purpose of our child support reforms, which, as we have noted, are currently for new cases only, is to shift the burden of emphasis from assessment, which will be much easier and based on a simple formula, towards enforcement. However, as I said, more maintenance is now going to parents with care—usually the mother but, as my hon. Friend says, sometimes it is the father. We have new powers and we are absolutely determined in all sorts of ways that parents, whatever their family situation, recognise their responsibility to bring up and to fund their own children.

Can the Minister comment on how much cross-checking is achieved between statements to the Child Support Agency and statements to, for example, the Inland Revenue and housing benefit, working tax credit and immigration entry clearance departments?

Increasingly, we have powers and we have the authority of Parliament to cross-check data. Perhaps I will write to my hon. Friend about some of the details. We all know that while the great majority of self-employed people are honest, there can be a problem in compliance with maintenance. Since 1999, the agency has asked self-employed non-resident parents to provide copies of their tax return. That shows that we are moving in the direction that my hon. Friend is, I think, suggesting.

Pension Service

6.

What plans he has to improve the operation of the Pension Service. [117288]

The Pension Service is working well. It is geared to providing a high-quality personal service that puts the needs of pensioners first. Both its call centres and local service have been well received by pensioners. A key task is the delivery of pension credit from this October, for which preparations are well in hand. I will be publishing quarterly updates on overall progress during the run-up, the first in July and the second in October. The figures for October will be published in November and there will be regular monthly reports thereafter.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but has not centralisation of services led to difficulties for pensioners such as those in my constituency, who have had to travel far greater distances to obtain comprehensive advice? Taking into account the imminent implementation of the pension credit, can he today give an assurance that we will not see a repeat of the recent tax credit fiasco?

One of the things I sensibly did, anticipating the question, was to check whether the Dundee call centre, which serves the hon. Lady's constituents, had had any problems with its telephony. I was assured that it had not. Indeed, the system was working very well and at least 94 per cent. of calls got through first time, which is a good record for any call centre, whether in the public or private sector. On personal access, I know that there are surgeries every Thursday at the A.K. Bell library in Perth, on the first Tuesday of the month at the Kinloch Rannoch medical practice, and on the last Wednesday of every month in Crieff library, as well as at Kinross-shire day centre in Kinross on the last Tuesday of every month. If the hon. Lady or indeed other hon. Members have suggestions as to how the surgery arrangements for constituents offered by the Pension Service can be improved, I and the Pension Service will be very pleased to consider them.

I have heard a couple of anecdotal stories about some pensioners who are having to wait up to three months to get their first pension payment once they reach the age of 60 or 65. I have written to the Department, and am awaiting a reply, on whether that happens only occasionally or is more widespread. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he speaks to people from the Inland Revenue to make sure that lessons are learned from the implementation of the child tax credit—particularly with regard to the scanning-in of documents, which sometimes leads to the misreading of information—so that such hiccups do not happen when the pension credit comes in?

On my hon. Friend's first question, after the statement, I shall go back to the Department to find an answer concerning her correspondence. I do not believe that such delays should be in any way typical and I should be disturbed if they were. I shall look into the specific case that she raises.

On the lessons for the roll-out of the pension credit, and our telephony, scanning-in and other services, I assure my hon. Friend that we are learning from other tax credits. That is one of the reasons why, in introducing the pension credit, we have been careful to phase the publicity and the projected take-up, so as to align them with the capacity that the system must have in place to meet demand. It is early days, but I have had positive reports of pensioners' experience in applying for the pension credit using the telephone system.

Retirement (Financial Independence)

8.

What steps the Government are taking to promote financial independence in retirement. [117290]

We must renew the pensions partnership between Government, employers, employees and the industry to ensure that individuals feel that saving for their retirement is worth while and safe. The recent Green Paper sets out our proposals for greater security, simplicity and better information to promote pensions saving.

The Government have presided over a crisis in pensions provision. The savings ratio has halved and 40 per cent. of final salary schemes are closed to new members. Some schemes have collapsed completely, resulting in millions of 30 to 40-year-olds no longer looking forward to independence in retirement. Those are matters of fact. My question is this: is this the result of incompetence on an epic scale, or does it suit the Chancellor's tendencies towards socialism to have a rising two thirds of all pensioners on means-tested benefits?

The hon. Gentleman's original comments gave too bleak an assessment. What he calls "means-testing", we call giving current pensioners some decency in retirement. The pension credit will end the weekly means test, while giving an extra £400 a year on average to half of all pensioner households, tackling pensioner poverty. His party is committed to keeping means-testing by abolishing the pension credit. He is committed to a weekly means test, pound-for-pound withdrawal of benefit and impoverishing today's pensioners as some kind of incentive to today's working-age people to save. After all, that was the policy of his party when it was in government.

May I tell my hon. Friend about a 57-year-old constituent who, along with all the other employees of the company mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase), Chart Heat Exchangers, lost his job, after 23 years, and his pension? Can my hon. Friend understand the feelings of my constituent, who faces a retirement of absolute poverty because the company did not defend or pay into the pension scheme, as it promised? How would we as Members of Parliament like it if we were treated with such contempt when it came to our retirement?

My hon. Friend is right to reflect the feelings of his constituents, and I should be happy to meet him and other right hon. and hon. Members with constituents affected by this closure. If we are unable to renew our pensions partnership in order to have simpler pensions, to balance simplification and clarity, to help employers to deliver their pensions promises, to improve security and to ensure that members receive the benefits they have paid in for, our system of voluntary provision will not survive. That is why the Green Paper outlines our proposals. If we are not able to do that, we will have to be more radical and, as many hon. Members think, look to compulsion. The Pensions Commission is there to look at that if necessary.

May I explain to the Minister that our policy is that pensioners should be less dependent on means-tested benefits and should enjoy greater financial independence through more funded savings? That is very simple and it is what pensioners want. On the statement that we will hear from the Chancellor later today, 11 million pensioners who care about their independence will be worried that he is going to change the index used for uprating their benefits from the retail prices index to the new index: the harmonised index of consumer prices, known as HICP. Will the Minister give us and those millions of pensioners an assurance that there will be no reduction in the value of the uprating of their benefits if the index for measuring price inflation is changed?

Pensions and benefits are linked to the retail prices index, which is a slightly different measure from the one that the Chancellor is considering changing in respect of these other matters. We have already committed ourselves to increasing pensions by more than the RPI for the rest of this Parliament, as the hon. Gentleman knows. There is no question of any of the changes that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor might deal with later, to which the hon. Gentleman refers, having an impact on that.

Can my hon. Friend give any help or succour to Mr. Humphrey, a constituent of mine whom The Guardian named on Saturday, and who was part of a delegation that marched to Downing street yesterday? Having worked for a company called Dexion in my constituency, he was looking forward, at the age of 58, to a pension of £150 a week. That pension has been slashed by 80 per cent. to £30 a week. Does my hon. Friend accept that, if she cannot give any comfort to people in that position, surely those who are responsible for such dreadful administration of a pension scheme should be brought to book somehow?

Cases such as this, which Members have come across in various situations in their own constituencies, have ensured that we have had to look at how to renew the pensions partnership. Unless we can have better safety and security, people simply will not save into pensions products in future. Of course, in such a situation everybody would be worse off. The Green Paper will introduce our proposals shortly, in response to the question of how to renew that partnership. If we do not do so, there will be problems in the future in respect of everybody.

Since the Government's assumed take-up of the pension credit for next year is 67 per cent.—an assumption that they themselves describe as ambitious—does it not follow that they expect non-take-up to be 33 per cent.? In other words, more than a third of our vulnerable pensioners will gain nothing at all next year from the pension credit.

We want everybody who is entitled to pension credit to take it up as soon as they can get on the telephone and put in their applications. It is simply not the case that we want to place some form of ceiling or cap on those who are entitled to claim. Of course, we have working assumptions about what we want to get done within a certain time, but those are targets, not ceilings. We hope to outstrip them, and we want everybody who is eligible for the pension credit to claim it. If hon. Members would get behind the Government, stop calling the provision means testing and urge their constituents to claim their entitlement, perhaps more might claim rather sooner.

Housing Benefit (Midlands)

9.

What progress has been made on housing benefit pathfinders in the midlands. [117291]

We are testing a new standard local housing allowance in 10 pathfinder local authority areas, starting from this October; one such area is Coventry. Public consultation by the Social Security Advisory Committee on draft regulations for the scheme ends today, and officials are working very closely with the 10 authorities to help set up the pathfinders.

As is traditional for Back Benchers in pre-reshuffle fortnight, I warmly congratulate the Government on the housing benefit pathfinder initiative for private sector tenants, which will undoubtedly drive down fraud and widen choice and personal responsibility. Can I point out, however, that three-quarters of housing benefit cases are tenants of local authorities or registered social landlords? When do the Government expect to roll out the new approach to embrace those millions of cases? Will they reflect on authorities such as my own, North-West Leicestershire, which has one of the best track records in the midlands for processing housing benefit? How can we learn from such authorities?

It is right to embark on a radical reform of housing benefit, so that we can empower tenants and give them greater choice in their local communities. There are some difficulties and questions, which is why we are running a pilot for the private rented sector in 10 areas and evaluating it carefully. Yes, we do want it to apply in the social rented sector, and I hope that, before too long, where conditions allow, we will pilot the scheme in a social rented sector area as well.

Incapacity Benefit Claimants

11.

What the impact is on an incapacity benefit claimant of the receipt of an armed forces pension. [117293]

Armed forces pensions paid on cessation of service, rather than because of disablement in service, are treated in the same way as other occupational pensions, whereby the first £85 of income is totally disregarded and only 50 per cent. of the excess is taken into account. However, basic war pensions, paid because of disablement in service, are completely disregarded and do not affect incapacity benefit. Incapacity benefit is intended to provide a source of income for sick and disabled people of working age. We believe that it is therefore right to take some account of income from their occupational pensions.

Does the Minister agree that for this particular category of person, that particular means-testing is the most mean-spirited of them all and should be got rid of?

We are in danger of repeating the exchange that took place during the Department for Work and Pensions questions in February. The fact remains that we disagree on the matter, but I re-emphasise the point that basic war pensions, paid because of disablement in service, are completely disregarded.

Having heard the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) trying to say that means tests do not really take money away, is this not yet another example of a nasty little means test invented by the Government? The only redeeming features are that in this particular case it hits a relatively small number of people, albeit people who have served the Crown, and that it appears not to be characterised—a rather greater redeeming feature—by the same administrative shambles that has already hit the Chancellor's child tax credit and is doubtless about to hit the Minister's own Department's pension credit in the autumn.

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's analysis. Those who have served the armed forces and have occupational pensions are being treated no differently from anyone else. It is more likely nowadays that people leave the armed forces early and move into some other walk of life. It is right to treat them the same way as anyone else. If the hon. Gentleman is committing the Conservative party to repealing the measure, will he clarify how extensively the party intends to act and how much money it intends to spend?

Antisocial Behaviour

12.

What plans his Department has to tackle antisocial behaviour through Housing Benefit sanctions. [117294]

We are determined to tackle the antisocial behaviour that brings misery and disruption to so many of our constituencies. We are interested in the idea that was first floated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). People have rights, but they also have responsibilities. On 20 May my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to a range of organisations seeking their views on the introduction of a housing benefit sanction against antisocial behaviour. We will consult communities on housing estates and the victims of antisocial behaviour. I hope that all hon. Members will also consult their communities. We await the responses to the consultation before setting out our specific proposals.

How can a scheme be devised that does not punish people in the household who are not the perpetrators and have no control over the perpetrator? The Minister will be aware of the probable links between antisocial behaviour by adult males and domestic violence. Secondly, is the Minister going to devise equally intrusive punishments for those who are not on benefits?

Of course, we have the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill before the House at present, which will introduce several powers, and that will be another weapon in that armoury. We are consulting on that, because any measure has to be practical and we must have regard to human rights, including in those situations that my hon. Friend describes. However, when a victim has to become homeless—I know of such a situation in my constituency of Croydon, North—to get away from the bullies, I am interested in the rights of the victims, not only the rights of the perpetrators.

Is the Minister aware of the extreme frustration felt by many of my constituents, who daily suffer antisocial behaviour and who—to make their lives tolerable again—want their local authority housing department and other social landlords to have more powers at their disposal?

Yes, I am aware of that and of the hon. Gentleman's support for the measure. I am also aware that we would have had a private Member's Bill on the subject on the statute book now, if it had not been blocked by the Liberal Democrats, who are more on the side of the thugs than of the victims. We want to introduce enforceable powers that have regard to the rights of those members of the problem household who are innocent, but address the problems of those people who are sick and tired of the neighbour from hell making their lives a misery.

Is not one of the problems caused when local authority tenants live cheek by jowl with private tenants, perhaps of those people who have bought former council houses? There is no sanction on the landlord of a former council house to control what sort of tenant he takes and how they are treated. As long as the landlord gets the housing benefit, he does not care a damn about the people who live next door.

We have to be aware that just as there is a small minority—albeit an important number—of rogue tenants, there are also rogue landlords, who do nothing to control the behaviour of tenants or to repair property and simply claim the housing benefit—

Well, some of us take the subject seriously, as do our constituents. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has introduced new powers to bear down on abuse in the privately rented sector.

I suspect that every hon. Member, like the Minister and myself, has constituents who have had to flee their homes because of such dreadful behaviour. It is more than a year since the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister's questions that he approved of action to address that. He said that the vast majority of people in this country will support the idea that people who get benefits from the state owe some responsibility in return. Why is it that the Government refused to give time to the Bill introduced by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)? The Minister said that a Bill on the issue is before the House, so why have the Government not put such powers in it? Above all, why are they only just starting a process of consultation, 14 months on?

The hon. Gentleman is being unfair for once, which is unlike him. We did our best to amend my right hon. Friend's private Member's Bill. We spent many hours in Committee trying to get it right, with the help of Conservative colleagues. However, despite broad support, it was talked out by the Liberal Democrats on a Friday morning. We need to turn principle into proper practice, and it is right to consult on that, including with the victims.

Employers' Liability Insurance

13.

If he will make a statement on the future of employers' liability insurance. [117295]

The first stage report of the Department's review of employers' liability compulsory insurance was published on 3 June. The report sets out a series of actions including the scrutiny of industry service standards, especially renewal periods; a move towards fairer risk-related premiums to reward those with strong health and safety records; and the development of self-assessment packages to enable businesses to better manage risks. In the longer term, the Government will further evaluate the evidence for separating long-term occupational disease from accident risks, focus on legal costs and give rehabilitation a more central role in the UK compensation system.

It is worth making progress on all of those issues and Ministers will report on progress that has been made and any further steps we intend to take in the autumn.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend would agree that the best way to reduce premiums is to stop people getting unnecessarily injured at work in the first place. However, I am pleased that he has indicated a commitment to rehabilitation, because if people can return to work more quickly that is a good way of cutting the cost of employers' liability premiums. Will he discuss with the Secretary of State for Health what can be done to improve rehabilitation services and will he respond positively to the suggestion from both the TUC and the Association of British Insurers for a national rehabilitation leadership council to take that proposal forward?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend on both points. Discussions are under way with the Department of Health on what more can be done on rehabilitation. Following our Green Paper, rehabilitation pilots are under way and the location of all seven pilots has been announced to the House. The report itself has been welcomed by the CBI, the TUC and the ABI, and there is a real prospect of making constructive progress in that area.

The report will be profoundly disappointing to many small businesses as it does little more than acknowledge the existence of a crisis of which they were painfully aware six months ago. Specifically, what were the results of the Minister's discussions with the Lord Chancellor about cutting legal costs? They account for 40 per cent. of all compensation and that is what has been driving up many of the insurance premiums.

The hon. Gentleman is not being entirely fair. I urge him to look both at the analysis in our report and the complementary analysis in the report of the Office of Fair Trading, which was put into the public domain on the same day. There are no easy solutions. The hon. Gentleman is right to stand up for small businesses and to voice their concerns about rising premiums. Far and away the best means of getting premiums down is to relate premiums to risk—if the risk comes down, the premiums should come down—and to make the market work better. That is what the proposals in our report are designed to do.

My right hon. Friend knows, because I have discussed it with him, that a cluster of roofing contractors in Bishop Auckland employs about 1,000 people. They have complained bitterly to me about the increasing employers' liability premiums. I do not think that they will regard the Government's report as radical enough to deal with the situation. If we do not take the matter more seriously, I am afraid that many small businesses will go out of business.

My right hon. Friend is right to stand up for small businesses in his constituency. We want the premiums to be stabilised and for there not to be undue burdens on small businesses. The way to do that is to reduce the risk and thereby reduce the premiums. The Health and Safety Executive is working on a self-assessment tool, which is designed to help small and medium-sized businesses in that situation. Some longer term work needs to be taken forward and it is the Government's intention to bring the discussions with the industry to a conclusion in the autumn. I very much hope that we shall be able to produce something that is of practical assistance to my right hon. Friend's constituents.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that not only small, or even medium-sized businesses but local authorities, too, are in a dire situation? The Local Government Association tells us that only three underwriters are now prepared to underwrite this type of business. That situation has largely come about because of no win, no fee and the chasing after business by unscrupulous solicitors. There may be a need not just for adequate risk assessment, but also to cap liability, as has been done in some other sectors, so that those engaged in proper risk management will not incur an unlimited amount of liability. [Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. It is unfair to Members who are here for Question Time.

Partly for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman sets out, we are continuing our discussions with the industry on the vexed question of long-term risks and reasonably carrying the burdens that arise from them, but this is quite a complex issue and the analysis in both reports shows that there is no general failing in the marketplace and that the increase in premiums has not been universal across the board. The analyses also show that, by and large, insurance is available, although at a price, and the further work is intended to try to stabilise the price.

Jobcentre Plus

14.

What the role will be of child care partnership managers in Jobcentre Plus districts. [117296]

We have appointed child care partnership managers in every Jobcentre Plus district. They work with local authorities, child care providers and employers to ensure that Jobcentre Plus staff can give parents the child care information that they need to enable them to take up work.

I am delighted that Derbyshire's child care partnership manager has just taken up his post. What guidance and help is my right hon. Friend giving to ensure that the necessary information is exchanged, working with the early years partnerships, to fill the gaps in provision for parents who seek to take up employment? Will he undertake to consider how Jobcentre clients themselves can gain access to some of the new opportunities to enter child care as a profession?

Yes. My hon. Friend has very succinctly summarised the new Jobcentre Plus child care partnership managers' remit, which is specifically to work with the early years development partnerships in the way that she suggests to ensure a good flow of information between all the parties necessary, so that there is improved child care provision, as well as improved rates of movement into jobs. Yes, they will specifically work to ensure that a greater proportion of Jobcentre Plus clients can fill the expanding number of vacancies in the child care sector.

Pension Credit

15.

What progress his Department has made towards the introduction of the pension credit. [117297]

Good progress. The Pension Service has already written to those in about 1.8 million pensioner households who currently receive the minimum income guarantee to tell them that they will automatically transfer to pension credit. This month, 45,000 mail packs a week are being set out, inviting pensioners to apply before October and advance applications are now being taken on a freephone application line.

I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. I welcome the introduction of the new pension credits, which will benefit many constituents in my area, but, as she will be aware, a significant number of elderly people are unable to look after their financial affairs, so what discussions has she had with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Scottish Executive to ensure the maximum take-up of that very valuable benefit?

I have had no such discussions, but the Pension Service is involved in discussions about take-up throughout the country with local partners, local government and the Scottish Parliament. We are anxious that as many people as possible take up their entitlement to pension credit, not least because, for the first time, it will provide a reward for saving instead of penalising it, and those pensioner households who are entitled will receive an extra £400 a year on average.

With the greatest respect to the Minister, can I tell her and perhaps the Prime Minister how much we have missed the ebullient presence of the former Minister for Pensions during Question Time today? Does she think that not having a Minister for Pensions has had any significant effect on the performance of her Department?

Well, of course, we are all working hard, as one might expect, to make up for the work load of my right hon. Friend the former Minister for Pensions, who was well known in the Department for working from noon—[Interruption]—from morning till noon, till night, day in, day out, so I can assure the hon. Gentleman that things have not been easy, but I hope that no one will have noticed my right hon. Friend's departure; that has certainly been the aim of those of us seeking to cover his efforts.

Does my hon. Friend have any plan to run take-up campaigns for pensioners generally? What assessment has she made of Age Concern's recent survey, which shows that pensioners in Liverpool are among the poorest in the country?

My hon. Friend is right. We have plans with all our local partners, including Age Concern, to maximise the take-up of pension credit entitlements. We want to ensure that all those who are entitled take up pension credit. To the extent that our local partners, such as Age Concern in Liverpool, can help us to achieve that, we will work very closely with them to ensure that people do so.

Income Support Fraud

17.

What effect the human resource initiatives outlined in the Government's response to the Public Accounts Committee's 55th report of Session 2001–02 on fraud and error in income support had in reducing the variations in performance between local offices. [117299]

We are continually striving to improve our performance in tackling fraud and error. As the latest results cover only the period up to March 2002, it is too early to gauge the impact of training and other measures on reducing performance variation across regions. Overall, we are making excellent progress in tackling fraud, having reduced it by 24 per cent. against income support and jobseeker's allowance since 1998—a saving of £230 million.

Is the Minister proud of the fact that year after year the Comptroller and Auditor General qualifies the accounts of his Department because of gross inaccuracies in them? We are in the 13th year of its accounts being qualified. One of the reasons for these inaccuracies is the level of experience and high turnover of staff, particularly in London and the major cities, where inaccuracies are twice the national level. What is he doing to rectify this situation?

We are not proud of that, we are working hard with the National Audit Office to move away from it, and I recognise the seriousness of the hon. Gentleman's point. On the main question, however, I am proud that we are winning the war against the fraudster and saving the public's money: money that the public want spent on education and hospitals and not on crooks and criminals.