HC Deb 17 March 2003 vol 401 cc618-20
9. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

If he will pay full pensions to people who are in hospital for longer than six weeks; and if he will make a statement.[102953]

The Minister for Pensions (Mr. Ian McCartney)

We have already announced that we are increasing the period to 13 weeks from this October. We estimate that at any point in time some 26,000 people will benefit from the change, of whom some 18,000 will be people receiving state pension and 2,000 will be people receiving pension credit. By contrast, when the Conservative Government reviewed the rules, they introduced a standard six-week period for all benefits, including some that had previously had an eight-week rule, which meant that many people suffered detriment under that Government.

Mr. Robertson

I am grateful to the Minister for that response, but does he recognise that the problem is bigger when people have to stay in hospital much longer because of bed blocking? Is it not also a problem that other benefits, such as the disability living allowance and the carer's allowance, make it increasingly difficult for people to leave hospital? I welcome the change of the six-week rule to 13 weeks, but will the Minister review other benefits and ensure that people are not kept in hospital when they should not be there?

Mr. McCartney

Some 95 per cent. of hospital admissions for older people last less than six weeks, thank goodness, while the figure for the general population is 97 per cent. The Government are investing hugely in carers and people in the community through intermediate care, as well as funding the biggest ever investment in primary and acute care in the NHS. The hon. Gentleman's party opposes such investment and wants to make a 20 per cent. cut., so I will take no lessons from him on downrating or on investment in public services.

Claire Ward (Watford)

I welcome the extension by my right hon. Friend of the number of weeks during which pensioners are still entitled to payment while in hospital. However, the payment of council tax is an important issue, particularly for pensioners in my area, who face higher payments as a result of the decision by Liberal Democrats in borough and district councils significantly to increase council tax. In addition, Conservative-controlled Hertfordshire county council is significantly increasing council tax, despite the fact that the Government have given it an above-inflation funding increase. What assistance can my right hon. Friend provide for all pensioners, as it is clear that neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats care about them?

Mr. McCartney

When I announced those changes in the State Pension Credit Bill, I made it clear that they not only applied to those who receive the basic state pension but extended to people who receive housing benefit and invalidity benefit.

As my hon. Friend says, Liberal Democrat councillors throughout the country are penalising pensioners and others by making draconian increases in council tax despite the record amount of money that they are receiving from the Government to improve and modernise services.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

Is not one of the problems when Ministers make concessions—as all parties are pleased that they have in this case—that it tends to leave unfinished business? Will the Minister consider seriously those benefits that have not been improved as a result of his alleged generosity? I think particularly of attendance allowance and associated carers' benefits. The rules are still very tight, with a limit of four weeks, I think. Does the Minister appreciate that, when an elderly person is taken into hospital, the last thing that they or their family are thinking about is whether their benefits may be clawed back? Will he reconsider whether that nasty shock may be avoided, and administrative feasibility improved?

Mr. McCartney

The change was not a concession. One of the first things I did when I was appointed Minister for Pensions was to make it clear to the organisations representing older people that I wanted to make changes in this area. I made a promise, and I kept that promise. The issues that the hon. Gentleman raises are separate. He asks about the rules on benefits that are related to people's disability and intended to contribute to their everyday living costs when they are in the community. Those costs are transferred when they have long-term illness as a result of their disability and are in hospital.

I am aware of the need to review these matters, but I make it clear that the change that has been made benefits 97 per cent. of individuals who go into hospital. Other changes, such as the increases to benefits that we made in the uprating statement, assist the different beneficiaries mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.