Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Claimant unemployment is falling for 18 to 24-year-olds and is down 138,000 since 1997.
Now that the red flag has been hauled down and the yellow flag of cowardice has been hoisted, what is the Secretary of State’s vision for youth unemployment, given that so many more people who have been on the new deal have gone back on to jobseeker’s allowance?
The truth is that, compared with when the Tories were in power, when young people had virtually no chance of getting a job in constituencies such as mine, unemployment has been cut, youth unemployment has been cut and long-term unemployment—more than a year—has been virtually eradicated. That is a record of which we are proud, and the new deal for young people has made an enormous contribution to that—a new deal opposed by the Conservatives.
The number of young people leaving the new deal to go straight back to benefits has spiralled in recent years and the number of 18 to 20-year-olds not in education, employment or full-time training has increased sharply. Does not that show that the claim that youth unemployment has been virtually eradicated is nonsense and that, despite all the billions of pounds of expenditure on the new deal in the past five years, we still have a serious and growing problem with a hard core of unskilled, unmotivated young people who are effectively doing nothing with their lives?
In the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, long-term, six month-plus youth unemployment has fallen by 94 per cent. since we came to power. I can give him lots of other figures, including about the very high number of vacancies in his constituency. There are plenty of jobs in his constituency, and that is true right across the country. Yes, there is an issue about 16 to 17-year-olds, which we are addressing, but it would not be addressed by the bankrupt policies of the Conservatives.
Those strategies can have an enormous role, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on chairing the city strategy project in Rhyl, which has got off to a flying start. He has brought together local employers and all the other agencies. The strategies are focused on tackling some of the problems right at the centre of our towns and cities that are still very serious and part of a legacy that we inherited 10 years ago. We are doing something about it.
My hon. Friend is indeed doing something about it, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is joining me in congratulating him on what he is doing in Rhyl to tackle some of the serious problems of people who are also involved in drugs and other problems in some of our most disadvantaged areas. In Rhyl, people are showing the way forward, and we will all need to consider whether that model can be applied elsewhere.
Given that, during the past three years, 2 million people have come to this country to work and have found work, does my right hon. Friend not feel that our welfare-to-work strategy is somewhat disappointing? Given that we are not now to have an election, might we have a debate in Government time on the new proposals that he intends to introduce to help and encourage more people to move from benefit to work?
As my right hon. Friend knows, we are consulting, including with him, on how we take on the next stage of getting more people into work. The truth is that we have been incredibly successful in the past 10 years in tackling the main problem of those who are in and around the job market, with 2.7 million extra jobs in the past 10 years, about 800,000 of which involve those who have come from outside the country to work in Britain and are contributing to our economy. However, there is still a high level of people on long-term benefits, which we intend to tackle. That is why we published our Green Paper, “In work, better off: next steps to full employment”, and I will certainly work with my right hon. Friend and anyone else who has ideas to contribute during the consultation that ends at the end of this month.
I welcome the Secretary of State back from the campaign trail. I have been wondering over the weekend whether he is one of the Cabinet’s young Turks or grey beards.
The Secretary of State talks about youth unemployment. According to the Office for National Statistics, overall youth unemployment is almost 50,000 higher than it was when the Government came to office. Does he accept that situation?
As the Secretary of State responsible for the grey citizens in this country, I take pride in that role. Furthermore, when we look at our record on youth unemployment compared with what we inherited in 1997, we see the truth: the rates of both claimant and International Labour Organisation youth unemployment have fallen since 1997. The new deal for young people has reduced total and long-term youth unemployment and virtually eradicated long-term claimant unemployment—those claiming for a year or more. Those figures have gone down by 90 per cent. since 1997.
Despite the continual attacks on the new deal for young people, independent assessment has shown that the total number claming jobseeker’s allowance for more than six months would have been twice as high as it is now. That is all a result of our achievements, but we have got to do more—and we will do more.
I find it baffling when the Secretary of State talks about his achievements. According to the Office for National Statistics, the unemployment rate among 16 to 24-year-olds was 14.1 per cent. in 1997; today it is 14.5 per cent., and nearly 50,000 more young people are unemployed. When the Secretary of State said to this House,
“Actually, youth unemployment has been all but eradicated”—[Official Report, 18 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 283.]
was he telling the truth?
I repeat to the hon. Gentleman the point that I have already repeated: long-term youth unemployment—those on the claimant count for more than a year—has been virtually eradicated. That is a fact. He can check the statistics with me; I am happy to exchange correspondence with him on the issue. The truth is that we have a good record on increasing the number of jobs for young people. We continue to do so. However, there are more young people in the under-25 age group in the labour market now. That accounts for some of the points made by the hon. Gentleman, but he should check his figures.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is still a problem that we must resolve? Will he look at some of the exciting pilots that depend on intensive mentoring? There is one in east London and we are starting one in Huddersfield. Jobcentre Plus and bureaucracies such as learning and skills councils often get in the way of such pilots. Will he visit some of those interesting pilots?
I am certainly happy to look into those projects. Yes, there is a whole issue about mentoring. The question is not only about getting young people into jobs, but about keeping them in those jobs; that is where mentoring comes in. Such mentoring is important for all sorts of categories of people who have been on long-term benefits, as it makes sure that they sustain their employment. When mentoring is applied, such people often do so.
Most individual complaints would be dealt with by pensions centres or the Pension Service chief executive. In respect of occupational pension schemes, complaints would be dealt with by internal procedures or the pensions ombudsman. It follows that few complaints would go to the Secretary of State; the Department does not therefore take account of the figure.
I am disappointed to hear that reply. When the Prime Minister was Chancellor, he was responsible for complicating occupational pension schemes to such an extent that many of them were shut down by the trustees.
On another point, will the hon. and learned Gentleman explain why the unclaimed assets fund is being used only for youth projects? None of that money is going towards helping those pensioners who suffered so much through the failure of the schemes.
Last week, the Conservative party claimed that unclaimed assets could be used—in pension and other funds, as far as I am aware—to make payments and refloat the lifeboat that was sunk in July by the report issued by the Government Actuary, Andrew Young. That report clearly stated that
“we do not believe that…‘unclaimed assets’ are credible alternative funding sources.”
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that there is a real problem in recruiting trustees for the administration of private pensions? That is partly due to the requirements put on pension funds by the regulator. For example, there is now a requirement for trustees to become professionally qualified. That has been difficult. In the case of our own scheme, which I have the honour to chair, all our trustees took the Pensions Management Institute examinations. However, it is proving increasingly difficult for other schemes to recruit people to become trustees given both the potential liabilities that they face and the requirement for additional learning. Before, it was considered sufficient for them to take appropriate professional advice.
As it happens, I met the regulator this morning and discussed this very point with the chairman and the chief executive. There is concern about the level of qualifications that it appears that some trustees are obliged to achieve. As part of the deregulatory review, I want to look at the issue. I am not sure that the statute is the problem—it is more the guidance that seems to be given. As a result of the review, I hope that we will be able to make it much clearer that the level of competence required of trustees consists of a reasonable knowledge, plus common sense, and that we will not deter large numbers of people from becoming trustees at a time when we need them. The hon. Gentleman’s point is well made.
How many complaints does the Minister know about concerning the very large sums of money taken out of funds each year under the tax policy of the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the ineffectiveness of the regulator to resist those demands?
Of course, the regulator’s aim is to ensure that we have a stable and effective pensions scheme. By and large in recent years, since the office of the regulator has been established, it has gained credibility and increased confidence in the pensions industry. As a result of the creation of the regulator, we have a pensions industry that is much stronger than it was.
More than 1.8 million people have been helped into work through the new deal programme, including 11,790 people in Leicester, of whom 3,330 people are in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, which I have of course visited at his invitation before.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and ask him to visit again—so successful was his last visit. When he comes to Leicester, will he come with me to visit a community-based scheme called Business-to-Business, which over the past few years has helped hundreds, if not thousands, of people into work as part of the new deal arrangement? Does he agree that that is the basis of the new deal—enabling people from diverse backgrounds to get into full-time work so that they can help to sustain the wonderful British economy that we have at the moment?
I acknowledge the important role that Business-to-Business has played, especially in tackling a problem that is close to my right hon. Friend’s heart: the difficulties faced by ethnic minority communities, particularly in city and town centres. That remains a big challenge for us and it is one of the outstanding issues that we need to address. I also welcome the fact that Leicester is one of our city strategy pathfinders, tasked with improving local employment rates. I know that my right hon. Friend has been invited to the launch on 19 October.
Once the Minister has visited Leicester, will he continue travelling north and visit my constituency, where in the last year to date unemployment has fallen by 16.2 per cent.? That is welcome, but does he agree that it is not good enough and that areas such as mine ought to be made targets for zero unemployment? That is entirely possible in an area such as mine, where the number of jobs coming in is greater than the number of unemployed. However, priority needs to be given to people locally who are unemployed. Will he agree to direct the Department accordingly?
I will certainly see what I can do about my travels. I did not respond directly to the request made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) about visiting Leicester. We will look into the matter. I know that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Pensions Reform is due to visit Leicester soon. Perhaps he can accompany my right hon. Friend to a project such as the one he mentioned.
I was in Scotland a few weeks ago and what struck me was the way in which, over the past 10 years under a Labour Government, the economy has been transformed. There are more jobs than ever before and, in areas including the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson), we are beginning to tackle successfully some of the deep-rooted and deep-seated problems of people who have been on benefits year after year as a result of the Tories’ miserable failure throughout the United Kingdom, and especially in Scotland, when they were in government.
We have succeeded in arresting and reversing a historical upward trend in child poverty, which led to its doubling under successive Conservative Governments. Since 1997, Government policies have lifted 600,000 children out of relative poverty, with fewer children living in workless households and increases in lone parent employment.
In his plagiarised speech at the Labour conference, the Prime Minister said that the
“goal for this generation is to abolish child poverty”.
How does the Minister reconcile those remarks with the fact that, according to figures from March this year, the number of children in poverty has risen by 200,000 to 3.8 million, after 10 years of a Labour Government? We still have the highest number of children living in workless households in the whole of Europe. What about rhetoric and reality?
One thing that is for sure is that in 1997 we had the worst record in Europe, and today, although there is more to be done, we are recognised as having the greatest improvement of any European Union country. Since 1997, over 2 million more people are in work, and unemployment is close to its lowest levels since 1975. Of course we have to do more, but the difference between today and 1997, when we came to power, is that then there had been 20 years of an increasing trend of child poverty. That trend upwards has been halted. We do not believe that the latest figures represent a trend in the wrong direction, but our Green Paper asks important questions: what more can we do to provide work for those who currently do not have it, and to make work pay?
Is not persistent inter-generational worklessness at the heart of the problem? What more can be done to ensure that people who stay out of work continually, from one generation to another, and who have that as the norm, can be signposted, so that we make sure that they take part in this new generation of work and do not stay out of society?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The saddest thing to hear from staff working in our jobcentres is that they are dealing with the son of someone whom they dealt with 20 years ago. Breaking the cycle of inter-generational unemployment is a huge challenge, and there are no quick-fix solutions. Our ambition must be that when children look out of the window of a morning, they see a community on its way to work. We have to make sure that we provide the means, the resources and the expectations if that is to happen.
As we currently measure relative poverty, the only way to reduce child poverty is to increase pensioner poverty, and vice versa. Has the Minister looked at more realistic ways of measuring actual poverty, so that we can have a more sensible debate about the subject?
We have been successful in reducing both child poverty and pensioner poverty, so we must be doing something right. There is a lot of debate about the different factors that affect poverty. We use relative poverty because globally it is widely regarded as one of the best ways to assess poverty, but we consider other aspects, too. It is important that we do not look at the issue solely in terms of income. Our decent housing programme is contributing to supporting people, so that they live in better homes with lower fuel costs; and our education and skills programmes equip people to take on work that is much more skilled today than it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago—people have to face up to that fact. Of course, the issue is also about making sure that parents understand how important it is to support their children in having aspirations, and we support parents in doing just that.
I thank the Minister for taking the time to visit my constituency this summer; it was a worthwhile visit. She learned that almost 3,600 children in my constituency live in workless households. That means that about four in 10 young children going to school do not have the experience of a parent in work. Now that she has come up and seen that, may I ask what conclusions she has drawn, and how she plans to tackle the issue?
I very much enjoyed my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency. I visited the Sure Start children’s centre, where I met women who had been helped by Sure Start and by people who work in jobcentres and who come to the Sure Start centre to provide the information that women need in order to make choices about going into work. One area where we have to work harder is in making the convincing case that people are better off in work. That is one of the issues that I am looking at closely, because I think that people still do not understand what is available to them when they are in work, and what they do not lose by being in work. We have to make that case more strongly and clearly, and I welcome any suggestions on helping us to achieve that.
The fact is that child poverty rose in the past year. What is more, according to Save the Children’s devastating assessment published last week, child poverty will not be abolished on current trends until 2049—30 years after the Government’s deadline. As the Government search for a new vision, will the Minister support policies to increase child benefit and investment in educational opportunities for the poorest children, so that they can escape the circumstances of their parents? I suggest that that could be paid for by scaling back the tax credits paid to middle and high-income families.
I think that I have already said that I accept that there was a rise in part of our figures on child poverty this year, but it is important to look at the overall trend rather than just at one year. This involves a challenge, but we are the first Government in this country to set a child poverty target and to challenge the assumptions that have gone before. The child benefit rate will go up to £20 from April 2010, and from April 2009 women will get child benefit from the 29th week of their pregnancy.
Those are examples of what we have announced this year as part of the 2007 Budget, but there is more that we can do. We have also announced a roll-out of in-work credit for lone parents of £40 across the country and of £60 in London in recognition of the particular costs there. We can be proud of what we have achieved, but we cannot be complacent about the evidence of unemployment in families and in communities that has gone on for too long.
Six hundred thousand children are living in households whose incomes are too low to pay income tax, but which are still required to pay the full amount of council tax. I know that the Department has said that it will review the thresholds for council tax benefit and income tax. May I ask when?
My hon. Friend raised this issue in her Select Committee report, and I understand that we are considering it and will get back to her on it. We have just extended a pilot that was started in the north-east, in which we looked for greater collaboration between our Jobcentre Plus staff, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the local authorities, to try to achieve simplification of the way in which people juggle different benefits and in-work and out-of-work credits. I hope that, if that works in the further extension of the pilots, we can seek to develop it elsewhere. In the first pilot, the time taken to sort out the benefits for people was reduced by two thirds. That has a psychological impact on people who are choosing whether to stay on benefit or to work. Making a difference in that kind of process could make the situation a lot better.
Will the Minister promise joint action between her Department, the Treasury and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to tackle the high water bills for South West Water customers? Does she accept that, without measures to make water more affordable, her Department will not meet its child poverty targets in that region?
I am happy to look into that question on the hon. Lady’s behalf. Of course, it is important not only to consider the bills but to conserve water and ensure that we use only what we need and do not overuse it. I will write to the hon. Lady on the issue, if she will bear with me.
Jobcentre Plus (Telecoms Charges)
Jobcentre Plus conducted a review, which was completed in July, which investigated the inbound telephone numbering plan that supports the contact centre and benefit delivery centre operations. During the review, Ofcom’s call numbering team was approached on an informal basis for advice on developing the Jobcentre Plus internal numbering strategy, particularly regarding the future tariff structures of the 0845 range.
Some telecoms providers charge higher than normal rates for all 08 numbers, even so-called freephone numbers, which means that some unemployed Jobcentre Plus clients are paying charges that they cannot afford for the advice, information and assistance that they need. Will the Minister tell the House why those people cannot ring a local centre, at lower, local rates? Will she expand the review to which she has referred to include this issue, and reassure us that the Department is not receiving a rake-off from the excess charges generated at the moment?
I am aware that some mobile phone companies charge significantly over the basic rate. We have had discussions with them, but their pricing policies are very much a matter for them. I want to give my hon. Friend some comfort, however. Since 1 August, the cost of an 0845 number on BT lines has fallen from 3p to 2p a minute. When someone calls our helpline, we are careful to make them aware how long the call will take, and to ensure that they are aware of the mobile phone charges that can accrue to the call. We then advise them that they can phone back on a land-line if they want to do so. If they cannot do that, our advisers will call them back. That ensures that nobody is disadvantaged because they cannot afford the price of a telephone call.
Is the Minister aware that many people trying to claim benefits over the phone either cannot get through or are told that they will be called back even though they do not have a phone? The social fund commissioner’s office found that fewer than one in five calls were answered, so will the Minister end the Government’s complacency about the effect of the faceless state on people in real difficulties and ensure that those in particular need can either see a Jobcentre Plus official or have an official make the call on their behalf?
I appreciate the enthusiasm that the hon. Gentleman brings to his post, but we do of course offer face-to-face interviews with Jobcentre Plus advisers in appropriate circumstances. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I can assure him that that is the case. It is very clear in some application processes that a third person can speak on behalf of the applicant. More than 90 per cent. of calls are answered, but we are aware that we have to continue to review matters in order to ensure that the system is made even better. I take great exception to the hon. Gentleman’s comment that this amounts to a “faceless state”. We have a whole range of committed and dedicated benefit advisers across the country whose main job and principal occupation and commitment is to ensure that people get the help that they need at the time that they need it.
The benefit advisers do a very good job, but is it not fairly tacky to use such a system for people to apply for the assistance and help to which they are entitled? Would it not be better simply to ask that no Government Department anywhere in Whitehall continue the growing practice of using 0845 numbers? If people have already paid through their taxes to receive services from Her Majesty’s Government that are of a high standard, no impediment should be placed in their way.
With the utmost respect, may I say to my hon. Friend that we have discovered that contact centres are generally more convenient for customers to access, because they remove the need personally to go to a local jobcentre. On cost comparisons, I have already said that the cost of a land-line telephone call is 2p a minute. Again, with the greatest respect, I have to say that, in comparison with the cost of a bus or train journey to a local office, contact centres are appropriate for most people. Harking back to my response to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), we will ensure that where people want an interview and in some instances a face-to-face application process we will deliver that.
Local Employer Partnerships
Through local employment partnerships, we will be working with employers to enable individuals to get the preparation and training that they need to support their movement into work. In England and Wales, Ofsted and its Welsh equivalent, Estyn, have the responsibility to assess the effectiveness of training contracted and funded by the Government. In Scotland, all Scottish Enterprise national training programmes must conform to Scottish quality management system standards.
I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. I am sure that she will agree with me that the importance of skills and training is utmost in everybody’s minds, particularly with the Olympic games and the biggest build programme in Glasgow’s history, as well as—hopefully—build for the Commonwealth games and Glasgow’s bid. Will she ensure that apprenticeship training is valid and relevant to the jobs that are needed, and that the skills shortage and gap will be taken care of in future?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. It is absolutely key that the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills work together to ensure that the connection between employer and training is strengthened. I was very pleased to visit Portsmouth this summer, where VT Shipbuilding is working with the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions and Jobcentre Plus to produce a fantastic programme. Pre-employment training is provided in the shipyard, ending with an offer of adult traineeships up to a very high standard. Four men who had been out of work for a considerable time got those jobs. I am meeting some of the companies working to build the infrastructure around the Olympic games. I take on board my hon. Friend’s point, and I would be happy to talk to him further about what we can achieve in this area.
Following the formal consultation on the child maintenance White Paper, published in December last year, we published our response document in May. We have continued to meet stakeholders to discuss the reforms to child maintenance. In the past three months, for example, we have met the Child Poverty Action Group, Families Need Fathers and One Parent Families. We continue to work closely with all stakeholders.
Those people will not have to wait until CMEC is in operation because we are already engaged in a programme of improving the CSA’s IT system. A number of important releases are out already and the system is operating a lot better, which is why, since the operational improvement programme commenced in April 2006, we are getting child maintenance payments to 63,000 more children, and why we can report that the applications backlog is down by 36 per cent. We are clearing new applications faster, partly because of existing IT improvements.
As well as receiving representations from the various charities involved in this area, has my hon. Friend received representations from the Public and Commercial Services Union, on behalf of the staff who will administer the new system? When I talked to them in Blackpool, they said that they were becoming increasingly anxious about how they will manage the old calculation, the new calculation and the new-new calculation when CMEC is introduced.
I can reassure my hon. Friend on that point. We are closely engaged with our staff. I have had a number of meetings with staff representatives over the last year, and I know that other colleagues in the Department have done the same. The staff tell us, overwhelmingly, that they are right behind the Government’s reforms, and they welcome the improvements that the operational improvement plan is already achieving. They also welcome some new powers that we have given staff—for example, to collect child maintenance debts.
Although we are discussing with staff particular issues about transitional arrangements such as those that my hon. Friend mentioned, our staff want to work for an efficient system that delivers more child maintenance to more children; they recognise that the changes we are introducing are set to achieve just that.
Will the Minister please ask Sir Leigh Lewis to pass on to his staff Members’ thanks for the detailed work that they have put into the inquiries that we make on behalf of our constituents and our hope that the new systems will work better? Will the Minister also ask the Prime Minister to instruct permanent secretaries to say to Secretaries of State that they do not want to introduce systems that will not work first time around? We should not have to have a running experiment for two years, causing disaster to so many families.
I will certainly pass those comments on, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is not an area for experimentation. The CSA has been troubled almost since the day of its inception. We all accept that this is a difficult policy area, and we have taken through reforms that have achieved some improvement, but we all recognised—right across the House, I think—that there was a really tough problem with the agency.
We decided that, because of their problems, the agency and the system as they currently exist cannot go on. That is why we decided to introduce the new arrangement under the commission, why we are taking time to ensure that we get that right, why we are deliberately taking time over the transitional arrangements to ensure that they are right as well, and why, in the meantime, we are investing additional people and resources to improve the agency’s performance. On all counts, it is improving.
As the Minister will be aware, more than 120,000 people work for companies that have gone out of business leaving insufficient money in their pension funds. When will he agree that the Government’s compensation scheme should be bolstered to ensure that those workers receive the same compensation as is available under the Pension Protection Fund?
The financial assistance scheme assets review is being led by the Government Actuary, Andrew Young, and is considering the better use of the assets currently in failed pension schemes. The Government have indicated that we are prepared at least to match any extra funding that might arise out of the assets review. Further funding is therefore available. The Government have the goal of moving towards a 90 per cent. top-up rate, and we are determined to seek justice for pensioners.
I welcome my hon. and learned Friend’s comments, especially on behalf of the HH Robertson’s pensioners in my constituency, whose scheme, which is covered by the rules, failed in 1996. Many people have now received payments from the scheme, and there have been many letters of thanks. I pay credit to the staff who have dealt with the complicated casework. Will he ensure that complex cases such as bridging pensions are dealt with as a priority before moving on to the kind of detail suggested by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), because such pensioners deserve support now?
We are trying to get as much support as possible to pensioners, and I have made changes to the rules in the past month—for example, agreeing that trustees will be able to make payments directly rather than having to go to the financial assistance scheme first. The FAS has now paid out just under £9.1 million to 2,560 qualifying members. A further 868 members will be paid as soon as they have confirmed their personal details, and an additional 814 members have been assessed as eligible for FAS payments when they reach 65.
The Conservative party promised last week to refloat the lifeboat and ensure that pensioners receive a payment within three months of a Conservative Government taking office. Does the Minister recognise that the British people feel cheated of the opportunity to vote for an incoming Government who could bring justice to pensioners rather than the injustice that they have suffered under Labour?
Tory fantasy finances will not help those pensioners. Last week, the Conservatives tried to refloat a lifeboat proposal that sank last July following Andrew Young’s report. It was sunk not by the Government, but simply by the fact that the cost of increasing the fund to PPF levels, as proposed by the Tories, is £2.7 billion in cash terms over 50 years. The Tories have not shown how they can provide that money, and fantasy finances will help no one. There are two realistic ways of providing finances: one is better use of assets in the failed schemes; the other is through the taxpayer. We are awaiting further information from Andrew Young on how we can better use those assets, and we have indicated that we will provide Government funding. That is the realistic way of getting justice for pensioners. The proposals that the Tories have made will achieve nothing: they are pure fantasy.
Why does the Minister show passion only when he says no to pension victims? Why cannot he have the courage of his convictions and follow what the Conservative party pledged to do if it won the election, but which the Prime Minister bottled out of—get the first payments to victims from a proper lifeboat fund within three months, by 1 February? Why cannot he do the same?
The Conservative party made a proposal that simply does not float. The Government Actuary clearly set out why it is not credible to try to manufacture such funding from something vaguely called unclaimed assets. The Government have offered taxpayers’ money and a realistic proposal to bring together the assets of failed pension schemes better to ensure that they can provide for those who need justice. The Tories proposed nothing realistic; it was pure fantasy. This Government are determined to do justice to pensioners, and to do it properly.
With the compliance rate among self-employed non-resident parents at 59 per cent., it is clearly important to take further measures, which we are doing in the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill. For example, the use of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs information and fixed-term maintenance awards will speed up the process and help to prevent self-employed non-resident parents from providing delayed or misleading information.
As well as accurate assessments, enforcement of the assessments is vital. Every week, I see cases where it is obvious that the tax return information and the figures that are submitted to the CSA are quite unrelated. I have spoken to the CSA, which does not use Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs departments as well as it might. What can be done to ensure that people do not use self-employment deliberately to delay or obstruct the enforcement of their child maintenance liability?
I thank my hon. Friend for that further point. We have all seen similar cases in our constituency surgeries. That is why we are introducing additional powers in the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill, which is now going through Parliament: first, the power to use gross income information from HMRC, which will give us a more robust and reliable source of information about real income than what some self-employed non-resident parents tell us; secondly, the power to use fixed-term awards; and, thirdly—and importantly for those who are still inclined not to co-operate—powers to deduct money directly from accounts that self-employed people might have with various financial institutions.
The Minister will be aware, however, that much of the problem arises when someone’s lifestyle is obviously at variance with their declared income. He said that we would use HMRC data, but one of the problems is that when there is evidence of a difference between lifestyle and declared income, the CSA often does not properly investigate it. Will the HMRC data be treated as sacrosanct or will CMEC have powers to investigate further when there is evidence that they do not equate with the lifestyle of the person involved?
The hon. Gentleman identifies a correct point. One of the problems was that the CSA was, in a sense, originally designed and set up to be an investigatory agency, but was never given the powers to be one. The difference with the new commission is that it will have the right to access HMRC data, which are far more reliable on real income levels than the evidence that self-employed non-resident parents submit to the agency. With the use of HMRC data and the other steps we are taking, especially the power to have direct access to finance accounts, we are confident that we can certainly make it far more difficult for self-employed non-resident parents to evade their responsibility to maintain their children.
What would the Minister say to the gentleman—I will call him Mr. X—who came to my surgery on Saturday, a self-employed individual who has supplied all his information to the CSA, which has lost his file on two separate occasions? He has asked for a statement of what he has paid and how the calculation has been made, only to be told that that information is not available to him or his solicitor. He is now being taken to court, on Friday, by a debt collection agency. I rang the MP hotline this morning, only to be told that I would have to put the case in writing to the CSA, which would have to contact the debt collection agency, which would then write back—a process taking four weeks. Does not the system cut MPs out of the loop? Should it not be a bit more responsive to the situation in which my constituent has found himself?
My hon. Friend highlights an extremely complex case, of which there are still a fair number in the system. The length of time that it is taking to resolve the case that he outlined is, of course, not satisfactory. I should be more than happy to meet him urgently, to see whether I can make any intervention that might speed matters up.
There are currently around 650,000 unfilled vacancies across the economy. Jobcentre Plus alone takes over 10,000 new vacancies every working day, and at least as many again come up through other recruitment channels. However, we are redoubling our efforts to help jobless people by rapidly expanding local employment partnerships, to help 250,000 people from the most disadvantaged groups into work over the next three years.
Will the Secretary of State implement any of the proposals outlined in David Freud’s report “Reducing dependency, increasing opportunity”, which the Government commissioned? Has he discussed the report with the Prime Minister? If the recommendations are not to be implemented, will he tell us why not?
I have indeed discussed the report with the Prime Minister, and I have also discussed it with David Freud. Most of it has been accepted in our Green Paper. It makes an important contribution to ensuring that there are serious reductions in the number of people on long-term benefits and people who are not in the jobs market or even in job-focused benefit environments. I will not, however, follow the Tory path, which I assume the hon. Lady supports, of unfunded, uncosted programmes that will leave an enormous black hole in public finances, and which omit to point out that it is necessary to spend to save. That is what worried me about some of the announcements at the Tory party conference last week.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
Written questions were tabled, under the new arrangements for September questions, by 136 hon. Members. Fifty-nine per cent. were answered on the specified answering day, with a further 24 per cent. answered subsequently in September. That amounts to 83 per cent. of questions answered in September.
That woeful performance—40 per cent. of questions not answered on the day on which answers were due—shows that the Government are failing to provide the answers that the country needs in a range of policy areas. That, no doubt, is why the Prime Minister was frightened to go to the country to receive the answer to the question that we all want to ask.
The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that under the last Government no questions were answered in September, although hon. Members could table them. This is a new procedure. More Members have asked questions on September question days than did so last year. The time taken to answer them, on average, is about the same as the time taken on non-September sitting days. Obviously, we all want all questions to be answered as quickly as possible.
Only in Parliament, during September, was there no debate about an early election. Only in Parliament was there no debate about an international credit crunch, a run on a bank in Britain, foot and mouth disease for the second time, the bluetongue virus and the speculation about when we should call the election. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that written answers are not a suitable alternative to substantive debate about the big issues of the day, and that Parliament should sit in September?
The House did sit in September for two years as an experiment. My hon. Friend will know that on 1 November last year, in a free vote, the House decided not to continue September sittings. He will probably also know that the Modernisation Committee is to consider whether the arrangements for recall of Parliament are sufficiently accessible to Members.
Does the Leader of the House accept that while of course it is helpful to be able to table written questions during a recess, it would be even more helpful if Prime Ministers and other Ministers made major statements to Parliament, rather than to the country from abroad, when a few days later they could be accountable here?
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
A total of 105,957 litres of bottled water was sold by the House of Commons Refreshment Department in 2006-07. In the same year, 16,200 litres of bottled water were supplied to the Department of the Serjeant at Arms for use in Committee Rooms, and 34,000 litres of bottled water were provided mainly in water coolers to staff of the House.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer, but is it not time, when we are looking at environmental change and the enormous environmental costs of bottled water, that the House of Commons stopped preaching to the rest of the country and started to reduce its use of bottled water, to use tap water and to stop all the waste of the empty bottles, too?
I have a lot of sympathy with what the right hon. Gentleman says. Of course, in the restaurants and bars of the House, this is a matter of choice for the individual consumer. Tap water is available free of charge in all Refreshment Department outlets. In March, the Administration Committee studied the issue of Committees using water and concluded that logistical constraints, health and safety issues and staffing costs meant that there was quite a complex issue to be considered. If he wishes to look at that report and to make further suggestions, I assure him that it need not necessarily be viewed as the last word on the matter.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
European Scrutiny Procedures
The Government are well aware that there is dissatisfaction in many quarters about the scrutiny of European measures in this House. In its 2005 report, the Modernisation Committee identified the need to look at how to reinvigorate the work of the European Standing Committees. We are continuing to examine possible ways forward, and the Government expect to make proposals in due course.
That will not do. It was two and a half years ago that the Modernisation Committee brought out that report, chaired by the then Leader of the House, now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Since then, absolutely nothing has been done. The report referred to
“worrying shortcomings in the House’s scrutiny of EU business”.
More than 1,000 new measures are being proposed every year, and only a tiny fraction is scrutinised or debated properly. Rather than talk about the powers and rights of this House, will the Government do something about them and make some proposals?
The right hon. Gentleman is an experienced member of the European Scrutiny Committee. As such, he must know that it is very important that we get the proposals and any changes right. As with the management of all business before the House, it is partly a matter of balancing resources, including Members’ time. The Government are well aware of the concerns and continue to give the matter proper attention.
I echo the sentiments that were expressed by the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), who is a very active member of my Committee. The arrangements were that, if any European business was referred by our Committee, so that its merits could be considered, it would go to the Standing Committees of the House, three of which were established with fixed memberships and agendas. One of the great problems that face Parliament is that, for two Sessions now, Sessional Orders have turned that scrutiny process into nothing but another kind of statutory instrument process. May I have an assurance that Sessional Orders will not be laid this year and that Committees with agendas and fixed memberships will be re-established to give some decent scrutiny to European business?
My hon. Friend is a most diligent Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee. I pay tribute to him for the work that he has done in that role. The difficulties to which he refers relate to the difficulties in finding Members who are prepared to serve on the Standing Committees as they are currently structured. That is why the Government are looking more widely at structural reforms.
The Prime Minister has said that he wishes to make Parliament the crucible of public life and that he wants open government, but the European Scrutiny Committee continues to meet in private. Will the Deputy Leader of the House commit to opening up this Committee, or is she going to bottle it, just like the Prime Minister?
The hon. Gentleman is right: as with many Select Committees, some sittings of the European Scrutiny Committee are held in private. When discussions have been held about making all sessions open to the public, the votes have proved contradictory. The issue is extremely controversial but the point is well understood.