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Work and Pensions

Volume 470: debated on Monday 7 January 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

Child Poverty

1. What recent assessment he has made of his Department’s progress towards its target of halving child poverty by 2010; and if he will make a statement. (175866)

In the past 10 years our policies have helped to lift 600,000 children out of relative poverty. Our new policies announced earlier this year will lift up to 300,000 more children out of poverty.

The Secretary of State will have seen the report from the Institute for Public Policy Research only last week which shows that there are still 1.4 million children in households in poverty—the same figure as 10 years ago—and that there are 200,000 more households with children in poverty than there were 10 years ago. Given that failure over 10 years, and the fact that the target date for the Government’s goal is only two years hence, what is being done to ensure that the Government target not only those in families with no work, but those who may have someone in the household in work but for whom the benefits reduction means that they are trapped in a position as bad, if not worse, than before?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the IPPR report praised what we have done compared with the record of our predecessors—child poverty doubled under the previous Government—but it said that we have to do better. The hon. Gentleman is right to press me on that, and we shall address the issue with couple parents, especially whether it is worth the while of the second parent to work. I remind him of what we are doing in London, which affects his constituents. We are rolling out the in-work credit, which will be increased to £60 for lone parents for the first year to encourage them to go into work. We know that the child of a lone parent out of work is five times more likely to be in poverty than the child of one in work. We are extending child care, and we are making sure that couple parents also have access to the new deal. So we are addressing the issues, especially in London, but we have more work to do. However, we have made massive progress, compared with what we inherited.

Notwithstanding the Government’s significant progress on child poverty, official figures suggest that one in three children living in a household with a disabled adult live in poverty. Figures to be published tomorrow in a new report by Leonard Cheshire Disability suggest that that is a serious underestimate. Does my right hon. Friend agree that ending children poverty will require important measures to tackle the serious poverty faced by millions of disabled people in this country? Unless that is done, we will not achieve our laudable goal of ending child poverty.

I agree with my hon. Friend, who has championed the rights of disabled people, including children, for many years. Our policies are the right ones, because they will encourage more parents on disability benefit or who have a disabled child to come into work, with the right child care support, in order to make more prosperous futures for themselves. They are not policies designed simply to kick people into work regardless of whether they are disabled or of whether they have a disabled child and appropriate child care available—as the Opposition seem to be spinning. Our policies are the right policies to address child poverty, and that will remain our absolute priority.

If the Secretary of State is confident about achieving his targets of first halving and then doing away with child poverty, will he take a leaf out of the book of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is putting the carbon reduction target in statute in the Climate Change Bill, which will soon come here from the other place? Will the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions place his target on the statute book with a civil penalty for the Government in the event that they do not achieve it?

That is a novel suggestion from a Conservative Back Bencher, when the whole Conservative position is against targets. Indeed, they continually castigate us for having targets. [Hon. Members: “Answer.”] I will answer the question. We will stick to our policies. Some 600,000 children are already out of poverty and another 300,000 will be lifted out by policies that we have recently announced. More will come as a result of extra reforms that we will announce in the future, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support our policies instead of continually opposing them.

May I ask the Secretary of State to make more of the Government’s success, given that if a single parent is working 16 hours or more a week neither she nor her children are in poverty? That is an extraordinary achievement. However, we may still have a real problem for many two-parent families who are in work and poor, because the formula does not take account of the second adult in the household. Now that my right hon. Friend has dealt rather successfully with the pensions underpayment, for Allied Steel and Wire, will he put his mind to this issue and similarly win the Prime Minister’s support for a change to be made?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he said, as often he puts his finger on a serious issue. One thing that we have to address is that it is extremely costly to deal with this issue—extremely costly. We have been seeing whether we can find more innovative and perhaps less costly, more targeted approaches, but we are aware of the question for two-parent families—couple parents—and the disincentive for the second one to work is an issue to be addressed. However, as my right hon. Friend said, we are light years away from the situation we inherited. We would have been in dire circumstances if we had continued the old Conservative policies.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Government will fail to hit their targets on child poverty in the south-west if nothing is done to tackle water bills in the area, which are the highest in the country? Will he ask the child poverty unit to meet to discuss that issue?

As the hon. Lady knows, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, I have established a poverty unit, which I assume is the one to which she referred, and we shall certainly consider that issue. I am well aware of the question, and also of the world increase in energy prices, which affects people’s incomes. What we need to do is provide more opportunities for people to get into work by removing the barriers, as we are doing in the south-west, where record numbers have come into work and where there are record numbers of vacancies to get people off benefits and into work in the future.

My right hon. Friend will know that my constituency has the unenviable record of the highest levels of child poverty in the country. Does he recognise that in a city such as Manchester, booming though it is, many people are missing out on the boom and that the way into work, particularly for women who head single-parent families, is not just finding jobs but having access to basic education to guarantee that they are equipped for the world of work?

Yes, I agree. It is not just a question of going into any old job, as some of the rhetoric and spin of Opposition pronouncements suggest. It is a question of providing the right support—which is costly; it costs taxpayers’ money to provide that support—including the skills that will make sure that lone parents or couple parents both get a job, as they are increasingly under the Government, and that they keep the job and improve their position in work. That is the way to lift people out of poverty in inner-city areas such as my hon. Friend’s constituency.

We of course welcome any moves that genuinely tackle child poverty. There is not a single child in this country under 10 years old who was not born under a Labour Government, so may I ask the Secretary of State why the number of those children living in poverty is rising?

As I have just explained to the House, including the hon. Gentleman, if he looks at what we are doing compared with the policies that would have been implemented if his party had stayed in power, he will see increasing numbers of children coming out of poverty. More and more parents are getting work, with a higher employment rate and a lower benefit level than under the Conservatives. That is the trajectory we are set on, and we are reforming all the time to make sure that we deal with some of the bottlenecks that have been in place for a long time.

Over the past few days, the hon. Gentleman has been going on about reducing incapacity benefit levels, which are partly responsible for child poverty and poverty generally. The level of incapacity benefit tripled under the Conservatives, as people were smuggled out of jobs and off the jobs count. We are reducing that and we will continue to do so as we get more and more people into work and conquer poverty.

The Secretary of State must think he is still on his sun lounger on the beach. He keeps talking about people coming out of child poverty, but the reality is that last year the number of children living in poverty went up. Why after 10 years of Labour government does Britain have a higher proportion of children living in workless households than any other country in Europe?

Actually, we were lagging well below the average in Europe under the Conservative Government. We are now above the average, but that is not good enough for us and we will do even better. It would be interesting to know how the hon. Gentleman will pay for the policies he advocates. How will he pay for them? At the Tory party conference, he announced, along with his leader—

Occupational Pensions

2. What steps his Department is taking to encourage employers to provide access to an occupational pension scheme for employees. (175867)

The Pensions Bill, having its Second Reading today, will introduce a requirement on all employers automatically to enrol workers who are eligible into a qualifying workplace pension scheme. Our estimates indicate that that will result in up to 9 million people newly participating or saving more in workplace schemes, with total pension contributions increasing by up to £10 billion.

Is not the key to the success of the Government’s proposals an obligation on employers to match, or make significant contributions towards, the sum paid by the employee or worker? Is it not that which creates a strong incentive for the employee to save?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Under our Bill, employers will for the first time be required to contribute to workers’ pensions. The employee will contribute 4 per cent., the employer 3 per cent., and the tax system about 1 per cent. We estimate that more than 1 million workers who are already saving will see their employer’s contribution raised as a result, and millions more who have no occupational pension scheme will get the benefit of an employer’s contribution. Overall, annual pension contributions from employees and employers are estimated to increase by about £10 billion by 2015.

Since 1997, almost 2 million fewer workers are in final salary schemes. How will Ministers ensure that personal accounts do not lead to more employers quitting schemes into which they are paying contributions of 14 per cent., in favour of personal accounts, into which they need pay only 3 per cent.?

The figure that the hon. Gentleman gives is wrong. I understand that it came out last week in a press release from Conservative Front Benchers which was inaccurate. As I understand it, they double-counted the figures. When the BBC did its own research, it realised that the figures that the Conservatives had given out were entirely wrong.

We need to ensure that there is no levelling down, and that is why in the Pensions Bill we have introduced a number of conditions for personal accounts, which will ensure that people do not transfer in and out of them. There is a restriction of £3,500 on annual contributions. Also, 86 per cent. of employers have indicated to us that they are likely to maintain or increase the contribution that they make to their employees’ pension schemes. The Pensions Bill should therefore bring about a significant improvement to the pensions situation.

While I welcome my hon. and learned Friend’s statement and the introduction of personal accounts, I am concerned that the proposed banding of contributions will discriminate against part-time workers, many of whom hold more than one part-time job, and most of whom are women. Will he look again at the possibility of allowing employer contributions on all earnings up to the £33,540 ceiling, and also at an option for employee contributions on the first £5,035?

We have had a very broad consultation on those matters, and we looked at the issue of part-time workers—an issue that has caused me great concern. We tried to find a way to assist part-time workers much more effectively. So far, it has proved very difficult to ensure that employers can register what are, in some cases, quite small jobs. We have not been able to find a way around that, but I am open to suggestions on how we might do that. I remain concerned about the issue that my hon. Friend raises.

For the new personal accounts to be successful, those on lower than average earnings will need to be persuaded that it is in their interests to invest in the new pensions. If they are not so persuaded, there is a danger that they will opt out, and that the whole system, and the benefits that it is supposed to bring, will collapse. The Pensions Minister himself said today that there was an issue in that respect; what can he say today to allay fears that those on lower than average earnings may opt out, and that the system may be fundamentally weakened?

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that unlike the previous Conservative Government—who, pound for pound, took away all savings from those who saved, so that they did not benefit—we have introduced a savings credit, which enables those with savings to benefit, even if they are on pension credit. The Pensions Commission has made it clear that people have to save more. For the vast majority, the downsides of not saving outweigh the risk of saving that the hon. Gentleman identifies.

It is very difficult to predict which people will be in the group that the hon. Gentleman identifies. Those with pension pots of under £16,000 would have the benefit of trivial commutation. Those with pension pots of over £16,000 could get 25 per cent. back, so they would benefit from saving. Some of the suggested solutions are enormously expensive. None of them has been favoured by the hon. Gentleman’s party, as far as I am aware, although I heard a rather odd suggestion from the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) that everyone who made a contribution and did not benefit should have their contributions refunded—a suggestion about which, I suspect, the pensions industry would be very unhappy.

I warmly welcome what my hon. Friend has done to promote occupational pension schemes, but what reassurance can he offer my constituents who worked, often for many years, for BUSM and contributed to its pension scheme, only to be left high and dry when much of the firm went bankrupt and the remnants were sold on to other firms? Will he meet me to discuss their position?

I would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend. As I understand it, when the business went down, the assets were passed from one company to another, and there are difficulties in getting the trustees to bring together the required information. However, I would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend and see whether there are ways in which we can help. If the company is in the position in which I think it is, the Pension Protection Fund would probably be able to provide help in due course, but I do not want to be categorical about that until I have had a discussion with her.

Did the Minister hear the chief executive of the personal accounts delivery authority on Radio 4 on 29 December, when he declined to commit himself to a 2012 start date for personal accounts? Does he agree that such a delay would be very worrying, and is he totally confident that the scheme will begin on schedule in 2012?

We intend it to begin in 2012, and the chief executive has been informed that that is what we intend.

Local Employment Partnerships

3. What progress has been made on the implementation of local employment partnerships; and if he will make a statement. (175868)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response. I visited my local job centre in Renfrew, and I was extremely impressed by the staff’s commitment to make the system work. What safeguards are in place to address the TUC’s concerns that work trials should not be used as a replacement for genuine paid employment?

I share with my hon. Friend and the TUC the objective that this should not be artificial job substitution. It must lead to a full-time job, and I am grateful to the TUC for the representations it made during the consultation on the Green Paper. Employers offer work trials genuinely to try to fill available vacancies, and the trials often open up full-time jobs for disadvantaged peoples, especially those on benefits. They often last only a few weeks, and we have put in place protections, including not allowing employers to use them to fill short-term vacancies, for which the trade union movement quite properly asked.

The test of success or otherwise of local employment partnerships is not the number of employers the Government sign up but the number of people whom those partnerships get back into work. How many people have got back into work so far as a result of local employment partnerships?

We have only just started, but only last Wednesday I met a company with the Prime Minister in Marylebone jobcentre that recruited 147 people when it opened a retail business. Those people came straight off benefit as a result of the local employment partnership. I have talked to Tesco, which is opening new stores around the country, and is doing exactly the same thing. It sees a win-win situation: employers can get people straight off benefit, and British benefit claimants take up British jobs to become British workers. It is win-win for society, and it is win-win for employers as well, as partnerships have proved to be extremely popular in filling job vacancies. There are about 660,000 job vacancies in Britain, and we want people to come off benefit to fill them. Local employment partnerships will help us to achieve that.

The Secretary of State has just talked about filling job vacancies with British workers. At the same time, the Government propose to reduce the coverage of the resident labour market test, which, as the Secretary of State will know, requires employers to look to UK workers before they can recruit from outside the EU. How does abolishing part of the resident labour market test help British workers to find British jobs?

The hon. Gentleman should support what we are seeking to do; just about every employer in the land does—the Confederation of British Industry does, as do most employers’ organisations. We are seeking to make sure that local employers try to get people off benefits and into work. The issue that the hon. Gentleman raised has nothing to do with that objective. It also contrasts strongly with a policy announced by his party in the past few days—one of “three strikes and you’re out”. That would reduce the claimant count by less than 0.5 per cent.; it is a typical bit of newspaper spin by a political party that has no real credible policies to offer.

Affordable Credit

4. What measures his Department has considered to improve access to affordable credit for those in receipt of benefits. (175869)

To date, more than 150 credit union and community development finance institution outlets delivering the growth fund have made more than 53,000 loans, with a total value exceeding £23 million. The recent allocation of a further £38 million for the period 2008 to 2011 will mean that many tens of thousands more people will gain access to affordable credit.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He will be aware that there are more than 20,000 members of the Glasgow credit union in Glasgow; it is one of our successes. However, there are still 2 million people in the country without a bank account. The Association of British Credit Unions is asking for more calling points throughout the country. Given the planned closures of post offices throughout the country, particularly in Glasgow at this time, access to credit union facilities will be reduced. Will my hon. Friend tell me how we will provide those new points where people can get their money?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He will understand that the Post Office network needs to be viable; that is why it is undergoing further changes. He will also know that there have been post office branch closures in the past four years; however, during that period, 800,000 more people have gained access to basic banking services. We are well on the way to achieving our target of halving the number of people without access to bank accounts.

Currently, 11 credit unions offer full banking services and we expect another 20 to do so in the coming year—that will partly be due to the extra support that we are giving them as a result of the growth fund. The additional investment that we have secured for 2008 onwards will achieve a further expansion of the credit union movement, making available more opportunities and access points for affordable loans.

Is the Minister not concerned about the implications of the Church of England’s recent report “A Matter of Life and Debt”? Some 8 million people in this country have unsecured debts of £10,000 or more, an increase of 30 per cent. in a year. Will not that increased pressure due to debt cause more difficulties for those seeking access to affordable credit and impact most severely on the poorest?

No, I do not agree; the problem is the affordability of the credit. If affordable credit is not available to those on very low incomes or benefit—who may, for perfectly good reasons, need credit at some point to deal with expenditure pressures—their alternative is to go to an unaffordable source of credit such as a doorstep lender. Is it better for them to pay interest of 1,000 per cent. on their loan or to take out a much more affordable form of credit from their local credit union? The investment that we are making through the growth fund, in expanding the credit union movement and affordable credit, will help people avoid the kind of debt problem that the hon. Gentleman is talking about.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the difficulties with local credit unions has been that only some of them have been accessible through post offices? We need a much more organised and strategic approach to the provision of credit via credit unions in local post offices. That would increase footfall in post offices and mean that more people attended them. It would also widen access to credit unions.

I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s point. He will therefore welcome the fact that part of the investment that we are making through the growth fund is in the physical resources and capacities of credit unions as well as just capitalising their loan books. He will see that the extra investment that we are putting in, in addition to the increased support that we expect to come from the banking sector, will help to create many more points of access at different areas in all the communities across the country, thereby helping again to increase access to affordable credit for many thousands of people.

Jobcentre Plus

There were 32,919 complaints in 2005-06, 43,214 in 2006-07, and 26,767 in the year to October 2007. Annually, Jobcentre Plus takes more than 15 million telephone calls, processes more than 3 million new claims and carries out more than 10 million interviews. In that context, complaints represent a small percentage, but we are not complacent and continually seek to improve services and, I hope, to learn from mistakes.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Over the past few months, I have seen a significant increase in the number of people in my surgery complaining about Jobcentre Plus. Does she agree that the ever-increasing complexity of the benefits system, failures in technology and cuts in front-line service from Jobcentre Plus staff have led to a situation whereby the most vulnerable in our society are receiving a reduced service?

The number of complaints in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency in 2005-06 was 117, and in 2006-07 it was 24. I will certainly look at any up-to-date information, but I think that that indicates what I said: we take every complaint seriously and there does not seem to have been an explosion in numbers. In his constituency, as elsewhere, whether in Wales, Scotland, England or Northern Ireland, people are being paid benefits more quickly than at any time in recent years. The number of outstanding claims has reduced significantly over the past year. I am pleased to say that today we have a record number of people going into work, and the numbers of people on all the main out-of-work benefits, whether income support, jobseeker’s allowance or incapacity benefit, are falling, as are the numbers of new claimants of those benefits. Clearly, in a period of change—certainly over the past 10 years—we have tightened procedures. We expect more people who can work to work; that sometimes creates complaints as well. We take this matter seriously and keep it under a watchful eye.

May I congratulate staff in Jobcentre Plus in Ellesmere Port and in Neston, particularly the regional manager, Mr. Mark Wilson, who has done a magnificent job in dealing with the process of change and getting more people back to work in my constituency, with great success? Now that we have a much smaller number of unemployed people, with a core group, some of whom are very difficult to place, will my hon. Friend ensure that the regional structures have sufficient flexibility to allow regional managers to plan to meet the needs of local communities, rather than a one-size-fits-all solution?

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution and for his warm remarks about the services in his local area. We are seeing huge improvements across the Jobcentre Plus service. Anybody who compared walking into a Jobcentre Plus establishment today with doing so 10 or 15 years ago could only comment on how professional, modern and user-friendly it is. Yes, we have looked to centralise benefit delivery services, because we want to make best use of technology and to have better standards of best practice across the piece. That also allows us to consider how face-to-face interactions can better be served, whether in Jobcentre Plus, a children’s centre or a community centre. I encourage our regional managers to engage with their local authority partners, employers, the voluntary sector and local communities to see how best that service can be provided, and I hope that we can give them greater flexibility to do just that.

Health and Safety Executive

6. What recent representations he has received on the staffing levels at the Health and Safety Executive; and if he will make a statement. (175871)

My colleagues and I have received representations from a range of stakeholders. We have asked the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive to maintain front-line inspector numbers for the next spending period at the March 2008 level.

In the UK last year, 30 million days were lost owing to work-related ill health and 6 million owing to workplace injury. The HSE has a vital economic and social role in driving down those figures. How confident is the Minister that the agency, which has seen staffing levels go down by 25 per cent. since 2002 and is subject to a continual review of procedures and structures, can effectively and efficiently service more remote and rural areas, especially in terms of inspection, enforcement and, where necessary, prosecution of health and safety breaches?

I think my hon. Friend’s statistics are slightly skew-whiff, if I may put it that way. He has included the 93 railway inspectors who were transferred from the HSE to the railway regulator. He has highlighted an important issue about the number of days lost because of work-related ill health and workplace injury, but I hope he will also accept that in the years from 2000 to 2002, 40 million days were lost in those categories. The figure now sits at 36 million in 2006-07. In 1974, there were 651 fatal injuries to employees. That number was reduced in 2006-07 to 241. We have one of the most sensible and robust health and safety regimes in Europe, partly owing to the efforts of the HSC, the HSE and their colleagues in local authorities. Of course, we should not underestimate the importance of trade unions.

Is the Minister aware that the new provisions of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 will come into effect on 6 April? They will implement the provisions on stray dogs and ensure that local authorities will have to find places for kennels. Is the Minister aware that each private kennel will have to be inspected for health and safety before the new provisions can come into effect? Will she assure me that the staffing cuts in the HSE will not have a negative impact on that process of assessment, bearing in mind the tragic incident before Christmas when a lady dog handler was so brutally attacked by a dangerous dog?

I think that I would prefer to deliver a far more detailed answer to the hon. Lady in writing, if she will forgive me for that. She has raised some specific issues under this heading.

Will my hon. Friend commend the Health and Safety Laboratory, which is part of the HSE, on its increasingly proactive work in preventing the risk of injury and poor health caused by industrial consequences? Will she ensure that nothing is done to jeopardise the effectiveness of that ever more impressive organisation, which is based in my constituency?

I am sure that the laboratory will have cognisance of my hon. Friend’s comments and commitments. I wish to reinforce the fact that health and safety is an important issue for us all. Not only the HSE but employers and employees create safe workplaces. Those of us who are in such situations need to ensure that we each assume responsibility as our own health and safety officer.

Deaths in the construction industry have been running at a comparable level to those suffered by UK armed forces personnel in recent years. Why are front-line construction inspectors being reduced to the March 2008 number that was mentioned by the Minister, and why has there been a 40 per cent. drop in inspections when the death and injury rate is so bad?

As I said in my earlier answer, there has been a steady reduction in the number of deaths over the past 15 years, including in the construction industry, although there are some issues about the current set of statistics and we are looking carefully at them. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions held a construction forum to address that rise and to seek a commitment to improvement in those sectors. That work is ongoing with the employers, the trade unions and the HSE. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the health and safety inspectors, working alongside those in the industry, will ensure a safer environment for our construction workers.

Allied Steel and Wire

On 17 December, I announced a package to make payments to 140,000 individuals so cruelly deprived of their pensions, and I am pleased that unions and campaigners welcome this.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on achieving the 90 per cent. figure as the guarantee for pensioners. I thank him and previous Ministers for the many meetings that we have had on the long journey towards a settlement, which seemed impossible at the outset. Will he join me in congratulating the Community trade union on its persistence in fighting for its members’ interests? I remind hon. Members that the problem arose as a result of a commercial failure. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that in future people will not experience the pain that ASW workers and others in the same position suffered for some time?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments and pay tribute to the way in which he campaigned so diligently on behalf of ASW workers, as did many other Cardiff Members and Members throughout the country—140,000 people were affected. Community, formerly the steelworkers’ union, played a leading role and deserves tremendous credit for ensuring that the pressure was kept up. As a result, the Government have not only brought justice to the affected workers, but established the Pension Protection Fund, which will stop that sort of thing happening again and ensure that pensioners can feel secure, when they have contributed and saved, as we are all urging them to do, that they will realise in retirement the fruits of those investments.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the reasons that the compensation has been paid, after five years, to the 140,000 pensioners who had their pensions stolen was the work of Ros Altmann, who campaigned for five years with, in my constituency, the teams of former Dexion workers led by Peter and Jackie Humphrey? Without five years of action, the compensation that the pensioners deserve would not have happened. Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating Ros Altmann and others?

I happily do so. Ros Altmann played an important part, as did the hon. Gentleman’s two constituents, whom I have met. The Dexion workers, like the others, deserve justice. I know that they would have liked it earlier, but we had Andrew Young’s report, which identified £1.7 billion of residual assets. We needed to ensure that we acted on that and maximised the best return to protect the pensioners and provide good value for taxpayers’ money. We have now achieved the settlement for which the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, joined by so many others, rightly campaigned.

Lone Parents

11. What recent steps the Department has taken to support lone parents in finding work; and what plans he has for further assistance. (175876)

The new deal for lone parents has supported more than 500,000 people into work.

Our recent document “Ready for Work” sets out how we will expect more lone parents with school age children actively to find work, along with a package of measures to provide lone parents with the skills, confidence and financial support to find and stay in work.

I thank the Minister for that reply. The new deal plus pilot project for lone parents in Cardiff and the Vale has been successful in not only getting lone parents into work but sustaining them there. One of the key elements has been benefits such as the £300 in-work benefit, which can help lone parents to stay in a job and assist with, for example, child care, which is many working parents’ nightmare. What does my hon. Friend propose to do to extend that sort of benefit more universally?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. The number of lone parents who claim in her constituency has fallen by 39 per cent. since 1997 compared with a national drop of 25 per cent. I therefore give due credit to those who work on the matter locally for her constituents.

Our plans for our next steps are to roll out nationally the in-work credit from April. We are considering the way in which we extend the right to flexible working for parents of older children. The human resource director of Sainsbury’s, Imelda Walsh, has undertaken that review. We are also considering much more closely earlier skills assessment of lone parents—when they come on to income support—regardless of whether they receive jobseeker’s allowance or income support. The vacuum in their skills and basic education often inhibits lone parents. Again, we are providing support on several different fronts, but, as I said earlier, from next autumn parents whose youngest child is 12 will be expected to move on to jobseeker’s allowance. That is right because it is a something-for-something approach to our welfare system and the right mixture of rights and responsibilities.

Fylde Coast Employees

12. If he will make a statement on the restructuring of his Department’s organisation on the Fylde coast. (175877)

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the Department is a major employer on the Fylde coast, with more than 5,600 staff in the area. Specific plans for 2008 include moving work and staff from the site at Lytham to Peel park, Blackpool, to move work out of the Pension Service at Blackpool pension centre and to move additional disability and carers service work into Warbreck house in Blackpool.

Many of my constituents currently work for the Child Support Agency, and they are in the process of transferring across to the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission. One of the things that worries them is why the new body needs to be non-departmental. On 2 November, I wrote to Lord McKenzie of Luton, who is a Minister in the Department, to ask him why that is the case. I received his reply just before Christmas, which stated:

“It is essential that we mark a clean break with the failures of the past and give the Commission a better platform for success”

by removing it from the Department. Does the Minister agree with Lord McKenzie that the Department is viewed as such a failure that the CSA’s replacement must be operated from outwith it, and what confidence does that give my constituents?

I have to say that the hon. Gentleman suffers from selective amnesia, because he has forgotten that the foundation stone of the Child Support Agency was laid by a Conservative Government. Obviously, I have not seen the specific details of the letter to which he has alluded, but if it was written by my noble Friend Lord McKenzie, I am sure that I agree with it.

Topical Questions

Last week, we celebrated 10 years of the new deal, through which more than 1.8 million people have found jobs, which is one person every three minutes every single day. An 80 per cent. employment rate is now within our grasp as we move to the next phase of radical welfare reform, which will see hundreds of thousands more benefit claimants becoming active jobseekers rather than passive recipients. Our imperative is to get as many people off benefits and into work as possible, because that is the way to a better life for them and their families. Our policy is fair, coherent, costed and workable, which is exactly the opposite of Conservative policy. The Conservatives have been left desperately plagiarising our plans, because if one looks beneath the spin, they have no new credible policy ideas.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his good work, but one matter still requires his attention. Did he read the article in the weekend press about Ruby Gassor, who worked all her life but paid only a married woman’s national insurance contribution in the early years? She will receive only £7 in basic state pension, whereas her friend who stayed at home to bring up children benefited from home responsibilities protection and will receive £83 a week when she is 60. Will my right hon. Friend attend to that important matter?

We will certainly address the issues around ensuring that women can claim the pensions that they deserve. In 2007, we introduced legislation that will ensure that 75 per cent. of women can claim a basic state pension after 2010. We hope that, by 2025, 90 per cent. of women—the figure for men is about the same—can claim a full basic state pension. We are taking serious account of those issues, and I am also happy to discuss with my hon. Friend the wider issues that she has raised.

Bearing in mind the alacrity with which the Government acted last year in bailing out Northern Rock with billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, is it any wonder that pensioners in my constituency who lost pensions through no fault of their own agree with Ros Altmann of the Pensions Action Group? She said that

“the continued delay in settling the pension wind-up scandal is totally inexcusable”.

But Ros Altmann has just welcomed the announcement that I made before Christmas, which established that compensation would be paid to those 140,000 workers. I would have thought that the hon. Lady welcomed that.

As regards Northern Rock, the guarantees that the Government provided are nothing like the burden on the taxpayer that the hon. Lady suggests. It is a matter of ensuring that our financial institutions are not affected by the global financial turbulence that infected Northern Rock, and which spread and infected financial institutions more widely. Any Government who had not acted in such a decisive way would have been regarded as thoroughly irresponsible.

Pensioners who were previously workers at the Richards Textiles factory in Aberdeen are very pleased with the announcement that the financial assistance scheme will be brought up to the 90 per cent. level. That announcement was made just before Christmas, and judging by the last question, some people may have missed it. Will my right hon. Friend outline the time scales involved in making payments to pensioners who have lost out in the past?

One of the things we will need is parliamentary support for the necessary legislative changes—including the Pensions Bill, the Second Reading of which I am about to move—and other changes to regulations, to allow us to implement the announcements that I made. The hon. Lady’s constituents, along with the rest of the 140,000 people involved, can then get the early justice that they deserve. I hope that every Member of this House will support us in making those changes and that they will support the Second Reading of the Bill this afternoon so that we can make rapid progress with the scheme’s implementation.

T3. Today more than 1 million extra people are facing retirement without a pension from their employer compared with the situation when the Government came to power. Why? (175834)

It is the case that a large number of people have not seen the full benefit of their pension. There are various reasons for that. First, over a period of time, there were things such as pensions holidays, which were approved by the previous Conservative Government. There was also the pensions mis-selling scandal, which happened under the previous Conservative Government, and there was the ineffectual Pensions Act 1995, which, as the hon. Gentleman might remember, was passed under the previous Conservative Government.

It is the case, however, that this Government have done something about the situation. We have introduced the Pension Protection Fund; we have dealt with the issue of the 140,000 people who had lost their pensions between 1997 and 2004; and we have also introduced a pensions regulator, who is in a position to ensure that the basis of the running of the pensions system is far better than it ever has been. Those are major social reforms. They have happened quietly, but they mean a big change, and an important one.

T4. In the context of yet another announcement regarding an initiative to deal with incapacity benefit—not the first during the past 10 years, I am afraid—will Ministers please ensure that they pay particular attention to the remarkable situation of the estimated 100,000 young people with mental health or related motivation problems? Otherwise, those young people will be condemned to a lifetime of joblessness and demotivation. (175835)

I agree very much with what the hon. Gentleman says. His record of campaigning on those matters is exemplary, and I pay tribute to him. However, questions should be asked in other directions in the House about whether the “three strikes and you’re out” policy will benefit the 100,000 young people he describes, or whether those people need the support of £170 million of psychological therapy that we will provide during the coming period to ensure that they get the specialist support, counselling and therapy they need to make sure that they can get into work. That is what we are doing: introducing practical, deliverable policies, not spin and hype.

One of my constituents, who is in his 70s, unfortunately had to have his leg amputated. He applied for attendance allowance, which was agreed to, but he was told that there would be a delay of four months owing to policy. Why is there such a delay? I will write to the Secretary of State, but I would like an explanation now.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I would need to ask him for further details and would be delighted to meet him as quickly as he wants, because there is no policy reason why any application for attendance allowance should be delayed. Indeed, we are turning round attendance allowance applications, subject to entitlement and so on, within the target time. I therefore do not understand why there is a particular problem in his constituency, although I would be delighted to look at it.

T5. I am sure that the Secretary of State will be aware that since 2000 his Department has spent a total of £1.6 billion on failed IT schemes, namely the benefit card, the upgrade to the Child Support Agency’s computer system and the unsuccessful streamlining of the benefits payment system. How can he justify such a dreadful waste of public money? (175836)

There is no question but that IT projects have had problems in both the public and private sectors, with a much higher failure rate than they should have. That is why we have put in place the necessary procedures to try to ensure that we avoid that in future, that we secure value for money from all our IT projects and that we continue to achieve record levels of delivery in terms of getting people into work, assisting them with pensions queries and delivering all the other services that my Department provides.

Millions of pensioners and other claimants rely on post offices to collect their pensions and benefits every week. As Government-inspired post office closures are rolled out across the country, will the Secretary of State reassure those pensioners and other claimants that they will continue to be able to collect their benefits through the Post Office card account—run by the Post Office, not some other organisation—and that further post office closures will not be inspired by a loss of income?

These are not Government-inspired closures. We are putting in hundreds of millions of pounds of support for local post offices, amounting over the period to billions of pounds. Because of many reasons related to lifestyle, people’s personal shopping habits and their use of local post offices have changed. People are not supporting their local post offices in the way that I, the hon. Gentleman and perhaps every Member of the House would like. That has created circumstances in which post offices have closed, as they closed in previous decades under the last Government, but we will ensure that everybody will receive the proper service that they need, especially the most vulnerable pensioners and others who depend on the benefits system.

T6. Pensioner constituents are already contacting me to express their anger and fear at last week’s announcement by npower of huge increases in fuel bills. Will the Secretary of State call on Ofgem to look into those increases, and will consideration now be given to implementing the proposal for a compulsory social tariff for all vulnerable customers of big energy companies? (175837)

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government do not normally intervene in the energy market, but in this case Ministers are naturally concerned about the effects that price rises such as those announced by npower can have on vulnerable customers. The Treasury will seek the views of Ofgem on developments that have taken place in the energy market, to see whether such changes as have been announced can possibly be justified. However, the Government are committed to tackling fuel poverty. Winter fuel payments, which last winter helped more than 11 million older people with their fuel bills, and assistance for 2 million low-income households so far, through schemes to improve energy efficiency, are examples of how we have practically sought to help older people in particular to deal with increasing fuel prices.

T7. On 11 December 2005, the Buncefield explosion destroyed a large area in my community. The Health and Safety Executive inquiry has gone on for nearly two years. Will the Minister inform the House when it is likely to conclude and say whether it is true that the oil companies are paying for it, not the British taxpayer? If they are, there would seem to be a conflict of interest, considering that they were responsible for the explosion. (175838)

I am aware that the hon. Gentleman and many of his constituents take a close interest in the matter. He and I have already discussed it in debates in the House. As he knows, the decision to investigate the causes of the explosion was made through a major incident investigation board headed by Lord Newton, and we believe that that is the quickest way of finding out exactly what happened.

As I think the hon. Gentleman will understand in view of the complexity of the issues involved, the investigation is still in progress. At this point, the Health and Safety Executive cannot say when a decision will be made on prosecutions. Such a decision is for the HSE and the Environment Agency and not for the investigating board. Until the investigation is completed we cannot say more about it, but it is important for it to continue. As the hon. Gentleman knows, interim reports have been issued and a good deal of information is already available to him and to his constituents. We expect the investigation to be concluded shortly.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has had a chance to read the excellent report prepared by the Scottish Affairs Committee and released before the Christmas recess. It drew attention to interest rates charged by not only illegal but legal moneylenders. One company was charging about 177 per cent. Is any consideration being given to capping interest rates in the so-called legal market?

I understand my hon. Friend’s deep concern, but there is a problem with capping the rates, which might have adverse effects on the availability of affordable credit. I think that our best response to the need to release people from the burden of interest rates at such levels—or, indeed, even higher levels in the case of illegal doorstep lending—is to pursue the policies that we have, financed through the growth fund, to make much more affordable credit available through credit unions and other not-for-profit financial lenders.

As my hon. Friend will know, we have already made a significant investment, and there will be further investment over the next spending round. As a result, tens of thousands of people are gaining access to affordable credit, thus avoiding the problems to which he has rightly drawn attention.

I have already addressed it. As I have said, we are investigating the methods that are most cost-effective to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, as taxpayers, and to the rest of us. The truth is, however, that there are more jobs than ever before under this Government, that poverty has been reduced under this Government, and that there is more prosperity and wealth in the country under this Government. The hon. Gentleman ought to applaud that.