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Volume 450: debated on Wednesday 11 October 2006

4. What steps he is taking to assist back into work those in Northern Ireland who are economically inactive. (92588)

Despite the fact that the Northern Ireland economy is supporting its highest ever number of jobs and has below-average unemployment, it is still one of the worst economic inactivity hotspots in the UK. In Northern Ireland, a person of working age is 74 per cent. more likely to be receiving incapacity benefit than a working-age person in England. Therefore, we are implementing the pathways to work programme for people who receive incapacity benefit and have increased funding over the baseline by an additional £3.7 million over the next two years from the new skills and science fund to achieve that.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but given that the economic success of any community depends on the economic activity of individuals, is it not important to monitor closely how pathways to work can work best for individuals? In doing so, can we ensure that that programme is available to all the people of Northern Ireland, so that everyone can share in the success?

My hon. Friend may be aware that the pilots operating in six areas are showing extremely encouraging results, with up to five times more people finding work in those areas following the interventions than in other areas. By the time we roll out pathways to a further four areas this month, we will be covering about a third of the on-flow on to the benefit. I hope that we will be able to roll out the programme further across the whole of Northern Ireland over the next year or so, meaning that everybody in Northern Ireland coming on to incapacity benefit will have the benefit of pathways to assist them back into work and economic activity.

In March this year, we were told that one of the key issues that the Government have to address in supporting the economically inactive back into the workplace is skills. What progress has been made in that area?

The hon. Gentleman is right, in that the economically inactive are twice as likely to have no qualifications as those who are in work, so developing key skills and giving people access to skills training is an essential part of our approach. In respect of those who have been inactive for some time, confidence-building measures and helping them to deal with the health conditions that often keep them on incapacity benefit are vital first steps. Both interventions need to go forward together, and they will as we roll out pathways to work.