Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The welfare reform Green Paper that we published in January set out our proposals to reduce the numbers claiming incapacity benefit by 1 million over the next decade. The proposals include extra investment in the successful pathways to work schemes, as well as replacing incapacity benefit with a new employment and support allowance in 2008.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Has he seen the recent KPMG labour market research, which shows that a large minority of employers will not appoint incapacity claimants with a history of mental illness? What is his Department doing to help educate employers about the employability of previous sufferers from mental illness and has he considered offering grants to help employers with assessment, training and skills development for potential recruits?
I have seen the report to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It is an important issue; about 40 per cent. of people claiming incapacity benefit cite mental health as the reason for being unable to work. Pathways to work, as it is at present, will successfully address that issue. Conditioned management support is one way through the issue, but we stand ready to work with the private and voluntary sectors, and other parts of the public sector, to make sure that the reforms are a success for people with mental illness.
My right hon. Friend has allocated £360 million so far for the national roll-out of pathways to work, which I warmly welcome. However, concerns have been expressed, not least by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, as to the adequacy of those resources if we are to meet the Government’s laudable objective of taking 1 million people off incapacity benefit over 10 years. Given that enabling someone to work reduces benefit payments and increases tax revenue and national insurance contributions, is my right hon. Friend working closely with the Treasury to ensure that the savings from more people achieving employment will result in more investment in pathways to work?
Yes, I work very closely with the Treasury on all such matters. May I express my appreciation for my hon. Friend’s work in supporting many of the reforms? I draw his attention to the part of the Green Paper that set out our plans in relation to the new city strategy, which is one area where we will be able to make progress in the direction to which he referred.
Can the Secretary of State tell the House on what basis the £360 million for pathways to work was calculated and whether all that sum will actually be spent on the national roll-out of pathways to work, given a recent written answer that I received from one of the right hon. Gentleman’s ministerial colleagues, which suggested that only a proportion might be spent on the roll-out of pathways to work?
The lion’s share of that £360 million will be spent on the roll-out of pathways. We are funding the national roll-out of pathways properly and fully and over the next few years we shall be looking to deliver more of the scheme through the private and voluntary sectors, which will, I hope, provide scope for more efficiency and more effective use of public money. I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that pathways will be properly and fully funded; to do anything less would undermine potential for the success of the reforms, and we do not intend to do that.
Surely, it is not just about getting people off incapacity benefit and into work, but also about trying to make sure that fewer people end up on incapacity benefit. Has my right hon. Friend looked at the number of occupational health professionals working in the private sector and, if so, has he noticed that the level is one of the worst of any European country? Do not we need to move forward on that agenda, too?
Yes, we certainly do, and the Green Paper set out a number of areas where we hope to make such progress. I want to work closely with my colleagues in the Department of Health, where, together, we can make the biggest impact. It is also worth bearing in mind the fact that a third fewer people claim incapacity benefit than a decade or so ago; we are just beginning to see year-on-year reductions in the total number of people claiming it. I have no doubt that the reforms are working. My hon. Friend referred to prevention and I am quite sure there is more that we can do in that regard. We set out our intention to do more in that area in the Green Paper.
Over the weekend we saw another report of Department for Work and Pensions Ministers running scared of their Back Benchers—this time, over US-style workfare policies. In evidence to the Select Committee, the Secretary of State said:
“We are not proposing at the moment to sanction failing to take work-related activities…It might become so in the future.”
Can the Secretary of State come clean and tell us if in principle he supports such a workfare-style approach? If he does, when will he tell the parliamentary Labour party?
I am afraid that it is the hon. Gentleman who needs to grow up. We set out our proposals in the welfare reform Green Paper. I shall let the hon. Gentleman read a copy of it to refresh his memory.
In the two decades prior to 1997 the number of children living in poverty in the United Kingdom more than doubled. However, in absolute terms there are now 2 million fewer children living below the poverty line than when we came into office. This has been the result of investment in the new deal for lone parents, the introduction of tax credits, the introduction of the national minimum wage and our success in creating stable economic growth.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. I hope that he will agree with me that constituencies such as mine in Durham have benefited enormously from measures that the Government have taken to tackle child poverty, with literally thousands of children being lifted out of poverty since 1997. Nevertheless, poverty is still disproportionately higher in the north-east than elsewhere. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what the Government are doing to tackle regional inequalities in child poverty?
Yes. The new deal has been a huge success in my hon. Friend’s constituency and throughout many parts of Britain that suffer from high levels of unemployment. The city strategy that we set out in the Green Paper will, I think, provide further targeted help in tackling worklessness in some of the most deprived parts of the country. Together with the other reforms in the Green Paper, I am sure that we will continue to make a significant impact on improving the opportunities for families with children to share in rising national prosperity.
In a debate on social exclusion in Westminster Hall at the end of last year, I asked whether the Government’s social exclusion unit could examine the relationship of long-term family and relationship breakdown with long-term deprivation. Will the Minister make the same request in relation to child poverty? Will he also examine the work that is being done by many faith, independent and voluntary groups in supporting relationships that are in trouble? As a nation, it costs us a fortune to deal with the consequences of relationship breakdown in child poverty terms, yet we spend so little in trying to support those relationships.
I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Gentleman has said. I have decided to make the pursuit of the child poverty targets that have been set for my Department the No. 1 priority for the Department. I think that that is right if we are to break the cycle of deprivation and poverty between the generations. The social exclusion unit is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I will be working closely with her and the Minister of State to ensure that we make progress in this general area.
I congratulate the Government on nearly achieving their target of reducing the number of poor children by a quarter in five years. Does my right hon. Friend accept that probably the major reason why the Government have scored success in this area was the impact of tax credits, which cost the equivalent of a 5p reduction in the standard rate of tax? Given that that sort of money will not be available for the next five years, might my right hon. Friend, at some suitable opportunity, set out before the House how he intends to achieve another quarter’s reduction in the number of poor children in the following five years?
Yes, I will certainly be doing that. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support in this area. We shall have to focus our attention in a number of areas if we are to make continuing progress, not least in relation to how we can improve the operation of the child support arrangements. That is a piece of work currently being carried out by Sir David Henshaw.
We will certainly have to consider how we can continue to make the new deal for lone parents effective. It has been hugely effective and we have seen a huge increase in the employment rate of lone parents—about 11 percentage points. We should continue to explore all these areas and avenues to ensure that we can improve the household income of families with children.
On the issue of tax credits and poverty, has the Secretary of State had a chance to read the research produced by his Department last year, which concluded that the problems in the administration of tax credits had lent an unwelcome unpredictability to a key element of financial support. It went on to talk about the profoundly negative effects on more financially vulnerable households?
Earlier, the Secretary of State indicated that he is working closely with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. May I encourage him to ask the Chancellor to consider that, as tax credits are no more than means-tested benefits, it would make far more sense to administer the credits from his Department than from the Treasury? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that his Department could hardly do a less effective job of that?
Answer that one.
I read a great deal of research and many reports. The particular report to which the hon. Gentleman refers, apparently from my Department, I have not yet managed to read. I will need to ask the hon. Gentleman for the reference number of the report. We examine carefully the administration of tax credits. It is wrong to suggest that somehow they have not been a significant benefit to millions of families with children. They have been a huge boon to millions of households. The Department currently has no plans to take on the administration of the tax credits system.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that London is the only region where no significant progress was made in reducing child poverty for the first milestone in 2004? Does he accept that one of the key reasons for that is high housing costs? Typical of that is a constituent who came to me on Friday, who is in temporary accommodation—one of 3,000 families in temporary accommodation in my borough—who faces a rent bill of £430 every week. That is a ludicrous disincentive to work. Will he therefore take urgent action, with the Department for Communities and Local Government, to tackle the housing costs for those in temporary accommodation? Will he also agree to meet the London—
I will certainly pass on my hon. Friend’s concerns to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I remind my hon. Friend that the Prime Minister recently announced two significant projects covering the east of London and the west of London to try to bring more resources to improving employment prospects and to make the impact greater, but she is quite right to say that, sadly, it is still true today that 50 per cent. of children born in inner London are born into poor households—that is households that have 60 per cent. or less of the median income. That is not acceptable for us and we will continue to work across Government in ways that I hope that she will find sensible and an effective response to the problem that she has highlighted.
The Secretary of State knows that one in four children in poverty have a long-term sick or disabled parent. Does he also know that there are 13,000 children with caring responsibilities greater than 50 hours per week? That is a situation that can greatly aggravate the negative consequences of child poverty. In the context of eliminating child poverty, and given that we are at the start of national carers week, what specific measures does he propose to deal with the problems facing child carers?
The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), who is the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, and I are currently developing a series of new proposals that will address some of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised. I think that that was the first time that he has contributed to Work and Pensions questions, so I am grateful. [Interruption.] It may not be, but it felt like perhaps it was. [Laughter.] I hope that that is in no way disrespectful to the hon. Gentleman, whom we hold in high regard on this side of the House. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health also has responsibility in this area, and we are also addressing the issue through the spending review settlement.
National Insurance Numbers (Illegal Immigrants)
I have had a number of representations from hon. Members. Since the inception of the national insurance system in 1948, the allocation of a number has never been designed to confirm that an individual has the right to live or work in the United Kingdom. However, in order to tighten the system further and to build on improvements that we already made in 2001 and again in 2004, we propose to introduce a right-to-work condition that will have to be satisfied before a number is issued.
I am pleased that the Government have finally taken note of this matter, but it was six years ago, in May 2000, that Lord Grabiner brought out his report, which highlighted the issue of illegal immigrants making national insurance applications. Why has the change taken six years? Why has it taken the Home Office scandals and fiasco to bring focus to this matter? I hope that the Minister will not tell us that the Government did act in 2000 and that everything was rosy, because if it was, why did they need to change the rules last week?
The hon. Gentleman should refresh his memory of what Lord Grabiner actually said. In paragraph 4.15 of his report, he said:
“It is unlikely that a large proportion of illegal immigrants claim benefits…However, to the extent that they do…this is likely to be linked to…identity fraud.”
His specific recommendation was about identity fraud. We enacted it within a year by the introduction of the enhanced national insurance allocation system. In 2004, we amended his Government’s legislation to strengthen the controls that employers have an obligation to put into place. The third improvement that we are making is to introduce the right-to-work condition. He should welcome that.
In relation to individuals whose asylum application fails although they are granted a national insurance number, would it be possible to incorporate in the number a field or pair or digits that showed their status so that the number could be de-registered when their application is refused? Is that not the way forward, as long we do not give the project to the Accentures, the EDSs and the Capitas of this world to mess up?
I am reliably informed that in official circles there is widespread concern about the issue of temporary national insurance numbers and, indeed, multiple national insurance numbers to the same individual. On 2 March, however, the Department answered a question, saying that no temporary national insurance numbers were issued. Can he explain that apparent discrepancy?
Temporary numbers are issued in certain circumstances, but if there is doubt about an applicant’s immigration status—as I said, if they are in employment a national insurance number is issued, and that has always been the case—the matter will be referred to the IND. If they are not in employment, or if we suspect that their documentation is false, a national insurance number is not issued.
We welcome the fact that the Minister has announced plans to introduce a test of legality before issuing NI numbers from next month, but what plans does he have to recall for interview with a view, if appropriate, to cancelling national insurance numbers, the 1,712 applicants whom he recently told the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs had been referred to IND over the period April 2005 to February 2006 as potential immigration offenders, but who were issued with national insurance numbers anyway?
The Minister shakes his head, but the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee certainly understood that to be the case. Let me ask him another question. In 2001, shortly after the Grabiner report, Jeff Rooker, the then social security Minister, said in Standing Committee in 2001 that techniques developed in the Balham project
“of in-depth analysis and more systematic questioning about NINOs are being rolled out across the country, virtually as we speak”—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 9 April 2001; c. 74.]
Bearing in mind that commitment, will the Minister confirm that the amount of time allocated for interviews with national insurance number applicants has been cut from one hour to 45 minutes, and that interviewers have been instructed to accept photocopies of passports and other documents, instead of the originals? Despite the message from the Balham project, Lord Grabiner’s warnings, and Jeff Rooker’s commitment to the House, the Government have continued to weaken controls over the issue of national insurance numbers to foreign nationals.
There were a great many points in the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I shall respond to one or two. He said that national insurance numbers were issued willy-nilly: that is simply not the case. If our officials are aware of false documentation, national insurance numbers are not issued. He should bear in mind the fact that 20,000 applications for national insurance numbers were declined last year. The powers to which he referred in his long question are more robust following our implementation of Grabiner’s recommendations, as there is now a four-stage process, which did not exist under the previous Administration. For third-country nationals, the first stage covers telephone discussion; the second stage establishes residency; the third stage involves a face-to-face interview for identity purposes; and the fourth stage involves additional evidence. An applicant may be required to submit up to 20 documents as proof of their identity.
Incapacity Benefit (Nottingham)
Earlier this year, at the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), I attended a conference held by One Nottingham where local plans for helping people on incapacity benefits return to work were discussed. We intend to announce next month the first wave of cities to take forward the new approaches outlined in the Green Paper.
I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform for their personal interest in pursuing that application. We promise them that that will be forthcoming in the very near future. There are over 30,000 people in Nottingham on incapacity benefit and related benefits, and the strategy presents a great opportunity to impact upon that. Does my right hon. Friend agree, though, that the strategy must lie alongside other strategies on deprivation and regeneration, such as teaching youngsters social behaviour at school and tackling the 50 most difficult families, which One Nottingham is doing? Further to the question from the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) about cognitive behavioural therapy and helping people get back on the bridge into to work, it may produce tight bottlenecks in the national health service as we try to tap into the supply of those therapists. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that there are sufficient cognitive behavioural therapists available to make his strategy a success?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the leadership that he is showing in his own city, taking forward those proposals. I have no doubt at all that Nottingham will provide a high quality bid when the process for applications has come to an end. There is a strong local partnership in Nottingham, and one of the things that struck me when I was there was the appreciation of the extent to which any successful strategy must be based on a broad approach. I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of cognitive behavioural therapy. In the neighbouring pathways to work scheme to his in Derbyshire, the same problem of access to CBTs was encountered and the solution was to contract that service from the private sector. Where that can deal with the bottlenecks that my hon. Friend mentioned, it is the sensible way to proceed.
We announced to the House on 16 March 2006 the Government’s intention to appoint independent consultants to conduct a strategic review of Remploy’s future business options. I have no current plans to visit the Remploy factory in Dundee.
Last Tuesday the Minister announced that the review of the Remploy organisation is to be extended. The review has been extremely controversial in Dundee, where many of the Remploy workers feel that it is no more than a convenient cover to close down the Remploy factory network, particularly the Dundee factory, which has one of the best business cases not only in Scotland, but in the UK. Will my hon. Friend agree to visit the factory with me to reassure those workers and reaffirm that the review is not simply about closing their factory?
I know of my hon. Friend’s great interest in the Remploy factory in Dundee, both as a Member of Parliament and previously as a full-time officer of the GMB, which is the predominant union in the Dundee factory. Working closely with the trade unions and other stakeholders, we have tried to ensure that there is no pre-judging the outcome of the review. I await the result of the PricewaterhouseCoopers review, and at an appropriate time I will be delighted to visit Dundee and to include a visit to my hon. Friend’s factory.
Over 80 towns and cities in Britain have Remploy factories. Does my hon. Friend agree that those considerable assets in terms of buildings and the skills of the staff there could be used to establish a much closer relationship than has existed hitherto between Remploy and the other Department for Work and Pensions agencies, such as pathfinders to work?
That depends very much on the local relationships. In some areas there is a close relationship between Remploy and its interwork, as well as its factory network, and Jobcentre Plus or pathways to work. We want to ensure that we maximise the impact of the support that we give to disabled people seeking employment. I certainly take my hon. Friend’s comments on board and will ensure that as far as possible we have a close working relationship not just with Remploy, but with other supported factories and workstep through the country.
We carry out periodic reviews to monitor ongoing eligibility for benefit. The frequency of those reviews depends on claimants’ circumstances and conditions. Approximately 65 per cent. of new claims involve medical examination.
Citizens Advice has warned that plans to reform incapacity benefit in the welfare reform Green Paper will fail unless changes are made to the way in which people are assessed. Will the Minister concede that significant improvements are needed to the medical assessment gateway?
I am tempted simply to say yes, but that would do the hon. Gentleman’s question a disservice. Citizens Advice has carried out its work thoroughly, and it welcomes the approach in the Green Paper. We need to review the personal capability assessment, because we need to assess every individual’s ability not to rely on benefit for life, but to get closer to the labour market and participate in active employment.
As the Minister knows, the tests of people on incapacity benefit sometimes consist of no more than a chat across a table, after which claimants are sometimes refused incapacity benefit. Will he allay my fears and assure me that doctors will do the job properly and that proper guidelines will be introduced to ensure that people are not called to tests for the sake of it?
My hon. Friend is right. If he has particular examples of the practices that he has described, I would obviously be willing to meet him and discuss them. Doctors have conducted more than 493,000 examinations of incapacity benefit claimants, and the number of complaints about their conduct is very small—in extreme cases, such complaints have led to doctors being struck off. We must get the matter absolutely correct, and we intend to do so as we move towards the introduction of the employment and support allowance, which is identified in the Green Paper.
In many cases, NHS examiners directly contradict claimants’ GPs and consultants. Since half of appeals are upheld, surely more radical action is required to raise the professional standards of the people who carry out those examinations for the NHS.
The medical profession is involved in different ways in such cases—the individual’s GP carries out the diagnosis and the medical examiner assesses the impact of that condition on that person’s ability to work. As Citizens Advice has pointed out, we must get such cases right first time. About 8 per cent. of cases end up going through the appeal process. That percentage is too high, and we intend to act further to reduce it as we move forward with proposals in the Green Paper.
On Friday, I discussed that issue with a GP in my constituency, who made it clear that he does not want a role in assessing whether someone is fit for work, because he thinks that that might ruin his relationship with his patients, but he would welcome others working alongside his practice to encourage people into work. Will my hon. Friend consider redesigning the personal capability test to make it wider than a medical examination and to take into account social factors, which is what disabled groups are calling for?
My hon. Friend has correctly identified some of the past weaknesses in the assessment process. We are involving stakeholders and professionals in order to ensure that we get the review of the personal capability assessment absolutely right. Again, if my hon. Friend knows about case studies from her constituency or wants to feed in the experience of local GPs, I am happy to listen. She has made the important point that GPs are involved in diagnosis with patients while medical examiners currently assess the impact of a condition on a person’s ability to work, and we remain committed to that important distinction. We must work more closely with GPs, and we will.
Child Support Agency
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already said, the overall performance of the agency is still not acceptable. However, there have been improvements in some areas. The agency’s operational improvement plan, published in February, set out the immediate priorities for improvements in client services and enforcement. Also, as we have already announced, Sir David Henshaw has been asked to report on his proposals for a redesign of child support policy and delivery before the summer recess.
Staff at the agency say that the current reorganisation will lead only to more backlog. When Sir David Henshaw concludes his report, that may lead to further disarray. This situation has been an absolute nightmare for many of my constituents and, I guess, those of Members on both sides of the House. When do the Government think that they are finally going to sort out this farce?
I know that many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents are frustrated about the state of the CSA, and I think that that feeling is shared by our constituents across the country. However, the staff inside the agency, who work very hard to deliver its services in difficult circumstances, are right behind our drive to improve its performance. They want to be part of a successful Child Support Agency.
I reject the hon. Gentleman’s comments on the backlog. Although it is still considerable, at more than 300,000, it has fallen over the past year. The additional staff whom we are putting in should enable us to bring down that backlog even further as we move forward with the improvement programme.
Many of us have come to the reluctant conclusion from our constituency casework that the CSA is essentially broken. That being the case, and as we await the Henshaw review, can the Minister give us an absolute guarantee that Ministers will come to the House prior to the summer recess and give us a statement about exactly what the Government plan to do, bearing in mind that their previous statement promised only yet another review?
The operational improvement plan sets out the immediate priorities, including improved enforcement. The agency has already established a working group with the Magistrates Association, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Justices’ Clerks Society, aiming to develop a faster and more effective court referral process. As a further step in speeding that process, we will pilot the centralisation of magistrates courts’ cases.
My constituent, Lorna Leech, has sought justice from the CSA for more than 10 years. She is owed more than £30,000 of child support, and now her children are nearly grown up. Does the Minister think it acceptable for the CSA to wait for more than eight years to take that case to court, and then to seek an adjournment of a subsequent hearing? Does he agree that children are only young once, and that justice delayed is justice denied?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman—that is an unacceptably long wait for action. I am aware of some of the details of Miss Leech’s case. I understand that the agency has brought four separate liability orders in respect of her case, over a considerable period, but there is still no action in the courts. That is an unacceptable delay. I hope that the process will be speeded up. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to go into the case in more detail, and I will offer any help to him and his constituent that I can.
Is it not the case the Sir David Henshaw’s brief has been restricted, and that he is therefore unable to undertake the root-and-branch review of the CSA that would allow him to consider the entire structure of child support in this country? He could, for example, look to other countries with a much more successful record in payment, such as Australia. Is that part of his brief, or not?
For the week ending 2 June, there were 153 people with outstanding claims for jobseeker’s allowance in the Coventry and Warwickshire district, and 5,291 in the west midlands.
Specifically in the west midlands, we are using facilities and staff in other parts of the country to clear the backlog to which my hon. Friend persistently, and very effectively, refers. The new figures from Jobcentre Plus on the clearance and processing of benefits will be out tomorrow. If they have not improved to the extent that he and I wish and expect them to, I am happy to meet him to discuss what further can and should be done.
National Insurance Numbers (Illegal Immigrants)
An employment-related national insurance number would usually be issued to third country nationals only if they presented proof of employment. If our officials had grounds to suspect illegal working, the matter would be referred to the immigration and nationality directorate. Our proposed right-to-work check will strengthen those arrangements.
Furthermore, possession of a national insurance number in itself is insufficient evidence to gain access to social security benefits. Robust checks to confirm identity, as recommended by the Grabiner report, are in operation.
The Minister has already quoted Lord Grabiner. However, is he aware that last week Lord Grabiner said:
“One of my key concerns was that if you got hold of an NI number then it gave you access to all kinds of benefits—everything that was going.”?
Is not the Minister’s inability today to give an estimate of the benefits paid to illegal immigrants a further indication of the utter incompetence with which the Department has handled the issue?
I will again refer the hon. Gentleman to what Lord Grabiner said in his report, which is that
“it is inherently difficult to give an accurate estimate of the numbers involved”.
That was his opinion in 2000. His report did not refer to individuals’ right to work in this country being part of the national insurance application process.
May I draw the Minister’s attention to illegal immigration in Kettering and the problem of legal migrants being subject to illegal terms and conditions of employment? Responsibility for those issues appears to fall somewhere between the IND, the Paymaster General and the Department. Is the Minister satisfied that there is effective Government co-ordination between all three Departments on those matters?
There is some sharing of responsibility. However, the Conservative Government’s legislation—the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996—placed considerable responsibility on employers to establish whether people applying for a job had a right to work in the United Kingdom. We strengthened that legislation in 2004 and we also implemented the Grabiner report’s recommendations. The system is therefore far more robust now than the one we inherited. We recently announced a further improvement.
We propose that the new crediting arrangements for carers will apply from 2010. On its own, the new carers credit will mean that approximately 70,000 more carers could gain credit to the basic state pension. It will also help around 110,000 more women and 50,000 more men to gain credits to the state second pension.
I thank the Minister for that reply. The White Paper is a bold move forward and will ensure that many carers get increased pension rights. However, does my hon. Friend know that a quarter of all women between the ages of 50 and 59 are in a caring role? Much of the time that they have spent caring has been before the introduction of home responsibilities protection and credits. Will he ensure that those women will not lose out when the excellent proposals are implemented?
That is the key group at which the reforms are aimed. They will be helped especially by the reduction in the number of qualifying years to 30. Approximately 30 per cent. of women currently reach retirement age with full entitlement to a basic state pension. In 2010, the figure will be 70 per cent. and it will be 90 per cent. in 2020. That will help exactly the group that my hon. Friend mentioned.
I am grateful for that question. We have significantly reduced the level of overpayment of jobseeker’s allowance. The overpayment level that we inherited in 1997 represented 13.2 per cent. of JSA expenditure. I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that the latest estimate is that, thanks to our measures, the loss is down to 6 per cent. of JSA expenditure. We will not stop there—we shall continue to strive to reduce that even further.
I thank the Minister for his response, but is not the true story that, since the 1997 general election, 910 million overpayments have been made? Will he reassure hon. Members that, with rising unemployment—44,000 jobs lost in the previous quarter ending in March—JSA overpayments will be reduced further? The Department appears to be managed incompetently when so much money is being given away unjustifiably.
I think that our record speaks for itself. When the Conservatives were in government, they did not accurately measure what was going on—that is how bothered they were about the issue. We have far more robust systems of measurement in place, however. The hon. Gentleman has asked me for more information and reassurance, so let me break down the figures for him. The level of loss in jobseeker’s allowance to fraud in 1997 was £300 million; last year, it was £50 million. In 1997, the level of loss in JSA to official error was £150 million; last year, it was £50 million. That illustrates the progress that we are making, and we shall continue to make it.
I thank the Minister for his answer. On Saturday, at the start of carers week, I visited a massive display of all the carers’ associations and organisations within Dudley. Many of the carers that they represent are women, and I was lobbied quite specifically about pension entitlement. Those women will be happy to hear the answer that the Minister has just given me. Will he undertake to visit Dudley to meet some of them, to explain their entitlements and to listen to the significant issues that some of them have about the substantial care that they provide?
I would be delighted to visit Dudley to do exactly that. I am going to King’s Lynn later this week in the context of carers week to explain our proposals, which will be extremely good news for carers. We are modernising the contributory principle because we need to recognise the contributions that people make, not only through work but through child care and other forms of care. That is exactly what we are doing.
There are regular discussions between departmental officials and officials in the Treasury on the operation of the tax credit scheme and its interaction with Department for Work and Pensions benefits.
As the Minister knows, the tax credit system is a complete shambles from start to finish—so much so that some of my constituents have been sent a letter stating:
“Unfortunately the forms”—
about how to complain—
“are not available but will be sent to you as they become available.”
So, people cannot even complain about this mess, which has been caused by the Treasury’s power grab for this aspect of policy and by the Chancellor’s obsession with gaining control of every aspect of domestic policy. Will the Minister’s Department now assert itself and get back under its control this aspect of policy that is vital for so many people on low incomes?
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that tax credits are benefiting 6 million families and about 10 million children throughout the United Kingdom. They have also played an important part in helping to lift 700,000 children out of poverty. Of course, I reiterate the apology that has been offered by other Ministers for the mistakes that have been made in the operation of the tax credit system and for the difficulties that they have caused. However, I do so, in the expectation that Conservative Members will offer an apology for voting against the creation of the system in the first place. Of course it is regrettable that the right hon. Gentleman’s constituent has to wait for the forms, but if we were relying on him and his party, they would still be waiting for the creation of the tax credits themselves, and for the alleviation of poverty that they have brought about.
Financial Assistance Scheme
As we announced in the White Paper on pensions reform, eligibility for the financial assistance scheme will be extended to all those who meet the other qualifying conditions and were within 15 years of their scheme’s pension age on 14 May 2004. This means that about 40,000 people will receive assistance totalling more than £2 billion over approximately 50 years.
Is the Minister aware that many of my constituents lost their company pensions when Albert Fisher went into receivership? At first, they welcomed the announcement to extend the Financial Services Authority scheme and assumed that they would be entitled to 80 per cent. of their original pensions. However, the company pension expert, Ross Altmann, has looked into various matters, including the non-indexation of capital sums, and it would appear that my constituents may only get 20 per cent. of their original entitlement. Is that the case?
No, that is rubbish, actually. We made our proposals, and the fact that there would be taper, absolutely clear. That will help us to reach more people and it amounts to a significant extension of the scheme from £400 million to £2.3 billion. Unless the Conservative party is going to provide more funds to extend it even further, it should accept what we have done and welcome it.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission was asked—
The Department of Finance and Administration carries out checks on the immigration status of all candidates at the interview stage of the recruitment process for prospective employees. Candidates must provide original evidence of their eligibility to work in the UK based on a limited list of acceptable documents, which follows Home Office guidelines.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer, but there has been some regrettable publicity surrounding the Home Office and the way in which it has recruited illegal immigrants, often to work as civil servants. As I wander around the House early in the morning, I discover people from Francophone Africa, working for contractors—[Interruption.] I come into work very early. They are working for contractors to clean the offices, which they do perfectly well, but I suggest that it would be very embarrassing if they were found to be illegal immigrants. I trust that such people will be investigated.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not jumping to any conclusions about people’s immigration status simply because he encounters them working in the House. The contractors and agencies that supply temporary staff are responsible for checking the immigration status of staff and guidance has been given about how to do so. They have to sign a declaration to confirm that they have carried out the necessary checks and they have to provide the relevant documentation. The hon. Gentleman should therefore rest easy, as the proper checks are in place.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
House of Lords Reform
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Joint Committee on Conventions has now been set up and is receiving evidence. Tomorrow, my ministerial colleagues in the House of Lords and I will appear before it. I am also arranging to bring forward an order to extend its deadline from the end of July to the end of this Session. An order to that effect has already been laid in House of Lords and will come before this House, assuming that it is passed, as soon as possible. Meanwhile, I will hold informal consultations with the other parties, Cross Benchers and bishops. The hon. Gentleman knows that I am meeting him and other members of the cross-party group to discuss the way forward next week.
I am grateful for that answer, but I seek clarification of what now appears to be the timetable. The Joint Committee is likely to work until the autumn and then report. Should there be a chance for the cross-party discussions to take that advice, information and recommendations into account? Should the House of Commons then be able to deliberate and then the Government formulate their views, hopefully before next year and on a consensus basis, before putting them to both Houses of Parliament?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we all hope and pray to find a consensus on this matter, but we never know. It is the failure to find such a consensus in the past that has left us with a less than satisfactory status quo. As to the time scale, we will have lost some months by extending the deadline for the Joint Committee. My intention is to run the all-party discussions, including within the group, in parallel with the Joint Committee’s sittings, but not in a way that pre-empts the conclusions. We should gain a fairly clear idea about the direction in which it is moving towards October and November, and I hope that we can try to bring all these issues together either this side of the turn of the year or just the other side of it.
My friend will have read early-day motion 2307, on the reform of the Canadian Senate. Does he expect the Joint Committee to look at what is happening now in Ottawa to see whether that gives us any way to move forward in reforming the House of Lords?
The Wakeham commission took at lot of evidence about parallels with other second chambers, and I may tell my hon. Friend that the manner in which other second chambers operate, the balance of power between them and the first chamber and their systems of election and appointment are all the experiences that we need to look at very carefully before making our own decisions.
In thanking the Leader of the House for his over-modest extension of the deadline, may I ask him to confirm that he will meet that very large informal all-party group from both Houses, which includes a former leader of the Liberal party and a former leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, and that he will listen very carefully to the unanimous view of that group, which does not believe in electing any Member of the upper House?
Like all hon. Members, the Leader of the House and I are keen to encourage greater public participation in our democracy. The Power report, “Parliament First” and the Modernisation Committee have made positive suggestions about making better use of public petitions. I am grateful to the Procedure Committee for devoting time and resources to the issue, and we look forward to being able to act on its findings.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He obviously agrees with me that the Petitions Committee that has been set up in the Scottish Parliament has been shown to be in touch with the people, groups and professionals with petitions, which are vital to people. Will he continue to go down that road and ensure that he and the Leader of the House consider a petitions committee to try to engage the general public more in politics and the House?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend—the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee has been widely praised by people from all parties and those of no party. We recently made a change—some saw it as a landmark change—whereby petitions no longer need to be hand written but will be accepted in hard copy. I think that we can go a lot further than that.
I rather hope that we might. Certainly, the Public Petitions Committee in Scotland has been judged a great success—indeed, I believe that it is being emulated by the German Bundestag—so it is something that we should seriously consider. However, is there not a disjunction between what people are thinking at a certain time and want to put before Parliament, what Members want to put before Parliament, and what gets on to the Order Paper? Is there not a case not only for a petitions committee, but for finding a proper way to consider early day-motions signed by a great number of Members? For instance, early-day motion 1531 on Post Office accounts has been signed, as he knows, by more than half the membership of the House. Is there not a good case for putting that before the House in the form of a debate?
I certainly have no doubt that there is a disjuncture between what Liberal Democrat MPs may be doing and what the public think, and we are keen to find a mechanism that takes account of the public filling in petitions. I am keen to look at solutions to the issues that have been raised by us and in some of the reports that I have mentioned, such as the increased volume of petitions, as compared with those in the devolved Parliament in Scotland, and so on. I am sure that those obstacles can be overcome and I believe that we are at least united in wanting to ensure that the public have a better mechanism for being able to participate in discussions in the House. That is a way forward, and I look forward to the Procedure Committee coming up with some very solid recommendations that have all-party support.
I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for the helpful tone in which he is responding on this issue. Although I never thought that I would stand here and say it, I think that we can learn something from the Scottish Parliament in relation to a petitions committee. However, there is a real difference between what the many thousands of people, who often sign petitions and who work hard to get signatures on petitions, feel will happen as a result of bringing their views to the House and to the Government, and the way in which those petitions are handled. We need to find a way in which people’s views are taken more seriously by the Government and the House when they have gone to all that effort.
On a technical point, may we please—I know that the Procedure Committee is looking into the petitions issue—find a way to accept petitions by e-mail? Many people find it so strange that they cannot e-mail signatures on petitions.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission was asked—
House of Commons Chamber
Does the hon. Gentleman feel that there would be greater public interest in debates in the House, which are watched and listened to by very few people, were the debates more worth listening to—[Interruption]. Does he feel that a wider group of members of the public, architecture students and architects’ practices could help us to build a Chamber that was more conducive to genuine debate—[Interruption]—as opposed to posturing and shouting from a sedentary position, as is being demonstrated at this very moment, thereby making my argument?
When the hon. Gentleman raised a similar point a while ago, I suggested that he should approach the Modernisation Committee if he wanted to test the degree of support that he had among his colleagues. I am not aware of his having done that. Alternatively, he might like to table an early-day motion to test support for any idea that he might wish to put forward.