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Volume 476: debated on Monday 2 June 2008

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.