Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 467: debated on Monday 19 November 2007

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Credit Unions

Via the growth fund, we are investing £42 million over three years in more than 120 credit unions and community development finance institutions. To date, more than 40,000 affordable loans worth a total of £20 million have been made, and as a result thousands of people have been prevented from falling into the clutches of high-cost lenders or loan sharks.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. He will be aware of the socially responsible work that credit unions carry out, but he will also be aware that the credit union movement feels that the current legislative framework is stunting its growth, and he will be aware that there are far higher levels of credit union membership in other countries, such as Ireland. What steps is he considering taking to update the law governing credit unions?

First, I should point out that the growth fund investment that my Department is making is the first ever substantial investment by Government in the credit union movement, and my hon. Friend will know of the First Alliance credit union in Ayrshire which is benefiting from growth fund money. My Department is looking in conjunction with the Treasury at the legislative and regulatory rules that affect credit unions, and I am sure that colleagues in that Department will have more to say about that in future.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that credit unions are not just an urban phenomenon, but that they also offer savings and loan opportunities in rural areas? Will he commend the work of North Yorkshire county council, which on 4 December will consider a business plan drawn up in association with local housing associations to expand the common bond of the York credit union to the whole of North Yorkshire so that credit union facilities will be available in the whole of the county of Yorkshire?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I can tell him that no fewer than 11 credit unions in Yorkshire are benefiting from the investment that the Government are putting in through the growth fund. We have found that in many areas a number of small credit unions have come together to collaborate and pursue a bid for growth fund money. That has been especially effective for credit unions that cover rural areas. My hon. Friend is right that such amalgamations must take place if we are to get wider coverage on behalf of credit unions, and that is precisely the sort of thing that growth fund investment has encouraged.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for his answers. Obviously, the people who benefit most from credit unions are those at most risk from loan sharks and least able to look after themselves in this respect. Will my hon. Friend clarify the situation with regard to the funding he mentioned in his first answer? Is that just for expanding existing credit unions, or are there facilities for creating new credit unions from scratch, and where should people go if they want assistance in, or advice on, starting a credit union?

The growth fund money is being used in a number of ways. Some of it is expanding the capitalisation of credit unions—it is having a substantial impact in that respect. As I said, a number of credit unions have amalgamated or brought collaborative deals to us in order to bid for the growth fund. Some of the money is also available to assist in training and development for those who work in credit unions—both full-time staff and volunteers, who play an important role.

Speech Impediments (Young People)

Most people are able to make use of the mainstream employment placing services provided by Jobcentre Plus to find a job. However, for those who need more specialist help, such as someone with a speech impediment, Jobcentre Plus provides a range of tailored disability measures via our highly trained disability employment advisers.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, but what would she say to a 17-year-old constituent of mine with a severe stammer who could be helped by a SpeechEasy device to get into employment—it would help him make telephone calls, attend interviews and so on—and yet has received just one piece of advice: that he should go on jobseeker’s allowance and then people will look at helping him? He is a bright young man who is eager to work, and a small investment now would repay the taxpayer many times over in the future. Can we not look at providing more help for people such as him who want to contribute to society?

I recognise the picture that my hon. Friend has painted. Through Jobcentre Plus and our disability employment advisers, there are ways in which a young man in such a position can be assisted through the training and interview processes. If they are successful in getting a job there is also, of course, our successful “access to work” programme to address ways of supporting them in employment. I know that my hon. Friend has written to me on the specifics of her constituency case and I will respond on that as soon as possible.

Anyone who has a speech impediment or communication difficulty, whether it results from a physical disability or a psychological problem, should ideally be able to access speech therapy long before they reach the stage when they want to attend a job interview. I would include in that many young people who do not have a speech impediment but who have barely intelligible speech. They need to have that made known to them, so that they present themselves well and to best advantage when they go for a job.

I understood the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), and likewise I understand exactly what the hon. Lady is saying. I hope that she welcomed the recent statement in the pre-Budget report supporting enhanced facilities for speech therapy. We recognise that communication is important in getting through the interview process and getting a job. That is why Jobcentre Plus works with the individual, particularly if they have a speech impediment, to see what is most appropriate to take them through that quite difficult process,

Does the Minister think that a young person who has a severe speech impediment would qualify for incapacity benefit under the new assessment announced today, or would she include such a person in being part of the sick-note culture? Would it not be better for all concerned if the Government concentrated on putting their efforts into providing tailored support for such people to get back into work, as proposed in the Freud review, which Ministers have now ditched, rather than on demonising disabled people by using negative stereotypes of the type that we have read about again in the papers today?

I regret the sort of angle from which the hon. Gentleman has come at this issue, because when we debated the Welfare Reform Bill in Committee, we were clear that the way in which we would work in future would be to consider and support the individual, and to identify their needs to ensure that they moved into work with the proper support when that was appropriate. Of course, it would be ludicrous for me to say that one person would be able to qualify for the new employment and support allowance whereas someone else would not, because it is very much tailored to individual needs, including training needs, individual aspirations and how those people move into work. For the hon. Gentleman’s information, we are implementing the recommendations of the Freud report.

My question follows the point ably made by the hon. Member for Warrington, North, and is similar. The Minister will know that last week Scope launched its “no voice, no choice” campaign, which specifically examines the need of many disabled people for communication devices, both to have much more fulfilled lives and to get into employment. Is she able to update the House on the steps that she and her colleagues are taking to improve that situation to deal with both the constituency case that has been mentioned and people more widely?

Obviously, I have read Scope’s report. We have clearly identified communication as an issue for many people, which is why we have support workers for many people who have a visual impairment and why Braille is part of the working environment—that is supported through our access to work programme. For those who have a hearing impairment, we provide British Sign Language signers and we examine different ways in which we can support technology to maintain people in their employment. Of course, I would be delighted to update the hon. Gentleman, in his new capacity as shadow spokesperson on disability, at an appropriate future time.

Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission

3. When the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission will commence its work; and if he will make a statement. (164993)

Subject to parliamentary approval, the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission will become operational in 2008. I have appointed Janet Paraskeva as its chair designate. She brings considerable skills and experience to the role and she will provide outstanding leadership.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. What would he say to my constituent, Martin Smith, who has been in correspondence with the Child Support Agency for the past four years? He has stated that he was the father of a child, and he then submitted his DNA report, which the CSA has lost. The CSA has been taking money out of his account every week, and he now risks losing his job. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the transitional arrangements that he brings into force will ensure that such cases will be dealt with swiftly before the new organisation takes over?

I would certainly like to examine the case of the constituent mentioned by my right hon. Friend, because his account makes it sound disturbing. There is no doubt that from its original inception in the early 1990s, the CSA has been a real problem in dealing with the problems that it was set up to resolve. It has improved its performance recently, but we are replacing it with the new commission precisely to start on an entirely new footing and to ensure that we provide child support in the way that it ought to have been provided all along.

The Secretary of State has just rightly said that since its inception the Child Support Agency has encountered many difficulties. I am sure that he will be aware, as are many hon. Members, that one of the principal difficulties has occurred when the absent parent—the parent without care—has been self-employed, and it has therefore been impossible to reach or place enforcement orders on their earnings. Can he tell the House whether the new agency will have any other, better methods of dealing with that intractable problem than has been the case in the past?

We will provide powers for direct collection from bank accounts, because the hon. Lady is right that there is a problem with self-employed people. We will also encourage mediation, especially for those on benefit. At present, they have to enter into a statutory relationship, via the CSA. If the issue could be voluntarily agreed, it could remove that obstacle to a proper relationship between the parents and support for the resident parent. The self-employed issue remains one that we need to resolve.

Will the new CMEC take a different approach to shared care, in which children spend 50 per cent. of their time with each parent, especially when both parents are working and have an income? Under the CSA, one parent always has to be identified as the parent with care.

Yes, I do think that CMEC will provide a more satisfactory outcome in such instances, to which my hon. Friend is right to draw attention. For a start, it will provide scope for greater voluntary arrangements and mediation, as well as an ability to offset in cases like the ones that she mentioned.

I am sure that we all have numerous cases of the insensitivity and inefficiency of the CSA that we could lay before the Secretary of State. What procedure will the Secretary of State adopt to monitor the work of the new body, so that we do not have a disaster followed by a fiasco?

I am confident that we will not have that—[Interruption.] Well, I remember the early days of the CSA, as a Back-Bench Labour Member, after it was set up by the previous Government, and it was an absolute disaster. Performance has improved, but the hon. Gentleman is right to demand of me that it improves further. It will be monitored, and I hope that the Work and Pensions Committee will also keep a beady eye focused on it. We want the new arrangement to ensure that the support gets to the child, so that the non-resident parent—usually the father—fulfils his responsibility, but it should be done in a fair way, which is often perceived not to be the case.

Child Support

The first concrete steps in implementing the reforms have already been taken. For example, in the pre-Budget report, we announced the increases to the child maintenance disregard to £20 a week by the end of next year, and to £40 a week from April 2010. That change alone will lift 50,000 children out of poverty.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. When we move to the new system, there will undoubtedly be a mass of cases under the first two systems in which there are still unpaid arrears. Will he consider whether mediation might have a part to play in resolving long-standing disputes about how much should be paid each week or month, and if alternative dispute resolution proves successful in that regard, will he consider a role for it in the new system?

We are taking an important step in the direction that my hon. Friend seeks, in that CMEC will come with an information and support service which will, for the first time, give advice and support to separating couples about how they should proceed and what arrangements they might make on a voluntary basis for securing the future flow of maintenance. He will also know that since January 2006 the family mediation helpline has been in existence, and I expect that the new advice and support service will be able to signpost the mediation service and refer people to it.

Although I realise that the CSA has a difficult task, what does the Minister propose to do about calculations of the income of absent fathers that take so long that by the time the arrears are due the father gets a shock and is unable to pay them all in one go? That is a real problem, as I am sure other hon. Members have heard; those people are faced by payments that they cannot meet.

Of course, improving performance as the hon. Lady describes is not just a case of waiting for the new commission to come into existence; it is important to improve performance now, for exactly the reasons she indicates. That is why we are making additional investment through the operational improvement plan, and the secret of that is to speed up the processing of cases, so that whereas back in March 2005, before the plan was under way, only 30 per cent. of cases were processed within 12 weeks, the number is now 74 per cent. The significant investment we are already making in the existing agency is already improving performance and that will carry forward under the new arrangements.

Pensioner Poverty

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Mike O'Brien): Since 1997 pensioner poverty has been reduced by a third to 17 per cent. Through targeted support, such as pension credit and £11 billion of extra funding, we have lifted more than 1 million pensioners out of relative poverty.

I am grateful to the Minister for those comments.

According to the Prudential, rising food prices affect pensioners more than any other age group. Does the Minister share my concern that as food prices are increasing at their fastest rate in 14 years, that is having a negative impact on pensioner poverty?

What we have ensured is that we continue to deal with the issues surrounding pensioner poverty, which is why we introduced pension credit. We have sought to lift the poorest pensioners out of poverty, and they are the people who would be most affected by increases, say, in food prices. At the same time, we have sought to provide a solid foundation of support for pensioners who are beyond pension credit levels. Those are issues, which is why the Government continue to upgrade the level of pension credit.

My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that fuel prices are an issue for many pensioners, but is he aware of the British Gas scheme for a social tariff for those on lower incomes? One of the problems of expanding the scheme is access to data, so will he undertake to have conversations with British Gas about data sharing and how it might be taken forward?

But can the Minister confirm that 2 million pensioners are living in poverty and that the very poorest pensioners are seeing their real incomes fall by 4 per cent. a year—costing on average more than £250? Will he join me and my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) tomorrow night at the vigil outside Downing street to be held by some of the 125,000 pension victims? If he comes to talk to them, will he explain why he is still refusing them the help that they need?

First of all, in terms of numbers we estimate that 1.1 million to 1.7 million pensioners do not take up pension credit. I think before the hon. Gentleman makes comments such as those he has just made, he should recall that when the Conservatives were in office they left 2.7 million pensioners living in poverty, many living on as little as £69 a week; many women were restricted from building up state pension entitlement in their own right and carers were similarly mistreated. In talking about the financial assistance scheme—the help for the 125,000 pensioners concerned because of the breakdown of their pension scheme—the Tories should be a little careful; they cannot afford to claim that they looked after pensions during their term. They created the circumstances in which many of those schemes got into trouble. In 1986, pension fund surpluses were capped by the then Chancellor. They allowed pension holidays—

Should not the Government be warmly congratulated on the measures taken in the past 10 years, which the previous Administration refused to take and from which many of my constituents and others, especially poorer pensioners, have benefited? When the Government are acting in the right direction, as they do on most occasions, no one is a greater admirer than I.

As always, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. This Government are tackling the problems of pensioner poverty left to us by the previous Government.

Foreign Workers

6. What estimate he has made of the change in the proportion of foreign workers in the UK labour force since 1997. (164996)

7. What estimate he has made of the change in the proportion of foreign workers in the UK labour force since 1997. (164997)

According to the latest estimates available, about 7 to 8 per cent. of those in employment are foreign nationals; in 1997, the figure was 3 to 4 per cent. The employment rate of both UK and foreign nationals has increased since 1997, from 73.2 per cent. in 1997 to 74.8 per cent. in 2007 for UK nationals, and from 60.6 per cent. to 67.6 per cent. for foreign nationals in the same period.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for such a comprehensive answer. When the Prime Minister said,

“British jobs for British workers”,

he knew that that policy was illegal under European Union law. Given the facts that the Secretary of State has just stated, would the Prime Minister have been straight with the British people had he said, “British jobs for European workers”?

The Prime Minister set out very clearly his objective, my objective and the Government’s objective of getting British benefit claimants to become British workers by getting into British jobs. That is our strategy; it is perfectly in line with EU law, and it marks a strong contrast with the record of the Conservative Government, under whom the benefits mountain mushroomed. We have now taken 1 million people off benefits, and many more people are coming into jobs every week as a result of our Government’s employment programmes.

Following on from the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), is the Secretary of State telling the House that he agrees with the Prime Minister’s statement that there should be British jobs for British people, when most hon. Members believe that such a slogan is one that we would find the British National party using, and is neither enforceable nor legal?

I have just explained to the House, and I remind the hon. Gentleman of what I said. Does he not support the Government in getting people off benefit and into work—getting British people off benefits and into British jobs? Of course he should support us. That is our objective and that is what the Prime Minister was talking about. The vehicle for doing that is the signing up of more than 200 local employment partnerships, with employers joining them, to get people directly off incapacity benefit and into work, and to get older people and lone parents into work. Our aim is precisely to achieve genuine full employment—an objective whose achievement was completely impossible under the Tory Government, but is now in sight as a result of our policies.

Sections of the British economy, not least the national health service, the caring professions, the construction industry and food processing, have benefited enormously from the efforts of foreign-born workers, but if we are to continue to benefit, the general public must have greater confidence in the figures that the Government produce. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a risk that “official Government statistics” will become a term of abuse and dispute?

If my hon. Friend is saying that the statistics produced for Ministers and used publicly in good faith should be the best possible estimates, I completely agree with him. That is why, at the earliest opportunity, when the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), and I discovered that we had been wrongly advised about those estimates, we immediately corrected them to the House. In addition, at my first opportunity I phoned the shadow Secretary of State to tell him, so that he could go out and attack the Government’s record in the media. He had plenty of warning.

There are two ways of dealing with the problem of immigration. One is to welcome the economically active and very intelligent workers whom we have taken into my constituency, largely from Poland. The other is deliberately to foment trouble by attacking such workers in the local paper and having pictures taken outside Polish shops, as though they were not only a wave of invaders who are damaging the economy, but totally unacceptable. Will my right hon. Friend condemn those who, for narrow political purposes, seek to foment trouble between a stable section of society and one that will benefit from the incomers?

I could not have put it better myself; my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The truth is that foreign nationals have made a significant contribution to Britain’s economy over the years, including as regards our recent record of growth and rises in wealth. They have made a positive contribution in her constituency and, I am sure, every other constituency in the country.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) was absolutely right in what she said, and many of us realise the problems that she faces in her constituency, but are not the Government aware that unless foreign workers are regulated and restricted in coming to this country, it is likely that a lot of them coming here will depress the wages of the lower-income groups in this country? That is surely a disadvantage and, in times of rising unemployment—maybe we will get that—there could be a problem; social tension might be created. Is it not responsible to take a really sensible line on the number of immigrant workers who come to this country?

I am very much in favour of sensible lines. In respect of the problem, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a danger that foreign nationals could depress wage levels. That is why the minimum wage that we brought in must be enforced rigorously throughout the economy. In some cases, that is not happening, and foreign nationals themselves are being exploited, so we are bringing in tougher measures to ensure that it does happen—and to enforce employment rights, which are not always enforced. I hope that he will join me in insisting that the legal rights for which we have legislated as a Government, including the minimum wage, are properly respected, in Macclesfield and elsewhere.

The Secretary of State was right in his statistic when he told the House that the proportion of non-UK workers in the work force has almost doubled since 1997. He could have added that the proportion of UK workers has fallen in the same period. Furthermore, is he aware that since 1995, the number of British jobs occupied by British workers has decreased? At the same time, there has been a continued increase in the number of non-UK nationals in employment, including both EU nationals, to whom the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) referred, and non-EU nationals. The Government continue to issue an ever-increasing number of work permits, at a time when there is an influx of nationals from the A8 states. Is it not time for proper co-ordination between Departments on the issuing of work permits, rather than country-cramming and idle boasts about British jobs for British workers?

If the hon. Gentleman supported the policy of identity cards, it might be easier to resolve the question that he has put. Let us look at the facts. The facts are that we have seen a million more British nationals in jobs under our Government. Unemployment and the claimant count rate are at an historically low level. There are 660,000 job vacancies in the British economy today and every day. Also—this is crucial to a sensible analysis of the debate—the number of working-age British people has fallen significantly, because it is an ageing society. Therefore, one might also ask the question: what if those foreign nationals, including those from Europe, had not been here to fill the jobs in the gap that an ageing population left behind? That is why we want to get more people off benefits and into work, and why the Prime Minister’s policy of getting British benefit claimants into British jobs, so that they become British workers, is the right policy.

Financial Exclusion

8. What steps his Department is taking to encourage third sector organisations to help tackle financial exclusion. (164998)

The £42 million growth fund is investing in more than 120 credit unions in all areas of the country, including Glasgow. In addition, the “Now let’s talk money” campaign is raising awareness of the need for financial inclusion. As a result, more than 2,000 intermediary organisations are helping people to take advantage of free face-to-face advice and affordable credit.

Credit unions and the Citizens Advice money-lending advice centre face the threat of cuts in their funding. Is it not time that we took stock of that and made sure that people receive the services that they so richly deserve and need, instead of cutting money for people who need it most?

I agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. As he knows, three schemes in Glasgow are already directly benefiting from the additional investment from the growth fund. The “Now let’s talk money campaign” is rolling out across the entire United Kingdom. Local organisations in Glasgow are benefiting from that help, and in turn they can do more in the local community to assist people who need help managing their finances or who need debt advice.

Due to the complexity of the benefit system and the fact that many Departments are simply not doing their jobs properly, organisations such as Kettering welfare rights advisory service are doing sterling work to make sure that people are not financially excluded. In the past financial year, Kettering welfare rights advisory service secured more than £3 million for people who would otherwise not have qualified for it, including £1.3 million in attendance allowance, more than £1 million in disability living allowance and £173,000 in pension credits. If Departments were doing their jobs properly, organisations such as Kettering welfare rights advisory service would not have to do that good work.

All constituencies contain welfare rights organisations that provide the assistance to our constituents to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. Those organisations do a fantastic job, and I am happy to congratulate the organisation in Kettering that he has mentioned on its work. It is important that we continue to make progress on the simplification and reform of the benefits system, which is why we are putting additional investment, through the means to which I have already referred, into a variety of local organisations, which exist in the hon. Gentleman’s area as well as in others, that work on financial inclusion in communities by giving individuals welfare advice as well as debt advice.

Child Support Agency

9. If he will make a statement on progress of the Child Support Agency’s operational improvement plan. (164999)

The agency is halfway through its three-year operational improvement plan and is showing significant improvements in client services. For example, uncleared applications have more than halved, and more than half of all new applications are now routinely cleared in less than six weeks. As a result of those recent improvements, additional maintenance worth more than £130 million is now flowing to an extra 130,000 children.

The emphasis on collecting historic debt is warmly welcomed by many of my constituents who have long-standing CSA cases. Will the Minister outline what progress is being made under the improvement plan and state how long it will take to recoup outstanding arrears?

The debts within the organisation built up from day one of its operation, and they have accumulated over no fewer than 14 years. Within the operational improvement plan, we aim to collect £200 million of arrears by March 2009. Halfway through the plan, the latest figures show that we have collected £148 million of additional arrears. We have also given staff in the agency new powers to collect those arrears by, for example, using credit card collections over the phone. That has only recently come into effect, and it is proving to be very effective and has already raised an additional £12 million of arrears.

I know how hard CSA staff are working to try to improve the service that they offer to people such as my constituents in Basingstoke. Does the Minister share my concern that the operational improvement plan is falling somewhat short when it comes to more complex cases handled through the Bolton office? What reassurance can he give my constituents in Basingstoke, who are still experiencing waits of up to six months before they hear anything about how their case will be handled through Bolton? Why is it—

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Complex and clerically handled cases were transferred to Bolton; as we have said before, there were difficulties with that. That situation is now improving. The fact that we transferred some of the more complex clerical cases to Bolton released a significant number of staff at the agency to pursue other objectives.

I do not agree that the operational improvement plan is falling short of its goals. For example, the number of uncleared cases, which stood at 226,000 in March 2005, is now down to 128,000—that is a 43 per cent. drop. Some 130,000 more children are benefiting and £130 million more is being collected. Furthermore, the number of cases in receipt of maintenance is up by 29 per cent. Just halfway through its phase, the operational improvement plan is delivering the improvements that we expected of it.

What steps is the CSA taking to clean up its act on the length of time that its staff—who are probably very overworked—take to reply to letters from MPs about CSA cases? In my recent experience, the service to MPs, who act on behalf of constituents who are often in considerable financial difficulties, has worsened.

I am disappointed to hear that, because I have visited the CSA section that handles MPs’ correspondence—it has received from us additional staffing support and additional investment—and my understanding was that the processing times for MPs’ correspondence had improved. If my hon. Friend gives me the details of the particular case on which he is trying to make progress, I shall be happy to pursue it for him.

Credit Unions

10. What recent steps his Department has taken to support the work of credit unions; and what plans he has for further assistance. (165000)

Further to the answer that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark), we are awaiting the outcome of deliberations on how the £130 million financial inclusion fund, announced in the recent Budget, will be utilised. Given appropriate funding, our intention is to support growth in the third financial sector, to encourage high-performing credit unions to extend their reach, to offer banking services, to promote safe saving and to offer basic insurance products.

Will the Minister have urgent talks with Treasury colleagues about why they have been encouraging credit unions to offer easy credit rather than follow the well-tried policy of insisting that customers prove their ability to save? My local credit union in Llanelli, which provides an excellent service, is concerned that easy credit could lead to unserviceable debts and put the security of the credit union itself at risk.

Under the rules that apply to investments in respect of the growth fund, it is clear that credit unions should do a full assessment of individuals applying for credit. It is certainly not the case that credit should be extended to individuals who cannot meet the repayments. The important advantage that the growth fund investment gives is that its loans are running rates that are probably at least half those for loans secured from doorstep lenders and vastly less than rates secured from loan sharks. Provided that credit unions carry out the necessary checks on individual applicants, the loans should be affordable.

Disability Living Allowance

11. What estimate he has made of the average time taken for a medical re-examination in connection with a disability living allowance application to be carried out in the most recent period for which figures are available. (165001)

Following receipt of a request to examine a disability living allowance customer, ATOS Healthcare took an average of 11.4 days to complete any medical examination process in the three months to September 2007. There is no distinction between initial examinations and re-examinations.

I am sure that the Minister will appreciate that in some cases the process takes quite a bit longer. A constituent of mine, who struggles to walk, cannot lift heavy things and cannot even raise her arms above her chest, was receiving the disability living allowance; on further examination, however, it was removed. Four weeks ago, she reapplied for a medical assessment, but she does not even have a date for it yet. If I supply the Minister with the details, perhaps she will kindly look into the matter. In general, is the picture not rather a poor one?

The target is an average of 12 days, so, on average, the company is within target. I accept, however, that when there are averages some people fall outside them. If the hon. Gentleman writes to me, I would be happy to follow up the details of his constituent’s case.

Maternity Leave

13. What plans he has to extend support for people on maternity leave to students and those paid a stipend or grant rather than a wage. (165003)

The Government view individuals studying full-time in further or higher education as students and, therefore, the responsibility of the education system. However, support may be available for some students through income support and tax credits, depending on their individual family circumstances.

I thank my hon. Friend for that response. She may be aware of the situation of Beth Porteous, one of my constituents, who is a postgraduate student at Durham university and is expecting a baby. She gets paid quarterly by the university for research work that she undertakes, but she has been told that she does not qualify for statutory maternity pay or maternity allowance and that she must take unpaid leave and return to work eight weeks after the baby is born. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would undertake to look at cases such as Beth’s to see what additional support can be given to women who find themselves in that unfortunate situation.

I thank my hon. Friend for that question on behalf of her constituent. I think that the complication in this particular case is that her constituent is designated as being on a research grant as opposed to receiving a wage from the university. However, I will of course give her a commitment to look into the precise situation and come back to her with a written response.


One of the key responsibilities of my Department is to ensure that all those who have a health condition or a disability but who could work are given the right type of help and support to enable them to find and keep a job. Many of the 2.64 million people of working age are currently on incapacity benefit because the personal capability assessment has focused more on people’s incapability than their capability for work. In October 2008, I am therefore introducing a new medical test—the work capability assessment—that will assess people’s physical and mental ability and what they can do rather than what they cannot do. I placed a report evaluating the new test in the Library this morning.

May I invite the Secretary of State to indulge in a bit of interdepartmental thinking and action to overcome a problem that is becoming very apparent in inner-city areas such as mine? Single parents have great difficulty in accessing council or housing association properties because of the shortages and are therefore placed in private accommodation by the local authority, often on a very high rent—sometimes as much as £300 or £400 a week. That rent is then paid for by housing benefit. I have no problem with people getting housing benefit; this is not an attack on housing benefit, but the problem that then emerges is that, if and when they are offered a job or encouraged into a job by the agency, they have to reject it because they need to get one that pays more than £15,000 to start with just to pay the rent. That means that they are in danger of losing benefits and we are in danger of losing somebody who wants to work and contribute to society. This is a twin problem of benefits and housing. I realise that it is not entirely the Secretary of State’s responsibility, but does he recognise that it is a serious issue, and is he prepared to do something about it?

I recognise that this is a real problem, especially in London, with high housing costs as well as, in the case of lone parents, high child care costs. That is why the Prime Minister recently announced that for London there will be an in-work credit of £60 a week for an individual coming off income support, in the case of a lone parent, to enable them to take a job and to deal with precisely the problem that my hon. Friend describes. We will continue to look into the problems of housing costs and how we can resolve them, because we do not want them to be an impediment to work in the way that he describes.

This morning, the Secretary of State provided the media with a briefing about his new announcement on incapacity benefit assessments. According to the BBC website, he said that he would tackle sick-note Britain and that the new system will place greater emphasis on what the sick and disabled can do rather than on what they cannot do. Funnily enough, two weeks ago, on 5 November, he made exactly the same announcement to the media, saying that he had plans to “rip up sicknote Britain” and that there would be “an assessment” that would look at

“what people can do rather than what they can’t.”

Why did he make the same announcement twice in a fortnight, and why does he keep briefing the media first and MPs second?

I placed a copy of the report that makes an analysis of the new medical assessment in the Library this morning. The House was the first to see it, as far as I know. We sought to draw attention to a radical change from what has gone on in the past, in the 1980s and 1990s, when people were smuggled off the unemployment statistics on to incapacity benefit. The numbers tripled, which led to the benefit mountain we received as a legacy from the previous Conservative Government. We are reducing it. For the first time in a generation, the figure has come down—by 120,000 during the past few years—having risen year on year as a result of that legacy. The new, stringent, personal capability assessment, of which I have informed the House, will enable us to bring that number down even more.

In fact, the first time we heard about that was in a press release from his Department in January 2006.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that today’s announcement involves 20,000 fewer people claiming incapacity benefit? Will he confirm that that represents less than 1 per cent. of the total of 2.6 million currently claiming the benefit? Unless he manages to increase his current rate of progress, he is set to be 25 years late in hitting his target of getting 1 million people off incapacity benefit.

On the contrary, compared with the record of the Tory Government, where incapacity benefit tripled, we have already brought the numbers down by 120,000 and this additional test will enable us to accelerate that process. In addition, the rolling out of pathways to work throughout the country by April next year will bear down even more sharply on those figures. At last we will begin to get rid of the awful legacy bequeathed to us by the previous Tory Government, where people were written off on incapacity benefit, instead of being helped into a job, or being given new opportunities, skills and support to get a job, which enable them to transform their lives as a result.

T2. Would the Minister comment on the study by Aon Consulting, published last week, which says that British pensioners receive a pension equivalent to 17 per cent. of average earnings? That is the lowest level in Europe. Are the Government still committed to restoring the link to earnings by 2012? (165017)

The comments in the Aon Consulting review were directed at the basic state pension, and then it worked out that figure. Of course, we know that there is a second state pension—an important part of the UK state pension system—that brings people up to a third of average earnings. In the UK, private pensions are more important, and 86 per cent. of UK pensioners have income other than state pensions. Private pensions are also eligible for tax relief so, including a private pension, a pensioner on a medium income gets an income of two thirds of average earnings. The Aon report got a headline, and added a lot of heat but little light. We remain committed to our policy of re-establishing the link to earnings.

T3. The Secretary of State just said that he wants to focus on getting those on incapacity benefit into work. We learnt on Friday that the latest figures show that 510,000 people came from the new Commonwealth countries of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, presumably looking for work. He must surely accept that there are not that many vacancies available. How will he achieve what he hopes to do when able-bodied people are coming from central and eastern Europe, as well as new Commonwealth countries, and competing with people on incapacity benefit? (165018)

First, we are changing the basis on which people will be entitled to come and work and introducing a points-based system. In respect of the wider situation, there are 660,000 vacancies in Britain today. It is not like the 1980s and 1990s when people were stuck on incapacity benefit and could not get a job because there were no jobs in constituencies such as mine—former mining constituencies in south Wales. Now there are jobs. There are vacancies everywhere, in every constituency in this country, which is why we want people on incapacity benefit, lone parents on income support, older workers and the long-term unemployed to join the jobs programmes we are undertaking with local employers to get them into work, and we can do that.

T5. Scores of grandparents in my constituency, and many thousands throughout the country, do a terrific job of supporting their grandchildren in a parental role. They are not always given support by residence orders from their local authorities. What more can we do to encourage local authorities to provide such allowances, and what more can be done to support grandparents through the tax and benefit system? (165020)

I appreciate the points that my hon. Friend makes about the important role that grandparents often play in the bringing up of the children, but those are matters for other Departments. However, I shall happily refer what he said to them, and I am sure that they will contact him.

T4. Last week the Under-Secretary said in a written statement that overpayments of £26 million had been made in relation to duplicate disability living allowance and attendance allowance payments. Will he confirm whether that will mean trying to recover, on average, £6,500 from pensioners up to the age of 76? Will he also say what percentage of the 4,000 pensioners affected he would expect to write off those overpayments for? (165019)

I can clarify the situation for the hon. Gentleman. We shall not be recovering the overpayments from anybody who was overpaid in those circumstances, as was set out clearly in the written statement. In case he has not understood the point, let me clarify it for him: there will be no recovery of the overpayments. Indeed, in some instances we shall continue with the current payments—to those who are terminally ill, for example—while ex gratia payments will be made to those disadvantaged by the error.

T6. May we return to the matter of pensions? I am increasingly concerned that those with occupational pensions who have lost heavily—there are many cases in my constituency—are currently experiencing dire financial hardship. Are the Government in a position to indicate when some action will be taken to assist the 125,000 people who have lost out so much? (165021)

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern for the 125,000 people whose pension schemes have failed. We are awaiting the outcome of the review by the Government Actuary, Andrew Young, which is due in the next few weeks. We have indicated that we are looking to maximise the returns from the amounts that remain in those failed pension schemes. We shall then see whether we can match that, to move towards 90 per cent. of the core pension.

T7. Is the Minister aware that benefit claims for Gloucestershire are now dealt with in St. Austell and that claims in Cornwall are dealt with in Gloucester? Is that not rather an odd situation and are there any proposals in the document published this morning to correct it? Since jobcentres were instructed not to give advice or to deal with claims, the whole process has become inefficient. (165022)

I do not agree that the process has become less efficient. The fact that benefits and employment advice are now dealt with in one place has been welcome. The transformation of our jobcentres from places where furniture was chained to the floor and people looked over large counters to the rather more friendly and welcoming environments that we have today is a plus. Again, however, we constantly seek to improve the delivery of our benefits and to keep on target for waiting times, to ensure that those who are entitled to benefits receive them and that those who are not do not, but get into work.

T8. The staff in Stafford jobcentre do fantastic work in helping people get back into work. I am particularly impressed with their dedication and hard work, and with the way the personal advisers give personal support to new deal clients. As the programme expands, I am sure that staff will be delighted to help get other British benefit claimants into British jobs, but they will also want to know whether they will be supported with the appropriate number of workers to do the work in their office. Against the background of a falling work force in the Department, will local jobcentre offices be given the kind of support that will be needed under the new scheme? (165023)

It is very much our intention to have the staff to do the jobs that we want them to do. However, the issue is not just about numbers of staff, but about how they work. We have a number of different advisers for different types of programmes, and a certain amount of rationalisation would help in that regard. The issue is also about how our Jobcentre Plus staff work with other organisations, such as the housing benefit office, and with the voluntary sector and, importantly, about the changes that we are going to make to the contracting of provider services, to ensure that we get better outcomes for the taxpayer’s investment, rather than just paying for processes. That is the direction for the future, with jobcentre staff, others in partnership and contract providers playing an even more effective role.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to stand and give us his question, then we can get on with it. This is a topical question; he asks the question and he gets a response.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State could tell the House how many people are not in work, education or training, and what the Government are doing about that?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his belated question; it was a very good one. We are taking action to ensure that we reduce those numbers, including by extending the age until which people will need to remain either in training, in an apprenticeship or in full-time education at school. That policy will help us to bear down on the number of 16 and 17-year-olds who are not in education or training.