Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 470: debated on Monday 7 January 2008

Last week, we celebrated 10 years of the new deal, through which more than 1.8 million people have found jobs, which is one person every three minutes every single day. An 80 per cent. employment rate is now within our grasp as we move to the next phase of radical welfare reform, which will see hundreds of thousands more benefit claimants becoming active jobseekers rather than passive recipients. Our imperative is to get as many people off benefits and into work as possible, because that is the way to a better life for them and their families. Our policy is fair, coherent, costed and workable, which is exactly the opposite of Conservative policy. The Conservatives have been left desperately plagiarising our plans, because if one looks beneath the spin, they have no new credible policy ideas.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his good work, but one matter still requires his attention. Did he read the article in the weekend press about Ruby Gassor, who worked all her life but paid only a married woman’s national insurance contribution in the early years? She will receive only £7 in basic state pension, whereas her friend who stayed at home to bring up children benefited from home responsibilities protection and will receive £83 a week when she is 60. Will my right hon. Friend attend to that important matter?

We will certainly address the issues around ensuring that women can claim the pensions that they deserve. In 2007, we introduced legislation that will ensure that 75 per cent. of women can claim a basic state pension after 2010. We hope that, by 2025, 90 per cent. of women—the figure for men is about the same—can claim a full basic state pension. We are taking serious account of those issues, and I am also happy to discuss with my hon. Friend the wider issues that she has raised.

Bearing in mind the alacrity with which the Government acted last year in bailing out Northern Rock with billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, is it any wonder that pensioners in my constituency who lost pensions through no fault of their own agree with Ros Altmann of the Pensions Action Group? She said that

“the continued delay in settling the pension wind-up scandal is totally inexcusable”.

But Ros Altmann has just welcomed the announcement that I made before Christmas, which established that compensation would be paid to those 140,000 workers. I would have thought that the hon. Lady welcomed that.

As regards Northern Rock, the guarantees that the Government provided are nothing like the burden on the taxpayer that the hon. Lady suggests. It is a matter of ensuring that our financial institutions are not affected by the global financial turbulence that infected Northern Rock, and which spread and infected financial institutions more widely. Any Government who had not acted in such a decisive way would have been regarded as thoroughly irresponsible.

Pensioners who were previously workers at the Richards Textiles factory in Aberdeen are very pleased with the announcement that the financial assistance scheme will be brought up to the 90 per cent. level. That announcement was made just before Christmas, and judging by the last question, some people may have missed it. Will my right hon. Friend outline the time scales involved in making payments to pensioners who have lost out in the past?

One of the things we will need is parliamentary support for the necessary legislative changes—including the Pensions Bill, the Second Reading of which I am about to move—and other changes to regulations, to allow us to implement the announcements that I made. The hon. Lady’s constituents, along with the rest of the 140,000 people involved, can then get the early justice that they deserve. I hope that every Member of this House will support us in making those changes and that they will support the Second Reading of the Bill this afternoon so that we can make rapid progress with the scheme’s implementation.

T3. Today more than 1 million extra people are facing retirement without a pension from their employer compared with the situation when the Government came to power. Why? (175834)

It is the case that a large number of people have not seen the full benefit of their pension. There are various reasons for that. First, over a period of time, there were things such as pensions holidays, which were approved by the previous Conservative Government. There was also the pensions mis-selling scandal, which happened under the previous Conservative Government, and there was the ineffectual Pensions Act 1995, which, as the hon. Gentleman might remember, was passed under the previous Conservative Government.

It is the case, however, that this Government have done something about the situation. We have introduced the Pension Protection Fund; we have dealt with the issue of the 140,000 people who had lost their pensions between 1997 and 2004; and we have also introduced a pensions regulator, who is in a position to ensure that the basis of the running of the pensions system is far better than it ever has been. Those are major social reforms. They have happened quietly, but they mean a big change, and an important one.

T4. In the context of yet another announcement regarding an initiative to deal with incapacity benefit—not the first during the past 10 years, I am afraid—will Ministers please ensure that they pay particular attention to the remarkable situation of the estimated 100,000 young people with mental health or related motivation problems? Otherwise, those young people will be condemned to a lifetime of joblessness and demotivation. (175835)

I agree very much with what the hon. Gentleman says. His record of campaigning on those matters is exemplary, and I pay tribute to him. However, questions should be asked in other directions in the House about whether the “three strikes and you’re out” policy will benefit the 100,000 young people he describes, or whether those people need the support of £170 million of psychological therapy that we will provide during the coming period to ensure that they get the specialist support, counselling and therapy they need to make sure that they can get into work. That is what we are doing: introducing practical, deliverable policies, not spin and hype.

One of my constituents, who is in his 70s, unfortunately had to have his leg amputated. He applied for attendance allowance, which was agreed to, but he was told that there would be a delay of four months owing to policy. Why is there such a delay? I will write to the Secretary of State, but I would like an explanation now.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I would need to ask him for further details and would be delighted to meet him as quickly as he wants, because there is no policy reason why any application for attendance allowance should be delayed. Indeed, we are turning round attendance allowance applications, subject to entitlement and so on, within the target time. I therefore do not understand why there is a particular problem in his constituency, although I would be delighted to look at it.

T5. I am sure that the Secretary of State will be aware that since 2000 his Department has spent a total of £1.6 billion on failed IT schemes, namely the benefit card, the upgrade to the Child Support Agency’s computer system and the unsuccessful streamlining of the benefits payment system. How can he justify such a dreadful waste of public money? (175836)

There is no question but that IT projects have had problems in both the public and private sectors, with a much higher failure rate than they should have. That is why we have put in place the necessary procedures to try to ensure that we avoid that in future, that we secure value for money from all our IT projects and that we continue to achieve record levels of delivery in terms of getting people into work, assisting them with pensions queries and delivering all the other services that my Department provides.

Millions of pensioners and other claimants rely on post offices to collect their pensions and benefits every week. As Government-inspired post office closures are rolled out across the country, will the Secretary of State reassure those pensioners and other claimants that they will continue to be able to collect their benefits through the Post Office card account—run by the Post Office, not some other organisation—and that further post office closures will not be inspired by a loss of income?

These are not Government-inspired closures. We are putting in hundreds of millions of pounds of support for local post offices, amounting over the period to billions of pounds. Because of many reasons related to lifestyle, people’s personal shopping habits and their use of local post offices have changed. People are not supporting their local post offices in the way that I, the hon. Gentleman and perhaps every Member of the House would like. That has created circumstances in which post offices have closed, as they closed in previous decades under the last Government, but we will ensure that everybody will receive the proper service that they need, especially the most vulnerable pensioners and others who depend on the benefits system.

T6. Pensioner constituents are already contacting me to express their anger and fear at last week’s announcement by npower of huge increases in fuel bills. Will the Secretary of State call on Ofgem to look into those increases, and will consideration now be given to implementing the proposal for a compulsory social tariff for all vulnerable customers of big energy companies? (175837)

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government do not normally intervene in the energy market, but in this case Ministers are naturally concerned about the effects that price rises such as those announced by npower can have on vulnerable customers. The Treasury will seek the views of Ofgem on developments that have taken place in the energy market, to see whether such changes as have been announced can possibly be justified. However, the Government are committed to tackling fuel poverty. Winter fuel payments, which last winter helped more than 11 million older people with their fuel bills, and assistance for 2 million low-income households so far, through schemes to improve energy efficiency, are examples of how we have practically sought to help older people in particular to deal with increasing fuel prices.

T7. On 11 December 2005, the Buncefield explosion destroyed a large area in my community. The Health and Safety Executive inquiry has gone on for nearly two years. Will the Minister inform the House when it is likely to conclude and say whether it is true that the oil companies are paying for it, not the British taxpayer? If they are, there would seem to be a conflict of interest, considering that they were responsible for the explosion. (175838)

I am aware that the hon. Gentleman and many of his constituents take a close interest in the matter. He and I have already discussed it in debates in the House. As he knows, the decision to investigate the causes of the explosion was made through a major incident investigation board headed by Lord Newton, and we believe that that is the quickest way of finding out exactly what happened.

As I think the hon. Gentleman will understand in view of the complexity of the issues involved, the investigation is still in progress. At this point, the Health and Safety Executive cannot say when a decision will be made on prosecutions. Such a decision is for the HSE and the Environment Agency and not for the investigating board. Until the investigation is completed we cannot say more about it, but it is important for it to continue. As the hon. Gentleman knows, interim reports have been issued and a good deal of information is already available to him and to his constituents. We expect the investigation to be concluded shortly.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has had a chance to read the excellent report prepared by the Scottish Affairs Committee and released before the Christmas recess. It drew attention to interest rates charged by not only illegal but legal moneylenders. One company was charging about 177 per cent. Is any consideration being given to capping interest rates in the so-called legal market?

I understand my hon. Friend’s deep concern, but there is a problem with capping the rates, which might have adverse effects on the availability of affordable credit. I think that our best response to the need to release people from the burden of interest rates at such levels—or, indeed, even higher levels in the case of illegal doorstep lending—is to pursue the policies that we have, financed through the growth fund, to make much more affordable credit available through credit unions and other not-for-profit financial lenders.

As my hon. Friend will know, we have already made a significant investment, and there will be further investment over the next spending round. As a result, tens of thousands of people are gaining access to affordable credit, thus avoiding the problems to which he has rightly drawn attention.

I have already addressed it. As I have said, we are investigating the methods that are most cost-effective to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, as taxpayers, and to the rest of us. The truth is, however, that there are more jobs than ever before under this Government, that poverty has been reduced under this Government, and that there is more prosperity and wealth in the country under this Government. The hon. Gentleman ought to applaud that.