HC Deb 08 June 2004 vol 422 cc159-74 1.15 pm
Mr. George Osborne

I beg to move amendment No. 8, in page 4, line 14, leave out clause 7.

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 7, in page 4, line 15, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

No. 20, in title, line 2, leave out from '70' to end of line 3.

Mr. Osborne

These amendments deal with the extraordinary clause 7, which is extraordinary because it gives the Government wide-ranging powers to provide future one-off payments not just to those aged over 70, in the manner we have just discussed, but to those aged over 60. Absolutely no explanation has been given as to why the Government wanted to take that power upon themselves. Of course, if things had not been messed up at the beginning—had the Chancellor not said that primary legislation is required to introduce the measure announced in the Budget—he would not have needed to introduce such primary legislation to give himself this broad-ranging power. I suppose that the DWP said to the Chancellor, "We're going to have to introduce this primary legislation to implement your Budget announcement. I am sorry that we weren't consulted on this and that we have to bring you this bad news, but while we are taking the Bill through the House, why don't we give ourselves a general power to make special one-off payments to those aged over 60?"

What, one wonders, is so special at out the age of 60? Will not the general state retirement age be 65 once the retirement age for women is increased? No explanation has been given as to why the age of 60 has been chosen. What payments do the Government envisage making? Perhaps they are a continuation of the payments in respect of council tax. If so, the Government presumably expect council tax bills to continue to increase at the same very high rate at which they have increased since they took office. Perhaps they want to ensure that next year, they can give a dollop of money to elderly people to pay for their council tax. Perhaps they will introduce the same mechanism of a qualifying week. Perhaps they will restrict the provision to those over 70, or to those over 60. Perhaps a distinction will be drawn between men and women. Perhaps women over 60 and men over 65 will qualify. However, we know none of these details because no explanation has been given as to why this general power is being included in the Bill.

Presumably, the main reason for the power is to prevent the Chancellor's being embarrassed again, so that he can make such Budget announcements without needing to implement them through primary legislation. The Minister is a clever man, and I well understand why he wants to keep in with the Chancellor at the moment. That is sensible politics, but it is not really a good enough reason to introduce such a wide-ranging power. The Minister can presumably confirm that there is no requirement that such payments be linked to council tax, even in debating terms. Such payments could be for anything: summertime payments, springtime payments, or payments for those aged 77 precisely. This is a very wide-ranging power.

I have decided to try to help the Minister by giving him a menu of options. [Interruption.] As he again says from a sedentary position, I am behaving like a DWP official.

Here is the range of options. I suspect that the Minister will not accept one of them as he would one of the options suggested by DWP officials, but there we are.

Amendment No. 7 would allow the clause to remain in the Bill, but would change the word "may" to "shall" in subsection (1). In other words, if the Government want to take this power upon themselves, they need to tell us what exactly they envisage. If the Government have some scheme that they are dreaming up, let us hear about it now, so that we can decide whether it is good or bad. If it is good, we can allow it to remain in the Bill. Changing the word "may" to "shall" forces the Government's hand. They cannot then put something in the locker and bring it out on some future convenient occasion. They would have to do it now and reveal their hand.

If the Government do not want that and are not dreaming anything up at the moment, I am afraid that amendment No. 8 would be applicable. It would simply remove the clause from the Bill. I should also point out that amendment No. 20 would amend the Bill's long title. That long title is itself something of a giveaway. It says that the Bill is to make provision for payments by the Secretary of State to persons over the age of 70; and to enable provision to be made for payments by the Secretary of State to persons over the age of 60. The extra bit is the new power that the Government are taking upon themselves. As I said, if the Government cannot accept amendment No. 7, they should accept amendment No. 8 and remove the wide-ranging power from the Bill.

It is easy for Governments and bureaucracies to use every opportunity to accumulate power, even if they do not know when they are going to use it. However, it is not right for Parliament, which exists to safeguard the interests of the taxpayer and to protect the liberties of the subject, to hand over these general powers to the Minister, at least without his having some specific scheme in mind.

Mr. Webb

You will see, Mr. Speaker, that I added my name to amendment No. 8 and I believe that we divided in Committee on a similar amendment. We agree absolutely that clause 7 should have no part in the Bill.

I was reflecting on the matter this morning when it occurred to me that the Department for Work and Pensions gets rather blas é about zeros. Most Departments would regard £1 million or £2 million here or there as pretty serious money. They think of it in terms of a school extension, a new ward in a hospital and so on. The odd million here or there certainly adds up to some serious money, but the Department for Work and Pensions does not have that approach. This Bill spends nearly £0.5 billion and by accident we have some primary legislation to put it into effect.

Clause 7 gives the Government the power to spend another £0.5 billion, with no scrutiny or power to amend it whatever. I believe that clause 7 amounts to a constitutional outrage. It will give the Government the power to introduce an unlimited scheme. If they want to, the Government can pay everyone over the age of 60 any amount of money for any reason. Paying £100 to the over-70s costs £0.5 billion, so what would paying winter fuel payments to the over-60s cost? We could be talking about billions of pounds. In the context of the DWP, I suppose that that amounts to a rounding error, but in the context of wider Government priorities, the idea of giving just one Department the power to spend such vast amounts of money on the strength of a 90-minute debate in a Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation seems truly extraordinary.

We—Parliament—would not have the power to amend the proposals. If the Government's scheme were acceptable in principle but contained detailed flaws, we would not even have the right to change it. We would have to accept or reject the whole measure on a take-it or-leave-it basis, yet potentially the £0.5 billion is at stake. That amount is neither fanciful nor hypothetical; it is what we are spending today. A further £0.5 billion could be spent without our having the chance to change it. That is totally unacceptable. The Bill has hardly been subject to rigorous scrutiny, but we have spent plenty of hours on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report today, looking at the details and debating them. The idea that the principle has been established that it is okay to pay out lump sums whenever the Government feel like it, so that we do not have to go through all this inconvenient scrutiny ever again, seems to me absolutely incredible.

The principal reason why clause 7 should not be in the Bill is that it gives the Government the power to bring in unlimited spending. There is not even a cap in the Bill. It does not say that spending can be made by regulation up to a fairly modest amount, with serious legislation being required for larger amounts. It simply allows the Government to do anything they fancy to anyone over 60 on any basis whatever, with negligible scrutiny. That is the fundamental objection.

We should not give the Government these sweeping powers without some indication of what might motivate them to make these payments. We have had winter fuel payments, but they were never really much to do with winter fuel. The only aspect of winter fuel about the payment was the fact that it was made in the winter—I should say winterish, as I think that the first-year payment was made in the spring. It had nothing to do with winter fuel. People could spend it on whatever they liked—holidays abroad and the rest of it.

Similarly, the council tax payment has nothing really to do with the council tax. It is an arbitrary excuse for the Government to hand over some cash to a particular section of the electorate. Who are we talking about? I exaggerate only slightly when I say that it is the only people who actually vote. We may find that out on Thursday. In other words, the Government sat down, thought that they were in a pickle over the council tax and wondered what they could do about it. They did not have an answer, so they needed a holding position. It is a pretty expensive holding position—10.5 billion of taxpayers' money—just to get the Government out of a fix. Is that really the basis on which we should be legislating in this place? It is bad enough doing so after a Budget speech through primary legislation, but doing so as clause 7 allows—on the whim of a statutory instrument—is just unbelievable.

It is the Government's track record that causes concern about the powers in the Bill. I recall that the birth of the winter fuel payment was connected with the fact that the Government received an unexpected refund of the EU contribution. The Chancellor of the day—in 1997, if I recall correctly—suddenly found that he had some extra cash that he was not expecting to have. The House may have forgotten that the winter fuel payment was introduced for people who were not on income support—of course, it was means-tested at that point—at the level of £20. Now we are up in the realms of £400, so these things do have a knack of growing spectacularly.

The Government seem to introduce such payments on an almost ad hoc basis. It is worth reminding ourselves that the winter fuel payment was also introduced through a statutory instrument because it was a social fund payment. It used the word "fuel" even though it had nothing to do with fuel, so it could be introduced under social fund legislation, which provides for payments for fuel costs. That is why no primary legislation was required. I recall wondering for many minutes why I had never sat on a Committee considering a winter fuel payments Bill. The answer is that the Government did not require primary legislation; they already had the power to hand over what amounted to billions of pounds in respect of winter fuel payments.

The Government have a track record and they have form. They find a pot of money, wonder what to spend it on, and invent a scheme. They have done the same thing with the council tax in the Age-Related Payments Bill. The Government get into a mess, wonder what to do and come up with a scheme.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)(Lab)

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman's argument—and, indeed, that of the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) —very carefully. Is he telling me that when these measures were debated, his party opposed them on the grounds that Her Majesty's Government were simply handing out money to people who, as he said, could spend it on holidays? I did not notice that argument being made by either party at the time.

Mr. Webb

The reason why the hon. Lady did not notice it was that there was no debate. If she had been listening to what I said a few moments ago, she would know that there was no debate over the winter fuel payment. There was no winter fuel payment Bill because the Government introduced the measure, if I recall correctly, on the basis of negative resolution procedure in a Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation. We never actually debated these matters. That is precisely the point that I am making. Clause 7 gives the Government the power, any time that they come up with a wheeze, to make payments on any basis that they like. They can call them winter fuel payments, although there is no link to winter fuel, or call them council tax payments, although there is no link to the council tax. The clause gives the Government a blanket power to make payments whenever they feel like it.

I know that the hon. Lady is a doughty campaigner for parliamentary scrutiny. She ought to feel as uncomfortable as I do about giving the Government the power to bring in a scheme costing £500 million or more with just 90 minutes of scrutiny, especially when the provision is totally unamendable.

1.30 pm

The key point is that this power is huge and sweeping. Parliament will not be able to have any serious scrutiny of what the Government might came up with. The Government have a track record of introducing such ideas whenever they are in a pickle or have a windfall. It is totally unacceptable that that should be the basis of support for old people.

What do older people have to look forward to under this Government? The answer is wheezes, schemes and gizmos—when there is a bit of money to hand. They should be able to look forward to getting decent, secure incomes every year. Those incomes should not be available only when the Government have a bit of money or are in a mess over the local tax system. The Government should give up on clause 7.

The Minister should accept amendment No. 8. We need a proper support system for older people, planned ahead of time so that they know what is coming. In contrast, this Bill will literally be here today and gone tomorrow, as it offers one payment to be made because a problem exists and there is a bit of money to solve it with.

We often discuss what the Minister thinks about as he lies on his bed at night—[Interruption.]

Malcolm Wicks

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is not him.

Mr. Webb

I hope that the Minister will spare me a thought, and that he will ponder whether the best way to support pensioners is for the Government to have the power to produce new schemes and handouts whenever they are in a pickle or come up with a bright idea. Would it not be better for older people to have a decent, secure and long-term income, instead of yet another scheme?

Mr. Hurst

Again, I shall keep my remarks brief. I am astounded at some of what the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) has said. He described the amendment as though it were of such seismic constitutional importance that we could expect the Opposition Benches to be filled with the serried ranks of Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members.

Mr. Webb

They will be here.

Mr. Hurst

The Bill is a very positive development. It will not take anything away from people: it will not narrow down our citizens' liberties, or penalise them financially. However, it will allow the Government to move quickly to help those people in our community who are often in the greatest need. The provision will mean that people will not have to wait a long time for help that may not, in the end, be made available.

It may be right to say that there is a lot that we could do on a more permanent basis to revise the pensions structure. I have never been ashamed to admit that I believe in restoring the earnings link, and I am sure that that will happen.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Hear, hear.

Mr. Hurst

However, when an urgent need arises the Government must also be able to do something about it fairly quickly. I therefore have the greatest pleasure in supporting the Bill. It is full of positive help for a large section of our community, and it has been disappointing to hear the rather mean-spirited criticism of this beneficial measure.

Mr. Webb

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify what the urgent need was this summer?

Mr. Hurst

I have knocked around in politics for the best part of 40-odd years. Usually, opponents of the Government say that the system governing payment of rates—or council tax, or poll tax—is dreadful. The hon. Gentleman and his party have always complained that council tax is especially unfair to people on fixed incomes. The Government have produced a scheme that will assist those people very quickly, and they have not chosen to push off into the wide blue—or yellow—yonder with debates about alternative schemes.

I therefore thoroughly welcome the Bill. I certainly do not propose to support the amendment.

Malcolm Wicks

This simple and rather innocent little Bill has provoked suggestions of all sorts of conspiracies, and other things. At one stage today, I thought that there would be an outbreak of party politics. The hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) spoke about the Government being blasé with zeros, and I thought that he would attack the jests made by the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) about the Brent by-election and what I assume was a Liberal Democrat promise of £100. However, I do not want to go into the matter of the Brent bouncing cheque as the people of this great country are sitting at home and quietly contemplating how to cast their votes on Thursday. We should not raise discussion of this subject to fever pitch in that way.

The hon. Member for Northavon inquired—somewhat cheekily, I thought—about what I think of at night. I shall not discuss that, as I just try to get to sleep. However, sitting in my garden, I do occasionally think about the great contributions made by Liberals in the past. I have to keep reminding the hon. Gentleman that Lloyd George was the one who introduced the old-age pension, and the work of the great William Beveridge must also be borne in mind. The Liberal contribution to social reform since the 1940s has been rather disappointing, but the party's track record can always be improved.

Amendments Nos. 8 and 7 seek, respectively, to remove clause 7 altogether on the one hand, and on the other hand to mandate the Secretary of State to invoke the powers provided in the clause. The amendments would remove from the long title of the Bill the reference to the enabling provision for payments to be made by the Secretary of State to people aged over 60. We discussed clause 7 at length in Committee, but it may be helpful to the House if I reiterate its purpose.

Clause 7 provides a regulation-making power so that, if circumstances warrant it, future payments may be made to people aged 60 or over that may be related to age or other circumstances. The power will enable the Department to legislate swiftly, should a need arise.

We have always made it clear that this payment of £100 is for this year only, and to meet a specific need—the impact of recent council tax increases on the fixed incomes of older pensioners. During the Bill's passage, we have debated at great length the principle of making one-off payments to pensioners to meet specific needs in that way. It would be expensive and time consuming to have to introduce primary legislation, and therefore have the debate again, every time such a payment were warranted.

Any regulations made using this power will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure and, as such, will be debated by both Houses. They will also come within the remit of the Social Security Advisory Committee.

I hope that the House will accept that the purpose of the clause is to avoid the situation that we are in, and that we will use the power only if it is prudent to do so.

Mr. Webb

Will the Minister confirm that he just said that it would be time consuming to scrutinise properly a future Government decision to spend £500 million or more?

Malcolm Wicks

I am saying that we need a mechanism that will allow us to introduce payments as speedily as is consistent with proper scrutiny. Indeed, some Opposition Members attacked the Government on Second Reading for using primary legislation for this purpose, and wondered why this approach was necessary.

Amendment No. 7 would oblige the Secretary of State to make future payments to those aged 60 or over. In Committee, the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) stated that the purpose of the same amendment was to probe the matter. Given our discussions on Second Reading, in Committee and again today, it has been very thoroughly probed.

On Second Reading and in Committee, the hon. Gentleman asked to see draft regulations, but I repeat what I told him on those occasions—that there are no draft regulations, and no current plans to invoke this power. At this point, we cannot predict the future use of the regulation-making power, but we can say with certainty that, by Providing for future payments to be made through secondary legislation, we are keeping costs and the use of parliamentary time to a minimum. I should have expected that to be welcomed by hon. Members, given the criticism from some quarters on Second Reading.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD)

Does the Minister accept that parliamentary time spent scrutinising legislation is well spent if it helps us to avoid the pitfalls that might be encountered when a provision goes through unamended and unscrutinised?

Malcolm Wicks

Of course, and that is why this Bill is being scrutinised properly—although there is not as much demand for proper scrutiny as one might expect. If they are invoked, the powers contained in the regulations will be scrutinised in Committee in the usual way for secondary legislation, and the Social Security Advisory Committee will also scrutinise them. However, I thank the hon. Gentleman for dropping in on our debates on his important matter.

Sir Robert Smith

If the Minister had been a little more observant, he would have noticed that I was present for quite a lot of the debate on this group of amendments and the previous group. When I have left the Chamber, it has been to have discussions through the usual channels to facilitate the progress of this debate.

Malcolm Wicks

I certainly noticed that the hon. Gentleman was here for parts of the debate, but he was not here for all of it, so I do not think that I need to apologise. He has already made a far more substantial contribution than one member of our Committee, whose major contribution was to ask for the blinds in the Committee Room to be raised and who then had to leave on other urgent business. That is one way to shed light on the debate.

I ask the hon. Member for Tatton to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. George Osborne

We have had an enjoyable debate. I welcomed the support from the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) for Conservative policy on the linking of the state pension to earnings. Support was also expressed from a sedentary position by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). It would be great if we could lock the doors now and have a vote on the issue, because we would win.

The Minister gave no explanation for the Government's actions beyond the fact that they want to have a mechanism for the future He said that he did not want to waste Parliament's time by introducing primary legislation again. However, the clause would give the Government very wide powers to introduce almost any kind of benefit targeted at people over the age of 60. Clause 7 (2) states: Regulations…may provide for payments to be made…to persons in a specified class (which may be defined by reference to age or otherwise)…in specified circumstances. One can almost envisage the Government introducing a major new benefit under that power. It is not even limited to repeating the payment that will be made under the Bill. If the Government had made clause 7 say that they might make the same payment to the same group of people in subsequent years, they would have had a better argument. By putting the age of 60 into the clause, they have revealed that they have other future payments in mind.

The comments by the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) on parliamentary scrutiny were spot on. We cannot allow such wide powers to stay on the face of the Bill and therefore we seek to press the amendment to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 109, Noes 253.

Division No. 195] [1:42 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Djanogly, Jonathan
Allan, Richard Duncan, Alan (Rutland)
Ancram, rh Michael Duncan Smith, rh Iain
Arbuthnot, rh James Fabricant, Michael
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Fallon Michael
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Flight, Howard
Bacon, Richard Flook, Adrian
Baldry, Tony Forth, rh Erc
Barrett, John Foster, Don (Bath)
Beith, rh A. J. Gale, Roger (N Thanet)
Bellingham, Henry Garner, Edward
Blunt, Crispin Gibb, Nick (Bognor Regis)
Boswell, Tim Gidley, Sandra
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Gillan, Mrs Cheryl
Brady, Graham Gray, James (N Wilts)
Brake, Tom (Carshalton) Grayling, Chris
Breed, Colin Green, Damian (Ashford)
Browning, Mrs Angela Greenway, John
Burns, Simon Hague, rh William
Burnside, David Heath, David
Burstow, Paul Heathcoat-Amory, rh David
Burt, Alistair Hoban Mank (Fareham)
Cable, Dr. Vincent Hogg, rh Douglas
Campbell, rh Sir Menzies (NE Fife) Holmes, Paul
Horam, John (Orpington)
Carmichael, Alistair Jack, rh Michael
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) Key, Robert (Salisbury)
Knight, rh Greg (E Yorkshire)
Chidgey, David Lamb, Norman
Clappison, James Lansley, Andrew
Cormack, Sir Patrick Laws, David (Yeovil)
Cotter, Brian Lewis, Dr. Julian (New Forest E)
Curry, rh David Lilley, rh Peter
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Loughton, Tim
Davies, Quentin (Grantham & Stamford) Luff, Peter (M-Worcs)
McIntosh, Miss Anne
Maclean, rh David Shepherd, Richard
Maples, John Simpson, Keith (M-Norfolk)
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury & Atham) Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns & kincardine)
Maude, rh Francis Syms, Robert
Mawhinney, rh Sir Brian Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
May, Mrs Theresa Taylor, Dr. Richard (Wyre F)
Moore, Michael Teather, Sarah
Murrison, Dr. Andrew Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Oaten, Mark (Winchester) Thurso, John
Osborne, George (Tatton) Tonge, Dr. Jenny
Ottaway, Richard Trimble, rh David
Page, Richard Tyler, Paul (N Cornwall)
Prisk, Mark (Hertford) Webb, Steve (Northavon)
Pugh, Dr. John Weir, Michael
Randall, John Wiggin, Bill
Redwood, rh John Williams, Roger (Brecon)
Robathan, Andrew Wilshire, David
Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry) Younger-Ross, Richard
Roe, Mrs Marion
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Tellers for the Ayes:
Sanders, Adrian Mr. David Ruffley and
Shephard, rh Mrs Gillian Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown
Abbott, Ms Diane Colman, Tony
Adams, Irene (Paisley N) Connarty, Michael
Ainsworth, Bob (Cov'try NE) Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Alexander, Douglas Cooper, Yvette
Allen, Graham Cox, Tom (Tooting)
Atkins, Charlotte Cranston, Ross
Austin, John Crausby, David
Bailey, Adrian Cruddas, Jon
Baird, Vera Cryer, Ann (Keighley)
Barnes, Harry Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Barron, rh Kevin Cunningham, rh Dr. Jack (Copeland)
Battle, John
Bayley, Hugh Cunningham, Tony (Workington)
Beard, Nigel Dalyell, Tam
Beckett, rh Margaret Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Begg, Miss Anne David, Wayne
Bell, Sir Stuart Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Bennett, Andrew Dawson, Hilton
Benton, Joe (Bootle) Dean, Mrs Janet
Berry, Roger Denham, rh John
Betts, Clive Dhanda, Parmjit
Blackman, Liz Dismore, Andrew
Blears, Ms Hazel Donohoe, Brian H.
Blizzard, Bob Doran, Frank
Borrow, David Drew, David (Stroud)
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Brown, rh Nicholas (Newcastle E Wallsend) Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Bryant, Chris Edwards, Huw
Buck, Ms Karen Efford, Clive
Burgon, Colin Ellman, Mrs Louise
Burnham, Andy Ennis, Jeff (Barnsley E,)
Byers, rh Stephen Farrelly, Paul
Cairns, David Fitzpatrick, Jim
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Fitzsimons, Mrs Lorna
Casale, Roger Flynn, Paul (Newport W)
Caton, Martin Follett, Barbara
Cawsey, Ian (Brigg) Foster, rh Derek
Challen, Colin Foster, Michael (Worcester)
Chaytor, David Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings & Rye)
Clapham, Michael
Clark, Mrs Helen (Peterborough) Foulkes, rh George
Clark, Dr. Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands Gapes, Mike (Ilford S)
George, rh Bruce (Walsall S)
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Gibson, Dr. Ian
Clarke, rh Tom (Coatbridge & chryston) Gilroy, Linda
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Clelland, David Grogan, John
Clwyd, Ann (Cynon V) Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Coffey, Ms Ann Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Hamilton, David (Midlothian) Mann, John (Bassetlaw)
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) Marris, Rob (Wolverh'ton SW)
Hanson, David Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Harman, rh Ms Harriet Marshall, David (Glasgow Shettleston)
Harris, Tom (Glasgow Cathcart)
Havard, Dai (Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) Merron, Gillian
Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Healey, John Moffatt, Laura
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N) Mole, Chris
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich) Moran, Margaret
Hendrick, Mark Morgan, Julie
Hepburn, Stephen Morley, Elliot
Hinchliffe, David Mountford, Kali
Hood, Jimmy (Clydesdale) Mudie, George
Hoon, rh Geoffrey Munn, Ms Meg
Hopkins, Kelvin Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Howarth, rh Alan (Newport E) Norris, Dan (Wansdyke)
Howarth, George (Knowsley N & Sefton E) O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
O'Hara, Edward
Howells, Dr. Kim Osborne, Sandra (Ayr)
Humble, Mrs Joan Owen, Albert
Hurst, Alan (Braintree) Perham, Linda
Hutton, rh John Picking, Anne
Iddon, Dr. Brian Pickthall, Colin
Illsley, Eric Plaskitt, James
Ingram, rh Adam Pope, Greg (Hyndburn)
lrranca-Davies, Huw Pound, Stephen
Jackson, Glenda (Hampstead & Highgate) Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Prosser, Gwyn
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Purchase, Ken
Jamieson, David Purnell, James
Johnson, Alan (Hull W) Quin, rh Joyce
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield) Quinn, Lawrie
Rapson, Syd (Portsmouth N)
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Raynsford, rh Nick
Jones, Kevan (N Durham) Reed, Andy (Loughborough)
Jones, Lynne (Selly Oak) Robertson, John (Glasgow Anniesland)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Jowell, rh Tessa Robinson, Geoffrey (Coventry NW)
Joyce, Eric (Falkirk W)
Kaufman, rh Gerald Roche, Mrs Barbara
Keeble, Ms Sally Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Keen, Alan (Feltham) Roy, Frank (Motherwell)
Kelly, Ruth (Bolton W) Ruane, Chris
Kemp, Fraser Ruddock, Joan
Khabra, Piara S. Russell, Ms Christine (City of Chester)
Kidney, David
King, Andy (Rugby) Ryan, Joan (Enfield N)
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen Sarwar, Mohammad
Lammy, David Savidge, Malcolm
Lawrence, Mrs Jackie Sedgemore, Brian
Laxton, Bob (Derby N) Sheerman, Barry
Lazarowicz, Mark Sheridan, Jim
Lepper, David Shipley, Ms Debra
Leslie, Christopher Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Levitt, Tom (High Peak) Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S) Soley, Clive
Lewis, Terry (Worsley) Southworth, Helen
Linton, Martin Squire, Rachel
Love, Andrew Starkey, Dr. Phyllis
Luke, Iain (Dundee E) Stewart, David (Inverness E & Lochaber)
Lyons, John (Strathkelvin)
McAvoy, Thomas Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
McCabe, Stephen Strang, rh Dr. Gavin
McDonnell, John Stringer, Graham
MacDougall, John Stuart, Ms Gisela
McFall, John Sutcliffe, Gerry
Mclsaac, Shona Tami, Mark (Alyn)
McKechin, Ann Taylor, Dari (Stockton S)
McKenna, Rosemary Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
McNulty, Tony Todd, Mark (S Derbyshire)
McWalter, Tony Trickett, John
McWilliam, John Truswell, Paul
Mahon, Mrs Alice Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Mallaber, Judy Turner, Dr. Desmond (Brighton Kemptown)
Mandelson, rh Peter
Twigg, Derek (Halton) Winnick, David
Tynan, Bill (Hamilton S) Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Vis, Dr. Rudi
Walley, Ms Joan Wright, Anthony D. (Gt Yarmouth)
Wareing, Robert N.
Watts, David Wright, David (Telford)
White, Brian
Whitehead, Dr. Alan Tellers for the Noes:
Wicks, Malcolm Mr. Nick Ainger and
Williams, Betty (Conwy) Ms Bridget Prentice

Question accordingly negatived.

Order for Third Reading read.

1.56 pm
Malcolm Wicks

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time

This is a simple Bill, as we have discussed, although it has created some controversy. It will make real the promise given in the Budget to pay all eligible households with someone aged over 70 an extra £100 this year, in recognition of the impact of recent council tax increases on the fixed incomes of older people. The payment will be made through the winter fuel payment process. The Bill also provides the power to make regulations under the affirmative procedure to enable other targeted payments to people aged over 60 to be made in the future if circumstances warrant such payments.

The Bill has attracted broad support from all parts of the House and a number of hon. Members have made valuable contribution to its scrutiny. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) tabled a series of probing amendments that allowed us to explore, at some length, the detail of how the payment will be made. That has left us all much wiser, particularly in relation to polygamous marriages, among other things—a subject that provoked some interest in Committee. I also thank the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) for his scrutiny.

The hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) has argued eloquently throughout our deliberations that the payment should be both universal and uniform. We, in turn, have explained why it will not and, further, why it cannot be. My hon Friends the Members for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) and for Watford (Claire Ward) all made timely and constructive contributions to the debates in Committee. On Report, we had a useful run-through of some of the issues. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) made significant contributions.

Although I am happy to reply to any new point that might arise during the debate on Third Reading, I now simply commend he Bill to the House, as it paves the way for us to give financial support to our oldest and some of our most vulnerable pensioners.

1.58 pm
Mr. George Osborne

I will not detain the House for long. Many hon. Members wish to speak on airports and air transport, and I must be back in Committee at 2.30 pm to hear the Minister who is dealing with the Finance Bill answer the point that I made just before the break.

As we have made clear from the beginning, we support the Bill. It is difficult not to support helping elderly people to cope with the very high council tax increases imposed on them by the Government. However, it is a strange Bill because the Government never intended to introduce it in the first place, but also because although it is intended to help people to pay council tax bills, the payment will go to people who do not pay council tax. It is also strange because it will do nothing to address the problem that the Government claim they seek to address: soaring council tax bills. It is worth reminding people, before Thursday, that those bills have gone up by 69 per cent. since 1997, or the equivalent to 3p on the basic rate of income tax.

The Bill does nothing to address the fundamental problems with the council tax—that work will have to wait. With my good friend and neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), I met the Minister for Local and Regional Government yesterday to discuss the 8.4 per cent. increase in Macclesfield borough council's council tax. It is clear that a range of centrally imposed burdens has caused council tax to increase, but the Bill does nothing to deal with that.

Mr. Webb

I commend the hon. Gentleman for using his lunchtime break from Committee to participate in the debate in the Chamber. As a thoughtful man, has he reflected on why the Government need the Bill? Why did they not simply change the rate of the winter fuel payment at the age of 70?

Mr. Osborne

To be honest, I have had little time for reflection today and I had not considered that. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will elaborate—as long as he does not take 30 minutes to do so.

The measure is necessary because, as the Chancellor admitted in his Budget statement, pensioners on fixed incomes and the many who are on incomes that are linked to prices have a problem paying council tax bills that increase much faster than prices. The Bill does little or nothing to address that problem. That said, however, we shall not oppose it. A lasting solution to some of the problems will probably have to await a Conservative Government.

2.1 pm

Mr. Webb

This is the Bill that happened by accident. The Chancellor came up with a proposal not realising that he needed a Bill to implement it, as we have just heard. The Bill is wholly unamended from Second Reading, so, in the interests of consistency, I shall not encourage my colleagues to vote differently from the way in which they voted then.

The Bill raises a fundamental question. Let us suppose that the Government are right and that we need to deliver £100 to everyone over 70. In that case, why did they not use the existing winter fuel payments mechanism and simply change the rate at the age of 70? I shall be happy to give way to the Minister if he wishes to explain why the Bill is needed, when all it does is replicate the winter fuel payments delivery mechanism. The Government could have increased the winter fuel payment at 70, and the Chancellor could have said that people could spend the money on their council tax if they wanted to. Why did the Government not do that? Presumably, they did not do that because it would have blown the gaff—it would have been an admission that winter fuel payments are nothing to do with winter fuel, just as the age-related payments in the Bill are nothing to do with council tax. Even if we allow that what the Government want to do is correct, why is the Bill needed?

Obviously, without the Bill we would not have been able to scrutinise the measure as we have, but the Government's approach shows a degree of inconsistency. Our greatest concern about the measure is less the money that is paid than the money that might be paid with negligible scrutiny. The Division that we have just had focused on that specific issue. We do not want the Bill to set a precedent. We do not want Bills such as this one to appear in future—Bills that not only enable the Government to do what they want in a panic, but give them sweeping powers to do similar things in future with even less scrutiny. I hope that the Government hear the message loud and clear: although they won the Division, neither this House nor the other place will tolerate Governments giving themselves such sweeping powers in future. I hope that Ministers in other Departments, who no doubt hang on every word of our debates, also take that message to heart.

The most interesting point to emerge from our discussions was made by the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) in his valuable contribution this afternoon. He said that Governments need powers to do things in a hurry—I think that that is a fair reflection of what he said. There is a saying: "Legislate in haste, repent at leisure". Our concern is that Governments acting in a hurry because they have got themselves into a mess set a dangerous precedent. To be fair, the hon. Gentleman suggested how that problem might be dealt with, but when the living standards of many of our most elderly and vulnerable citizens have been allowed to be severely damaged by an unfair local tax system and a local tax rebate system that does not work, and the Government's reaction is to invent a new scheme to tackle the problem because "something must be done", that is a dreadful approach to legislating.

The roots of the problem are two things that do not work. We have a local tax system that is unfair because it is not properly related to ability to pay, and a local tax rebate system that fails woefully to reach the people whom it needs to reach. If both those problems were resolved, the Bill would not be needed. If local tax reflected ability to pay, the Bill would be unnecessary because people over 70 would not be subject to an unfair burden. Failing that, if the rebate system worked as it should, the Bill would be unnecessary because poor people over 70 would not be paying. The Bill is needed because there are people aged over 70 who are poor and who are not getting the rebates to which they are probably entitled, but rather than make that system work, the Government invent another system that will, no doubt, cost millions of pounds to administer.

The Bill is an admission of failure—an admission that we have an unfair local tax system and that the rebate system designed to deal with that does not work. It introduces yet another scheme, one that will last one year. That raises another question: why is the measure to last for only one year? What are we waiting for? Surely, the local tax system will still be unfair and the rebates will still not reach the people who are supposed to get them the year after, so what is coming down the track? We hope that it is a fair local tax system, but we have seen no indication that that is what we will get.

This is a real sticking-plaster Bill. It is a response to two separate failures of Government—the failure to introduce a fair local tax system and the failure to introduce a fair rebate system. What makes the position worse is that there is a third failure of Government: their failure to support pensioners properly. If pensioners had a decent income in the first place, they would be able to afford to pay council tax. It is because so many pensioners over 70 do not have an adequate income—in seven years in office, the Government have failed to deliver one—that the Bill is needed. The Bill could almost be called the triple admission of failure Bill—failure to deliver a fair local tax system, failure to deliver an effective rebate system and, crucially, failure to ensure that our oldest and most vulnerable citizens have a decent income.

This is a sad day. Obviously, we will nod the Bill through because none of us will deny our elderly and vulnerable citizens £100, but would it not have been a better world if the Bill had not been necessary and the Government had not failed time and again on key policies?

2.7 pm

Malcolm Wicks

I do not intend to detain the House for long. The debate is not about pensions policy as a whole, or about local government finance, although I note the interest of the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) in that subject. I understand that he was a special advisor at No. 10 when the poll tax started to unravel—

Mr. George Osborne

The Minister is not going to tar me with that brush. I did work in No. 10, but long after the poll tax had disappeared.

Malcolm Wicks

I apologise if I got that wrong, but I note—as will the Hansard reporters—the use of the phrase "tar me with that brush". The poll tax is indeed not something of which to be proud. If that is the first apology that we have, heard for the poll tax, I welcome it.

The hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) asked why we did not simply use the winter fuel payments mechanism—in fact, he was urging us to use secondary legislation. To have to be consistent is a terrible thing, but being a Liberal Democrat means never having to be consistent. It must be wonderful, but those of us in serious politics have to point out such inconsistencies.

Mr. Webb

So why did the Minister not do it then?

Malcolm Wicks

There is a good answer to that question. The winter fuel payments system draws on the social fund that relates to cold weather payments, and it is a tribute to the Government that winter fuel payments are now at such a level that they meet a large proportion of people's winter fuel bills. Legally, therefore, that system would not have been an appropriate way to deliver the £100. In any case, this £100 is related not to winter fuel, but to council tax. That is the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question.

The hon. Member for Northavon was not terribly generous about the fact that we are helping our elders and betters, and talked about the Government having a formidable track record. I plead guilty—we do have a track record, as we have reintroduced free sight tests for elderly people, which were abandoned by another Government in a mean-minded moment. We have a formidable track record of 3 million individuals now receiving pension credit; free television licences for the over-75s; and winter-fuel payments of £200, or £300 for households where someone is over 80. I therefore plead guilty to having a track record of which we are proud and which supports some of the most vulnerable people in the community. We will add to it with £100 for households where someone is 70 or over if Members support the Bill, which I commend to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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