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Topical Questions

Volume 474: debated on Monday 31 March 2008

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.