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May I first pay tribute to the hon. Lady? She has a formidable reputation in health matters, particularly in relation to elderly people. I understand that she co-chairs at least one all-party parliamentary group and chairs another. She comes with a formidable background and I take what she says with considerable respect.
It is important to remember that many pensioners will have had the assets for many years. That is actually the case. During that period, those assets will have appreciated considerably. What we are saying is that the loan will be paid only when the home is eventually sold. If there is no equity left, there will be nothing to pay back to the state. The provision is reasonable given that there are taxpayers who do not own their own home but whose taxes are being used to help others—pensioners or not—with a substantial asset whose value is continuing to appreciate and rise in value thanks to those taxes. As I said, no payment will be required until the property is sold at the end. If there is a balance left, that will be written off.
We also wish to retain the ability to act quickly in response to varying wider situations, such as economic downturn in the event that that happens again. Prescribing the waiting period in primary legislation would remove that flexibility. It is important to understand that the purpose of helping owner-occupiers with mortgage interest payments is not to secure their asset or reduce any outstanding payments owed to lenders; it is to help them mitigate the risk of repossession. There is no evidence to suggest that lenders will do anything other than exercise the same degree of forbearance that they did during the period 1997 to 2009, when the 39-week waiting period last applied, particularly as we are maintaining the £200,000 upper capital limit.
The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth also spoke about social care. Again, some people who need social care have assets that they have held for many years, often decades. People do not buy houses late in life, particularly those who are pensioners now. Many of them have an alternative income—not everyone, I accept—so we believe that there is sufficient equity to meet social care as well as the charge for the loan.