Skip to main content

Work and Pensions

Volume 453: debated on Monday 27 November 2006

The Secretary of State was asked—

City Strategies

Our city strategy is a more flexible and locally delivered approach to welfare reform. The House will be delighted to learn that Nottingham is one of the pathfinders on the city strategy, and that it, along with other areas of the country, is developing delivery plans, which should be submitted to the Department for Work and Pensions by 29 December.

Nottingham was very pleased to have a city strategy on welfare to work, but a number of issues still need examination. Will my hon. Friend consider the question of the reward levels in cases where city strategies meet Government targets to get people off welfare and into work? He talks about flexibility, so will he consider the future of the 16-hour rule, which is a matter of some concern? If we had such flexibility, we could get a number of other people off welfare and back into work.

My hon. Friend speaks with great authority on this and many other issues. He chairs the One Nottingham organisation. I believe that he has shared with the House his view, and the analysis is such, that Nottingham is the sixth richest local authority area in one respect, but the seventh poorest in another. There are enormous challenges still to be overcome in Nottingham and elsewhere.

On the targets and rewards, of course we are discussing with my hon. Friend and others the exact way to continue to fund success in Nottingham. We will look at the most flexible way to ensure that people who are out of work have the opportunity to train, get back into the labour force and contribute both to their own family and to our economy.

Income Statistics

2. What change there has been since 1997 in the number of people recorded in the Department’s survey data as having income below 40 per cent. of median income. (102897)

As a result of the measures taken by this Government, the rise in severe poverty which occurred under the previous Administration has been halted. Taking 1997-98 as a baseline, there has been no increase in the number of people having below 40 per cent. of median relative income. The number of children in such households has fallen by 100,000. By the internationally recognised measure of poverty, we have lifted 1.9 million individuals, including 700,000 children, out of poverty over the same period.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply, but I urge him to consult his own figures, which he has disclosed to me through the Library. They show that despite record spending on social security benefits, a buoyant economy and nine and a half years of new Labour, there are 750,000 more people in severe poverty than there were a decade ago, 600,000 of whom have been put there under this Government. Will the Secretary of State now commit his Government to reducing the number of people caught in severe poverty?

We have reduced the number, as I have said. We are happy to be judged on the basis of the measures that we have taken, but we will certainly not be judged on the basis of the measures that the previous Government took. If the hon. Gentleman was being straight and honest with the House, as he always is, he would have referred to the fact that the figures that he just quoted cover the period from 1993 onwards. I do not think that he is either Toynbee or Churchill; I think this is just twaddle.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that dealing with absolute poverty, not relative poverty, is the major priority, and that it does not matter which newspaper column one reads, what really matters is having the political guts and ideology to put policies and resources in place to address this most pressing issue?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I agree with him, although I would add that we must deal with absolute and relative poverty. That is what we are trying to do. The proof of the pudding always comes down to one simple thing: it is all well and good to talk the talk, but one must will the ends as well as the means. For the Conservatives, including the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), who is one of the shadow spokespeople, and the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who I understand is now the Tory Trot from Tunbridge Wells—

I think it worked pretty well. What does not make economic or political sense is coming to this place proposing various measures to tackle poverty while writing pamphlets calling for £50 billion-worth of tax cuts.

Since the Secretary of State seems to accept 40 per cent. of relative median income as a definition of severe poverty, will he accept that the Government should regularly measure the number of children in severe poverty, as so defined, and report on it as part of their strategy for tackling child poverty?

I would prefer to use the internationally recognised figure, which is 60 per cent. of median income. It is true that the Department publishes figures on households having below 40 per cent. of median income, but it is best to stick to the international basis so that we can get a proper comparison.

The Government have been extremely successful in making progress in tackling both relative and absolute poverty in many areas of the country, but sadly that has not been the case in London. As a consequence, one of the wards in my constituency has a staggering 83 per cent. of children growing up in workless households. In order to make further progress on the national perspective, as well as in London, will my right hon. Friend urgently review the effectiveness of measures such as tax credits, child care delivery and dealing with housing costs?

I agree with my hon. Friend. There is poverty of place, with which we are all familiar, but there is also poverty of race, which is a particular problem in many parts of inner London. We must address those issues, and I assure my hon. Friend, and all my hon. Friends, that we are considering them as a matter of urgency. The city strategy in east London and west London will help to improve delivery and focus on meeting these challenging targets. When we are ready, we will come back to the House with further measures.

Today’s report from the think-tank, Reform, indicates that the poverty trap in Britain is greater than in any other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nation—a point made a year ago by the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn)—and that 2 million people on low incomes face effective tax rates of up to 50 per cent. when they try to go back into employment. Does the Secretary of State accept that criticism of Government policy, and what does he intend to do about it?

We have made it our policy from the beginning to ensure that work pays. Tax credits, the new deal and other measures have allowed us to take nearly 900,000 people off benefits who would otherwise have been looking for work. That has been progress in the right direction. We naturally keep all such matters under review. I know that the Lib Dems are trying to get closer to the Tories—good luck to them on that one—but I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he does not rely too much on the data in that Reform pamphlet, as most of it is economically illiterate, as well.

Would it be right to draw from the Secretary of State’s speeches over the past few months that while there is much for Labour Members to be proud of, there is still much to do? As a Government, we have seen the creation of an additional 2 million jobs, and we have spent an additional £60 billion on welfare reform, yet the number of working-age claimants during our stewardship has only fallen from 5.6 million to 5.4 million. May I therefore encourage him to continue the debate that he has begun and to make it central to the renewal of this Government?

I agree with my right hon. Friend in this regard: the work on all these issues will never be done. What is important is to set a course, and I think that we have set the right one. We have matched rights with responsibilities, and we have been prepared to invest more in an active welfare state to help more people who want to work to have the opportunity to do so. If he is asking me whether the work is done, I say clearly not. We have not yet eliminated poverty. We need to redouble our efforts if we are to succeed in doing that, and I hope that he and others will support us when we do.

Benefits (Overpayment)

3. What steps he is taking to reduce the level of debt owing to his Department arising from overpayment of benefits. (102898)

We began the debt recovery programme in 2001 to bring increased focus on to the management and recovery of debt. Centralised debt centres were in place by 2004. Earlier this year, the new IT system became fully operational. Recovery levels for this financial year are running significantly ahead of previous years.

Yes, but with overpayments now running at nearly £1 billion a year, half of them being the result of official error, can the Minister offer the House anything more encouraging than an error taskforce staffed by 12, 10 of whom are part-timers, possibly—I know not—overpaying benefits in the rest of their time? Can he undertake firmly to the House that after a long period of beginning to analyse the problem, we may now at last have action from Ministers on tackling the overhang of debt, which is well over £1 billion, and even more importantly, on tackling the complexities of the system at source to remove the source of the errors?

As I have said to the hon. Gentleman, we are already seeing in the current financial year an accelerating rate of debt recovery as a result of the improvements that we have already made. New debt comes on to the books at about £400 million a year. There are two things to do—to reduce the level of debt coming into the system and then to improve the rate of debt recovery—both of which are already being done. To correct the hon. Gentleman on something that he said, about three quarters of the debt that is currently due is down to customer error, not official error.

Looking at the issue from the other end of the telescope, what assessment has the Minister’s Department made of individuals getting into increased personal debt as a result of delays in processing benefit payments? Increasing numbers of constituents are coming to me in desperation over that problem.

Of course, it is important at all times that we process debt as rapidly as possible. Several changes have been made in the way of benefit simplification to help to achieve that. We continually simplify forms to make processing easier, and we do more data sharing between different parts of the Department to ensure that information does not have to be given to us on repeat occasions. All those changes are making it easier for our customers to engage with the benefits system.

Overpayment of housing benefit also affects landlords and tenants. Because of the ongoing inefficiency of Waveney district council, most landlords there feel that they are losing out by having benefit clawed back. They are so fed up that they have started to put up signs in their letting offices that say “No DSS tenants”. That means that people who need accommodation in that sector are unable to get it, because of the benefit shambles caused by the local authority’s administration.

As my hon. Friend knows, housing benefit is administered by about 400 different local authorities, and there is variable performance between them. However, he should also know that we have had investment running for a number of years that has worked with local authorities to improve their processing times. The results from that investment are extremely encouraging. Average processing times have reduced sharply and the authorities with the longest processing times have made the most improvement in reducing them. I reassure my hon. Friend that I keep an eye on all the performances of local authorities, and we are in regular touch with those that still do not perform sufficiently well.

Where overpayment results from official error, not that of the claimant, I put it to the Minister that recovery of the sum overpaid as a matter of great speed and urgency should not be the top priority; rather, the focus should be on justice, equity and consideration for the hapless victim of ministerial or departmental incompetence.

I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that it is. If he cares to examine the rules that relate to recovery, he will see that recovery of overpaid benefit is not the top priority in recovery from those who are on any form of benefit. Indeed, housing costs and debts to fuel payment must be recovered before any overpayment of benefit. A rule that we apply throughout the process of recovering debts to the benefits system is that we shall not do so in a way that inflicts hardship on any of our customers.

Heating Allowance

4. If he will make an additional payment to those entitled to heating allowance to reflect the recent increase in energy prices. (102899)

The winter fuel payment rose from £20 in winter 1997-98 to £200 in winter 2000-01, and to £300 for those aged 80 or over in winter 2003-04. There are no plans to make an additional payment to those entitled to winter fuel payments to reflect the recent increase in energy prices.

May I ask my hon. Friend whether she is aware that National Energy Action, which is one of the partners that is being used to deliver the warm homes agenda, has said that the Government’s figures for fuel poverty levels are based on 2004 levels? NEA’s latest estimates, which are based on this year’s figures and incomes rises, show that the figure for those facing fuel poverty is near to 2.8 million. May I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to work with NEA to try to get to the truth of where we are now and report back to the House as soon as possible?

We will obviously consider the views of the energy agency that my hon. Friend has highlighted, but I should also like to ensure that the House is fully aware that between 1997 and 2005 pensioner income increased by 25 per cent. We spent £2 billion on winter fuel payments in winter 2005-06, which is only part of the agenda to tackle fuel poverty. The Warm Front scheme and similar schemes in the devolved Administrations, to which my hon. Friend alluded, are also part of our campaign to ensure that fuel poverty is eradicated in this country.

I know that the Minister cares deeply about the issue, as I do. What discussions has she had with the Minister for Energy about ensuring that any reductions in wholesale gas prices, as we have seen recently, are passed on to the customer, particularly the elderly? We know that hundreds of elderly people froze to death last year as a result of being scared to turn on their gas fires. Could the Minister have a word with the Minister for Energy to ensure that the savings are passed on?

I do not wish to challenge the hon. Gentleman’s memory of the previous winter, but our impression was different. His recollection may reflect the situation prior to 1997, when no winter fuel payment was available, and the only thing to which pensioners could look forward was a £10 Christmas bonus and paying 17.5 per cent. on fuel. At the weekend, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer indicated that energy companies also have responsibilities, and while some companies have good schemes to help low-income users, others do not. I know that the Chancellor’s ambition is to reduce the cost of energy for consumers as quickly as possible to reflect decreasing energy prices on the wholesale market.

As the Minister knows, low-income families with small children also have difficulty paying fuel bills at this time. Will she consider Save the Children’s suggestion of introducing one-off winter grants for those families too?

I am aware of Save the Children’s campaign, and I spoke at our meeting with that organisation only the other evening. I refer my hon. Friend to the strong words of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor about the need for companies, too, to take responsibility and ensure that low-income users have a better deal, as I indicated to the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard).

Pensioners (Means Testing)

5. How many pensioners are (a) eligible for and (b) claiming means-tested benefits in (i) Great Britain and (ii) Northamptonshire; and if he will make a statement. (102900)

It is estimated that around half of pensioners living in private households in Great Britain are eligible for means-tested benefits. Of those entitled to guarantee credit, 70 to 81 per cent. are estimated to be claiming, although 43 to 50 per cent. of those entitled to savings credit are estimated to be claiming. Since its introduction, pension credit has lifted 2 million pensioners out of absolute poverty. An estimate for Northamptonshire is not available.

It is disappointing that figures for Northamptonshire are not available, as I suspect that thousands of pensioners in the Kettering constituency are entitled to means-tested benefits but are not claiming them. While congratulating Kettering’s citizens advice bureau, welfare rights advisory service and Age Concern for doing all that they can to encourage pensioners to claim, what specific steps are the Government taking to ensure that more pensioners claim the tax credits and other benefits to which they are entitled?

The hon. Gentleman will be delighted to know that, last year, the Pension Service visited more than 1 million people, and is calling 5,000 people every week. Take-up has increased from 74 per cent. to 81 per cent. When we came to power, there were 3 million pensioners in poverty, but now there are fewer than 1 million. That may not be perfect, but it is very good progress, and it would not have happened under his party, which opposed every one of those measures.

Control of the growth of means-testing is one of the stated objectives of the Government’s pensions reform programme. The Government estimate that means-testing will fall to less than 30 per cent. by 2050 under their proposals. However, the Pensions Policy Institute, a respected independent think tank, estimates that the figure will be closer to 50 per cent? Is it wrong?

We have been working with the institute on the reforms, and will shortly put forward figures that narrow the funnel of doubt, as it is described. We have published information on our website, which everyone can look at, setting out our estimates. We are confident that those are right and that our system is more effective at modelling the impact of the state second pension, and that our reforms will result in less than a third of people being entitled to means-tested benefits compared with 70 per cent. if the current policy continued.

We shall see, but even if the Department for Work and Pensions’ figures can be substantiated, a third is still a high level of means-testing in the system. Discounting the Liberal Democrats’ fantasy proposals, we accept that there is no easy and affordable way of further reducing means-testing in the short term. Bearing in mind the Chancellor’s 1994 commitment to eliminating the massive means-testing now imposed on the elderly, will the Minister say whether the Government share our long-term aspiration to see the level of means-testing fall still further, as and when that becomes affordable in future?

It depends entirely on how the hon. Gentleman’s party proposes to do that. He is right to say that the Liberal Democrats’ policy is a fantasy, because it would put 5p on income tax. According to the 2005 figures, however, about half those receiving means-tested benefits are receiving disability benefits or carers’ premiums, which means that they can collect £160 a week in pension credit. I assume that the hon. Gentleman is not saying he would want to take that money from such vulnerable groups.

One of the groups who find the situation hardest are pensioners who own their homes and are eligible for council tax benefit. They have not previously been in the benefit system, and are concerned about giving information. The take-up of council tax benefit in that group is comparatively low. What are the Government doing to try to increase take-up of council tax benefit among pensioners on fixed incomes?

That is a very good point. We are transforming the system for claiming council tax benefit and, indeed, housing benefit. People used to have to fill up a 26-page form; now there is a three-page form which can be filled up in minutes. A survey by Age Concern of people who had claimed the benefit showed that 70 per cent. found it easy. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to work with his constituents to ensure that as many as possible claim.

Contact Centres (PAC Report)

6. When he will respond to the Public Accounts Committee report on contact centres, “Department for Work and Pensions: Delivering effective services through contact centres”, HC 1034, 2005-06; and if he will make a statement. (102901)

In line with normal procedures, the Government will respond formally to the Public Accounts Committee report on contact centres in January 2007.

In response to the Department’s efforts to save £375 million, many local offices are being closed and are being replaced by 62 call centres. As the Minister knows, the Public Accounts Committee has described the call centres as unresponsive, unreliable and frankly not working. Will he please reassure us that efficiency savings are not hitting front-line services, as they appear to be?

Since April this year, call centres have received 22 million calls. All but 0.3 per cent. were answered, and only 0.3 per cent. produced the engaged tone. A National Audit Office report showed that 86 per cent. of customers thought their calls had been dealt with in a reasonable time. Of course we can go on finding more ways of improving customer care for benefit recipients and customers, which is why in the last couple of weeks we have announced a freephone number—a single point of contact—for all working-age benefit claimants. I think that that will be welcomed by customers and citizens throughout the country.

In responding to the report on call centres, will the Minister pay particular attention to the problems currently affecting crisis loan helplines? Citizens Advice reports that in some parts of the country there are severe delays in the answering of calls, and that some people are having to make calls repeatedly over a number of days before they are answered. Given that people in need of crisis loans are among the most vulnerable in society, will the Minister ensure that steps are taken to ensure that calls are answered promptly and claims are processed as quickly as possible?

The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point from his temporary position on the Back Benches. It is true that on some occasions performance is unacceptable. For example, two years ago those claiming disability living allowance did not receive the support and customer care to which they were entitled. We have now increased the number of telephone lines to make it easier to help people in the position that the hon. Gentleman describes. If he finds that his constituents are not getting through to helplines despite that increase in capacity, I shall be happy to listen to further representations from him.

Many tens of thousands of people are still unable to get through to contact centres. This summer, for example, it took 25 days for a centre to call back and pay jobseeker’s allowance to a constituent of mine, causing severe hardship. Given that the Gershon process calls for no reduction in service due to efficiency gains, will the Minister commit the Department to working towards the elimination of blocked calls and ensuring that all calls are returned within a day unless a longer period is requested?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position on the Front Bench, and hope that his future questions will be a little better informed. As I said, since April our telephone lines have received 22 million calls. Of course, if his constituent is one of those who make up the 0.3 per cent. of customers who have received an engaged tone, that is unacceptable. In the public sector, we want continually to find ways to support customer service and responsiveness in the public services. We can learn from some of the innovations in the private sector. We want continually to find ways to provide a first-class service to our public sector customers, regardless of whether they are benefit recipients, benefit customers or anyone else.

Child Support Agency

7. What progress has been made on reforms to the Child Support Agency; and if he will make a statement. (102902)

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 will publish a White Paper with final proposals shortly.

What will happen to claimants who are owed thousands of pounds by non-paying ex-partners when the CSA is scrapped?

We must make sure that we crack down on people who are not paying up. We all know from examples in our constituencies that, sadly, relationships end but responsibilities must never be allowed to do so. We have invested more: we are investing more right now in the CSA to make sure that we increase the amount of historic debt that is recovered to parents with care. It is important that we do that. But the hon. Gentleman will have to wait a little longer to see our specific proposals, which will be set out in the White Paper shortly.

Looking back on the genesis of the existing CSA, there were three key reasons why it failed so abysmally: the inadequate number of staff; the focus on driving down benefit costs as a central objective; and an appallingly designed computer system, which was slow and unstable. Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that the CSA’s successor will focus on driving up income in the families concerned, that it will provide adequate numbers of people in the new CSA to manage the whole process, and that it will go nowhere near—not with a bargepole—the existing computer supplier?

We need to learn the lessons from previous attempts to get this right. We will not do our constituents or the country any favours unless we are prepared to be open and frank about where things have gone wrong. I think that we have done that, and that David Henshaw’s report gives us a proper blueprint on which we can plan for a much more successful system of child support in the future. We must make tackling child poverty its No. 1 objective; we have made that clear already. In relation to the point of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), who asked me to reveal to the House the contents of the White Paper ahead of its publication, let me reassure him and his hon. Friends that we will propose a series of much stronger and tougher enforcement powers; but I am sure that the House will understand why I cannot go into the details of that today.

As agreements will be an important part of the new system, will the Secretary of State at least tell us whether he has had discussions with the Scottish Executive as to how they will work in the Scottish legal system, and in particular whether there will be provisions for implementation of these agreements and for variation on change of circumstance?

Yes, we have had full and proper consultations with the Scottish Executive.

Over £1 million of the money that the CSA has failed to collect is owed not to the Government but directly to thousands of parents, who have suffered extreme financial hardship. As a result of that, will the Secretary of State confirm today that he will continue to pursue those payments, and that he will not at some point in the future decide to write off any of that money?

I warmly welcome the hon. Lady to her new Front-Bench responsibilities. I know that it will sound unfair if I say this, but the amount of unclaimed debt is not £1 million; it is £1 billion. We are not prepared to see all of that debt just waved away. We will do everything possible to recover as much of that money as we reasonably can, to make sure that families—the parents who are looking after the children—benefit from that maintenance.

Will the Secretary of State bear in mind that a constituent of mine in Shetland calculates that it will take 15 years for the child maintenance arrears for her child to be paid, which means that her child will be 27 before all the arrears are paid? Will he ensure that the people who are in that situation will not be the victims of a mass write-off of debt? That is the real concern that she brings to me.

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not know the details of that case, and rather than repeat the answer that I gave the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), I would prefer to leave the matter there. There is a very significant amount of debt in the system that we have got to clear up as quickly as we can and, as I said, we will do whatever we can to recover as much of it as possible.

I welcome the plan in the Queen’s Speech to introduce a child support Bill. One problem with current system and the existing agency has been a lack of robustness in the assessment process. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the new Bill takes that point on board and improves the assessment phase?

Yes, we certainly will. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait until the White Paper, but we will set out in it some pretty radical, long overdue reforms of the assessment and collection process.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the problem of absent parents who own a business avoiding maintenance payments by paying themselves small salaries and using the business account to pay living expenses and give their partner a salary? Does he think that the current provisions on variations in, and diversion of, income are working well to tackle this problem, or do they need reform?

Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that one reform will be introduced? Where the parent with care has received no funds whatsoever through the Child Support Agency from the absent parent and the child then moves from one parent to the other, the parent who is owed thousands of pounds cannot set that off against the money that she then has to pay to the absent parent who defaulted. Should it not be possible for a debt to be set off against a future liability in those circumstances?

It should be possible for that to happen. The right hon. Gentleman has raised a very important issue, but I might need to refresh my memory as to what the White Paper says about it. However, he has made a very effective point.

Unemployment (Older People)

8. What recent representations he has received on help available to unemployed people over the age of 50 years. (102903)

There are 1 million more over-50s in work than a decade ago. We have received a number of representations on what more can be done, none of which advocates the abolition of the new deal 50-plus, but perhaps we are about to hear the first.

The Government have a stated aim to get more older workers back into work and the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has said that we must be more focused on employability skills. If the Government want to demonstrate any joined-up thinking on this issue––I doubt they can––could they tell me exactly what representations his Department have made to the Department for Education and Skills?

We have a joint project with the DFES and we are a playing an active role in the consideration of the Leitch review and the skills gap. As the hon. Lady’s party will be aware, the Welfare Reform Bill will play an important part in the skills agenda for the over-50s. About half those on incapacity benefit are aged over 50. An enormous amount is being done to support such people in their efforts to get into work. Indeed, in the past year there has been an increase of more than 200,000 in the number of people aged over 50 coming into the labour market.

Over 50s reported that one of the main barriers to work was the attitude of employers, who saw them as over the hill and not worth employing. Has my hon. Friend detected any change in employers’ attitude and an improved work-entry rate since the introduction of age discrimination legislation?

A variety of initiatives, including the “Age Positive” and “Be Ready” campaigns, are aimed at changing perceptions of older workers. In advance of the age discrimination legislation, there was a remarkable increase in the number of older workers staying in the labour force or returning to it, so there have been improvements. However, my hon. Friend is right that we have further to go in supporting the ever-increasing number of those aged over 50 who wish to work, in order to give them the chance to get back into the labour market.

Surely the best way to help unemployed people aged over 50 is to help them back into work. Does the Minister have any plans to visit Poland and the Czech Republic to see what lessons can be learned from their education and training systems, which have been so successful in equipping people with the skills necessary to take up jobs available in the UK economy?

I have no plans to visit Poland or any other part of the European Union in connection with the issue of over-50s in the workplace. Of course, one important part of our over-50s agenda is the new deal 50-plus, which is supporting such people and giving them the chance to get back into work. It has enabled some 160,000 job entries and job starts, but it was opposed by the Conservatives. I wonder whether they continue to oppose the new deal 50-plus, which, as I say, is an important part of our agenda and is supporting such people in getting back into work.

Although we have made some progress, my hon. Friend will realise how difficult it is to change the culture among employers. Surely we as a Government should do what we can to emphasise the benefits and qualities of the over-50s and the experience that they bring to the work force. How would he feel if he heard an organisation used the term “bed blocker” for experienced employees? Will he give an assurance that the Labour party, our organisation, will never use the term to describe our experienced Members of Parliament?

My hon. Friend is right. Some two thirds of the growth in the labour market in the past decade has been among the over-50s. That reinforces the need to support more people, especially those who are inactive and perhaps locked into a culture of benefit dependency through incapacity benefit, half of whom are over the age of 50, and emphasises why we need to continue the roll-out of pathways and seek support across the House—which we have had so far—for the Welfare Reform Bill, so that we can support those people to get back into work.

I have a simple question and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give me a simple and positive answer to it. I have been approached by many people over 50 whose skills have become redundant, but they have to languish in unemployment for six months or take a cheap, badly paid job that does not use their potential skills. Will the Government consider introducing a scheme that would reskill people more quickly, so that they are not out of the labour market for such a long time or forced to take low paid, unskilled work?

The reason that there is a qualifying period for the new deal 50-plus is that the vast majority of those aged over 50 find work in the first six months. The new deal is aimed at tackling and eradicating long-term unemployment in the 50-plus group and among young folk. However, we continue of course to listen to representations and will pay close attention to the report by Sandy Leitch on the future skills agenda.

Disabled People (Heating Costs)

9. What provision is made for the extra cost on fuel and heating incurred by seriously disabled people under the age of 60 years during winter. (102904)

Disability living allowance, together with the disability premiums in the income-related benefits and the disability-related additions in tax credits, already contribute towards the extra costs faced by seriously disabled people. Recipients are free to spend those payments according to their own priorities.

I wish to raise the case of Matthew Pinder, who is 21, seriously disabled and lives in my constituency. His mother often has to keep the heating on for 20 hours a day, which is very costly. Indeed, to pay for that, she has been forced to borrow from relatives. May I ask the Minister why, when it is recognised that those over 60 are especially vulnerable to the cold, it is not recognised that those under 60 with serious disabilities face the same daily struggle and, therefore, should receive the same benefits?

I do not want to go into specific details, because it is difficult to assess cases across the Floor of the House at Question Time. However, disability living allowance and the disability premiums that I mentioned do take into account the additional costs and impact of disability on an individual. They take close cognisance of an individual’s circumstances. The most severely disabled people receive an additional £7,000 a year in recognition of the extra costs they face. Some 60 per cent. of those who receive the DLA and/or attendance allowance are aged over 60 and automatically receive a winter fuel payment. The DLA is regulated out over a 52-week period to take account of those costs that occur regularly for disabled people, whereas the winter fuel allowance is an annual payment at a particular time of year to assist with the pressure of fuel costs in the winter. The two examples are not parallel.


10. If he will make a statement on the plans announced in the Queen’s Speech to reform the pension system. (102905)

A Bill will be introduced providing for long-term reform of pensions, making the state pension fairer and more generous and beginning the process of establishing a new scheme of personal accounts.

While reform of the pension system is badly needed, is it not the case that millions of women remain disadvantaged in terms of pension provision?

Age Discrimination Regulations (State Pensions)

11. What assessment he has made of the impact of the age discrimination regulations on state pensions. (102906)

I would like to thank the Minister for that answer, but I will not. The CBI’s deputy director-general, John Cridland, has said:

“employers now face an impossible challenge to implement the new rules by the end of the month.”

The regulations have already been postponed once because of a lack of timely consultation by the Department for Work and Pensions. Given that the regulations must be in force by 2 December to satisfy EU law, can the Minister tell us why the Government left it so late to put their house in order?

Of course, that is nothing to do with state pensions, which is what the hon. Gentleman’s question was about. The CBI also said that it was relieved that the Government had responded to its concerns about the previous set of regulations, which would have been an administrative nightmare. The CBI welcomed the changes that we made, and we worked closely with the CBI in making them.

Child Support Agency

16. What estimate he has made of the level of outstanding payments of child support; and if he will make a statement. (102911)

Maintenance payments outstanding have accumulated in the 13-year period since the beginning of the agency in 1993. The total maintenance payments outstanding at 31 March 2006 were £3.495 billion. The current operational improvement plan places increased emphasis on collecting debt by, for example, using private agencies and quadrupling the number of staff involved in enforcement activity.

Can the Minister say when the Secretary of State will follow up on all the actions that he promised in his statement in July, such as a further White Paper and a further consultation, and when does the Minister expect the Bill to be published? He accepts that £3 billion is outstanding; does he find that acceptable?

A debt has, of course, been accumulating since the very beginning of the agency. The level of debt is not acceptable, and that is precisely why, under the operational improvement plan, we are increasing the resources spent on chasing down that debt, and why we are quadrupling the number of staff engaged in that activity. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), the White Paper will appear shortly.

Disabled People (Benefit Services)

17. What Government support is available through the benefits system to people with disabilities; and if he will make a statement. (102912)

Depending on their personal circumstances, disabled people have access to the full range of social security benefits, including disability living allowance and attendance allowance. In 2005-06, disability living allowance and attendance allowance provided more than £12.5 billion towards the extra disability-related costs of almost 4.2 million disabled people.

May I raise an issue affecting many of my constituents who are in part-time education? They have been told that they are ineligible for carer’s allowance because, when their coursework is taken into account, the number of hours that they spend studying is greater than 21. Will the Minister clarify whether the amount of homework done should be taken into account?

It is always difficult, when we lay down criteria for the payment of a benefit, to take into account issues such as those highlighted by my hon. Friend. I have not been asked to consider whether homework hours should be taken into account, but obviously I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to look into the issues that his constituents have raised with him.

On the way in which the benefits system works for people with disabilities, does the Minister agree that one of the biggest problems is the complexity of the system? Does she have any plans to simplify the process by which disabled people claim benefits?

The hon. Gentleman is right to stress that we need to make our benefit application process as friendly as possible to the individual, particularly to those claiming disability living allowance and some other disability-related benefits. We constantly review how we present our application forms and we continue to engage with stakeholders and individuals to ensure that, as well as having the right information at the right point in the process, we act in a way that is sensitive to and properly reflects the individual needs of applicants. I appreciate that there is an issue because the hon. Gentleman and I have discussed it before, so I hope that he and the House accept my reassurance that we are looking into how to simplify the benefits system. The main aim is to get the right benefit to the right person at the right time in a comprehensive and comprehensible way.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a vital role to be played by the voluntary sector, as well as the benefits system, in getting disabled people back to work? Will she join me in congratulating the second chance head injury support unit at Pinderfields hospital? I visited the unit recently and heard the story of a disabled man with a catastrophic head injury who had gone back to work through the permitted work scheme as a chef at the unit. He has progressed to a national vocational qualification in catering at level 2, and is now acting as a learning support mentor for other students with learning disabilities in Leeds. Does my hon. Friend agree that such schemes play a vital part in getting people off benefits and into work?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the work of that voluntary organisation in her constituency, which reflects the experience of many people across the country, where voluntary organisations work in partnership with Jobcentre Plus and other agencies to deliver tremendously positive outcomes for disabled people. That is why, in our roll-out to pathways, we see a crucial role for the involvement of the voluntary sector.