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Work and Pensions

Volume 476: debated on Monday 2 June 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

Social Care Services

1. What progress has been made in developing the pilot projects for individual budgets for people receiving social care services, with particular reference to disabled people; and if he will make a statement. (208017)

Individual budgets, which have been piloted in 13 local authority areas, have given social care customers, including disabled people, greater choice and control over the services they receive. The pilots were comprehensively evaluated, and we expect to publish the results later in the year.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Next week is carers week, when we will be thinking about those issues a great deal more than usual, and I believe that disabled people and their carers in my constituency could really benefit from the extra flexibility of individual budgets. What extra steps can his Department take to try to ensure that disabled people use individual budgets much more widely once the pilots are completed?

I quite agree with my hon. Friend, and we believe firmly that disabled people get greater dignity and control from the use of individual budgets, which also enable them to get better solutions to the problems that we are trying to help them with.

To give an example from the pilots, a woman with breathing problems used her individual budget to buy some air conditioning and instead of having to spend the summer in hospital, as she used to do, she was able to stay at home and look after her children. That is a great example of the kind of work that we want to encourage and will be looking to take forward in the Green Paper, which we will publish shortly.

While entirely endorsing the principle of individual budgets and in no sense wishing to suggest that people are not well empowered to make up their own mind, will the Secretary of State please bear in mind the importance of giving access to adequate and responsible advice, so that people are not, as it were, suborned into the misuse of their budget, but can use it in accordance with their needs and to best effect?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and he has a very long record of campaigning on those issues, which I acknowledge. The key point is that the default should be that people can continue to get the service, but if they are not satisfied with it and want to be able to do things differently they should be able to do so. Of course, they should then have the advice to enable them to do that. That is one of the key things to come up in the pilots and he is right to raise it.

My own local authority, Aberdeen city council, is looking at introducing individualised budgets, particularly through a system called In Control. That is all very laudable, but Aberdeen city council’s Scottish National party-Liberal administration has just slashed £27 million out of its budget and is closing a lot of facilities that were accessible to people who would qualify for individualised budgets. In fact, the whole thing is being introduced on a cuts agenda. What does my right hon. Friend make of that?

I condemn strongly the action of the council, which I know my hon. Friend has raised before. These issues should never be used as cover for a cuts agenda; they should be about empowering people to get better care for themselves and to get back into work.

One of the critical things for those getting the benefit of individual budgets is the means of enabling them to get back into work and making it more possible for them to do so. They are, therefore, concerned about the support that they will get through the employment and support allowance. Can the Secretary of State confirm how much extra the Government are planning to spend on employment and support allowance benefit over the next five years, compared with what they spend on incapacity benefit?


The Government do not produce forecasts of the numbers moving from out-of-work benefits into employment. However, we aim to reduce the number on incapacity benefit by 1 million by 2015.

I am grateful for that answer from the Secretary of State, but if that is the case, why do his Department’s financial projections allow for only 350,000? What does he really expect the figure to end up as?

As the hon. Gentleman very well knows, our goal is to get 1 million off incapacity benefit, and we are bringing forward proposals in the Green Paper to do exactly that. It is established financial practice that one does not assume the effect of policies that have not yet been brought into effect—one would be spending money that one did not have already—and that is exactly what should be done under cautious financial management.

As my right hon. Friend will know, many hundreds of thousands of miners were condemned to incapacity benefit by the Conservative party, receiving no assistance whatever to get back to work, and he would probably join me in condemning that. Many of those people have been on incapacity benefit since the strike, or since the closure of the pits, and they are approaching retirement age. Can we have an assurance from him that those people will be handled with great care in any effort to get them back to work, given that they were condemned by the Conservative Administration to long-term receipt of incapacity benefit and received no help whatever from society?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The number on incapacity benefit tripled under the Conservative party but has been falling for the past few years, rather than rising inexorably, which is what it used to do. The Conservative party provided no help at all for people on incapacity benefit.

Since April, everyone has had access to pathways to work, and my hon. Friend will have constituency examples of people who have been out of work for many years who are messianic about the effect of pathways and the transformation in their lives that it has brought about.

Is the Secretary of State not embarrassed that the Government have presided over circumstances in which so many people who are capable of work are not working—particularly young people sitting on their backsides and doing nothing—while relying on cheap labour from eastern Europe to hide the fact that a large number of those on benefits should be working, and could be working if the Government had more will power?

I think the hon. Gentleman should consider carefully the tone of his remarks and the way in which he has stigmatised young people. The truth is that each year only just over 6,000 young people are unemployed for more than a year, 90 per cent. fewer than in 1997. That constitutes a transformation of the system. Moreover, out-of-work benefits are down by £1 million overall. We have transformed the system: we have fewer people unemployed than at any time since the 1970s, and more people in work than ever before. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that rather than dog-whistling on immigration.

The question from the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) covers the gamut of out-of-work benefits. In my constituency, more than 6,000 people were unemployed in the mid-1980s; now the figure is less than a quarter of that, below 1,500. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it was the welfare-to-work schemes introduced by the Labour Government that brought the figure down, and that that is most likely to continue if we retain a Labour Government?

I certainly agree with the last part of my hon. Friend’s question. He is absolutely right: the number of people on jobseeker’s allowance has more than halved. That is because we have an active welfare state which requires more from people after three months, after six months and after a year, and which I am glad to see that the Opposition are now trying to copy.

Both the Government and the Conservatives recently announced proposals to enforce tough new measures on working-age benefit claimants, including boot camps and compulsory work programmes. Those proposals have been widely criticised by child poverty campaigners who argue that they represent a revival of workhouse rules, and that they show little regard for the consequences for child poverty.

Does it concern the Government that they now appear to be uniting with the Conservatives in their disregard for the effect of their policies on child poverty, and can the Secretary of State assure me that the welfare reform Bill that we expect to be introduced in the next parliamentary Session will focus on reducing poverty?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position. I can certainly give her that assurance. The whole point of the welfare reforms that we are introducing is to reduce poverty. We have had no truck with talk of boot camps, although, as she will see when she examines the details of what the Conservatives announced last week, they were actually only reannouncing what we are already doing through the new deal.

The Secretary of State was all at sea when he replied to the original question from my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin). He said that it was not possible to assume a figure, but his answer did assume a figure in his financial forecast, and it is less than the figure that my hon. Friend cited as the Secretary of State’s target. Meanwhile, according to the Government’s own answers and in contradistinction to what the Secretary of State has said, unemployment among 16 to 24-year-olds has risen since the Government came to power, and some 5 million people are languishing on out-of-work benefits. On the subject of dog whistles, it was the Secretary of State’s right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) who brought to light the fact that more than half the increase in employment in this country was due to jobs being given to migrant workers.

Against that dismal background, is it not time for some fresh thinking and fresh policy, which this clapped-out Government are manifestly incapable of providing?

Let us take the 5 million figure that the hon. Gentleman gave. It includes carers—whom he says his party will not force back into work—severely disabled people, lone parents with very young children, and those who retire early. The Tories are using figures that are completely inconsistent. They themselves acknowledge that they would not want to return those people to work. What they should be considering are the JSA count, which is down by more than half, and the fact that, as I have said, only 6,000-odd young people are unemployed for more than a year.

Rather than citing inconsistent figures, the Tories should start to cost their policies. The proposals that they announced last week would require at least hundreds of millions of pounds of extra spending, and would mean the cost of welfare going up, not down.

Pensioner Poverty

In 1996-97, 2.9 million pensioners were living in relative poverty, after housing costs. Measures such as pension credit have helped reduce that number by over a million to 1.8 million in 2005-06. I have today placed in the Library a fact sheet containing projections of entitlement to pension credit and other income-related benefits, up to 2050.

The Government have said that a small but important inaccuracy in the 2006-07 data is the reason for the delay in publishing the statistics for the percentage of pensioners who are living in poverty. Will the Minister enlarge upon that small inaccuracy and take the opportunity to refute firmly and absolutely the scurrilous suggestions that the figures could have been delayed because of the local elections, the mayoral elections and the Crewe and Nantwich by-election?

It is a matter for the hon. Gentleman whether he wishes to describe as scurrilous the views of those on his own Front Bench. The DWP statisticians identified an inaccuracy in the statistical framework that led to some of the headline statistics being somewhat inaccurate. That was verified by the independent quality assessment of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and was looked at by Karen Dunnell, the national statistician. The view was taken that the inaccuracy had to be corrected. The new figures will be released on 10 June.

It is always essential constantly and regularly to improve the situation of pensioners, but will my hon. and learned Friend compare the situation now with that before the introduction of the winter fuel payment, which the Conservatives derided, of the free television licences and of pension credit? Will he remember the words of Aneurin Bevan, whose National Health Service Act the Conservatives voted against, “Why look into the crystal when you can read the book”?

My right hon. Friend is entirely right. When we came into office, tens of thousands of pensioners were trying to scrape by on £69 a week. Not only that, the then Government had sought to double the VAT on fuel, which would have hit pensioners even harder. That is the record that we inherited and we have turned it around, taking more than 1 million pensioners out of poverty. The percentage of pensioners in absolute poverty has fallen by three quarters, from 32 per cent. in 1997 to 8 per cent. in 2005-06. I suspect that most people would regard that as a very good record compared with that of the previous Conservative Government.

If the situation is as marvellous as the Minister says, why has the number of pensioners going bankrupt gone up from 900 five years ago to 7,900 this year? Is not one of the reasons why those most in need of help are not getting it through the pension credit—as we warned at the time of its introduction—the fact that it is an over-complex system introduced by a Chancellor who is now the Prime Minister and is still getting it wrong?

Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people in this country, and many in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, are in receipt of pension credit and are very grateful for the fact that rather than having to live on the £69 a week that he voted to support they are now able to get a minimum of £124 to ensure that they are not in dire poverty. We are the Government who have looked after pensioners while the Government supported by the hon. Gentleman not only wanted to double VAT on fuel, but kept large numbers of pensioners in poverty.

The Minister is right to take no lessons on pensioner poverty from the Conservatives but given that fuel prices have a disproportionate impact on pensioners, could he say a little more about weekend newspaper reports that measures are to be brought in to give extra help, through winter fuel payments, to the poorest pensioners?

It is certainly the case that the Government need to take steps to get energy companies to help the vulnerable with rising fuel bills this winter. Energy companies offered to increase funding on their social tariffs to £225 million over three years. We want to move quickly to help people with their fuel bills—that is a priority for us. The Government have made an offer to the fuel companies: to send out a mailshot or voucher for the energy suppliers to all people who are on pension credit, letting them know how they can get on to the lower social tariff and, thus, lower their fuel bills. We also want to ensure that pensioners get access to better insulation grants, and that, in the long-term, they can help to lower their fuel bills by fitting proper insulation. We are offering that facility, but we are also offering fuel companies the option to share our data on who is in deprivation—that would be done through a trusted intermediary, so that those data are secure—and, in that way, fuel companies can ensure that their social tariff is directed to those most in need.

Can the Minister confirm that he has quietly dropped the target originally set by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor for maximising the take-up of pension credit? What estimate has the Minister made of the additional number of pensioners who will be thrown into poverty as a result of that decision? Is it not adding insult to injury for hard-pressed UK pensioners, who live in one of the EU countries where pensioners are most likely to fall into poverty?

As a result of the steps that we have taken, particularly on pension credit, this country’s pensioners are, on balance, less likely to be in poverty either than they were under the hon. Gentleman’s Government or in respect of any other proportion of the population at the moment.

News of the removal of this target bizarrely appeared in today’s The Daily Telegraph, but the measure was announced in 2006 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) and it has been raised several times in Select Committee—this is so old that it is not even old news, as the targets changed some time ago. Four out of five of those entitled to guaranteed credit are now receiving it, and this Government are committed to getting more people on to pension credit. Our new target on pension credit, which has been recently increased, focuses on successful applications, instead of case load.

Child Care

Annual expenditure on child care under the child care element of tax credits was just under £1.2 billion in 2006-07. Jobcentre Plus is actively involved in improving the take-up of formal child care by its customers, and Jobcentre Plus advisers routinely discuss formal child care with all parents.

Good quality child care is not only enriching for children, but essential for parents who want to combine parenting with work. The Government have had real success in recent years through investing in child care, particularly for three and four-year-olds, as has been evident in my constituency and across the country. Does my hon. Friend accept that there are problems in the system of paying for child care, particularly when it comes to older children? That was borne out in the recent study by the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Is it time that the DCSF, the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions got together to work on a new package to replace the child care tax credit for older children and their families, so that holiday schemes and out-of-school provision can be—

My hon. Friend must be congratulated on constantly raising child care issues and on advising the Government as to how to improve uptake. She has alerted us to some issues, as have other organisations, in particular the higher level of up-front costs, which can act as a real barrier to some parents. She will know that from April 2008, we have been examining, in London, how we can pay those up-front costs. Of course, we want to examine every avenue to improve the system and to ensure that parents who want to move into work can get the wrap-around child care that they need. Our Department will work closely with the other Departments she mentioned to ensure that that happens.

Is the Minister disappointed that the figures show that take-up has gone down dramatically and that the much vaunted free nursery place system has done nothing except shroud nursery schools in red tape and additional bureaucracy? More people seeking such child care use family members such as grandparents.

I am astonished that the hon. Lady uses the words “shrouded in red tape”. I would have thought that she would welcome the fact that we have set safety standards and that we ensure that young children put into the care of nurseries and pre-school groups are properly cared for. It would embarrass me to have to defend the record that her Government left us in 1997, as we now have 10 times more child care places than we had then. That is a record that the hon. Lady should be ashamed of.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the disproportionate costs of child care for disabled children. In the Treasury review of child care tax credit, will she, as Minister for disabled people, make representations on that important issue?

My hon. Friend knows that Aiming High for Disabled Children has included an additional resource of £35 million up to 2011 to improve access to child care. We also have the new supporting access to child care project. In many local authorities, disabled children are supported successfully in mainstream child care, and I am sure that my hon. Friend, as Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, has seen many examples of that. We need to break down the barriers that parents with disabled children face in accessing good quality child care.

What encouragement is given, and financial incentives offered, to parents who wish to stay at home to bring up their pre-school children?

We have expanded maternity leave and introduced paternity leave. We are looking at ways in which we can support parents through access to child care, with—currently—12 and a half hours free child care a week, which will increase to 15 hours. The hon. Gentleman has to realise that we can support parents in a mixture of ways, whether they choose to go out to work or to stay at home. The record of this Government stands up to scrutiny, especially compared with the record of the Administration whom he supported.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the form of support that single parents most appreciate is provided not by her Department but by extended schools? Such support reduces single parents’ anxiety because it means that they can go to work and earn money while their children are at school, and need not depend on public support.

My hon. Friend is right. It is often the periods before and after school that are crucial to giving parents the confidence that their children are being looked after, and that is why extended school programmes, with wrap-around care from 8 am to 6 pm—which will be rolled out across England and Wales over the next couple of years—are crucial.

Child Poverty

In many cases, the break-up of families can lead to lower incomes and a greater risk of children living in poverty. So, we have a strong focus on supporting lone parents into work. The number of children in poverty in lone parent families has reduced by around 200,000 children. The risk of a child in such a household being in poverty has fallen from 46 per cent. to 35 per cent.

Improvements to the Child Support Agency mean that a record £1 billion of maintenance is now flowing to children. Our new reforms of the child maintenance system will lift a further 100,000 children out of poverty.

The Department’s website continues to suggest that it sees family breakdown more as a symptom of child poverty than as a cause. If the Minister is changing that impression, that would be welcomed. Does he agree that the Department is somewhat hamstrung by playing down the impact of family breakdown? If so, can he find a way out of that trap so as to respond positively to the comments of people such as Mr. Justice Coleridge who has 37 years of experience in the family court and who said last month:

“High sounding declarations about taking children out of poverty are all well and good but where are the necessary investments in research and support for family life?”

The hon. Gentleman will know that there are many reasons why families end up in breakdown. The obligation on us is to ensure that when families encounter that, support is available. That is why, for example, one of the most important things that we can ensure when a family splits up is that the parent who continues to care for the children gets a decent income coming into the household. That is why programmes that support lone parents as they go back to work are so important. As the hon. Gentleman will know from his history of involvement with the subject, when couples separate it is crucial that maintenance flows to support the children. That is why we are making a big investment in the CSA, which is now collecting a record £1 billion of maintenance, as I have said.

Another thing that is coming in, which I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome, is the child maintenance options service whereby for the first time couples moving towards separation will have information and support provided objectively and independently, for free, to help them to deal with that. Independent support and advice, on subjects from across the range of areas for which this Department is responsible, are available to assist couples.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most insidious causes of family breakdown is mass unemployment? Will he therefore pay little regard to any Government who ever consider mass unemployment a price worth paying?

Certainly, the experience of mass unemployment and the break-up of communities led to the break-up of families. I do not think that there is any doubt about that. My hon. Friend is quite right to point out that a pro-employment policy is a pro-family policy and helps couples to stay together. He is right to point out that the policies that have seen unemployment fall dramatically, that have virtually eliminated long-term unemployment and that have restored employment in broken communities have contributed to supporting families. That is the result of policies that this Government have implemented.

Does the Minister agree that, with the odd rare exception, such as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), to hear people on the Conservative Benches talk about the alleviation of poverty and their ideas in that regard is similar to hearing that King Herod has been appointed to a post in charge of child protection?

My hon. Friend always has his own way of putting such things. The important point, I think, is to ensure that we continue to pursue policies that support families as they face the variety of strains of modern life and try to achieve the right balance between work and family life. Through a range of policies pursued by this Department and others, we have put in place measures that back families, that support them and that help them to deal with the tensions of modern life.

Child Poverty

Child poverty more than doubled under the previous Government to the worst rate in Europe. We have arrested and reversed the rising trend, with 600,000 children lifted out of poverty in the past decade. We reaffirmed on Budget day our commitment to halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020, and measures announced in last year’s Budget, and since, are expected to lift 500,000 children above the poverty line.

Like the figures for pensioner poverty referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), publication of the figures for child poverty has been delayed. Given that the reason for the delay cited by the pensions Minister concerned a technical problem that, according to the DWP’s technical note, relates to a relatively small number of people around pension age, can the Minister confirm that the yet to be released headline figures on child poverty have been known to the Government for some months?

No, I cannot confirm that. I do not know what the figures are. They are being reviewed in the way that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Pensions Reform described earlier, on the basis of a decision by the departmental statistician in consultation with the Government statistician and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. As my hon. and learned Friend said, the figures for households below the average income will be published on 10 June.

Can the Minister explain why the number of children in poverty in two-parent households went up from 21 to 23 per cent. last year?

We have made a decisive break with the disastrous policy of the Conservative party in government, for which even now addressing child poverty remains a vague aspiration. We have reduced the number of children in poverty from 3.4 million to 2.8 million. If we had left the policies as they were in 1997, the figure would be above 5 million by now. Measures in the last two Budgets and in the pre-Budget report will help further. They are expected to reduce child poverty by 500,000. We remain committed to the target. There was a very small increase last year. The overall impact has been very positive.

Occupation-related Illnesses

12. What recent discussions he has had with the Health and Safety Executive on its programmes on occupation-related illnesses. (208029)

Ministers hold regular discussions with the chair of the Health and Safety Executive and its senior officials regarding the executive’s programmes on occupation-related illnesses.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, although everyone regrets the tragic deaths of 241 people in industrial accidents last year, the perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 people who die every year from occupational diseases—cancers and so on—nevertheless represent a problem on a much bigger scale? Can I have an assurance that the Health and Safety Executive will crack down on that and have the resources to ensure that we both educate and encourage prevention—for example, where diesel fumes are allowed to permeate the working space—to make sure that another generation in 10, 15 or 20 years’ time will not die in that horrible way?

My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of deaths that sometimes occur a long time after people have ceased to work in a particular occupation. Of course, asbestosis accounts for about 4,000 deaths a year, which is the highest rate of any occupational health killer. I hope he recognises the importance of the hidden killer pilot that we rolled out in the north-west. It was not specifically aimed at diesel fumes, but it worked with tradesmen, particularly plumbers and electricians, to look at how they work in at-risk occupations. He is right to highlight the fact that the Health and Safety Executive, along with employers, employees and trade unions, needs to look at how we manage risk for the current work force and to ensure that those risks are reduced as much as possible.

The Minister will be aware that payments for certain industrial diseases, such as pneumoconiosis, changed on the demise of British Coal on 27 March 2004. Since then, there have been 3,300 new claims. I understand that only 300 of those new claimants have claimed benefit under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979. I understand that her Department did not put down the line the information that miners could now claim under the 1979 Act. Will she therefore look into the matter and ensure that, if it is shown that anyone has been disadvantaged by not being able to claim under the 1979 Act, they will allowed to make a new claim?

Of course, I will look at the points made by my hon. Friend, who has consistently and persistently promoted the cause of those miners who suffered as a result of working down the pits, and I will get back to him on that issue.

No Government have done more than this one to compensate those people who have suffered industrial health problems, such as coal miners, who were referred to by hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). However, will my hon. Friend the Minister look again at the 1979 Act, as my hon. Friend has asked, and look beyond the coal mining population, because a constituent of mine from the building industry, along with a handful of other people, has been told that his only way forward is to seek judicial review of the Government? That does not seem to be a humane way to deal with someone who manifestly suffers from pneumoconiosis.

Obviously, if my hon. Friend gives me the details of his constituency case, I will look into it for him.

Benefits System

Benefit simplification is important to our welfare reform programme, for example in the roll-out of the local housing allowance since April, in the introduction of the employment and support allowance in October, and in pensions reform from 2010. In the longer term, we are looking into the possibility of a single benefit for people of working age.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I think that Britain is the only country in Europe where benefits are delivered through the agencies of three Departments. That makes the system complicated, expensive to administer, and difficult for claimants. Is it not time that we seriously considered giving responsibility for all benefits to one Department, namely his?

There is good co-operation between my Department and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on tax credits, and between the Department and local authorities on housing benefit. A very good pilot in north Tyneside has shown excellent results, and we have now extended it to another half a dozen local authorities. My hon. Friend is right that there is good scope for co-operation, particularly with local authorities, in order to deliver benefits more quickly, and to deliver a better service.

Occasionally, complications in the system to do with benefits and allowances can impact on people doing voluntary work or holding particular offices in their community. I would very much like to discuss a constituent’s case with the Secretary of State or one of his colleagues, and I should be grateful if he agreed to a meeting in which we could do that.

There certainly are a number of issues to do with volunteering and the benefit system. We have been considering them, and we have made good progress in recent months. If the hon. Gentleman would like to drop me a line, I will be happy to look at the case that he has in mind.

I welcome the progress that my right hon. Friend the Minister has made in extending the 16-hour rule to Stoke-on-Trent, but further flexibility is needed. In particular, will he look at the situation faced by those on incapacity benefit who are anxious to gain skills and move into education and training, but who do not want to have to go on to jobseeker’s allowance to do so, and will he get back to me on that, please?

I thank my hon. Friend for what she says. As she will know, under the employment and support allowance, which is being introduced from October, the arrangements for therapeutic work will be significantly different from those in place under incapacity benefit. If she looks at the new arrangements, she will find that there has been some welcome progress. If there are other points that she would like me to consider, I should be happy to have a conversation with her about them.

Does the Minister accept that one of the reasons for the low take-up of some benefits is the complexity of the application forms? Is that not another powerful reason for seeking to simplify the benefits system?

Of course the right hon. Gentleman is right. I am sure that he will therefore warmly welcome, as others have done, the introduction of the three-page application form for housing benefit and council tax benefit for people already receiving pension credit. That has been a big step forward, and we will be looking for others.

Child Maintenance

14. What steps he is taking to improve maintenance arrangements for children of non-resident parents; and if he will make a statement. (208032)

There are two key steps. First, we are improving the performance of the Child Support Agency. The agency now collects £200 million more, for 200,000 more children, than it did in the last year of operation before the improvement plan. Secondly, we will ultimately replace the agency with the new Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission to ensure even better support for children. The advances that we are making in that area continue to lift more children out of poverty.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the concerns raised by a community in my constituency about UK-born men who go abroad, get married, have families, and then return to the UK without making any arrangements at all for the family’s maintenance? Does he agree that there is an obligation on non-resident parents to provide support for their children, even if the children are living abroad and are therefore outside the immediate reach of the Child Support Agency?

Those are rather unusual circumstances. I am aware that my hon. Friend has encountered them in her constituency, and I encourage her to write to me with the details of the cases, if she does not mind. I am happy to look into them a bit further. However, it has always been part of the regulations applying to the child support system that for a maintenance calculation to be made and enforced, all the parties have to be habitually resident in the UK. I think that that is not so in the case that she has encountered, and there would therefore be difficulties in pursuing the matter, but still, if she gives me more details about it, I will look further into it for her.

Will the Minister be kind enough to look into the case of my constituent, Mrs. Faringdon, who has full-time care of her 14-year-old niece? The niece’s child benefit is still being paid to her father, despite the fact that there is a non-molestation order against him. Mrs. Faringdon would like to apply for a permanent residency order for her niece, but has been told that no funding will be available to enable her to do that, and she is unable to fund the process herself. I should be most grateful if he looked into the matter for me.

I would be more than happy for the hon. Lady to write to me with further details of the case, and I undertake to look into it. The normal rule in relation to child benefit is that it goes to the parent who has the majority of care of the child, and that is a fairly firm rule. However, the case sounds complex, so if she writes to me with further information about it, I will look into it and try to help her constituent out.

Can the Minister explain and justify the practice whereby people in emergency financial need seeking loans from the social fund are no longer being interviewed, but are required to access a telephone helpline, which is invariably engaged or unobtainable and, at best, provides a highly impersonal and unsatisfactory service?

The fact of the matter is that the telephone helpline has been introduced. I accept that there were difficulties with it initially; we have been clear about that. A great deal of extra investment has gone into it and more staff have been transferred to the helpline. I think the hon. Gentleman knows that the latest statistics show that it is performing well, calls are being answered swiftly, calls are not being lost, and support is being given in the same way as it was on a face-to-face basis. I can also confirm to him that if any of his constituents still require a face-to-face interview and do not want to proceed with a telephone application, they are entitled to ask for a face-to-face interview and it will be provided.

Topical Questions

We want to give children the best possible start in life. Responsible parenting is important to provide children with the security and confidence that they need to thrive. The moment that a child’s birth is registered is of enormous significance, both practical and symbolic. It is an opportunity for public acknowledgment of the responsibilities of parenthood, where both mother and father can commit to their role in nurturing and supporting their child, yet as many as 45,000 to 50,000 birth registrations in the UK each year do not include the name of the father.

I can therefore announce today that the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Children, Schools and Families are publishing the White Paper “Joint Birth Registration: Recording Responsibility” in order to ensure that wherever possible both parents are named on a child’s birth certificate. We propose that joint birth registration should become a legal requirement for all unmarried parents, unless that is decided by the registrar to be impossible, impracticable or unreasonable. The measures will continue to protect vulnerable women and children, but allow a mother to ensure that a father acknowledges his responsibility for his offspring. Equally, they will ensure that unmarried fathers will get the right to have a say in their child’s life.

I welcome the Government’s proposal for joint registration of a birth, and I note those exceptions. It is important that both parents, fathers included, are on the registration of a birth, but if there is a contestation about who the father is, could there be a system of revised registration, perhaps at a later date, to take into account the results of any DNA tests that might have taken place?

That is something that we should look at. The system of paternity testing is there for parents to be able to establish paternity accurately. I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomes the moves that we are introducing. It is important to change the default system so that both parents are registered, for unmarried couples as well as for married ones.

T2. I appreciate the answer that the Minister gave to my previous question and the way in which he put it, but I do not think he quite got the point. All the financial support that goes to people after family and relationship breakdown is not worth nearly as much as support and investment given before the break-up. There is mounting evidence that such support, in all its many forms, is needed to prevent relationships from breaking up, but there is little evidence to suggest that the Government have yet understood that. Can the Minister help the House a little more? (207998)

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s argument that no support is going through. All the measures that we have introduced since 1997 in support of families, especially families on low incomes, who have been the principal gainers from Budget and benefit changes, mean that more support is going into households. That support helps to sustain the family, helps the family to deal with the challenges of the day, and is therefore in support of the family. Tax policies and benefit policies, as well as child maintenance policies, have been very much pro-family and continue to be so.

T3. Many of the services offered by the Minister’s Department have to be accessed through phone lines. However, as my hon. Friend will know, an increasing number of people do not have land lines; they just have mobile phones. Accessing the Department’s services can cost such people much more than is paid by those who can use local services or freephone lines. What will the Department do to take account of the development that I have mentioned as it tries to make its services as accessible as possible to the public? (207999)

First, there is an array of freephone lines, as my hon. Friend knows. If claimants contact us via a mobile phone, we will always agree to call them back at a predetermined time. Those claimants only have to make the one, brief initial request for a telephone exchange with us; we will then make the call back. In such circumstances, we can help people who have access only through mobile phones.

I join the Secretary of State in welcoming the new Lib Dem spokesman to her position; it seems a long time since we debated against each other on Merton council.

We welcome today’s White Paper. Its direction is right and the Secretary of State will have our support, although there will no doubt be debate over the detail. Will he tell us exactly what the relationship is between him, the Department for Work and Pensions and Mr. Phil Collins?

I certainly can; I have enjoyed watching this story. First, the press said, wrongly, that Mr. Collins was my special adviser; then they said, wrongly, that he had been sacked. They then launched a great inquisition about why he was not sacked in the first place. To reassure the hon. Gentleman, I should say that Mr. Collins has not charged for or been paid for any work at the Department for Work and Pensions and that he is not employed by the DWP. We do play football together, however—and we are becoming an increasingly slow central defensive partnership.

I am none the less slightly puzzled by the Secretary of State’s answer. We are talking about the gentleman who wrote an article last week saying:

“In the drama of British politics a Labour tragedy is unfolding.”

What we do know is that Mr. Collins has been writing speeches for the Secretary of State that have been edited by officials in the Department; there has clearly been some kind of working relationship. Can the Secretary of State explain that? Can he also say what conversations he has had with the Prime Minister in the past few days about the work that Mr. Collins has been doing?

As I said, it could not be simpler: Mr. Collins has not been paid by the DWP for any work. It is interesting that after another six weeks of thinking, the hon. Gentleman has yet again resorted to trivia and refused to engage in any debate about welfare policy. The very clear reason for that is that he knows that the minute there is any scrutiny of his proposals, people will see that they are expensive, that they will increase the cost of welfare and that, at best, all they will do is copy things that we are doing already.

T7. May we get back to real issues, which affect my constituents? Sadly, my constituents still suffer the highest rate of child poverty in the country. Do my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench accept that getting lone parents into work and supporting them is probably the most important thing that we can do to tackle the impact of poverty in our society? In that context, would not the abolition of Sure Start—one of the cost-cutting proposals from the Conservative Front Bench—be a tragedy in areas such as the centre of Manchester? [Interruption.] (208003)

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) is absolutely right: the abolition of Sure Start would be a disaster in respect of addressing child poverty. The discussions and ideas coming from Conservative Front-Bench Members show how little importance they attach to that whole question.

The progress that we have made on reducing child poverty is very welcome. However, we need to do a great deal more. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: helping lone parents into work is perhaps the most important of the initiatives that we have in hand. Changes to lone parent benefit later this year will help. What has been borne out by my visits to Sure Start centres is that the personal help provided to lone parents at those centres is also making a big difference.

T4. With £4.6 billion of benefits going unclaimed every year, Age Concern’s excellent report, “Just what the doctor ordered”, has suggested that health care settings are an excellent way to publicise benefits. As the architect of the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, I am concerned that the Government will not meet their target of eliminating fuel poverty by 2010, so will they accept Age Concern’s report? (208000)

We will certainly give it full and due consideration. One of the key things that we are doing is taking real steps to ensure that we deal with some of the issues surrounding fuel poverty, particularly for pensioners. Age Concern has worked with us in doing that, and I am grateful to it for that. One of our key proposals is the new data-sharing initiative. For years, the fuel companies have said, “We are prepared to provide social tariffs and lower bills for those who are on low incomes, but we don’t know who they are.” In the past, DWP has not been prepared to share that data. In the next six weeks, I will table a new amendment to the Pensions Bill that will enable us to data share with the power companies through a trusted intermediary. Pensioners will be able to opt out if they do not want to have their data shared. We hope that that will be a first step towards dealing with some of the problems that Age Concern has identified.

I welcome what my hon. and learned Friend says about helping pensioners with fuel bills. Will he look at extending the franchise that we gave to pensioners aged over 75 to get free TV licences to ensure that all old-age pensioners will benefit from that measure?

Over-75s’ TV licences, and indeed under-75s’ TV licences, are a matter for another Department. However, we are anxious to ensure that we continue to take steps to deal with the issues of pensioner poverty that this Government are committed to tackling. That is why we introduced pension credit in 2003 and have since taken initiatives to increase it substantially. We want to ensure, too, that some of our steps on fuel poverty deal with the problems that pensioners are facing with their fuel bills.

T5. Organisations such as Kettering welfare rights advisory service and Kettering citizens advice bureau help to secure hundreds of thousands of pounds of benefits for residents in and around Kettering. Why can such organisations do such good work when Government officials apparently cannot? (208001)

There has long been a very valuable role for citizens advice bureaux; that is why Citizens Advice is supported and funded by the Government. It does a great job up and down the country, and that is why we will continue to support it.

T6. In using the benefits system to compensate the remaining 1 million losers from the loss of the 10p tax rate, why are the Government using working tax credits, which are based on gross income and therefore cannot help, rather than housing benefit and council tax benefit, which are based on net income and can help? Is it that they do not understand their own benefits system? (208002)

The hon. Gentleman gets a whole Question Time to himself to ask these questions of the Chancellor, so I am sure that he will want to do so. However, I would have thought that he would welcome the cut in tax and increase in allowances that we have brought in for people not only on low incomes but on middle incomes.

T8. The Department’s report for 2008 shows that the Government have not met three public service agreement targets and have encountered slippage on no fewer than nine. Targets 1a, 1b and 1c all relate to child poverty. Is not that an example of a failing Government, and who does the Minister think is responsible? (208004)

One thing is absolutely clear: we will not take any lectures from the Conservatives until they commit to the target on child poverty and come up with a single policy to reduce it.

T9. Now that rising food and fuel prices are putting pressure week by week on the incomes particularly of low-income people, do the Government have any plans in advance of the next scheduled revaluation of benefits to introduce interim measures to ameliorate that? (208005)

The latest official figures from the Office for National Statistics show that 591,000 people arrived in the UK in 2006. How many of those were gainfully employed?

Immigration into the UK over the past few years has left us in a position where more people are in work in Britain than ever before—above 29.5 million for the first time ever—and where we have the lowest number of people claiming unemployment benefit since the mid-1970s. That is an extraordinarily strong economic performance, and part of the explanation for it is the contribution made by people coming to work from overseas.