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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 474: debated on Monday 31 March 2008

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Pensioner Benefits

1. What steps his Department is taking to increase the take-up of benefit entitlements by pensioners. (197190)

We want every pensioner to claim the benefits to which they are entitled, which is why we are making it easier and more straightforward for them to do so. Pensioners can claim a number of benefits by making a telephone call, and the Department will then send them forms to fill in for council tax benefit. Some pensioners do not send those forms in, so, as from October, the process will be done automatically, obviating the need to send in forms. Pensioners will be covered for state pensions, pension credit, housing benefit and council tax benefit—one telephone call for all benefits.

To what extent does the Department work in partnership with non-governmental organisations that deal with the elderly and with partner organisations such as the health service, which may enable us to target pensioner groups? Does the Minister have any plans to extend that? Over-75s receive free television licences, but do we use that information to ensure that people who are eligible are targeted?

We have access to information, particularly on winter fuel payments, that covers large numbers of pensioners and gives us quite a lot of data on where they are. We work with Help the Aged, Age Concern, citizens advice bureaux, Community Service Volunteers and others to increase the take-up of benefits, and partnerships have been developed with local authorities, too. The aim is to develop joint working partnerships so that we can raise take-up across all the benefits. There are no official links with the NHS as such—we co-ordinate through Departments, but there are not official links locally. We often receive referrals from GPs, hospitals and carers, and the Disability and Carers Service works closely with the Department of Health.

Will the Minister confirm that many of my constituents who formerly worked for Dexion and had their pensions stolen from them no longer need to take up benefits, because they will receive compensation from the financial assistance scheme? Will he confirm that the Treasury will not—as a result of Government delay in giving my constituents the compensation that they deserve—take up to 40 per cent. tax from my constituents who have got their pensions through FAS?

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that, this morning, I was able to talk to his constituent, Mr. Humphries, and tell him that we hoped to make an announcement today that the Treasury had agreed that the lump sum payments to be paid to various FAS recipients can be taxed in a way that means that most of those people—it depends on their tax circumstances—will not be pushed into the higher tax bracket as a result of those lump sum payments, so they can spread their tax payment over time. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s constituent will welcome that, and that he will, too.

One of the benefits that pensioners draw, as my hon. and learned Friend will be aware, is the pension element of the industrial injuries disablement benefit. May I draw his attention to the fact that his Department has received a recommendation from the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council relating to men who worked in the screens on the colliery surfaces during the 40 years up to 1983, proposing that provision for COPD—chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—be extended to cover that group of workers? Will he look urgently at that decision, because the group of men who would claim that benefit are elderly, and we need to ensure that those who are eligible can claim industrial injuries disablement benefit and, in addition, explore whether there is a full and final payment of compensation, similar to that paid to their underground colleagues? It is urgent that that decision be looked at and the recommendation accepted.

I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we will look at that as a matter of urgency. He knows that I, too, represent an area with a working colliery and a large mining community, and these matters are important to such communities.

There will be a welcome from Members on both sides of the House if that review is successful. Is the Minister satisfied with the situation of men over 60 in relatively low-paid full-time work who are not automatically reminded that they are eligible for winter fuel payment? Will he look at that to see whether he can make a change to procedures?

We want to ensure that everyone who is entitled to the winter fuel payment registers to receive it. There is a substantial advertising campaign to ensure that we get that take-up, but people have to register. Indeed, they should have registered already to take up the winter fuel payment this year.

Will the Minister convey the thanks of many Members of Parliament to the Pension Service for the quality of care it gives many of our constituents? Given that it is the Government’s aim to increase take-up, what is his estimate for the coming years of the increased number of pensioners claiming the benefits to which they are entitled?

I am pleased to be able to tell my right hon. Friend that our target for the year finishing tomorrow was to get 235,000 people on to pension credit. In fact, we have reached 250,000, so we have gone beyond that figure. I have indicated that I want to see it increased during the coming year, so I am pleased to tell him that we are continuing to press to get more people on to pension credit.

The Minister says that he wants to increase take-up and I welcome that, but the Budget tells a different story. If the Government were intending to get the benefits to every eligible pensioner, by 2010-11, an extra £1.75 billion would have been allocated in the Budget. Instead, the Budget assumes no increase in take-up over the next three years. How is he getting on with persuading the Treasury that getting the benefits to the pensioners who are entitled to them is not poor value for money, as the Treasury seems to assume?

We certainly want to get benefits to all the pensioners who are entitled to them. That is one of the reasons why, just before Christmas, I announced the introduction of automaticity, which sounds complicated but basically means that with one phone call a person can obtain four different benefits.

The process of getting the benefits needs to be simplified. One of the problems that we have had in getting people on to pension credit is that we have written to pensioners—in some cases, four or five times—asking them to apply, and some have chosen not to do so. We cannot force them to apply; it is their decision. However, for those who apply, we can make it easier to get the benefits. That is why, from October, we will introduce the new system of automaticity, where those who get one benefit will get four.

Will my hon. and learned Friend explain how the various Departments are co-operating in promoting benefits for pensioners? He will know that take-up of concessionary bus passes is not particularly high. In my area, they are claimed by about 57 per cent. of pensioners. Will the Pension Service remind pensioners of the enhanced benefits of the scheme and encourage them to apply?

We certainly want everyone who wishes to have a concessionary bus pass to take up that concession. We will rely on local authorities to promote the project. One of the issues is that local authorities in different areas have different start and finish times. Although the Government are promoting a national scheme and paying for a certain proportion of it, some local authorities have felt able to go beyond that and have raised the extra funding from the council tax system. As a result, running a national campaign is a lot more difficult, but there has been plenty of national publicity, MPs and Ministers have been promoting the scheme, and the Government are proud of the fact that we have introduced it and ensured that pensioners can travel on local services around the country at off-peak times. That is something we have done; the Conservative party never even attempted it when it was in government.

Any measures to boost take-up of benefits are welcome and long overdue, but has the Minister made any estimate of the number of pensioners who are forced to use their winter fuel allowance to pay soaring council tax and utility bills and to pay for basic foodstuffs? Is he not ashamed that the latest EU figures show that Britain is fourth from the bottom of the poverty league, so that only pensioners in Spain, Latvia and Cyprus are more likely to fall into poverty?

We are the party that has lifted more than 1 million pensioners out of relative poverty. It takes some brass neck for Conservatives, who wanted to increase VAT on fuel to 17.5 per cent. and keep pensioners on basic pensions of £69, to say that they are now worried about pensioners. They seem to worry about the poor pensioner only when someone else is in government.

The Government are making winter fuel payments to deal with fuel poverty issues. We are ensuring that people who need help because they are poor are getting pension credit, and that we deal with the issues related to take-up. The Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported did nothing, and he has some brass neck to suggest otherwise.

Is my hon. and learned Friend considering renaming council tax benefit “council tax rebate”, as advocated by Sir Michael Lyons, to increase take-up among pensioners? Would it be possible to link the systems and computers of the Inland Revenue with those of local government to ensure automatic payment of council tax benefit?

I always hesitate to assure people that it is easy to link computer systems; it is not always easy. However, we work with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Treasury to see where we can share data to ensure that we get the information we need to target pension credit in particular. After October, pension credit will be linked to council tax benefit, so it will be possible to ensure that people who claim one get the other as well.

Local Employment Partnerships

2. What progress has been made by local employment partnerships in assisting disadvantaged people into work; and if he will make a statement. (197191)

Local employment partnerships have started well. The initiative is growing rapidly; more than 600 employers have signed up and more than 200 have already recruited through their partnerships, helping more than 3,000 people into work so far.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware of a partnership programme in Glasgow, whereby John Wheatley college takes deprived adults from communities and trains them to work in the health service? That has come about because of an innovative and dynamic principal called Ian Graham, who has taken chances to do it. It looks as though the initiative will be a great success.

I am pleased to say that I have heard about the achievements of Mr. Graham and John Wheatley college. The March employment figures show how strong the UK labour market is. More people than ever are in work and the numbers on unemployment benefit are down into the 700,000s for the first time since 1975. Local employment partnerships such as the one in my hon. Friend’s area will help to ensure that the benefits of a strong labour market extend to disadvantaged jobseekers who have been out of work for a long time. I welcome the progress being made in her area.

Is the Minister aware that one of the partners—Carter and Carter, I believe—that had been due to deliver on the partnership scheme in North Yorkshire has gone into receivership? What are the implications for North Yorkshire, and who will now deliver on that partnership?

I am aware of the problems that have beset Carter and Carter Group plc. However, I can tell the hon. Lady that Newcastle college is taking over the contracts for which Carter and Carter was responsible. She can be reassured that there will be continuity of support for her constituents and others.

I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on what the Government have done to get disadvantaged people—particularly people with severe learning difficulties, who were totally ignored by the previous Administration—into work. However, getting people with such difficulties into work-based opportunities is still proving a tremendous challenge, for obvious reasons. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and representatives from my local employment partnership, the Shaw Trust and Mencap, to discuss what more can be done locally in Crosby to help such people?

Yes, I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and representatives of the organisations she mentions. Those organisations have done excellent work, not only in her constituency but elsewhere, under the auspices of the pathways to work programme and other initiatives that we have been supporting. We have been able to make good progress, but I look forward to discussing with her what is happening in her constituency.

Personalised Support

Employment increased last month to a new record high of 29.46 million and claimant unemployment has fallen to its lowest since 1975. Our six different new deals have helped 1.85 million people into work. We are now merging the new deals for jobseekers into a single, flexible new deal to tailor the support to the needs of each person.

In my constituency, there are now 1.25 jobs for every person of employment age. That is a huge success, but there are still large numbers of people on incapacity benefit who have been out of work for many years, and many of those people have acute mental health problems. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have to do an awful lot more to help people with mental health problems to get back into training and, ultimately, back into the workplace?

Yes, that is absolutely right. We commissioned Dame Carol Black to consider that issue, and her report of last week gives us a good way of doing exactly that. We will continue to reform incapacity benefit, which we are committed to abolishing. In October, we will introduce the new employment and support allowance, which will be based on what people can do rather than what they cannot. That very much includes people with mental health problems. We are considering how we and the NHS can ensure that we give them the support to get them back into work.

On Friday, I visited the Pertemps agency in West Bromwich and was very impressed with the fact that it has got 910 people, many of them long-term unemployed, back to work since last April. It was obvious from my discussions that barriers to employment relate not only to skills, but to psychological, cultural and a range of other factors. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that when the Government look to get people into work, their approach takes all those factors into account?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. That is exactly why we will involve the voluntary and private sectors in delivering personalised support to each of those individuals and will pay by result so that they have the freedom to decide how to get people back into work, but will be rewarded on the basis of how they do so.

The Secretary of State has said that the Government will reassess all existing incapacity benefit claimants between 2010 and 2013. How many extra pathways to work opportunities will there be over and above those already announced to help those who are reassessed, where that is appropriate?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are extending pathways to work to the whole country from this April. I believe that his party has exactly the same goal as us on incapacity benefit. The Conservatives have announced that they want to match our goal of getting 1 million people off incapacity benefit, and we welcome their support for our policy. I hope that he will now stop promising completely non-existent welfare reform savings.

Child Poverty

On Budget day, we published “Ending child poverty: everybody’s business”, reaffirming the Government’s target of halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020. The measures announced in the Budget will invest an additional £950 million and reduce child poverty by a further 250,000 children by 2010-11. Combined with announcements in last year’s Budget and pre-Budget report, that means an extra 500,000 children will be lifted out of poverty.

I particularly welcome the Government’s decision, announced in the Budget, to disregard child benefit for the purposes of council tax benefit and housing benefit claims from 2009. What steps will be taken next year to highlight that with all child benefit recipients?

My hon. Friend is right that this is a vital move towards making work pay, and I congratulate him on his campaigning on the issue. I believe that his early-day motion 1736 called for this last year, so he has clearly had a big influence on Government policy. It is a good thing that he has, because this measure, combined with others, means that 250,000 children will be lifted out of poverty. People will not have to apply for it—it will happen automatically—but we will ensure that they know that it, combined with other measures, means that work really does pay and that they can lift their family and children out of poverty.

As my right hon. Friend will be aware, it is also important that we have appropriate complementary as child care and early intervention policies. I understand that he will soon visit Scotland and very much hope that he will be able to visit Glasgow, where there are a number of very successful projects. Will he ensure that he clearly puts the message across to the Scottish National party Administration that they need urgently to consider their refusal to promise all vulnerable two-year-olds a place in nursery school, which had been promised by the previous Labour Administration, and that they need to do much more in prioritising child care support, which has received little attention?

That is absolutely right. I look forward to visiting Glasgow and seeing the innovative work of the Labour council. It is shocking to hear that the SNP is not committed to lifting children out of poverty. If it genuinely believes that this issue needs to be addressed, it must not cut child care but ensure that it matches our policy of having a contract out of poverty whereby the Government put in place the right support through the tax and benefits system but parents do their bit as well, as regards their responsibilities.

It was estimated 18 months ago that the Government would need to put in an extra £4.5 billion per annum if they were to have a 50:50 chance of meeting the 2010 target. The £950 million figure is welcome, but does it not mean that there is no chance of meeting the 2010 target?

No, the Government are committed to meeting the target, and the announcement in question was widely welcomed by the child poverty lobby. It means that we will be able to lift a further 1 million children out of poverty. That is an extraordinary achievement in itself, but we will continue to do everything we can to meet the 2010 target, and to eradicate poverty by 2020.

Children and young people with special educational needs are among those most obviously at risk of poverty. Of course, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin) said a few moments ago from the Government Benches, early intervention is of the essence, but some people need help later on.

Given that the Department for Children, Schools and Families is committed to raising the education leaving age, what discussions has the right hon. Gentleman had with his colleagues in that Department about the importance of ensuring that continuing support is made available, not least through the Connexions service, so that those people have a good chance of escaping from poverty and ensuring that their children do not go on to suffer it?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and his work on the issue is widely recognised throughout the House. He will be glad to know that there is a joint unit working between my Department and the Department for Children, Schools and Families because we recognise that this is a two-way bargain: the Government put in place the right support through the tax and benefit system, and the education and nursery systems help people to lift themselves out of poverty and get the skills that they need to succeed in life.

We need to ensure that disabled children are helped, which is why we try to ensure that people claim disability living allowance. We also need to look at the needs of teenage mothers. We have announced a pilot to look at how we can provide them with more support, in combination with the Foyer system, to ensure that they can be lifted out of poverty as well.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although the Government have done much to eradicate child poverty, there is much to be done? It is a difficult proposition. However, he now has the talents of David Freud in his Department, and I wonder whether he could carefully apply David Freud’s talents to consider a more joined-up approach to child poverty over many more years.

We are, of course, implementing David Freud’s recommendations, and my hon. Friend is right to say that he is advising the Department on exactly how to do that. We welcome anyone’s thoughts on how to abolish child poverty and we shall look to work with the child poverty lobby and anybody else on refreshing our strategy to meet the goal of taking children out of poverty by 2020.

We in my party also want to see child poverty ended by 2020, but believe this vital objective is being undermined by the Government failing fully to recognise and tackle some of the deep-seated causes of child poverty. So, do the Government agree that while poverty contributes to parental separation, single parenthood is also a major cause of poverty? A reduction in the couple penalty would be socially just, so that marriage was no longer increasingly the preserve of the middle classes, which last week’s figures from the Office for National Statistics show to be the case.

I have real respect for the hon. Gentleman, but, frankly, I find that question hypocritical enough to be almost unbearable. The Conservative party is not even—

Order. Please withdraw the term “hypocritical”. The right hon. Gentleman is referring to a Member of the House.

I withdraw. The party of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) will not even sign up to the goal of abolishing child poverty. It has no policy to deliver on that, and it voted against the measures in the Budget. As he knows, those in his party are not committed to that goal, and that difference between what they try to say and their policies will be exposed between now and election day.


5. What progress has been made on reviewing support for working carers; and if he will make a statement. (197194)

The carer’s allowance earnings limit was increased to £95 a week in October 2007. The current review of the national carers strategy is looking in depth at the full range of support that is provided to carers, including working carers. This is being done in consultation with carers and the organisations that represent them.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and for her personal commitment to solving the problem. It is widely agreed that carers who can and want to should be able to combine their caring responsibilities with paid employment, which is beneficial for them and society, so will she ensure that the review looks not only at the earnings limit, which remains low, despite the increase, but at making it easier for working carers who qualify for carer’s allowance to claim it without having to make trips back and forth to the benefit office every week, as many of them have to do?

I thank my hon. Friend not only for the question, but for the way she has championed carers’ rights over her years in the Commons. I am sure that she will be delighted to know that one of the taskforces will consider wider issues of employment—not only income and benefits, but how carers can be encouraged and supported to balance their caring responsibilities and employment. Of course, we are always looking at ways to make the application process for our benefits far more straightforward.

Carers do a wonderful job and save the state hundreds of millions of pounds every year. Does the Minister recognise that demographic change, especially in counties such as Northamptonshire, means that many more very elderly people in our local populations will require greater support?

We are all aware that there is a demographic issue about caring responsibilities. That is why I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman welcomed the Prime Minister’s establishing the review of our national carers strategy, which will obviously take into account some of the demographic issues that the hon. Gentleman highlighted—in relation to not only his constituency, but the whole country.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways to support carers to get into work is to provide good quality respite or day care? She will not be surprised to find out that Aberdeen city council, as part of the £27 million of cuts in its budget, is closing day centres and taking away day care, thus probably making it much more difficult for many carers in Aberdeen to carry on with their work. It has done all that without undertaking any disability impact study on the consequences of its decision.

It is astonishing, given the statutory requirement under the disability equality duty, that a local authority has not conducted an impact assessment of the change in its services. My hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) are working hard to ensure that Aberdeen council faces up to its responsibilities. If there is anything I can do to assist, I would be only too delighted to help. This is an interesting decision by an alliance of the SNP and Liberal Democrats in Aberdeen.

Does the Minister accept that many carers can and wish to work only part time, and that those for whom they care would often prefer to be cared for in-house when their permanent carer is out at work? During the review, will she look carefully at enabling long-term carers to afford such provision?

All those issues have been raised as part of the review of the national carers strategy. Of course, the strategy is a cross-governmental development. As well as the issues for which the Department for Work and Pensions is responsible, including employment and income, we are working closely with the Department of Health, which is examining some of the social care issues. Carers’ organisations and carers have raised the very issues that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Lone Parents

6. What safeguards his Department plans to put in place to ensure that lone parents who cannot find suitable child care will not be required to take up jobs under the jobseeker’s allowance regulatory framework. (197195)

We will be amending regulations to increase the discretion of Jobcentre Plus advisers, so that a lone parent claiming jobseeker’s allowance will not be penalised for leaving or failing to take up a job on the ground that appropriate, affordable child care is not available.

I thank the Minister for that response, but what assurance can he give lone parents that additional costs, such as free or half-price transport in London and the free school meals entitlement under income support, will be taken into account in those calculations, too?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met lone parent support groups last week and we discussed how the amendment to the regulations to which I have referred might work. Jobcentre Plus will support parents looking for child care and will recognise that other costs might be incurred as well. We want to maximise the opportunity for work and the contribution of work to reducing child poverty. The hon. Gentleman will acknowledge how big that contribution potentially is and how much children’s well-being is improved when their parent is in work. That is the aim of the change that we are making.

The Minister will know that for many lone parents the problem is not so much finding work as the issue of churn—of entering jobs, but finding themselves unable to cope and having to give them up. I welcome what he said about ensuring that child care is taken into account when the conditionality of JSA is considered. Many lone parents will have had bad experiences of struggling with child care, so what steps will be taken to ensure they know that they will not be penalised if they have child care problems, so that they do not act as a disincentive to entering work?

My hon. Friend has taken a lot of interest in the matter, and I welcome the points that she and the lone parent support organisations have made. We are considering the precise form that the regulations will take. She will know that all local authorities in England and Wales will be required from next month to ensure that there is sufficient child care to meet the needs of working parents, particularly those on lower incomes. By 2010 we want all schools to be extended schools. Advisers will be given the discretion to ensure that lone parents will not lose out if no appropriate affordable child care is available for them.

But could the Minister tell the House whether he considers there to be any forms of work that might be inappropriate under the regulations? For example, would it be appropriate to ask a lone parent to do a considerable amount of evening and night work, bearing in mind that their children would be at school all day and not see their parent in the evening, but be left to the child care that the Minister thinks appropriate?

These are matters that advisers will be able to take into account. Lone parents should be able to be good parents as well as enjoy the benefits of employment. There is clear evidence not only that families are better off when a parent is in work, but that their children’s well-being is improved.

My right hon. Friend realises that it is not just lone parents, but all parents who sometimes experience difficulties in finding suitable child care. Will he make it a duty for local authorities or even jobcentres to keep a directory of available child care? Will he also publicise that directory and make it available to the people out there seeking the best child care for their children?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. It is likely that local authorities will want to do that, because all local authorities in England and Wales will from next month be required to

“secure sufficient childcare to meet the needs of working parents”.

Local authorities will certainly want to ensure that information about that provision is widely available in their areas.

Jobcentre Plus

7. What proportion of telephone calls to Jobcentre Plus were answered in the most recent period for which figures are available. (197196)

In February 2008, Jobcentre Plus contact centres answered 95.4 per cent. of the more than 1.4 million calls offered, therefore comfortably exceeding the 90 per cent. target.

Although I commend Jobcentre Plus for the progress that it has made and for the targets that it has met, 5 per cent. of unanswered calls cut off with a message saying “Ring back later” is still a lot of people. Given that they are people desperately seeking work, when can we eliminate the 5 per cent. unanswered rate?

The 95.4 per cent. rate is very high. In the case of first contact, which involves people calling to arrange a benefit for the first time, which is perhaps the most urgent task that the centres have to perform, the answer rate is 98.1 per cent. Call managing and queue-busting systems have been introduced in the system and work effectively, but Jobcentre Plus is implementing further improvements to those schemes in June. I can also tell my hon. Friend that the whole system has been externally validated and has proven comparable to the best available anywhere in the private sector.

I am not quite sure of the Minister’s definition of an answer. For my constituents, who have to rely on the regional office in Canterbury, the problems are still great. They would just laugh if they heard the answer to that question.

Well, the local offices that are part of the benefit delivery centre do not at the moment have the exact same call management system that the call centres use. [Hon. Members: “Ah.”] I was referring earlier to the call centres. The benefit delivery centres do not have the same system but they are planning to introduce it, and it will be in place by this summer, so they will be able to implement the system of call management and queue-busting that I referred to in the answer I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman). In any event, notwithstanding the absence of the precise measurement system, we believe that most benefit delivery centres are also hitting the 90 per cent. rate.

Incapacity Benefit

9. How many people had been on incapacity benefit for more than five years at the most recent date for which a figure is available. (197198)

Last May, the number of people who had been claiming incapacity benefit for over five years was 1.23 million, and it had fallen in the previous quarter.

I noted the Minister’s reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper). However, of the 2.6 million people claiming incapacity benefit, 1.8 million began claiming during the past 10 years, since 1997. Does the Minister agree that the past 10 years have been a missed opportunity, in which not enough people of working age have been helped back to work? Surely we need real welfare reform now.

No, I certainly do not agree with that. The real scandal is that the number of incapacity benefit claimants more than tripled under the Tory Government, when the hon. Gentleman was a Government Member; incapacity benefit was used, for a long period, to disguise rising unemployment. We have reversed the position; the number of people claiming incapacity benefit is coming down for the first time in decades, thanks to the success of the reforms that we have introduced, including the pathways to work programme. Our aim is to reduce by a million the number of people receiving incapacity benefit by 2015. I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the progress made.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that one of the key tools for helping incapacity benefit claimants back to work is the permitted work rules, but there are four separate permitted work regimes, which is very confusing for people. Will he today promise to look at that, and will he try to come up with a simple, single system that is easy for people to take advantage of, and to understand?

My hon. Friend has raised the issue before, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be writing to him about it shortly. I can confirm that we are looking into the very point that my hon. Friend raises.

My registered blind constituent, Mr. McCarthy-Fox, is concerned to ensure that work capability assessments are carried out by people who understand disabilities such as his. How will serious physical disabilities such as blindness and learning disabilities such as Down’s syndrome be taken into account in those assessments, and when will my right hon. Friend publish the criteria for conducting the interviews?

My hon. Friend will know that the regulations for the employment and support allowance were published last week, and the work capability assessment is an important part of the process. We developed the procedures in close discussion with disability organisations. I think that it is widely recognised that the arrangements that will be put in place, including the work capability assessment, will be a considerable improvement on the current personal capability assessments. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, of course, that we need to make a proper and accurate assessment of all the conditions that people applying for the employment and support allowance may have, and I hope that when he looks at the details he will see that the new arrangements are a considerable improvement on the old ones.

Older People

10. What steps his Department is taking to encourage employers to recognise the contribution of older people in the workplace. (197199)

On Thursday I visited Heritage Glass in Shrewsbury, where the youngest salesman is 60 and the oldest is 73. The company has found that its business has been boosted by employing older people. The Government are encouraging employers to employ older people as part of a mixed work force, and to challenge some of the ageist myths that some still believe. The Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006 prohibit unjustified age discrimination in employment and training.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that response. He will be aware that Glasgow city council recently announced that any school leaver wishing to take up an apprenticeship will be guaranteed that option, but that will work only if local employers and the elderly work force play their part. Some elderly skilled members of the work force currently on disablement benefit are more than capable of passing on their skills and talents to future generations. Will my hon. and learned Friend agree to meet like-minded Labour colleagues to talk through the issues, so that we make sure that people who have skills pass them on but do not lose their benefits?

It is important for us to ensure that skills can be passed on, and I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that. I can also tell him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will visit Glasgow shortly and meet members of the city council, and that he will have an opportunity to discuss the project and some of the issues that my hon. Friend has raised.

Welfare to Work

The city strategy pathfinders are committed to increasing employment in their area, and have agreed targets for the client groups on which they concentrate. The pathfinders have now moved into the delivery phase, and are rolling out their business plans.

Does the Secretary of State agree that local strategic partnerships have an important role in bringing together health, skills, children’s services, and communities and neighbourhoods? Does he agree that such linking and joined-up work is necessary at national level too, involving Departments other than his own and relating to housing in particular? The new proposals to enable single parents in socially registered housing who are using the Foyer scheme to return to work is one of the most important initiatives that I hope the Secretary of State will be able to encourage—and will he also ensure that he makes the time to visit Nottingham?

As my hon. Friend knows, I am looking forward to visiting Nottingham on 22 April. He is right in saying that local strategic partnerships have a key role to play. I congratulate him on his own role as chair of his local strategic partnership, which is one of the leading partnerships in implementing our employment city strategy. He is also right in saying that we need to work closely with other Departments at national level. That is why we introduced the working neighbourhood fund, which brings together funding from my Department and from the Department for Communities and Local Government so that with a single fund we can target the problem together.

Topical Questions

As a result of our announced extension of the financial assistance scheme, some people will receive FAS payments for a past period. Concern has been expressed that those people might be in a higher tax band. I am pleased to say that, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions Reform confirmed earlier, that will not happen. My officials are currently working with their colleagues in HM Revenue and Customs to establish how the work will be carried out.

I thank the Secretary of State for his explanation. Can he tell us whether his target for eliminating child poverty is actually a target, or more of an aspiration?

The Conservatives should stop digging themselves into a hole. It is a target, and, as we have reaffirmed, we are committed to it. In the Budget we announced just under £1 billion of spending to take another 250,000 children out of poverty. The outrage is that the Conservative party voted against those measures.

T3. It is estimated that 1.5 million people’s lives have been destroyed by involuntary tranquilliser addiction leading to long periods of mental ill health. A man whom I met recently had been on tranquillisers for 45 years. Those people want to work, but cannot do so. As far as I am aware, the only primary care trust that has introduced a withdrawal programme is Oldham. Will the Secretary of State encourage his Department and the Department of Health to study the Oldham model with the aim of getting some of those people off prescription drugs and back to work? That would improve their quality of life, and would reduce the benefits bill as well. (197216)

My hon. Friend has identified a serious problem, on which I know he has campaigned for some time. He will be glad to know that Dame Carol Black’s review commits my Department and the Department of Health to working together closely on the issue, and that Dame Carol will use that work to ensure that we can help people with mental health problems. We are also working on our drug strategy to ensure that we can provide better support for people who wish to return to work.

As the hon. Gentleman knows and as has been explained on many occasions, we advertise any jobs that are legal. I am sure that he would do exactly the same.

I have a selection here of adverts currently appearing on Jobcentre Plus websites. Many of them advertise jobs for the national minimum wage and they are quite clear—this one, in particular, says:

“Duties require the successful applicant to be nude/semi nude”.

I regard asking women to work, naked or semi-naked, on the national minimum wage as exploitation. Why does not the Secretary of State share that view and why does he continue to condone Jobcentre Plus supporting vacancies like that?

In that case, if the hon. Gentleman believes that and he wants to have the means to live up to those ends, he will introduce proposals to ban those adverts. At the moment, it is legal and Jobcentre Plus obviously has a duty to comply with anything that is legal. The hon. Gentleman, however, has no proposals to do anything any differently.

T7. I know that on quite a few occasions some parts of the Government have difficulty talking to other parts, but will the Minister explain why staff working on the MPs’ hotline for the Child Support Agency cannot speak by telephone to the Bolton office, but have to put any matters in writing, which is leading to many delays? I have raised the matter previously in a written question, so may I urge the Minister, when he looks further into the issue, not simply to accept what his civil servants tell him? Clearly, even a year later, the problem is still going on. (197221)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that problem. As he knows, there were a series of problems with the Bolton office for a while, but in many cases, we have seen improvements. I have myself spoken to officials who are working on the MPs’ hotline. I will take my hon. Friend’s point seriously and I promise to look into it further for him in the light of what he has said.

T6. If the Home Office has its way, migrant domestic workers will have a non-renewable six-month visa and will be unable to change employers. Is that not a recipe for increasing domestic abuse and trafficking? If the women come forward, they will be sent back home; and they cannot get another job because they will have only a non-transferable six-month visa. For a Government who are supposedly committed to stamping out trafficking, is that not an extraordinary proposal from the Home Office? Will the Minister do something about it? (197219)

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s work as chair of the all-party group on the trafficking of women and children. As he knows, we are committed to implementing the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking before the end of this year. My Department is working very closely with the Home Office and others on exactly how those arrangements will work. The convention envisages a two-step process and we are looking at granting a resident’s permit in the second stage. We will discuss the details with the Home Office, so I would be interested to receive any representations from the hon. Gentleman about the detailed form that any such regulations should take.

T8. Given that £133 million has been spent on developing systems within the CSA, can those of my constituents who are currently on the old formula expect to be transferred to the new formula at a relatively early date? (197222)

As my hon. Friend knows, because of the IT problems that have tended to plague the agency ever since its inception, transfer from one funding regime to another has not been possible to achieve. As we move towards the introduction of the new commission to replace the existing agency, we have set out that movement towards an integrated maintenance calculation will begin in 2010.

The Secretary of State knows that the Conservative party is committed to the eradication of child poverty by 2020, yet he claims that it is not. The Secretary of State knows that the Government will not meet their child poverty target in 2010, yet he maintained in the House today that it will be met. I put it to him that, as an internal document from the Department for Work and Pensions, published in February this year, says:

“Despite effective policies these targets are unlikely to be fully met”.

Will the Secretary of State come clean today and tell the House the truth—that the targets will not be met on current policies?

If the hon. Gentleman read his documents more carefully, he would know that that was before the Budget, which announced an extra £1 billion, which Conservative Members voted against. If he also read his own party’s documents, he would know that the Conservatives are not committed to ending child poverty; they talk vaguely about an aspiration, but have no policy to deliver it. They have tried to say that they will find more money from the working tax credit, but that was going to come from £3 billion of welfare savings, which are no longer there. The Conservatives now need to come clean and admit that they have no policy on child policy and that they would make no difference to it.

T9. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be aware that family support workers who work out of children’s centres, alongside community midwives, health visitors, nursery staff and so on, do an excellent job in reaching out to those families who have often been beyond the reach of traditional services. They also do an excellent job in helping lone parents to get back into training and work. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that his Department will support the retention of family support workers in children’s centres, unlike the Conservative party, which wants to get rid of them? (197223)

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance, and I can go further: she will be glad to know that we will ensure that we pilot the use of Jobcentre Plus advisers working in children’s centres, so that when parents take their children to get support there, they also discover how they can find opportunities to work. So we are making sure that we have both health and children’s services working hand in glove with the services from the Department for Work and Pensions and from Jobcentre Plus.

The Minister was talking earlier about getting people on the blind and partially sighted register back to work. Does he accept that it is actually far better and more cost-effective to keep people, particularly those with degenerative eye diseases, in work while they are still capable of working, rather than their losing their jobs? That needs support and the provision of adaptations. Is that a priority for the Department?

I have discussed the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises with the organisations that represent blind and visually impaired people. He is quite right to suggest that one of the issues that we need to consider is how we maintain people in employment when their vision is deteriorating, as it does for many working people. He can be assured that we are working to ensure that people are maintained in employment for as long as possible, because one of the major issues that we face is that, if people drop out of employment, it is far more difficult for them to move back into it.

When the Minister tries to get people back to work, which he is undoubtedly trying to do, will he take it a little bit easy on the older members of our society, such as miners and shipyard workers who are about the age of 60 who have most probably worked all their life in hard industry and are crippled with arthritis? One of my constituents is being chased to go back to work, and he is 61. I think that it is a bit much.

Of course we want to provide more support for those who are in greatest need. My hon. Friend may have seen that we announced last week that we will provide extra support for people who are the poorest and most disabled. People who are in the support group of the employment and support allowance will be an extra £16 a week better off. That shows that our reforms are about two things: helping people who can work back into work and providing more support for those who need more help.

Can the Secretary of State say why the number of people in severe poverty—5.2 million—is the highest that it has been in 27 years?

The hon. Gentleman keeps banging on about those figures, but he knows perfectly well that the Office for National Statistics has said that they are not reliable because the sample is too small. It is interesting to hear him talking in today’s questions, because I believe that, last week, he told The Guardian—his favourite paper—

Order. I must stop the Secretary of State. It is for him to give an account of his stewardship, not to talk about an hon. Member speaking to The Guardian.

Further to the earlier question from my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) about employers encouraging older people in the workplace, one in four of UK adults are, like me, over the age of 60; will the Minister say whether he believes that each tier of our right hon. Friend’s Government is adequately represented in that regard? Will he urge the Prime Minister to ensure that the special contribution of the over-60s is better reflected in future reshuffles?

Will the Minister comment on grants of up to £3,000 to purchase vehicles being made available to foreign nationals working in the UK?

I am very happy to make inquiries into that matter. Obviously, we have a Motability scheme to support disabled people to drive. I do not think the matter the hon. Gentleman raises is one for my Department, but if he writes to me, I will be happy to look into it.

There is a bit of a difficulty for the following reason. We have been quoting figures that the average pensioner household will be £1,500, or £29 a week, better off, but last week the Conservative party published its own document, which is well worth looking at—

Further to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), the living in poverty figure is 5.2 million—that is an Office for National Statistics figure. Will the Secretary of State now answer my hon. Friend’s question, because he has passed the buck a number of times today?

Child poverty is down by 600,000, and pensioner poverty is down by more than 1 million. That is in contrast to the record of the Conservative Government, under whom both went up.

Last week, the Secretary of State made an announcement about the employment and support allowance. Will he tell the House how important that allowance will be, in giving both support to those who cannot work and help to those who can work?

That is exactly right. It will mean £16 more for the most disabled people. They will not be required to work, but as a consequence of the benefit changes we are introducing they will have much more support to get back into work, and much more income as well.