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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 450: debated on Monday 16 October 2006

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Jobcentre Plus

1. What assessment he has made of the performance of Jobcentre Plus in dealing with claimants; and if he will make a statement. (93396)

Since 1997, welfare dependency has fallen by 20 per cent. Claimant unemployment is close to its lowest level for 30 years. There are 2.5 million more people in jobs and 800,000 children have escaped the poverty trap. Jobcentre Plus has made a major contribution in achieving that progress and I would like to place on record my appreciation of the dedication and hard work of its staff.

I thank the Minister for that reply—[Interruption.] Please excuse my breathlessness. [Interruption.] It is not that exciting. [Laughter.]

I thank the Minister for his reply to my constituent Mr. Vialva, who was asked to pay back money from 1998 in 2006. It turns out that his was part of a stockpile of unanswered correspondence on this matter. That speaks to me of a Department that is absolutely chaotic. It turns out that papers were lost and few facts were available. We are talking about the massive sum of £175. Will the Minister tell me whether there are other constituents who are also caught up in the system and who are in a similar position to Mr. Vialva, and does the Minister have a figure on the matter?

I have that effect on people.

I am generally not aware of the constituency case that the hon. Lady has drawn to my attention, but I will happily look into it. I hope that she will accept my assurance that cases such as that are very much the exception and not the norm. In her constituency, for example, because of the hard work of Jobcentre Plus staff in her area, unemployment has fallen by 30 per cent.

Does the Minister think that the performance of Jobcentre Plus might be improved if the call centre numbers were changed from 0845 numbers to freephone 0800 numbers?

We are looking carefully at that important point and we have established a number of pilots on establishing 0800 freephone numbers. I would be happy to share the details with my hon. Friend.

Is not one of the problems for Jobcentre Plus staff that they are not able to advise all claimants that they would be significantly better off in work, because of the effects of means-testing? Was the Minister concerned, over the summer, to read the report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which said that some of Labour’s recent reforms

“have weakened financial work incentives”?

Over the next few months, as he prepares his personal manifesto for the Labour leadership, will he focus on policies that will improve work incentives?

We have always made that an important issue for us. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the effect of tax credits—for example, on the minimum wage—he will see that they have undoubtedly provided a clear incentive for the poorest to get off welfare and into employment. That has been a positive thing to do. We have made sure that work pays. The results of that are clear. There are 2.5 million more people exercising the right to work than in 1997.

I thank the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, who, at a point when our local Jobcentre Plus was failing to deal with urgent cases efficiently, intervened and made sure that it did. May I be assured that, when there is a local problem—in our case, I think that it was to do with recruitment of Jobcentre Plus staff—and when Members are made aware of it by their constituents, we can continue to have that kind of service? In our case, constituents had to wait an unacceptably long time, but as soon as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) and I intervened, they were able to get action straight away.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The chief executive of Jobcentre Plus acts to deal with these types of concern when they are brought to our attention. In relation to the question asked by the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), we have recruited something like an extra 70 staff to deal with some of the backlog of cases. It is important that, when someone applies for benefit, that case is processed in a timely and efficient way. We are committed to improving the service to our customers in all parts of the country.

Economically Inactive Teenagers

2. How many economically inactive teenagers aged 16 and 17 not in full-time education there were at the end of (a) 1998 and (b) 2005; and if he will make a statement. (93397)

At the end of 1998, the figure was 46,000. At the end of 2005, there were 122,000 economically inactive people aged 16 and 17 not in full-time education.

Will the Minister explain why the group of teenagers who are not in work, full-time education or training has, according to his figures, tripled to roughly 30 per cent. of the total, despite the enormous number of Government programmes and despite the fact that that group features a high prevalence of crime, drug use and other forms of antisocial activity?

This is an important point. We introduced the education maintenance allowance to encourage young folk to stay on at school because the priority is for them to remain in education. I am pleased to confirm to the House that both the proportion and number of such people who remain in education is up, although there is much more work to do. I think that the hon. Gentleman would accept that the long-term youth claimant count is down by 60 per cent. nationally and by 50 per cent. in his constituency.

My hon. Friend the Minister joined me at a Save the Children fringe meeting at the Labour party conference in which we met a group of young people from an estate in a rural part of Wales. They flagged up the fact that one of the key issues affecting their ability to get into work was the lack of and the cost of transport. Will he join me in welcoming the End Child Poverty month of action that intends to highlight those problems and tell me a little more about what he plans to do following our meeting with Save the Children?

I was pleased to have the opportunity to meet my hon. Friend and young folk from rural Wales. She is correct that the single biggest problem that they all identified was the availability of transport in rural locations. That showed me that the way of overcoming the multi-dimensional way in which poverty arises is through collective action across all Government Departments. I confirm to my hon. Friend that we remain absolutely committed to halving child poverty by 2010 and abolishing it entirely by 2020, which is remarkably different from the situation a short time ago when we had the highest levels of child poverty of any industrialised nation on the planet.

I am confused. A moment ago, I heard the Minister say that the long-term youth claimant count was down by 60 per cent., but on 5 September, the Prime Minister said:

“We have eradicated long-term youth unemployment.”

Additionally, just the other day I read published Office for National Statistics data showing that long-term youth unemployment stands at 181,000, which is its highest level since October 1997. Will the Minister tell us who has got it right—him, the Prime Minister or the ONS—and which two have got it wrong?

I cannot do much about the hon. Gentleman’s state of confusion, but I can confirm that long-term youth unemployment in his constituency stands at 15. Of course, that is 15 too many, and we will do all that we can, working with everyone else, to ensure that we further reduce long-term youth unemployment in his constituency and elsewhere. However, I am sure that he would be the first to acknowledge that remarkable progress has been made on eradicating long-term youth unemployment, partly through the new deal, which, of course, he described only recently as an “expensive flop”.

One Nottingham

3. Whether he has received an expression of interest for a city strategy on welfare to work from One Nottingham; and if he will make a statement. (93398)

I am pleased to say that One Nottingham was successful in its recent bid to become one of the early pathfinders for our new cities strategy, which will help to play a significant role in improving local employment rates. I would like to thank my hon. Friend for the valuable work that he is doing to support this initiative in Nottingham.

Does the Secretary of State accept that in a place such as Nottingham there is a massive disparity in unemployment rates and attempts to get people back to work that requires incredible flexibility? He and the Prime Minister are already committed to that flexibility. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether it will extend to things such as the 16-hour rule and the earnings rule? Will he consider whether the pathways to work project might in some instances cut across what city strategies are trying to do? Has he thought about ensuring that there is no confusion, not only among Conservative Front Benchers, which occurs a lot, but in a city strategy about the responsibilities between it and pathways?

My hon. Friend, who knows Nottingham much better than I do, will be aware that although Nottingham is one of the richest cities in the United Kingdom, it has some of the greatest pockets of deprivation. The whole purpose of the cities strategy is to unite the public, private and voluntary sectors in a new war on tackling economic inactivity and to mobilise resources across the public sector and into the private sector. As part of that, we will certainly consider any request for flexibility when we think that that can make a difference. Whether it is on the 16-hour rule or elsewhere, we are prepared to work with local city strategies to develop a good response. There has to be proper ownership of pathways in city strategy areas, and I am sure that the local consortium in Nottingham is well placed to take charge of that.

Order. The hon. Gentleman’s constituency is too far away from Nottingham for me to call him.

Child Support Agency

In July, and in response to Sir David Henshaw’s report, I set out the broad direction of reform to the child support system. We intend to publish a White Paper with final, detailed proposals later this autumn.

The Secretary of State will be well aware that many of my constituents have been badly let down by the CSA through its sheer delay, incompetence and constant change of caseworkers, and that many constituents are still caught in the system, trying to seek justice. Given that the Government’s reforms plan to exclude the families at present in the old system, what assurance can the right hon. Gentleman give that those excluded families will not be abandoned or forgotten by the Government?

The hon. Gentleman might need to look at the White Paper again and refresh his memory. We will not exclude old scheme cases from the reforms. We will set out the detailed transitional arrangements in the White Paper, but I have already told the chief executive of the agency that he must prioritise enforcement and debt collection. We are making an additional investment in the CSA to make sure that we improve performance in all these areas, and it is an important part of our plans. I agree—this is why we have set out our plans to replace the Child Support Agency—that it is impossible to make the current system work in the way that we want it to, and to provide the hon. Gentleman’s constituents with the level of service that they are entitled to expect. When we publish our detailed proposals, I hope that he will be the first to support them.

Will my right hon. Friend look into the unfairness caused by a non-resident parent in receipt of child tax credit having that taken into account as income when calculating the maintenance requirement, thus returning that parent to low income, whereas the recipient may also be on child tax credit and therefore may effectively benefit twice?

One aspect of the reform of the agency was the introduction of a means whereby parents could agree maintenance between themselves. Under the pre-CSA arrangements, as the Minister may know, at least in Scotland, such an agreement, if registered, could be enforceable in the same way as a formal court decree. Can he say whether it is envisaged that the new arrangements will act in the same way, and if so, will he consider measures to enforce them in an overseas jurisdiction where there are reciprocal arrangements relating to court orders?

On the latter point, that is an important issue that we need to explore in relation to how we recover debt from people who are outside the jurisdiction, whether that is in Scotland or in England. That can often be a way round the legislation that the House has enacted, and we cannot tolerate such a situation. On the jurisdiction of a court, the hon. Gentleman will have to wait until the detailed proposals are set out in the White Paper. Sir David Henshaw highlighted that as an issue and we are giving careful consideration to it.

Is the Minister aware that many of us on the Labour Benches are pleased that he is taking steps to get rid of the Child Support Agency as it currently exists? Is he also aware that I am astonished that a Conservative Member of Parliament can voice opposition in the manner that he does, taking into account that in 1992 when the agency was introduced by John Major—the man responsible for the cones on the highways and all the rest of it—some of us voted to scrap it within 12 months of it being passed by the House? If only the Tories had joined us, we would never have had such a calamity.

May I ask the Secretary of State about information technology? He will be aware that many of my constituents, and no doubt many of his, who are parents with care wish to apply for a variation on absent parents who are in receipt of working tax credit. The Government believe that they should be able to do that, but I am told by one of his ministerial colleagues that they cannot do so at present because the computer system cannot be adapted to allow them to do so. That has now been the case for three years. How much longer will they have to wait?

It is not an ideal situation, as I would be the first to acknowledge. The Child Support Agency has a number of routes—not satisfactory in all cases, I agree—to try and find manual overrides and work-arounds for such problems. The difficulties with the IT system have been pretty well documented and I do not want to add to that. In relation to the new agency, the problem will have to be examined carefully because we do not want such problems to continue in the new agency. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is usually right on all these matters.

We frequently have discussions here about failings of the CSA. However, first, is it not right to emphasise that the starting point in child maintenance is personal responsibility, usually that of absent fathers; and secondly, that in any such discussion the focus must be towards the elimination of child poverty, as it is children who suffer when maintenance is not paid?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making those two points, both of which have to be centre stage in the architecture of the new system. We have to promote personal responsibility, which we will be able to do by encouraging more parents to reach voluntary agreements. We also have to be able to say convincingly to the public that in cases where the absent parent does not discharge their financial responsibilities to the child, there will be a better—a more efficient and effective—system for recovering that maintenance. I am afraid that that has been sadly missing from the current arrangements, but Sir David Henshaw, the chief executive of the CSA, and the Department for Work and Pensions are determined to get it right.

Is the Secretary of State in a position to confirm that Sir David Henshaw has reported on the implications of his first report? Is he able to give us a date when he expects to publish his White Paper and when he expects to publish on the internet the responses to his consultation?

As regards applications under the new system by those already claiming child support, has the Secretary of State estimated what the cost to the state will be, as experts have told us that it will be considerable?

On the hon. Lady’s latter point, that would very much depend on the decisions that we make about the length of time over which that process will take place. We will set out all the details in the near future when we publish our White Paper. I am afraid that I do not have a date for its publication because, as she will know, that is not entirely in my hands—it is to do with the business managers and others—but it will certainly be before Christmas.

Occupational Pensions

5. What further consideration he has given to the recommendations of the parliamentary ombudsman on occupational pensions. (93400)

We have been considering the ombudsman’s report in the light of the Public Administration Committee’s report on this issue and will publish the Government’s response shortly.

That is a very encouraging reply. Members will recall that the parliamentary ombudsman found that information provided by the Government to those taking out occupational pensions was

“inaccurate, incomplete, unclear and inconsistent”,

yet to date the Government have refused to take any responsibility. People outside and inside the Chamber will take great encouragement from my friend’s saying that the Government are now prepared to look at the matter again.

I thank my hon. Friend for that. I am sure that he, along with other Back Benchers, will welcome the fact that the Government have found £2 billion for this. It is in no way fair to say that we have done nothing about it. We recognised the plight of people in this situation and we are helping 40,000 of those affected by it.

Can the Minister confirm that although the 00 series for longevity has recently been published, most actuaries of occupational pension schemes still rely on the 92 series, which is based on statistics gathered between 1989 and 1992? Does he agree that that means that actuaries are very much out of date on longevity and underestimate the amount of pension fund deficits?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that longevity statistics have traditionally underestimated what the change would be. We said that as part of our state pension reforms we will have regular reviews of longevity trends to ensure that we get the right figures as we move forward to raising the state pension age. However, that is not an issue that goes to the heart of our discussion about the ombudsman.

In a written question on 25 July, I invited the Minister to give an estimate of what partial restoration would involve and the cost incurred in response to the ombudsman’s report. The Minister replied that that could not be done because it was unclear what partial restoration meant. In responding to the ombudsman’s report, will the Government make some attempt at a gradation of what partial restoration may mean and the costs associated with that?

If I understand my hon. Friend’s question correctly, it depends on the number of years and the proportion of core pensions that we would expect to restore. However, we will not prejudge today our response to the Select Committee—we obviously have great respect for it and the ombudsman. We have set out in the past why we disagree with her findings, but the key point for all hon. Members is that £2 billion is in place to help 40,000 people.

The Minister knows that pensioners of British United Shoe Machinery in my constituency and elsewhere in Leicestershire are some of the worst affected by the collapse of the occupational pensions system. Dr. Ros Altmann has described it as one of the worst cases. I hope that the Minister can reassure me that the Government’s response will be relevant to my constituents who have been affected by the collapse and not simply brush off the ombudsman’s findings as some inconvenient piece of bad news.

We disagree that it is one of the worst cases of maladministration. Which bit does the hon. and learned Gentleman say is maladministration—the Conservatives’ implementation of the 1981 insolvency directive, the Pensions Act 1995, which the shadow Foreign Secretary took though the House, or the leaflets and the statements that the ombudsman criticises? We do not believe that it was maladministration. If the hon. and learned Gentleman does, is he saying that the Conservative Government got it wrong?

My hon. Friend knows that the substance of many of the issues that the ombudsman’s report covers could end up involved in some legal action. Although it would be inappropriate for us to discuss the substance of that, is he aware that some of the affected pensioners, who have already lost a great deal of money, would feel it to be unfair if, in the event of a court case that they lost, the Government sought to recover costs from them? Those people have already lost a lot. At least recovering costs should be taken off the agenda.

That is not what we have said. We have held a dialogue with lawyers, which was conducted on terms that were agreed across Government. All we said was that if those affected want to claim that their case fits the principles whereby the Government have agreed to waive costs in the past, they need to present that case. They have not yet done so.

Pensioners

Given the large number of women who will reach basic state pension age by 2010, does the Minister share my concern that women in the same generation will not all be entitled to the same basic pension rights as the rest of their peer group?

I will answer the question. There is a popular Labour policy and Conservatives want to jump on the back of it—of course, we welcome their support. The Conservative party does not have a policy of introducing changes before 2010. Our policy will increase the proportion of women who get a full state pension from 30 per cent. to 70 per cent. by 2010. If the hon. Gentleman continues to ask about the issue, we will point out to people outside the House that, before 1997, the last thing that had been done to increase coverage for women was Barbara Castle’s introduction of home responsibilities protection in 1978. The policy has been welcomed by the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Fawcett Society. It is a major move forward in coverage for women and the hon. Gentleman should welcome it.

Will the Minister confirm that up to 250,000 people, mostly women, currently pay additional voluntary contributions towards their pensions, but that, under the Government’s proposals, they will receive no benefit by doing that? Should not the Government come clean with those women now and tell them the true position as soon as possible or is the Minister prepared to risk another misinformation scandal and demands for compensation by those affected?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that point. When we issue forecasts, we make it clear to people that the policy is changing. On Second Reading of the measure, we want to work with his party on exactly how the information can be made clear to people. However, I do not believe that his party’s policy is to return those contributions to those who made them. It is a traditional principle in the social security system that one makes payments under the rules. If the rules change, people are not reimbursed for that.

Post Office Card Account

7. What progress has been made in developing a replacement for the Post Office card account for the payment of benefits after 2010. (93404)

Instead of a single replacement for the Post Office card account, there will be a range of alternative banking products. Post Office Ltd has already launched one new product and is developing others, likely to be launched in the near future.

The objective remains to migrate customers onto accounts which will do more for them than the POCA. But for those who, for whatever reason, cannot do that, there will be a new Government-supported product. Discussions are already taking place with a view to tendering for that product.

I am grateful for that answer, and I am sure that Ministers at the Department of Trade and Industry will be grateful for it too, given their frustration—expressed in today’s Financial Times—at the Department for Work and Pensions’ resistance on this issue. Will the Minister assure the House that, whatever products follow the Post Office card account, procedures will be put in place for people to be migrated automatically to those new products, so that they do not have to face Government-induced hurdles to collecting their benefits and pensions at the post office when the change takes place?

Of course we are going to make the migration as smooth as possible. The migration process is the joint responsibility of ourselves and the Post Office, as the hon. Gentleman will know, having seen the preamble to the contract for the Post Office card account. We have done some piloting on the migration, and I have placed the results in the Library. The Post Office will also begin a migration exercise shortly, and it will be a very smooth exercise, just as the hon. Gentleman requests.

It is quite clear that the 4.5 million people who use the Post Office card account thought that they had an agreement with the Government when we introduced the account, at the time when it was first threatened to take away all forms of post office benefit payments. If anything happens to the account and people are not migrated to new accounts, this will cause great problems not only for the elderly who do not have bank accounts but for the small businesses that are our local post offices, run by postmasters and postmistresses throughout the country. Is the Minister willing to give those small businesses a guarantee that their livelihoods and futures are not threatened by the withdrawal of the Post Office card account?

First, it is not a withdrawal of the account. We are simply honouring the contract that was signed in 2003 and which runs until 2010, and we will continue to do so. There is no change whatever on that. My hon. Friend would be right, if it were the case that there was to be no alternative to the existing Post Office card account. However, there will be a range of alternatives. Some are already in place, and some are being brought in by the Post Office. As I have said throughout, there will also be a successor Government-backed account for those who do not take up any of the other, better options that are available now and that will become available in the near future.

I think that the Minister is saying that the 4.5 million people who thought that they had the ability to get their benefits from their post office will still have that ability. Will he make that clear: yes or no? Will he also make it clear that his and other Departments have a commitment to the future of our post office network? One third of the post offices in Ryedale have closed since 1997. If we lose any more, the Post Office will not be able to provide a proper service to a great many people, especially the elderly.

I recall about 3,500 post offices closing under the last Conservative Government, by the way. However, I entirely understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about the importance of being able to collect pensions and benefits from the post office, and we have repeatedly said that we shall continue to honour our undertaking on that. At the moment, one vehicle for achieving that is the Post Office card account, but it is a very limited type of account—the Post Office itself says that. It does nothing to promote financial inclusion, for example. So if we can replace it, as we are now beginning to do, with alternative accounts that are post office-based and that are better and offer greater functionality, that will provide a better deal for our customers receiving their benefits and pensions, and potentially a better deal for the Post Office as well.

My hon. Friend will be aware that, in the poorest communities in many parts of the country, the only way in which people can access cash without paying a fee is through the Post Office card account. I understand what he is saying about successor accounts, but will he give the House an assurance that those accounts will be operated through the existing network? It is okay for someone to have an account, but without a post office, it would be useless.

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend the same answer that I have given to previous questions. The objective is to ensure that those who wish to receive their benefits and pensions at the post office can continue to do so. Even today, 25 bank accounts—with a potential 20 million account holders—have post office accessibility. At the moment, however, only 2 million of those account holders choose to exercise the right to use their local post office as a bank branch. I am having discussions with the Post Office about ways in which we might be able to promote this facility and encourage more people to use their local post office to access their bank account.

People in Bingley in my constituency are at risk of losing their post office altogether, not because the Post Office wants it to close but because it is difficult to find someone to take on the franchise that has just been given up. Is the Minister aware that the dismantling of and uncertainty about the Post Office card account is one of the main reasons preventing someone from taking on the franchise? Can he therefore pull his finger out and sort this out so that people in Bingley can retain the post office that is crucial to them and to the businesses that it supports?

I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman is in doubt, but I assure him that the Post Office is not, and nor is the National Federation of SubPostmasters. Recently, I met its general secretary, Colin Baker, and since then he has published an article commenting on the meeting, which I shall quote for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman and his constituents:

“There is an understanding on behalf of Government to work with both Post Office Limited and ourselves to put together a range of products to offer customers a greater choice.”

It is understood by the Post Office and postmasters, and I hope that it is now understood by the hon. Gentleman.

In Rhondda, 16,300 people draw their benefits through the Post Office card account system every week, and they are bewildered about what will happen in future. If, over the next three years, we are to migrate 16,300 people on to some other system, is it not vital that that system should be simple, easy to transfer to and well publicised? Would it not make a lot of sense if post offices were fully able to advertise all the financial services that they can offer, rather than just some of them?

I agree with my hon. Friend that the process needs to be simple and that transfer needs to be easy. I think that he will find that the migration exercise that the Post Office is about to undertake will confirm that all of that is possible to achieve.

On 8 May, when I asked the Minister what replacement account the Government would offer to POCA holders, he said:

“It is not for me to say what accounts it”—

the Post Office—

“will come up with; that is a matter for the Post Office.”—[Official Report, 8 May 2006; Vol. 446, c. 10.]

The Opposition therefore welcome the Minister’s apparent change of heart today. Can he guarantee, however, that the more vulnerable, unbanked, Post Office card account holders who want to keep their existing POCA will be able to do so?

The problem with the hon. Gentleman is not his volume but his vertical hold.

We have always made it clear that Post Office card accounts will have a range of replacements. The hon. Gentleman suggested that I had somehow changed position on the Post Office introducing its own accounts. I have not. The accounts that it has already introduced, and those that it plans to introduce, are its accounts, its design and not a matter for me. Of course, however, we remain in discussion with the Post Office about that. I have also said throughout, as I have repeated today, that a successor product to the Post Office card accounts will be available to those who do not transfer to any of the existing alternatives or other options that will come into being between now and 2010.

Disability Discrimination Acts (Departmental Policy)

8. What assessment he has made of the compatibility of his Department’s communications and computer policy with the Disability Discrimination Acts. (93405)

The Department’s public information policy contains accessibility guidelines to ensure that the Department meets its obligations under disability discrimination legislation. It produces written information in a number of accessible formats such as Braille, audio and large print.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but will she take a close look at what is happening with the jobcentre in Stoke-on-Trent? People with dyslexia are asking to be kept in touch with the Department either by e-mail or phone, but they are still getting the same letters churned out by the central computer. When the disability equality scheme comes into effect on 4 December, will she make sure that those concerns are fully addressed by Government?

I thank my hon. Friend for her supplementary question. I know that she does a lot of hard work in her constituency on disability issues. The Department is fully committed to being an exemplar, both in the provision of online and telephony services to our disabled customers and as an employer. When we publish our diversity and equality action plans later this year, we will highlight where there is a requirement for review and improvement of our systems.

Pension Credit

In May, more than 2.7 million households—3.3 million individuals—in Great Britain were receiving pension credit. That is nearly 1 million more than received the minimum income guarantee that preceded it.

Because pension credit rises each year in line with average earnings, more and more people are becoming eligible for it. What I find locally is that people do not complain about being caught in a web of means-testing; they are just very pleased to be receiving extra pension. Some previously unsuccessful applicants, however, are not aware that they may now be eligible. What is my hon. Friend doing about that?

The Pension Service is undertaking a thorough exercise. We visit more than 1 million people a year to try to ensure that they are claiming the benefits to which they are entitled. I believe we have written to all pensioner households to ensure that they are aware of their entitlements, and there are significant examples of people receiving, in some cases, thousands of pounds as a result. It is definitely worth while for people to ring the Pension Service, or ask for a home visit, so that they can discuss their benefits and obtain that extra help.

The problem with pension credit is that hundreds of thousands of pensioners are simply not claiming the benefit. To what extent is that hindering the Government’s attempts to take 1.8 million pensioners out of poverty?

Far from hindering our attempts, it has helped us to lift 2 million people out of poverty. I remind the hon. Gentleman that whereas when we came to power pensioners were having to survive on £69 a week, they now have £114 a week. For the first time, pensioners are no more likely to be poor than any other section of the population, which is a remarkable achievement during a period of economic prosperity.

Unemployment Figures

There are more people in work than ever before. The United Kingdom has the highest employment rates and the best combination of employment and unemployment in the G7, according to the assessment of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The Minister will be aware of a report in The Business in August which showed that 5.29 million people were receiving out-of-work benefits. The real unemployment rate stands at 16 per cent. Does the Minister not recognise that, despite the Government’s promise in 1997 to tackle the spiral of escalating welfare costs, we have had nine and a half wasted years from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

The hon. Gentleman would do better to reflect on the fact that in his constituency, long-term employment is down by two thirds.

It is one thing for the Conservatives, while in government, to have fiddled the figures when unemployment hit 3 million twice and incapacity benefit trebled, but it is quite another for them to fix and fiddle the figures while in opposition. What the Conservatives have sought to do today, in the Chamber and elsewhere, is say that everyone—every single person—on incapacity benefit is unemployed, regardless of disability or mental capacity. To lump all those folk together, regardless of their complicated needs and the support that they require, is nothing short of a disgrace, and the Conservatives should be embarrassed by themselves.

I welcome the stunningly successful figures that the Minister has given us, but may I voice my concern about the continued decline in jobs in the textile industry, particularly in the Leicester and east midlands area? While employment is falling everywhere else, in those sectors it continues to rise. What steps can the Minister and his Department take—along with the Department of Trade and Industry—to reverse that decline?

My right hon. Friend is right to observe that, despite the remarkable progress that has been made, there are continuing pockets of difficulty. He will know of the work being done by Sandy Leitch on the skills strategy. He will also know that in a global economy we cannot compete with China, India and others on the basis of low cost, but must compete on the basis of high skills. I will of course happily meet my right hon. Friend to discuss any specific further action that he thinks we could take in Leicester, or in Leicestershire generally.

Despite the Minister’s worrying complacency, is not unemployment currently at a six-year high? In Shropshire, we have seen it rise by 36 per cent. over the past year. What would the Minister say to the 600 people who have lost their jobs at Celestica in the past week, and to the 600 defence workers who have been transferred to Bristol against their will? What message has he for my constituents?

Since Labour came to power, unemployment has fallen in every nation and region of the UK. In terms of specifics, we are happy for Jobcentre Plus and other Government agencies to provide the sort of support that has been so effective in other examples of constituency redundancies. The hon. Gentleman would strengthen his case if he were accurate in his assessment. The truth is that, according to the OECD, there are now more people at work in this country than ever before. That contrasts enormously with the period when unemployment hit 3 million—not once, but twice under the Conservatives.

I join my hon. Friend in reminding Conservative Members of what it was like in my constituency under the Conservative Government when unemployment stood in excess of 20 per cent. High unemployment was not an accident of their policies, but the central plank of them. I worked in primary care psychiatry at that time and I saw doctors prescribing anti-depressants and Valium, but if they could have prescribed a job, people would not have been seen anywhere near the health centre. I am proud to be here today to say that unemployment at 2.5 per cent.—

My hon. Friend is right that there were indeed periods in that dark time when 1 million people went on to incapacity benefit in an individual year. He is also right to make the connection between unemployment, poverty and generational poverty. One in three kids were growing up in poverty; one in five kids were born into a house with no one in work. Yes, we still have further to go, but there has been a remarkable change and improvement as the cycle of disadvantage, previously passed from generation to generation, has been broken.

Disability Living Allowance

11. What assessment he has made of the operation of the computer system that administers disability living allowance; and if he will make a statement. (93408)

The disability living allowance computer system is a modern, efficient and up-to-date system that ensures correct, timely and accurate payments to our customers. The Department continually assesses and makes improvements to its computer system and will continue to seek ways to enhance its systems to support changing business needs into the future.

What measures are the Government taking to improve the computer-based medical form, which is highly complex and has denied many deserving people access to the benefits to which they are entitled? The latest figures suggest that 80,000 people are waiting to have their forms assessed for disability living allowance.

The disability living allowance form is constantly reviewed and updated. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, we are looking into ways of further improving the form and seeking to find different ways to encourage customers to provide us with the information required at the point of decision making. It is vital to secure as much information as possible. Yes, we are reviewing the position; and yes, we are looking to find any way—every way, in fact—to connect with those applying for DLA. As many hon. Members appreciate, it is a sensitive benefit, often applied for at a traumatic time in an individual’s life.

The last constituent I saw at my advice session on Saturday was a mother of six children, one of whom is seriously disabled. The family depends heavily on disability living allowance. On three separate occasions since April the file has been lost and the application form to renew has been lost, so the family has lost much needed income that is crucial for a family teetering on the financial brink. Will the Minister reassure us—she tells us that the computer systems are fine, modern and working—that the systems for handling paperwork and forms can be reviewed and improved as soon as possible?

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised that constituency matter and I reassure him that, if he will provide me with further details, I will certainly investigate what happened. It is unacceptable that families under pressure, in the circumstances that my hon. Friend has highlighted, should find that our system is not responsive. If he gives me the details, I will ensure that he receives a suitable and appropriate reply. I continue to underline the fact that our disability living allowance systems are in place and effective. They turn round benefit claims very quickly—not just mainstream claims within a 35-day target. In the case of people with terminal conditions, claims are turned round within four to five days.

Youth Unemployment

12. What assessment he has made of recent trends in youth unemployment; and if he will make a statement. (93409)

Long-term youth unemployment has fallen by almost two thirds. Independent research has found that long-term youth unemployment would have been twice as high without the new deal for young people, which is another reason why we should continue to invest in it, rather than abolishing it.

I have listened with interest to the mutual back-slapping club on the Labour Benches this afternoon. Would Ministers care to explain how it is that almost half of all young people aged between 18 and 24 who go on the new deal are, within 12 months, back on benefits? Is that an example of joined-up government?

Independent research has shown the new deal for young people to be highly effective not only in the hon. Gentleman's constituency but throughout the country. In his constituency, unemployment is down by a third and long-term unemployment is down by two thirds. In Peterborough, the number of people who have been helped by the new deal is greater than his constituency majority.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Parliamentary Questions

18. What recent analysis he has carried out of the quality of ministerial answers to written parliamentary questions. (93388)

The quality of answers is generally of a high order and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House receives few complaints. He has raised those with ministerial colleagues and emphasised the need for proper answers to be given at all times

I agree with the second part of that answer, if not the first. Will the Minister recognise honestly that the quality of answers has diminished significantly in the past three or four years? Obfuscations and withholding of information are now regular occurrences. Spurious reasons for exemptions are now far more common. I hope that the Leader of the House, who has a fine record of answering questions straight, deplores that and will look at what can be done about it. When a Member is given a clearly useless and inappropriate answer where information is withheld inappropriately, should not that Member be allowed to ask Mr. Speaker to have the Minister brought here to answer the question orally?

The first half of the hon. Member's question contained a terminological inexactitude. As for the second part, we are always prepared to look at mechanisms for reviewing the position. I see and speak to colleagues from all sides of the House who may from time to time have a complaint about the way a question has been answered. I think that people will acknowledge that I am very willing to listen and to intervene, but very few of them have raised points with me or with the Leader of the House. If they put points now, I think that I would be able to tell whether they are Johnny-come-latelies or have raised that matter in the past.

Does my friend have any idea how many Members are putting in requests under the freedom of information legislation because they are so dissatisfied with the quality of information from Government Departments?

In the light of the Minister's first answer, I would like him to look at the answers from the Deputy Prime Minister. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is very important, at least in his own mind, but trying to scrutinise his Department is well nigh impossible. Does not the Deputy Leader of the House agree that a Select Committee should be able to scrutinise the Deputy Prime Minister's Department and any reports from it?

I do not recall the hon. Gentleman’s contacting us about the failure to answer questions. He knows that there is a Select Committee that is able to look at issues regarding answers to questions, and of course departmental Committees can take up the matter as well if they feel that they are not getting information from Ministers, but so far that has not been the case.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission was asked—

Voters Packs

Since the launch of Voting Times in July, 95,756 copies have been distributed across the UK to new voters, including those in Stoke-on-Trent, North, as they have reached their 18th birthday. Figures are not yet kept on a constituency basis, but if the hon. Lady mails constituents on their 18th birthday she will get some feel for the numbers.

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, and the Commission for looking at ways of engaging with young people. Perhaps we will be looking forward next to your blog. Parliament is now trying to engage with young people, given the fact that it is estimated that, at the general election in 2005, only 37 per cent. of 18 to 24-year-olds who were eligible to vote did so. We have to pay great regard to what we do to ensure that people understand our parliamentary system. I ask each and every hon. Member to engage with the Commission to see how we can flag up this matter even further.

I thank the hon. Lady for her positive remarks, and I agree entirely about the importance of Parliament connecting with young voters. However, the packs are only part of the work that the House is doing. Our parliamentary education unit is expanding its programme of visits to Parliament, which will more than double in the coming year and double again in the year after that. In addition, we have an outreach strategy across the UK involving local education authorities, teachers and schools, and work is under way to build material into the national curriculum. I agree with the hon. Lady that the subject is important, but we are doing a great deal as well providing the packs.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Political Parties (Funding)

20. If he will make a statement on progress on his plans to reform the funding of political parties. (93390)

Sir Hayden Phillips is undertaking an independent review of the funding of political parties. He has been asked to produce recommendations that, as far as possible, are agreed between the parties. Sir Hayden will publish an interim assessment on Thursday this week. He has been asked to report to the Prime Minister with his final conclusions before the end of December this year. Once we receive those conclusions we will consult, and we will make decisions in due course.

I thank the Leader of the House for that reply. Does he agree that, if any of the recommendations suggest that funding should be capped, such capping should apply equally to all who donate to political parties, including trade unions, private individuals and businesses, and that there should not be discrimination against individuals or the private sector? The trade unions have to play their full, open and transparent part.

May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that, as the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life said in 1998, the trade unions are the most regulated of all donors? During the 18 years of the Conservative Government, the trade unions suffered one adverse change after another in their financing regimes, while nothing whatever was done in respect of companies. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is leading with his chin on the issue, because there is one unquestionable improvement that we must make in regulation, which is to ensure that the unregulated funding of local parties by unincorporated associations such as the midlands industrial council is brought to an end. I note that although he spent just £11,000 during the four-week election period in 2005, he received a total of £55,000 in the eight months before the election was called from Lord Leonard Steinberg and the midlands industrial council, and I assume that he spent that, too. That shows that there is a glaring loophole continuously exploited by the Conservative party, enabling them to spend large sums of money and not account for them before the election period kicks in.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is scope for political parties to spend less before there is any question of further funding, particularly from the state? In addition, is there not a strong case for an immediate inquiry into the midlands industrial council? It is a sinister organisation—it is not accountable in any way, and it makes a mockery of the reforms that the Government have brought about.

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend’s latter comments. I recall that when the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 was considered in the House, there were high-sounding comments from the Opposition, who said that they wished for as much transparency as we and the Liberal Democrats wished for. Such comments have been repeated, but I note, too, that the Conservative party exploited a loophole in the law that allowed unincorporated associations, such as the midlands industrial council, to give thousands and thousands of pounds to local constituency associations without the latter accounting for that or providing any details about who was behind those shady organisations until it was forced out of them.

I do not expect the Leader of the House to pre-empt the report from Sir Hayden Phillips, which is due later in the week, but if we are to achieve consensus, there are three essential ingredients, and he has already touched on some of them. First, there must be proper capping of individual contributions. Secondly, there should be a firm regime to prevent the abuse of enormous spending in constituencies outside the election period particularly, as often happens in marginal constituencies. Thirdly, there should be proper transparency about the way in which all parties are funded, and no more secret clubs and cabals.

I agree strongly with the hon. Gentleman’s second and third points. As far as his first point is concerned, when the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life reported in 1998, it recited all the changes that had been made in respect of the trade union donations to the Labour party and concluded:

“We have received no evidence to suggest that the legislation is not working satisfactorily, and no case has been made out for any reform…No change should be made in the law”.

There has been no evidence since of any case for change.

The idea of caps on donations sounds interesting, but in the United States it has spawned a vast evasion and avoidance industry. We are more likely to get true transparency if we have controls on spending that apply at all levels of political parties’ spending and in respect of all kinds of donors, including shady organisations such as the midlands industrial council.

My right hon. Friend has touched on the point that I wish to make very strongly. There is a strong body of opinion in our party that there should be much lower limits on spending, which should be much better policed, so that no party becomes the hireling of big business, rich people or, indeed, the state. We should retain our independence by having much lower levels of spending and, therefore, much lower levels of donations.

The truth is that there is effective, or relatively effective, control during the short election period defined in the 2000 Act, but there is no control during the much longer period before elections, notwithstanding the fact that because elections take place almost every year, campaigning is now almost continuous. I hope that we can achieve a consensus between the parties that the issue of control of campaign spending at all times is what most needs to be properly addressed.

I have listened with care to what the Leader of the House has said, and he will know that in the spirit of consensus we have put forward a series of serious proposals for party political funding, prepared by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie). Unfortunately, the Leader of the House has already set his face against elements of those proposals. Does he not accept that whatever else the Government might do about the funding of political parties, if they do nothing about the significant contribution to the Labour party by the trade unions, the public will remain rightly sceptical about the influence that continues to be wielded by the unions on this and every other Labour Government?

The Conservative party has always dined out on the fact that the Labour party and the trade union movement are in close association. It can continue to do so for as long as it wishes; that is entirely its right. What is not its right is to seek partisan advantage by forcing through changes in the financing regime, which would have the effect of wholly disadvantaging one political party and forcing changes in our constitution, when no such changes have been forced on the Conservative party—[Interruption.] The right hon. Lady says from a sedentary position that there would be a cap on business donations, too, but she knows very well that her party decided to focus on the trade unions continuously during the 18 years of Conservative government from 1979 to 1997. They changed the law and they changed the law and they changed the law again, but they did nothing whatever in respect of companies, so much so that in 1998 the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life said that it had received no evidence of any case for further changing the law. I have challenged the right hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) as to whether there is a scintilla of evidence of any mischief in the way in which the regime for trade union funding of political parties has altered since then. The answer is that there is absolutely none. What we have had, however—