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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 458: debated on Monday 12 March 2007

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Freud Report

1. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department’s budget of the recommendations of the Freud report on welfare to work. (126359)

The Government have welcomed the publication of the Freud report and are giving careful consideration to its recommendations and their financial implications. We hope to respond more fully later this year.

I think that I thank the Minister for that reply, but could he please give us a bit more detail, particularly on his quantification of the risks that one or more of the prime contractors will fail to deliver what they are supposed to achieve? Does he agree that two substantive risks need to be both quantified and managed? First, the prime contractors may fail to engage with one or more important groups of vulnerable jobseekers in their area because they will have a regional monopoly. Secondly, as commissioning bodies, they may fail to develop the capacity of the local voluntary and third sector organisations that will deliver the services on the ground.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the risks involved in proceeding along the lines that David Freud has recommended, which is why we have not yet made any final decisions. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of those risks, and rightly so. It is worth reminding ourselves that, although David Freud proposed a network of regional monopolies, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, he felt that there could be some circumstances in which we should not proceed along those lines. Although tremendously exciting opportunities are opened up by Freud’s report to target more effective help and support on those who are hardest to reach and have proved to be the most difficult to get into employment, it is right that we look carefully at his recommendations. Obviously, we need to do some more modelling with the Treasury, but I am confident that we can find a way forward. David Freud was right also to suggest that the most sensible thing to do, if we can model the proposals and manage the risk carefully, would be to test the proposals in a number of pilots, and I think that is the right way to proceed.

Given the record number of new jobs under this Government and the record expenditure on welfare to work, how do the Government account for the only modest fall in inactivity rates?

I think that 1 million people have been taken off benefits and, as my right hon. Friend would acknowledge, as others have, including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Britain has an outstandingly good track record on welfare reform. The significance of David Freud’s report is that although he has—rightly—charted the success of the new deal and other interventions that we made, his prescription, looking forward, is right and we must now target an increasing share of our available resources on the hardest to reach and particularly those who are economically inactive, such as lone parents and people on incapacity benefit. That is very much what we want to do, and I look forward to my right hon. Friend’s support when we do so.

If the Government are doing so well on welfare reform, why is the male employment rate in the United Kingdom now 10 percentage points below what it was under Harold Wilson, and why must we wait another six to eight years for David Freud’s proposals to be implemented?

There you have it, Mr. Speaker: the curmudgeonly voice of the Liberal Democrats. It is worth making the obvious point: we have never claimed that every problem has been solved, and it is clear from the Freud report that that is so. However, it would be futile and rather pathetic not to acknowledge the progress that has been made. The employment rate in the United Kingdom is now among the highest of all the developed countries in the world and is the highest for nearly 30 years. That is progress. I look forward to the day when the Liberal Democrats come here and celebrate that progress with us, although I suspect from the hon. Gentleman’s comments that that will be some time yet.

The Freud report stresses the particular challenges faced by lone parents not in paid employment who have disabled children. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House what measures the Government plan to take to ensure that there is affordable, accessible and appropriate child care for such lone parents and their children?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who will be aware that we have made a significant investment in improving access to child care since we came to office 10 years ago. There is a great deal still to be done, but it is important that that investment goes in. My hon. Friend will also be aware that as part of the work on the comprehensive spending review the Treasury is leading a project to look specifically at disabled children’s needs. My personal sense is that we should always look to do more to help families who are bringing up disabled children, and I very much look forward to the outcome of that piece of work.

There is no disagreement that those with multiple disadvantages need a great deal of input and help if they are to access the job market. David Freud recognises that that will cost a great deal of money. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best people to get those with multiple disadvantages into the workplace may often be in the voluntary and third sectors, not just in the private sector? Will he ensure that the best quality of help is given to such people to make sure that they are not forced into work that is totally inappropriate for them?

I agree strongly with what my hon. Friend says. When it comes to providing the most effective help and support, we can probably leave on one side a lot of the outdated ideology. We should look for the providers that can make the biggest impact. It is significant that virtually all the programmes in the new deal for disabled people have been delivered by the private or voluntary sector—they have been a great success. I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to approach this with an open mind. We will look to contract with the best providers that hold out the prospect of helping the most people at the best value for money. That is the challenge that David Freud has put down to us and we intend to pick it up.

The Secretary of State will know that concern has been expressed about the adequacy of the funding of the roll-out of pathways to work under the existing welfare benefits reform. Will he assure us that he will ensure that that is working properly before he embarks on the next phase? Has he held discussions with other Departments and the devolved Administrations about the cost of the child care that will be necessary if he is to push the programme for lone parents with children of 12 and over, especially those in the difficult group of the younger teens?

We will obviously have proper discussions with the Scottish Executive on how to take this forward because, as he knows, child care is a devolved matter. However, it is worth putting on record the progress that has been made in Scotland in the past 10 years or so. We calculate that the jobs dividend to Scotland has been 200,000 extra jobs. Most, if not all, of that progress would be put at risk if the Scottish people were daft enough to accept the hon. Gentleman’s advice and move towards independence.

Does the Secretary of State agree that as there is a common interest in sustained, long-term employment for these hard to place groups, it is absolutely essential that he does not close his mind to new and innovative organisations that might come along with something fresh to offer, or to specialist organisations that might operate either under the overall umbrella of commissioning or, in certain cases, independently, because of their specialist expertise?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I do not want to close my mind to any of those things. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) properly identified one of the risks. If we go down the road that David Freud has recommended, we will need to ensure that we do not compromise the ability of some of the specialist providers to make a valuable contribution to the welfare to work agenda. I will do everything that I can to ensure that that does not happen.

Freud has made several radical proposals, including a progressive reduction in the age of the youngest child at which a lone parent would be expected to seek work. However, in the Secretary of State’s speech to last year’s Labour party conference, he went further than that and spoke with admiration for the Clinton reforms in the US, a central plank of which was the time-limiting of benefits for lone parents. Will the Secretary of State clear up the confusion about his attitude by confirming to the House that he has specifically ruled out the time-limiting of lone-parent benefits?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman asks that question, because I have been asked it at least twice during recent Work and Pensions questions. On each occasion, I made it quite clear that we were not going down the road of time-limiting benefits.

Pensions

2. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the basic state pension; and if he will make a statement. (126360)

The Pensions Commission examined the adequacy of the state pension system and made recommendations for reform. On the basis of those recommendations, we have come forward with our proposals. The International Monetary Fund’s 2006 annual assessment, which was published this month, set out its broad agreement with our proposed pensions reform, saying:

“it will help ensure both adequate saving for retirement and fiscal sustainability”.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. The work that the Government have done to get pensioners out of poverty is very much appreciated. As part of the coming Budget, will he consider whether to restore the earnings link, which is very important to pensioners?

As my hon. Friend knows, that is slightly above my pay grade. We have made our intention to restore the earnings link very clear. We have said that our objective is to do that in 2012, subject to affordability. It is worth saying that no pensioner has to rely on the basic state pension alone. Pension credit, which we brought in, has reduced the number of pensioners in relative poverty by 1 million. Pensioners are now less likely to be poor than the rest of the population, which is a remarkable achievement at a time of economic growth. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the last time that it was achieved was

“as a one-off blip … in the depths of the recession of the early 1980s”.

We have no intention of going back to that.

What message does the Minister have for those who are just entering the workplace about the likelihood of their having an adequate state pension when the time comes to retire?

That is a good point; we are moving from a situation in which women get £90 a week on average from their state pensions to one in which they will get about £130 a week. That is a significant change, and it means that we can tell people who are starting work that if they work or care for most of their lives they will be lifted well above the level of the means-tested safety net, and so will have good incentives to save. That is exactly the message that we should be giving people.

The Minister will know that when pensioners attain the age of 80, they receive a derisory increase of some 25p a week to their state pension. Does he agree that the time is right either to scrap the 25p a week or to raise it significantly?

I am aware of the situation, not least because pensioners have written to me saying that they spent their first increase on a stamp to send me a letter about it, but it is worth putting that increase in the context of our introducing free TV licences for over-75s and winter fuel payments of £300 for people over 80. We recognise that as people get older they need more benefits, and that is exactly what we have provided. As my hon. Friend knows, the policy to which he referred has existed since the 1970s, and neither of the past two Governments have changed it, but we recognise the needs of older pensioners, and that is why we introduced the measures that I mentioned.

The Minister has just spoken in favour of the supplementary benefits available to pensioners, but does he realise that those benefits are means-tested, which means that many people have no incentive whatever to save for their retirement? Is he worried about that, and what will he do about it?

I wonder where the hon. Gentleman has been, because the Pensions Commission, which Lord Turner led, has just addressed exactly that point, and the IMF said in its findings that it will address the issue of the incentives to save. The IMF thinks that there is a good policy, and consensus has been built up on what the Pensions Commission supports. If he wants to stand outside that consensus, he is welcome to do so, but I think that we have a good set of policies for the future that will give people good incentives to save.

Despite the efforts of the Government and many hon. Members on both sides of the House to publicise pension credit entitlements, nearly 90,000 pensioners across Scotland are missing out on the pension credit to which they are entitled. Does the Minister think that that highlights the injustice of the complex and bureaucratic means-tested system of pensions? Surely it is high time that we moved to a system in which the Government paid a decent state pension, as of right, to everyone.

First, those figures are rubbish, and we told the Daily Record that before it published them. Secondly, the hon. Lady and her party are committed to scrapping the state second pension and the pension credit; that is what her party leader said recently. About half of pensioners get more from the state pension system than they would from the citizen’s pension that her party proposes. I am looking forward to the hon. Lady telling millions of pensioners, at the next election, that the Liberal Democrats propose to reduce their pension by making those changes.

Following two decades of the Tories breaking the link between earnings and pensions, our pensions in Britain fell to the lowest level in Europe as a proportion of earnings. The comparisons now may not be as comfortable as we would like to think. Will my hon. Friend undertake to investigate pensions on the continent of Europe and in the European Union, to make a comparison, and to bring that comparison to the Commons with his statement?

There is a process under way within the European Union to do exactly that, but I am afraid that the figures do not show the whole picture. For example, they do not include all private pensions saving, which is important in our system in a way that it is not in other European systems. As a consequence of our proposals to link the state pension to earnings, the state pension will in future be worth twice as much as it would otherwise have been, so that is a big commitment. People in the Labour movement have campaigned for a commitment to a link to earnings for a long time, and I urge my hon. Friend to welcome that commitment as part of his support for our policies.

I am sure that the Secretary of State enjoys his regular cosy chats with the Chancellor, but will the Minister share with us, and with the estimated 3 million older people who will die before the link with earnings is implemented, how the Chancellor can say that the implementation may not be affordable in 2012, yet will definitely be affordable by 2015?

We have set out very clearly how we will finance that, but the interesting thing is the hon. Gentleman’s policy. Last time we debated the issue, his colleague the shadow Secretary of State said that he thought that restoring the link was affordable now; the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) then contradicted that in Committee; and last week his hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor said that there will not be any more money for pensions. What we are finding out about the Tories is that on presentation they want to face both ways, but on policy they are all over the place.

Disability Discrimination Acts

3. What assessment he has made of progress by private companies in meeting their obligations under the Disability Discrimination Acts 1995 and 2005. (126362)

We published research on 1 March which shows that organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors are responding very positively to their obligations under the Disability Discrimination Acts.

I have seen that research and note that it finds that many employers still take a narrow view of disability, focusing mainly on sensory and physical impairments. What is my hon. Friend’s Department doing to ensure that all employers take on board their full obligations under the Disability Discrimination Acts to tackle all forms of discrimination against all forms of disability?

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing the House’s attention to that part of the research, which clearly indicates that there is still a very narrow focus. Some 10.5 million people in Britain are covered by the Disability Discrimination Acts, and not all of them—indeed, a minority—have sensory or mobility impairments. We need to broaden the scope and the impression and view of disability, and we are doing that by engaging with employers and the media and ensuring that people understand that there is a whole spectrum of disability, and not just people who have sensory or motor impairment. Later this year, we will start to roll out a campaign aimed specifically at employers to ensure that that message gets across.

What role does my hon. Friend envisage for local authorities in raising awareness and providing advice to small businesses on their obligations under the Acts? Does she agree that communities can make co-ordinated progress only if local authorities and her Department work with the voluntary sector, including organisations such as the disability information and advice line in my constituency, which my hon. Friend recently visited?

I take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend for arranging that visit, which clearly showed that where good local voluntary organisations work in partnership with other public authorities, they can enhance the message that is conveyed to the wider community. My hon. Friend is perfectly correct: we need to ensure that we use the leverage that local authorities, in particular, can bring to a local community, not just in the dissemination of information, which is crucial, but in how they conduct their own business in delivering services and employing disabled people. The disability equality duty was placed on public authorities to ensure that they do just that.

Personal Accounts White Paper

The proposal to establish personal accounts has been broadly welcomed in the House and by many others. The consultation on the detailed proposals set out in the White Paper ends on 20 March, and in the light of those responses, it is our intention to bring forward legislation in the next parliamentary Session.

Given that the public have more faith in the judgment of Lord Turner than the Secretary of State, has the right hon. Gentleman reconsidered his somewhat naive decision to cap those accounts at £5,000 a year instead of £3,000, as proposed by Lord Turner?

In the White Paper there is reference to personal accounts being delivered by a modern organisation, managed independently in the interests of its members, and within a framework set by Government. No one could dispute those criteria, but the fourth one—delivery by a private sector firm—would make many people nervous. Does the Secretary of State agree that, given the private sector’s track record in that area of pensions, it is not the natural area of society or of the economy to take on a responsibility as important in our pensions policy?

We want a value-for-money solution to implementing the proposed national pension savings scheme, and it is my view that the private sector has the appropriate expertise and experience to do that and provide a good service for the public in the process. At some point, we will obviously need to tender that work, and we will make judgments in due course. However, it is not an area in which Government have the right expertise to take the policy forward.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that minimising costs and charges is crucial to the success of personal accounts? What steps is the Department taking to achieve that?

My hon. Friend is right. Clearly, the lower the annual management charges and costs, the greater the return for those who are saving in the national pension saving scheme. That must be our principal objective in taking forward Lord Turner’s proposals. This, however, will be a matter for detailed consideration by the proposed personal accounts delivery authority, but I can assure my hon. Friend and the House that we will work closely with the delivery authority to make sure that this important aspect of the scheme is brought to fruition.

Construction Industry Training

5. What programmes for increasing skills and opportunities for work for young people wishing to enter the construction and related industries are supported by his Department. (126365)

The responsibility for skills falls within the remit of the Department for Education and Skills. However, my Department offers training and support for young people who take up work in a wide range of occupational areas, including the construction industry, through the new deal for young people. Since the new deal started, nearly 180,000 young people have been helped by the full-time education and training option, and over 85,000 through the employment option. There are already 19,000 young people employed in construction across London, and there is no shortage of further opportunities, given that there are currently around 11,000 vacancies.

The Minister is right. The Chartered Institute of Building confirms that seven out of 10 firms are expecting more work this year, and three quarters have difficulty recruiting people with the right skills for the industry. Could he, with his colleagues in the DFES—I appreciate that it is a cross-departmental responsibility—ensure that all the young people who, in constituencies such as mine, are keen to get into the building industry, have not just the initial training, but the opportunity to go from the training into apprenticeship and the work that give them the security of employment that they need, London needs and Britain needs?

Indeed, those opportunities exist. The hon. Gentleman may be aware of the on-site training and the job shop at Battersea power station, which I am sure is attractive to many of his young constituents hoping to get into the construction industry. We are working there with Lambeth college and South Thames college. There have been more than 10,000 inquiries to that job shop already, and I am pleased to tell him that as a result 640 young people have gone straight into construction work in London, 43 per cent. of them drawn from the ethnic minority communities.

Will my hon. Friend speak to his colleagues to ensure that the young people who are enticed into training go on to get full-time apprenticeships—not short, modern apprenticeships—where they can learn all the skills necessary for them to be of use not only to the London area, but to the entire country?

My hon. Friend is right. There are extensive opportunities for young people to find employment in the construction industry and to develop skills. He will be pleased to know that £63 million was available to support construction apprenticeships last year, as a result of which 24,000 young people came forward and began construction apprenticeships. We are grateful for the fact that there are 15,000 employers around the country offering construction partnerships.

In the past 10 years, the number of young people aged 16 to 18 not in education, employment or training has risen by 27 per cent. What does the Minister intend to do about that?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, a number of schemes have been extremely effective already in helping young people find work. I suggest that he looks at the results of the new deal for young people. Some 700,000 young people have gone through the new deal for young people programme, and as a result we now have a very low level of youth unemployment. The programme has helped us virtually eradicate long-term youth unemployment.

Has my hon. Friend given consideration to tapping into the skills and expertise of construction workers who have had to retire through ill health or personal injury? That would be a double whammy, in the sense that it would take them away from daytime television and pass on their skills to the young people who need them. Such a scheme would need the support of the appropriate trade unions, and should not affect their benefits.

My hon. Friend is right: those who formerly worked in the construction sector have an enormous range of skills of which we can make use. In many parts of the country, learning and skills councils, when they are delivering locally, are engaged in that process, as are colleges. He will be aware that the Scottish Executive are looking at ways of developing those ties even further.

David Freud has talked of a “poverty of skills” in the UK, yet only 11 per cent. of benefit claimants who lack everyday literacy and numeracy skills complete a basic skills qualification. Will the Government now assess all new claimants so that those with reading or maths needs, for example, can participate in training as soon as they make a claim, without having to wait six months for an assessment?

David Freud also pointed out that the Government have a “genuinely impressive record” in helping young people to gain the skills to find work. If the hon. Gentleman cares to look at the skills base that exists for young people, the opportunities for acquiring skills, the expansion of the further education sector and the contribution made by the new deal for young people, he will accept that the opportunities now are far greater than they were 10 years ago.

Lone Parents (Employment)

The lone parent employment rate now stands at 56.5 per cent.—an increase of more than 11 percentage points since 1997—and is at the highest rate since records began.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. A survey of 1,000 lone parents undertaken by One Parent Families showed that a staggering 71 per cent. of non-working lone parents cited lack of child care or of flexible working as a reason for not being in paid employment. Does not that highlight the Government’s 10-year failure to offer lone parents a real choice between employment on the one hand and dependency on the other?

No, I do not think that achieving the highest ever recorded rate of employment for lone parents can fairly or reasonably be described as a policy failure in the way that the hon. Gentleman tries to do. It is worth pointing out to him and his hon. Friends that we have made an historic investment in child care. We have introduced new legislation, for example, to allow people the right to request part-time working, which he and his hon. Friends opposed. Of all the people in the House who can lay down the law about what more needs to be done about lone parents, the hon. Gentleman is certainly not among them.

Given that child care support is a key element of getting lone parents back into the workplace, what support is being given to teachers, classroom assistants and schools to provide breakfast clubs and out-of-school clubs, which already have a huge amount of work to do? Although I applaud the Government, schools need support if those proposals are to be brought forward.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills speaks for those matters in this place, but it is true that the Government have made a significant investment of additional funds into that sector as well. That has been broadly welcomed. In relation to the point to which I think the hon. Gentleman was alluding about conditionality as an entitlement to benefit, we have to match that to the availability of child care locally so that we are not asking lone parents to do something unreasonable in taking more active steps to get back into the labour market, but if we continue the investment, I think that we will get to that point. We should now have that debate in the country as a whole.

In my constituency, the progress in the increase in employment among young people can almost be mapped against the development of the tax credit system. Is that a common feature across the country? Is there an absolute parallel? If so, is that because we have put so much into child care through that system?

A number of factors explain the significant increase in the lone parent employment rate. Obviously, the strength of the economy generally has helped; so, too, has the new deal for lone parents. The hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) should know that it has helped more than 400 lone parents in his constituency to get back to work—a policy that his Front-Bench team opposes. The policy of making work pay through tax credits, the national minimum wage and now the in-work credit for lone parents who come off benefit and into work has made it possible for us to increase substantially the rate of employment for lone parents. However, we need to do more. That is obviously the case. It is what Freud highlighted and it is what we are now looking to do.

Inactive Benefits

There are more people in work in the UK than ever before. There are also 900,000 fewer people on out-of-work benefits compared with a decade ago. However, there is more we can do, which is the purpose of the Welfare Reform Bill and, of course, the Freud review.

What is my hon. Friend’s view on the proposals in the Freud report to do more for the existing group of people on long-term incapacity benefit by extending obligations for them to participate in work-related activities, as long as that is supported? The proposals currently cover new claimants only.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. David Freud has suggested an innovative and imaginative way of supporting existing incapacity benefit customers. The core point is that no one should ever be written off, which has happened for so long in our welfare system. One in six current incapacity benefit customers have dependent children, so there is a real opportunity to lift those families out of poverty.

Will the Minister answer the question which the Secretary of State ducked when the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) posed it earlier? Why is it that when the Government claim such success on employment levels and the number of people who are actually in work, the number of people who are inactive but of working age has barely changed over the past decade?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has answered that question on three separate occasions. In case the hon. Lady missed the answer on every one of those occasions, there are 900,000 fewer people on out-of-work benefits than there were when her party was in power. To break it down, that equates to 250 people on every single day for the past decade leaving benefits and entering work to provide for their families, which is real success.

Will my hon. Friend ensure that the quality of the medicals that incapacity benefit claimants must undergo as part of the welfare to work process is very good, because yet another case was raised with me by a constituent over the weekend? My constituent has been unable to work because of a disease so serious that I cannot pronounce it. The doctor who undertook the medical for that young lady failed to recognise any of the well documented and serious symptoms, which means that my constituent must use the appeal process in order to pursue her claim for benefit. Can the medicals that are provided to claimants be improved?

We can improve the medical procedures to support incapacity benefit customers, particularly when we review the personal capability assessment, which is part of the architecture that supports the Welfare Reform Bill. Incapacity benefit assessments have not kept pace with the changing nature of disability in this country—for example, there has been a big increase in those who report a fluctuating mental health condition, and attitudes in society have changed towards people with a learning disability and their role in the place of work. Supporting people with learning disabilities to have a chance to play a meaningful role in the workplace can be an important part of the revision to which my hon. Friend has referred.

Child Poverty

I have not had any discussions at the UN since the recent UNICEF report on child poverty. If I had, I would have confirmed that in the space of a decade the UK has gone from the worst position in the EU to the greatest improvement in child poverty levels.

The Minister has demonstrated breathtaking complacency in relation to the UNICEF report. We were placed 21st out of 21 for childhood well-being, which is bottom among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. After 10 years in power, to which the Minister has referred, surely that is the legacy of the Prime Minister. The Government have attempted to concentrate on education, but we are near the bottom of the tables for educational well-being, for childhood material well-being and for two-parent relationships for children.

I am mildly sceptical about the UNICEF report. I think that it was actually unfair to the Government. [Hon. Members: “Aw!”] Those are not my comments; they are the comments of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who is a shadow Minister. Perhaps the hon. Member for Surrey Heath knows a little more about the subject than the hon. Gentleman, given that the report interviewed children who were born between 1985 and the early 1990s. While we still have many things to do to reduce and eradicate child poverty, we cannot be held accountable for the mistakes, misgivings, errors, poor policies and increases in child poverty that happened on his party’s watch.

In a recent submission to the Scottish Affairs Committee, the Rowntree Foundation said that while the tax credits system was lifting lone parents and children out of poverty, it was driving couples with children into poverty. Does the Minister recognise that as having some element of truth? If so, what steps will he take to review the tax credits system to ensure that couples are not being penalised in this way?

It is important that we support everyone who gets the opportunity to go into work to lift themselves and their entire family out of poverty. However, the same report supported the expansion of Sure Start, the national minimum wage, the introduction of tax credits, flexible working, and maternity and paternity leave, all of which have helped to lift children out of poverty and all of which were opposed in policy terms or investment terms by the hon. Gentleman and his party.

9. What recent assessment he has made of the level of child poverty in the UK; and if he will make a statement. (126369)

In 2004-05—the latest period for which data are available—2.4 million children were living in relative poverty in Great Britain. That represents a fall of 700,000 since 1997. As a result of our reforms to the tax and benefit system and the national minimum wage, by April 2007, in real terms, families with children will be an average £1,550 a year better off, while those in the poorest fifth will be an average £3,450 a year better off.

Save the Children claims that 55 per cent. of families with disabled children are living in poverty. It costs three times as much to look after disabled children as it does children who are not disabled. Will the Minister tell the House exactly how the Government are addressing that problem?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier on in questions—I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman did not hear him—it is important to improve matters for disabled children as well as non-disabled children in poverty. Let me be clear to him. We know that disability costs extra; that is why we have a disability living allowance that supports families, including those with children, where there is a disability. Of course, we will ensure that as part of our child poverty strategy we take particular cognisance of the issues affecting disabled children.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that the target of eradicating child poverty by 2020 is still a firm target, not an aspiration, showing that we are still committed to dealing with deprivation in all our communities?

I am delighted to reconfirm our commitment that by 2020 we will have an eradication of child poverty in this country. That stands in stark contrast to the position of the Conservatives, who initially thought that they were giving a commitment, and then decided that it was not so much a commitment as an aspiration.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman one target that the Conservatives met when they were in power—they increased the number of children who had to live in poverty. To be frank, that should bring shame to him and to his whole party.

Given the link between workless households and child poverty, and the fact that the mother of a disabled child is seven times less likely to be in work than other mothers, what specific policies will the Minister’s Department bring forward to attack that problem? In particular, will she talk to colleagues at the Department of Health about the problem of a lot of social services delivery happening in working hours, making it very difficult for parents with disabled children realistically to consider working?

The hon. Gentleman touches on a genuine problem for the parents of many disabled children: how to manage the support of their disabled child while working, as many want to do. Of course, working together is vital and I am sure that my colleagues in the Department of Health will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s question, as well as Ministers in other Departments who have connections with local authorities. We need a joined-up approach to supporting disabled children and their families. We held the Prime Minister’s strategic overview, “Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People”, to encourage Departments to work together to ensure that nobody falls through the gaps in our public service provision when we can, by joined-up working, improve the lot of disabled children and disabled people in general.

The Government’s recently released figures suggest that, when regional income is taken into account, relative child poverty in London could be more than one third higher than the current official figures based on national median income suggest. Is the Minister confident that she can tackle relative child poverty issues without examining regional variations in income? What will she do to ensure that the matter is properly considered during the current review of the Government’s child poverty strategy?

I can give the hon. Lady a commitment that we will review the matter that she identifies as part of our child poverty strategy. As I said earlier, it is a massive challenge to any Government because, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform noted, we inherited a position when Britain was at the bottom of the league for child poverty. We now have the best record of any Government in the EU on lifting children out of poverty. However, we are not complacent. We know that there is still a lot to do and we are committed to our target, unlike the hon. Lady and her party, which still perceives it only as an aspiration.

Pensions

10. What support his Department is giving to those who lost occupational pensions prior to the introduction of the Pension Protection Fund. (126370)

The Pensions Act 2004 puts in place a range of measures to provide support, advice and protection to schemes and scheme members. In particular, the financial assistance scheme provides support to members of defined benefit occupational pension schemes that started to wind up, underfunded, between 1 January 1997 and 5 April 2005.

The High Court recently ruled that the Government were completely wrong to reject the parliamentary ombudsman’s report on failed pension schemes. The Secretary of State subsequently told the House that the Government would re-examine the report. What can the Minister tell the House today about that? What can the Government devise to assist scheme members who have been so hard hit? Will he take a leaf from the book of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and perhaps consider using unclaimed bank and building society assets for compensation?

We will look at suggestions from hon. Members of all parties, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear in his statement on 22 February. He also said that we were examining the financial assistance scheme in the light of the European Court of Justice case. We have made a commitment to pay the claimants’ costs in the appeal to ensure that they are not disadvantaged. We have said that we will come back to the House as soon as possible—certainly before the Pensions Bill completes its passage.

I want to correct one point that the hon. Lady made. The court did not find against the Government on all aspects. It found against the Government on the 1996 leaflet that was issued and upheld the Government’s case on causality and the operation of the minimum funding requirement.

Does the Minister recall an uncomfortable debate before Christmas, when he was almost isolated in the House in rejecting the recommendations of the ombudsman and the Public Administration Committee? Will he confirm that the Government do not wish to have a confrontation with Parliament on the matter and that, against that background, he does not rule out giving financial assistance to the group of pensioners whom my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) mentioned?

The question has always been one of proportionality. We introduced the financial assistance scheme and extended it to more than £2 billion. We recognise that people in these circumstances face the real personal tragedy of losing their pensions. We have always said that the financial assistance scheme is there for exactly that reason—to reflect that loss of pension. The question has always been what we can justifiably ask the taxpayer to pay. In that debate, I made the case on the issue of causality that we did not agree with the ombudsman that we were responsible for the whole of the losses and should therefore make good the whole of the losses—and the court actually upheld that part of our argument.

Department/GP Communications

12. If he will make a statement on steps being taken to modernise communication methods between his Department and GP surgeries. (126373)

We are aware of the critical importance of the role of GPs in shaping customers’ perceptions about their ability to return to work, and we are piloting the use of employment advisers in GP surgeries to give patients advice about the work-related support and to offer them non-medical help to achieve their work aspirations. To assist GPs, we also have two projects testing the electronic transmission of data between GPs and our Department via a secure link. We are also developing educational and training packages in conjunction with the Royal College.

Can the Minister tell me what else is being done to help GPs get their patients back to work and whether the Government will consider allowing those not fully fit for work to attend very short part-time training courses to enable them to get back to work more quickly?

Yes, we are doing a variety of things. As I think my hon. Friend will know, we are testing the pathways advisory service—indeed, the pilot is in east Lancashire, close to her constituency. We are also piloting the electronic transfer of data to facilitate the process for GPs. As I said in my earlier answer, we are developing education and training packages. My hon. Friend makes a very helpful point in respect of the further assistance that we might offer and I would be happy to look further into it.

House of Commons Commission

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

Recycling

17. What target he has set for the percentage of waste from the parliamentary estate to be recycled in 2007. (126350)

The House has set a target of 44 per cent. for recycling of waste in 2007-08. The current policy for waste recycling is to increase the target by 5 per cent. each year. The percentage of waste recycled during 2005-06 was 35.9 per cent. and the quantity of waste recycled was 800.72 tonnes.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and I am sure that all hon. Members will welcome the success in increasing recycling in the parliamentary estate. However, does the House of Commons Commission share my concern that the total waste produced by the parliamentary estate last year actually grew by 17 per cent? Given the priorities of “reduce, then re-use, then recycle”, what steps will be taken to reduce waste overall?

I am pleased that my hon. Friend recognised the progress made on recycling, but if her point is that the actual volume of waste overall should be the greater focus of our efforts, I am sure that the current awareness campaign could broaden its scope to take that into consideration. I reassure her that the issue of paper waste from early-day motions and parliamentary questions is an issue of concern and that the Procedure Committee is currently looking further into policies on that matter.

While it is in the House’s interest to drive up rates of recycling, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is it not in the national interest that we drive down the recycling of waste draft policies emanating from the Opposition Front Bench, which fall apart at the first examination in the first light of day? Is it not in the national interest to minimise all that effort?

I am sure that it is indeed in the national interest to minimise the degree of waste, but whether the Procedure Committee can quite go as far in scope as the hon. Gentleman suggests, I am not too sure.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

House of Lords Reform

18. When he expects to be in a position to bring forward legislation on reform of the House of Lords. (126351)

Before answering this question, I would like to say a few words. As the House will be aware, the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), tendered his resignation to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister earlier today. I would like to place on record my appreciation of the excellent work that my hon. Friend undertook in this post.

To answer the question, following the debates and votes here last Tuesday and Wednesday, the House of Lords is holding its debate on the future composition of the Lords today and tomorrow, with the votes planned for Wednesday. I have said all along that we must wait until the other place has expressed its view. I then intend to reconvene the cross-party group that I chair and obviously to discuss the matter within Government. I will return to the House in due course to make a detailed statement on the way forward.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that response. Notwithstanding his comment about waiting, press reports over the weekend have suggested that, on the back of those votes, he felt an obligation to press ahead with House of Lords reform. Does he believe that the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown) feels a similar obligation?

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer voted for an 80 per cent. elected House of Lords, so I think that the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is yes.

Is it not clear that the chances of reaching consensus with the House of Lords on this matter are very remote indeed? Bearing in mind the fact that the 80 per cent. vote was carried by 305 to 267, are the Government sufficiently determined to use the Parliament Act if necessary—and it looks like it will be—to ensure that the will of this House is implemented?

I do not want to anticipate the outcome of what will no doubt be vigorous discussions with the other place, but it certainly does not lie in the hands of any one Member of this Chamber to decide to abrogate the law of the land, and the Parliament Acts are the law of the land.

When the Leader of the House convenes his all-party group, would it not be wise, as well as considering the Lords, to consider cutting the number of people in the House of Commons by about a third—[Interruption.]

The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), asks whether the hon. Gentleman is offering. I have a lot of time for the hon. Gentleman, but I honestly think that the cross-party group on the future of the Lords will have enough work to do without doing that as well; that is for another group.

When the Leader of the House reconvenes the all-party group, will he bear in mind the fact that, last week, only 80 Conservatives voted for the party’s official policy, and that 98 voted against it?

That is more a matter for the Leader of the Opposition to bear in mind than for me. That was the hon. Gentleman’s party’s manifesto commitment. If he is saying that the Conservatives’ manifesto commitments cannot be trusted, of course I agree with that proposition.

In advance of the legislation referred to in the question, and against the background of last week’s vote, would it not be sensible if the Prime Minister made no more political appointments to the upper House?

That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The present arrangements will have to continue unless and until we have a reformed Chamber; I would have thought that that was a statement of the blindingly obvious.

May I suggest that the Leader of the House consult as widely as possible on this matter? There are divided views within parties and across the Chamber, and this is not a matter on which the Front Bench can compel its Back Benchers to vote.

What the right hon. and learned Gentleman has just said is the self-evident truth, and I agree with his suggestion of consulting as widely as possible. I do not agree, however, that convening the cross-party group is incompatible with wider consultation.

Did the Leader of the House interpret the vote for a 100 per cent. elected House of Lords as a mandate—indeed, an instruction—to abolish the archaic system whereby Church of England bishops have ex officio seats in the legislature?

I did not interpret the vote in any way; I simply read the words on the Order Paper. It was a vote, in the opinion of the House, for a 100 per cent. elected Chamber.

May I assure the Leader of the House that the Conservatives are also sorry not to see the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths) in his place alongside him any longer? On the reform of the upper House, the right hon. Gentleman listened to the views of this House about his proposed preferential ballot system. He also listened to the views of the House when it rejected his White Paper and voted for a more democratic upper House. As he looks towards legislation, will he now listen to the views expressed by hon. Members across the House about the list system of proportional representation that he is proposing for the elections to the upper House?

My proposal was for 50 per cent. elected, but it was made clear that that was not the Government’s proposition. The right hon. Lady was consulted extensively on our White Paper, and she knows that it contains a great deal that has all-party agreement. I said last week that we will listen to proposals for altering the electoral system, and it is important that the House move on that by consensus as far as possible. Before she tries to makes a party point about the semi-open list, let me say that that proposal originated from the Wakeham royal commission on which several of her distinguished colleagues and former Conservative Cabinet Ministers sat, along with Liberal and Labour Members.

I also extend my best wishes to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths). I hope that nothing that any of us said on Thursday precipitated his decision.

In the euphoria that followed the surge of radicalism last Wednesday, the Leader of the House said two things: first; that he would reconvene the all-party group; and secondly, that he could not pre-empt the Queen’s Speech by announcing legislation. Irrespective of what another place says, will he ensure that the cross-party group is convened, and that it is convened before Easter? Will he also make it clear that legislation will follow in the next Session of Parliament?

On the hon. Gentleman’s first point: would that the decision of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South were related to something that was said in the House last Tuesday and Wednesday! On his second point, I cannot anticipate the Queen’s Speech. As for a meeting of the cross-party group, we will get it together as quickly as possible, although I cannot say for sure that it will meet before Easter; if we can have a meeting, we will. My noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor mentioned this afternoon, as I did last Wednesday, the possibility of producing a draft Bill, but that must be discussed by the cross-party group.

Programming of Legislation

Both the Modernisation and Procedure Committees considered that subject towards the end of the previous Parliament. Following their reports, the House approved changes to the relevant Orders—including making them into permanent Standing Orders—in October 2004. The Modernisation Committee also touched on the subject in its report last year on the legislative process. The Government have no current plans to conduct a further review of the operation of programming or to ask the Modernisation Committee to conduct such a review.

Does the Leader of the House accept that the programming procedure is thoroughly unsatisfactory to both sides of the House? It does not allow Back Benchers on either side of the House to participate properly in many important debates. Will he consider that matter again? Can I make a plea to the usual channels—of which I have never been part—to give more authority back to the Back Benches? In that regard, will the Leader of the House please consider setting up a business committee duly representative of the Back Benches?

There is a wider issue about Back Benchers’ involvement in the business of the House. As a senior member of the Modernisation Committee, the hon. Gentleman knows that it is currently considering the use of non-legislative time and ways in which the role of the Back Bencher can be strengthened. The programming arrangements are not wholly unsatisfactory; they are a great deal better than those to which he and I were used when we first came into the House, when there was no programming and a ritual of Opposition Members talking Committees into the night, then going for guillotining and not considering Bills in any detail. We were always ready to consider proposals for improving arrangements, and we did so in the summer of 2004. I am not certain that his specific proposal, made when he was Chairman of the Procedure Committee, of a 48-hour gap between Second Reading and agreement on the Sub-Programming Committee, would produce any benefits. That is the issue—nothing else—between us.