I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of work and welfare.
It gives me great pleasure to move the motion and open the debate about work and welfare this afternoon. It is an important subject for debate, and I look forward to the contributions of hon. Members from all parts of the House. At the outset, I must apologise, because I may have to slip away just before the end of the debate, owing to a personal commitment, but I shall be here until at least 5 o’clock. I hope that that apology is accepted in the spirit in which it is intended.
The relationship between our welfare policies and the number of people in work is critical for our Government, and inevitably at a time of global economic turbulence, it is an issue that will be in the minds of many constituents throughout the country. I shall say a few words about the policy journey that we have been on over the past few years, followed by a few words about our future direction of travel and, finally, the extent to which the current economic circumstances are relevant.
When we came into government, we inherited a largely passive benefits system that rewarded people for not seeking work. Everybody knew that the overall effect of the previous Government’s policies was, in many cases, to push people away from the labour market on to incapacity benefit and then to leave them there—a one-way ticket to dependency. Not only was it bad for the taxpayer and the economy, but most crucially, it was devastating for the individual who was capable of far more, with confidence destroyed, potential unrealised and poverty entrenched for them and for their families. Our task over the past 11 years has been to transform that inactive welfare state into an active one.
Starting with the new deal, we embodied the idea that rights entailed responsibilities, and, in return for extra support, young people were expected to take up jobs or training or see their benefits cut. It was the beginning of the end for the idea that people could sit at home and claim benefits if they were able to work and had a job—and it worked. Long-term youth unemployment has been virtually abolished, so we extended the policy to lone parents, new claimants of incapacity benefits, older people and disabled people, and now, as the Green Paper that we published in July outlined, we are considering others, too, including those on long-term incapacity benefit, one quarter of whom have been on it since the Conservative years. The increase in employment is not entirely due to those targeted and personalised support measures, because a buoyant macro-economy has of course helped, but nobody doubts that they have made a significant difference, with our successful system of active support contributing to a fall of almost 1 million in the number of people claiming a key out-of-work benefit since 1997.
The new deal has helped almost 2 million people into jobs, and our incapacity benefit pilot, pathways to work, has already helped more than 94,000 people off incapacity benefit and into work. Overall, as a result of our welfare reforms and the successful management of the economy since 1997, the number of people in work has gone up by about 3 million, employment is up in every region and country of the United Kingdom, International Labour Organisation-defined unemployment has fallen by 260,000 and claimant unemployment has fallen by 680,000. In the past year, the number of people on incapacity and lone-parent benefits combined has fallen by more than 70,000.
So far, so good, but the question before us today is: what comes next? We need to build on that success to unleash the potential of more of our people, where it is appropriate to do so, and as I shall come on to argue, that is more important, not less so, in a downturn.
Might one area on which my hon. Friend reflects be the disregards offered to people who take up part-time work and are currently in receipt of a benefit to encourage them to take the first few steps into work, which might build towards more permanent and substantial employment?
We already try to help and support people in those circumstances, through the provisions on the permitted number of hours and through our linking policies. We are also examining ways in which we can improve on that position in the future. In some parts of the country, we are conducting what we call in-and-out-of-work pilots, to see what more we can do with the benefit support system to encourage people who are on that cusp, facing that marginal call on whether to work. The thrust of my hon. Friend’s question is entirely right.
Will the Minister’s Department reflect on the availability of written information and on the use of the Department’s website to highlight the problem that the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) has just mentioned? There have been cases in my constituency of people in the position mentioned being unaware of the provisions and of the possible effect on their benefits, or indeed on their enthusiasm to return to work.
We always try to do everything that we can to ensure that people understand the system. It is complex in some areas, and one of the purposes of this stage of our reforms is to try to reduce that complexity. Perhaps I can take the opportunity provided by the hon. Gentleman’s question to advertise the “Find your way back to work” leaflet, a copy of which has been sent to all MPs. It has been approved by the Plain English Campaign, and I hope that it will provide a useful starting point to anyone in that situation.
In July, we published a Green Paper on the future direction of our welfare to work policies. The consultation closed a fortnight ago and we are currently considering our response, and the need, if any, for legislation. In a nutshell, we intend to enshrine in legislation our commitment to eradicate child poverty—the biggest obstacle to individual achievement for this generation and the next—by 2020. To pick up on the point raised by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), we intend to simplify the benefits system to ensure that it offers the right support, and to develop a personalised programme of help for everyone on benefits who can work, and greater support for those who cannot. We want to increase targeted support and activity for the groups most at risk from exclusion from the labour market, and to provide disabled people with greater control over their budgets for the services that they use. We want to devolve power and responsibility to individuals, communities and suppliers, to tailor services to local priorities, local economies and local needs, and to boost support and advice to help people to stay well in work.
The Minister has just given us a list of the steps that the Government are planning to take. Will she also tell us whether the Treasury has been liaising with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to discuss any contingency plans to alter, if necessary, the budget for the flexible new deal programmes, in the event that unemployment—and the bill for unemployment benefits—should start to rise significantly?
Those conversations are constantly taking place. A large amount of planning is currently being rolled out to ensure that, as demand for our services rises, which, of course, it will in an economic downturn, we have the appropriate response available to ensure that everybody gets the tailored help that they need. We will make sure that that happens.
I shall turn next to the flexible new deal. Critical to our next phase of support is the concept that the longer someone stays on benefit, the more support they need. Since 1997, long-term claimant unemployment has fallen by more than three quarters, and nine out of 10 recipients of jobseeker’s allowance leave the benefit within a year. Only 100,000 people are claiming JSA for a year or more. By definition, however, those who remain have the largest hurdles to surmount, so of course they should be getting the greatest support. From 2009, we will be introducing a reformed JSA and a so-called flexible new deal, targeting our resources in clear stages at those who need it the most.
First, there will be a screening for basic skills when someone has their first interview for benefit with Jobcentre Plus. Where there is an obvious gap, they will be referred for help to the local skills services. We will record that and pursue their actions as the claim lengthens. We are also taking the power to make skills training mandatory at the appropriate time. After three months and six months, claimants will be expected to intensify their job search activity, and to comply with a challenging back-to-work action plan, including a skills health check and appropriate training. If they are still on JSA after 12 months, jobseekers will be referred to a private, public or voluntary sector provider, who will be paid by results, and who will offer at least four weeks of full-time activity. For those who are still on JSA after two years, we will expect even more, and we have been consulting on full-time work programmes for the long-term unemployed.
I very much support the flexible approach to the new deal. Given the current economic climate, however, and today’s news that the Engineering Employers Federation in Birmingham is receiving 40 calls a day from employers seeking advice on making workers redundant or reducing their hours, would it not be a good idea to accept the advice of the Social Security Advisory Committee that we should not implement the regulations that will make it compulsory for more lone parents to sign on for work, at least until the recommendations on comprehensive, wrap-around child care have been implemented?
I understand the difficulties that my hon. Friend’s constituents are facing; she makes a valid point. However, I do not agree with her conclusion. The lone parents regulations were approved by the House last week, and they are currently being considered in another place. We would be making a terrible mistake—a mistake that was made by the Conservative Government in the previous downturn—if we did not keep as many people as possible as close as possible to the jobs market at a time when there is a net effect of people leaving work, so that, when things turn around, they are ready to take the opportunities that are available to them. The longer that people are away from the jobs market, the harder it is for them to return to sustainable employment, if that is appropriate to their needs.
We have changed the regulations on lone parents and child care. Once they have been fully implemented, if a lone parent with a child of seven years of age or older cannot find appropriate child care that would allow them to take up a job offer, that will be considered all right and they will not face sanctions as a result. There is a kind of feedback loop between the Jobcentre Plus and the local authority, in the form of a child care partnership manager, to ensure that the legal obligation that local authorities now have to provide appropriate child care for everyone seeking work is adhered to in practice, and that there is an understanding of where more child care places could be made available. We believe that we have met the concerns of the Social Security Advisory Committee in that regard, which is why we are pressing on with those measures.
I thank my hon. Friend for that response, but will she assure me that Jobcentre Plus will have the capacity to deal with these increased work loads and that it will be flexible in how it operates? I encountered a case recently of a man who was working 14 hours a week and who hoped that his employer would increase the number of hours that he worked. However, it was demanded that he sign on during the very hours that he was at work, which caused all sorts of difficulties with his employer. We must ensure that there is flexibility in such situations.
Our staff have been trained to deal with the new regulations, which are being rolled out in a phased way precisely so that there will not be a capacity constraint on our side. Obviously, I do not know the specific details of my hon. Friend’s constituent’s case, but if she would like to write to me, I will certainly look into it for her.
In addition to introducing the flexible JSA, we are also building on the success of the pathways to work pilots for those on incapacity benefits with the new employment and support allowance that was introduced last week. The ESA is just for new customers at the moment, but over the next few years, everyone who is currently on incapacity benefits will be moved on to the ESA. Each will receive a work capability assessment, focused on what they can do rather than what they cannot, as was the case in the past. Some people will presumably no longer qualify for incapacity benefits, and they will move on to JSA, getting all the support that that entails.
The rest will qualify for the ESA, and will be placed either in what we call the work-related activity group or in the support group. In the work-related activity group, individuals will receive personalised support, which crucially includes the highly successful condition management programmes delivered by condition management practitioners, to move them closer to the job market. The support given will build on learning from the positive experience of the pathways pilots, which I have seen at first hand in my own constituency. In one example, a constituent of mine told me that, as a result of the pilots, he had been given his life back. We want far more people to be given their lives back. The pilots have been shown to increase the chances of a new customer being in work 18 months after the claim was made from 28 per cent. to 35 per cent.
As we have just discussed, the House has recently approved regulations to give lone parents with children aged seven and over full support to prepare for and move into work in return for signing up to a jobseeker’s agreement. As I said, nobody will be forced to take up work if no child care is available, but I see no reason why, as a point of principle, lone parents should not be available for work while their children are at school. A quick glance at the child poverty statistics should put the issue beyond doubt. More than a third of children in lone parent households live in poverty; 58 per cent. of children living in workless lone parent households live in poverty. That figure decreases from 58 per cent. to 19 per cent. if the lone parent works part time, and to 7 per cent. if the lone parent works full time. That is why we are doing what we are doing.
In recognition of the particular logistical challenges faced by lone parents when they consider entering the labour market, however, we have adapted the existing JSA provisions to ensure that they support people effectively. Lone parents can restrict their availability to 16 hours a week, and they have more time to attend interviews and take up a job offer. Furthermore, they can cite without sanction unavailability of child care as a reason not to take up employment.
Child care has doubled since 1997—the number of places is approaching 1.3 million—and local authorities have the legal responsibility to secure, when practicable, sufficient child care to meet the requirements of parents in their areas. Furthermore, 14,230 extended schools in England offer affordable school-based child care on weekdays between 8 am and 6 pm all year round, and child care partnership managers at Jobcentre Plus provide a feedback loop to local authorities on whether sufficient places are available, so the issue is far less of a problem under this Government. We will take legislative powers to apply similar provisions, with appropriate support, to non-working parents who are partners of people who are working.
I hear the Minister’s figures on child care, but is she aware that child care places fell by 2,000 in England last year? There is the most tremendous churn, which is worrying to parents, particularly those with young children. Parents need stability.
It is extremely important for people to have certainty, but the most important thing is that there should be enough places for the need to be met in each individual area. I have not mapped the extent to which the supply of child care places is related to the demand in individual areas, but we will continue to make sure that the policy is rolled out and effective. Our child poverty targets require us to do so, and in many circumstances it is the best thing for the entire family unit.
I urge the Minister to carry out urgently that mapping of supply and demand. She will be aware that although there are more child care places today than five years ago, there is a large number of vacancies. That illustrates a problem—an awful lot of child care is provided at the wrong time of day, on the wrong day of the week and at the wrong price and quality for parents to be able to access what they need when they need it. The state often provides something that is not suitable for what a great many parents who need access to the correct type of child care really require.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to a number of broad so-called facts. We have decided to put the onus and legal requirement on to local authorities to ensure that sufficient child care is available in their areas. The process will be iterative. If he can see particular lack of supply in a particular area, he should raise that with the local authority. We are ensuring, with Jobcentre Plus, that there is a continuous feedback loop so that if a lone parent or any parent says, “I cannot take that job because no child care is available”, they will be challenged by the Jobcentre Plus adviser. If what the parent says is accepted, the local authority will be challenged by national Government. We are doing what the hon. Gentleman suggests on an ongoing basis. There is no doubt that far more child care places are available now than 10 years ago, because we have grasped the issue and are doing everything we can to ensure real choices for parents as they decide how they wish to organise their lives.
Finally, I want to say a few words on what the current economic situation means for the direction of our welfare reform. To those who say that we should surrender to the tides of the current economic situation and relax our direction of travel I say that we will not give up on the people of this country, who rightly expect us to support them through these difficult times. Yes, unemployment is rising—there is no denying that. The number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance has been rising since the beginning of 2008, with the last figures going up by just over 30,000.
That increase is the net result of 260,000 people entering claimant unemployment and nearly 230,000 people leaving jobseeker’s allowance. The situation is dynamic. Even in these difficult times, people are leaving unemployment to restart work. Every working day, Jobcentre Plus helps 5,400 people into work. Furthermore, people are leaving unemployment faster than they used to—a direct result of the more active, supportive regime developed for jobseekers. Although the numbers starting to claim JSA have risen and may rise further, our aim is to help as many people as possible find their next job as quickly as possible.
In an economic slowdown we need to do more, not less, to keep people as close as possible to the labour market. According to the latest figures, there are 600,000 vacancies in the economy right now. We want to prepare everyone to get those jobs and we want more people to get more jobs as more jobs become available. That means having active labour market policies keeping more people as near as possible to work-related activities. The alternative is to let people sink.
Unlike the last Conservative Government, we are not shifting people away from the labour market to get them off the books and make unemployment look lower than it is—quite the opposite. We are moving people closer to the jobs market and more people on to JSA, because more people will then have more opportunities to leave JSA and go into work. Other things being equal, we estimate that our reforms to lone parent benefits will increase the JSA count by about 80,000 by 2010-11. Our reforms to the ESA will also add several thousand each year in the next two to three years, before any effects of the economic downturn are taken into account.
We need to learn the lessons from previous slowdowns and from overseas. They are: first, to increase support and not relax conditionality; secondly, not to move people on to inactive benefits; and thirdly to maintain efforts to reduce inactivity. We are not giving up. We are not surrendering to the doom and gloom merchants who say that the force of economic change means that we should leave people to perish in the storm. We are holding true to our aspiration of an 80 per cent. employment rate and standing by our commitment to ensure that by 2025 disabled people are respected and included as equal members of society.
The Minister mentioned people with disabilities. Is she satisfied that the arrangements for them are robust enough? I am thinking particularly of conditions such as autistic spectrum disorders. Is she satisfied that Jobcentre Plus staff have the capacity to help such people navigate their way through the system? She has talked a lot about identifying skills deficits early on, but I have mentioned a special group of people who need added assistance to work their way through the system. Can she reassure us that that support is there and will proactively help such people get nearer the job market? She used the expression “doom and gloom merchants”, and I do not want to be one of them; not many Opposition Members do, but we want to ensure that those people have maximum access and support.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I think that I can reassure him. We are training our staff extensively and in conjunction with excellent organisations such as the National Autistic Society to ensure that the expertise is at the front line.
We are working with such organisations nationally and we are rolling out the training in conjunction with them. If Autism Cymru gets in touch with us, we will ensure that any of its extra insights are incorporated nationally and locally.
I was explaining that we are standing by our commitment to ensure that by 2025 disabled people are respected and included as equal members of society. Furthermore, we are still committed to eradicating child poverty by 2020.
We believe that while we must support the most vulnerable, there is no automatic right to a life on benefits, that paid work is the best route out of poverty, and that each of us has a role to play in contributing to the society that we live in. Equally, however, we believe that no one should be left behind, and we will provide personalised support to everyone who needs it to ensure they have the opportunity to get into and remain in work. When jobs are harder to find, it is even more important that we help people to prepare for work with practical advice and support. Our welfare reform proposals are about changing the system to offer that support to people looking for work.
To conclude in a sentence, our direction of travel is right in the bad times as well as the good, and I look forward with interest to the contributions of all hon. Members who have chosen, despite some alternative attractions, to be with us today.
This debate on work and welfare is most welcome in the light of the current very difficult economic circumstances facing our country. The economy has slowed substantially in the past quarter and, according to the conclusions of the recent Ernst & Young ITEM Club report, “Out of the financial frying pan, into the fires of recession”, it is likely to contract further in the coming months. Many people have already lost their jobs, and there is great anxiety among many others in all areas of the country that a similar fate might await them. Although the Minister failed to use the “recession” word, it has been used by the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty). We are facing very difficult economic times, and these issues will increase in importance over the coming months. It is therefore right that the House debates them today and it will no doubt do so on a number of occasions in future.
It would be interesting if the Minister or the Under-Secretary told us who are the doom and gloom merchants saying that we should leave people to sink or swim by themselves. I do not know of anybody in this House who is suggesting such a thing.
It is a shame that the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) has not been joined by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), the Liberal Democrat spokesman on disability issues. He recently said that having been in the job for only nine months he was on a “strict learning curve”, and was
“the first to admit that I’ve got a lot to learn.”
He said that he hoped that we were not facing an immediate election and that the Liberal Democrats would have time to develop some policies between now and then. I am sure that everyone in the House wishes them good luck in that endeavour.
The unemployment figures released last month by the Office for National Statistics made grim reading. It is disappointing that the Minister failed fully to face up to the scale of the problems that we are presented with. In the last quarter to August, there was a rise of 164,000 in the number of jobless on the internationally comparative basis that the Labour party used when it was in opposition. The unemployment level was 1.7 million and, as the Minister said, the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance increased by 32,000 in September—the eighth consecutive monthly rise and the highest figure for almost two years. The dole queues are lengthening by more than 1,000 people a day. The Minister’s remarks suggest that there is a great deal of complacency in the Government’s approach: saying, “So far, so good”, is not a conclusion that I would agree with.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could explain why his party is so opposed to additional borrowing when it is clear that it will provide additional jobs. It is absurd to say that the Government are being complacent in undertaking that borrowing, and it explains why we are hearing words such as “doom and gloom”, which is exactly the image that the Conservatives project when they suggest that we should not borrow because they do not want job opportunities to be created for people in this country.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor have acknowledged that in a recession the automatic stabilisers in the economy mean that borrowing will rise. However, they oppose a programme of deliberately spending money on public works programmes and putting up taxes. As my right hon. Friend said earlier today, the Prime Minister himself said at a Labour conference that one does not build the new Jerusalem on a huge debt burden. Spending a fortune and racking up debt that our future generations will have to repay is not a very sound economic policy, nor is it one that will be successful.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that job creation is not simply about public spending but about easing the burden on small businesses, which are the real job creators? The policies being followed by the Government are making it much more difficult for small businesses to do that. If we are going to find ways of re-channelling those who are unemployed, there must be a good, strong small business sector.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Businesses, particularly small businesses, are the engines of job growth. The Government should focus on allowing good businesses to succeed, perhaps by adopting some of our sensible insolvency proposals, and supporting small businesses instead of increasing borrowing and taxing them, which will drive jobs out of the economy rather than into it.
In response to the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), I should point out that it is not the Conservatives who are the doom and gloom merchants. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said at Prime Minister’s questions, the European Commission has pointed out that unemployment is set to soar to 7.1 per cent. as Britain suffers the longest and deepest recession of the EU’s big economies. The Commission’s outlook for Britain is particularly bleak, with a Budget deficit and a forecast of spiralling debt as the national economy contracts at its fastest rate since 1992. Reading forecasts by the European Commission is not being a doom and gloom merchant—it is recognising the world as it is rather than the parallel universe that Ministers sometimes seem to inhabit.
I do not want to score any cheap points, but I wonder what the hon. Gentleman’s solution is. Is it to go back to where we were under the previous Administration, when unemployment was seen as a good price to pay while we waited for the markets to right themselves? We are offering a solution to the problems that we face and having real concern about people’s jobs and opportunities, whereas the Conservatives are telling us to take no action and wait for the markets to re-regulate themselves. About 3 million to 4 million people would be unemployed by the time that the markets righted themselves. Does he think that that is the right price to pay?
That is a helpful intervention, but as I have been speaking for only seven minutes I have not got to our policies on welfare reform. When the hon. Lady has listened to that, she will be welcome to intervene on me again if she has any questions. No one in this House, certainly on our side, is proposing that the Government sit and do nothing, but we think that they should take the right action rather than the wrong action.
When the hon. Gentleman was challenged by my hon. Friend the Minister, he said that he had not seen some of the Government’s proposals and was unable to comment on them. On the right or the wrong action, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) said at his party conference—I can provide the website connection for the hon. Gentleman if he wants—that the Conservatives would cut the Train to Gain budget by £1 billion and use it for inheritance tax. We have readjusted Train to Gain to help small businesses. Does the hon. Gentleman support Train to Gain or changes to inheritance tax, or does he agree with the CBI, which was aghast at those proposals?
As the hon. Gentleman should know, my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) did not suggest that we use those savings to pay for changes to inheritance tax. I am surprised that the Minister did not mention the proposals that the Government have announced on the £100 million and the £350 million. When challenged on those, the Under-Secretary had to acknowledge that there was no new money—it was already in the Train to Gain budget and was being re-focused and re-prioritised.
The hon. Gentleman can send it.
Ministers have repeatedly fallen back on optimistic assertions about their welfare and employment record, and we heard the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) do that today, when she claimed that Britain had record employment. The Secretary of State said, as recently as 7 October, that the employment rate of 74.3 per cent. under this Government was
“the highest employment level that had ever been achieved in this country”.—[Official Report, 7 October 2008; Vol. 480, c. 205.]
As my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) said when he challenged the Secretary of State during the last Work and Pensions questions, Ministers need to take a long, hard look at the figures that they present to the House. According to the Library, the rate of employment is below what it was in the late ’80s, and lower than it was in the 1970s. According to the Office for National Statistics, only 300,000 more British-born people are in work today than in 1997—not very impressive after those years of growth.
Why does the Under-Secretary think that employment among British people has fallen by more than 350,000 in the past two years while employment among migrant workers has risen by nearly 1 million? When that point was made to the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Harrow, East, he had no answer. The real position is very different from that set out by the Under-Secretary today. If we count unemployment using the accepted international measure—the International Labour Organisation measure—Labour has cut unemployment by just under 300,000 during their 11 years in office. Unemployment fell faster between 1992 and 1997 than it did during the 10 years since 1997.
In reality, the Government have built their employment record on the back of migrant labour. The number of British-born people in work has fallen by 365,000 in the last three years, and during the same period the number of migrant workers finding employment in Britain has risen by 865,000. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said:
“Time and time again Labour Ministers boast about their employment record and the jobs they have created in the last 10 years. The reality is that employment of British people has been falling for years. Gordon Brown’s failure to address underlying problems with employment and skills will make recent rises in unemployment more difficult to tackle.”
I am simply citing the figures.
The Minister with responsibility for employment and welfare reform, the right hon. Member for Harrow, East, could not answer the question at oral questions. The question was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell, and the Minister cast doubt on the veracity of the figures. He said at oral questions:
“I am looking to see precisely how the 365 and 865 figures were reached…It appears that the definition of working activity is being played around with, as is the definition of a UK national and a foreign national. That is how those figures are reached. When I am clear about the provenance of the figures, however, I will get back to the hon. Gentleman.” —[Official Report, 20 October 2008; Vol. 481, c. 4.]
My hon. Friend is still waiting for an answer, and perhaps when the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), makes his winding-up speech he will clarify whether the figures are accurate, or perhaps tell us what they actually are. They paint a revealing picture of Labour failure. Ministers constantly repeat how they have created 3 million new jobs, but forget to mention that up to 80 per cent. of those have gone to migrant workers.
I am a little concerned at the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s argument, which appears to be in favour of restrictive practices to prevent the arrival of foreign workers in our country, who are required for a competitive economy. If that is what he is drifting towards, has he run his thoughts past any industrialist in the UK to test their reaction to such policies?
I have two points in response to that. First, I mentioned the figure because at a time when we have seen growth in the number of migrant workers getting jobs, we still have, as the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Burnley, acknowledged, nearly 5 million British-born people on out-of-work benefits, and we want to ensure that they can share in economic growth. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman is a little behind the curve. If he had listened to what the Minister for Borders and Immigration said, he would have noted that it is the Government’s policy to restrict the number of people coming into this country, but it is simply the case that their policies to date have not worked.
That may be his view, and he is perfectly entitled to it, but it is not the view of the Government. His right hon. and hon. Friends have a different view from him, and as far as direction of travel is concerned, they want to achieve what we want to achieve.
The Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Burnley, spent a fair amount of time on child poverty. Child poverty is up for the second year in a row, rising in the last two years by 200,000, and it is the same now as it was in 2002. The UK has a higher proportion of children living in workless households than any other EU country. I noticed that the Under-Secretary referred to the Government’s 2020 target, but she did not mention their 2010 target to halve child poverty. She and I had an exchange on this matter at oral questions a short while ago, and I challenged her to say whether the Government were going to hit the target. She failed to answer on that occasion, and I would be grateful if the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford told us, when he makes his winding-up speech, whether the Government are likely to hit their 2010 child poverty target.
The hon. Gentleman will notice from my remarks that we still have a very poor record compared with the rest of Europe, after 10 years of economic growth. It is interesting to note how many Labour Members spend all their time looking at the past, rather than focusing, as we are, on the future. They have been in government for 11 years—it is interesting to note, on a day like today, when we acknowledge the tremendous achievement of Senator Obama, that that is 50 per cent. longer than an American President is allowed to serve. After 11 years, they have not made a great deal of progress, and things are going into reverse.
The Government’s record on welfare reform and getting people into work is not as rosy as the Minister would like us to believe. It is worth reflecting on the current state of play and the challenges that we face. After 11 years in power, Labour’s record on welfare reform is disappointing, to say the least. It was Tony Blair who said, as far back as 1995, that welfare reform would be
“one of the fundamental objectives”
of a future Labour Government. He boldly professed that he was
“the only one with the will to do it”,
and that it would take a Labour Prime Minister radically to reshape the welfare state. When we look at the facts, we find it clear that that rhetoric has not been translated into effective policy. The figures for the number of people claiming out-of-work benefits make for bleak reading. There are still 2.6 million people claiming incapacity benefit, a figure that has stayed broadly the same during the period in which the Government have been in power. The number of people claiming for more than five years is higher than it was 10 years ago, and it continues to rise. About half a million people—almost one in five of those incapacity claimants—are under 35.
As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has said on many occasions:
“the growth in the number of new jobs and the impact of Labour’s welfare reforms should have reduced the total of worklessness by record levels. The opposite is sadly true.”
The Government’s failure to deliver the promised change is all the more a missed opportunity now that the economic situation has darkened. Delivering real welfare reform would have been somewhat easier in a steadily growing economy rather than in one heading into a sharp recession. At a time when such matters are so important, it is important that Ministers are focused on the job in hand. Unfortunately, three of the six Ministers in the Department are effectively only part time. The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Harrow, East, who is responsible for employment and welfare reform, doubles up as Minister of London. The other Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), who is responsible for pensions, doubles up as Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber, and the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford who, as well as being responsible for disabled people, doubles up as the Minister for the South East. Given that they all have two jobs, they are either 100 per cent. focused on their jobs in this Department, and focused on the challenges of work and welfare reform, while neglecting their regional duties, or they are spending time on regional duties when they should be focused on ensuring that those thrown out of work as the recession deepens are the centre of their priorities. It is disappointing to have part-time Ministers at a time of full-time challenge.
I want to challenge one or two points that the Under-Secretary made in her opening remarks. She mentioned the performance of the Government’s new deal. Again, it is worth quoting the former Minister for welfare reform, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, who described the performance of the Government’s new deal for young people as “woeful” and, more recently, as a “calamity”. It is also worth remembering that the new deal is a revolving door back to benefits. Half all young jobseekers who leave the new deal for young people are back on benefits in a year, and 75 per cent. of new jobseeker’s allowance claims are made by people who have claimed previously. Half those repeat claimants spend more time on benefit than in work, and 500,000 new claimants have spent at least three quarters of the past two years claiming benefits. The system has not been successful in getting people into long-term, sustainable employment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell raised the manipulation of statistics in a recent debate in the House and pointed out that young people who claim jobseeker’s allowance for six months, and over-25s who claim for more than 18 months, are automatically referred to the new deal. If they fail to find a job initially, they are referred to a period of mandatory activity, moved off jobseeker’s allowance on to a training allowance and removed from the Government’s official claimant count. At any one time, around 40,000 people are hidden in that way. If they were included in current figures, the genuine claimant count would exceed 980,000.
Approximately one in three people who leave the new deal return straight to benefits. At that point, they rejoin the claimant count, their previous claim is wiped clean and they appear to have only just become unemployed. Under the Government’s current system, it is possible to be unemployed for more than two years, but for it to appear as though a claimant has been on benefit for only two days. That obscures the true picture.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised the point because it gives me the opportunity to ask for some clarification. First, did not the Conservative Government introduce the system in 1995? We are simply operating under the rules that that Government introduced. Secondly, there is an enormous difference between a system that keeps people near the job market and makes no attempt to disguise what is happening, and the Conservative party’s policy of moving people away from the labour market and on to incapacity benefit.
I shall deal with our proposals on welfare reform shortly. However, the new deal is the Government’s programme. They have been in power for 11 years, and Ministers must learn to take responsibility for the things that they have done. Trying to pretend, after 11 years in power, that every ill in the world can be laid at the door of the previous Conservative Government is not credible.
My hon. Friend is making a superb speech, highlighting the flaws in the Government’s argument. Will he reinforce the point that we should look forward to change and improved welfare and job opportunities? We do not want to go back to the 1990s or earlier because that is history. We are talking about now and ensuring that there are better opportunities for all people, so that they can be in work, with their welfare looked after when they are not, but with the opportunity to get back into jobs.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It might help if the Under-Secretary confirms in his winding-up speech whether the Government hold to the claim that they have abolished long-term unemployment. They made such a claim in the past, but failed to confirm it more recently.
Given that we have a huge problem to fix, now combined with the more challenging economic climate, we are pleased that the Government have followed our lead and adopted many of the proposals that we published in January in their Green Paper, which they published in the summer. I agree with the Under-Secretary that, with the downturn in the economy, there is an even stronger case for providing the right support to get people into work or back into work. Most people on benefits can and want to work, but, in many cases, they need the right support to do that.
Last week, I visited the very good NeuroMuscular Centre at Winsford, which does an excellent job in providing physiotherapy and rehabilitation for those with neuro-muscular diseases, such as muscular dystrophy. One of its powerful achievements is that 100 per cent. of people who use its services are able to stay out of hospital and more than 80 per cent. are able to stay in paid employment. That is a good example of an organisation that provides the right practical support to help people stay in work, even when they have long-term health conditions or other disabilities.
There is consensus between the parties about the direction of welfare reform, but there needs to be a greater sense of urgency and ambition in implementing the Freud proposals in full. Although we are pleased that the Government have accepted that using the expertise in the private and voluntary sector is effective in getting people into work, they have not matched our commitment to fund that properly.
David Freud, who was, stopped being and is again an adviser to the Government on welfare policy, said that the major ingredient necessary for welfare reform to work was to change the DEL-AME—departmental expenditure limits-annually managed expenditure—rules. That may sound obscure, but in English, it means using the savings one makes from getting people off benefit and into work to help fund programmes to provide support. One can therefore have the ambition of helping everybody—rather than only a few—who is on an out-of-work benefit. David Freud, the Government’s adviser, said that that was the single most important item necessary to make the proposals work.
Perhaps the Under-Secretary will explain in his winding-up speech why the best that the Government have devised so far is a limited programme of a few pilot schemes. After the previous Budget, hidden away on page 60 of the Red Book—the hon. Member for Burnley will be familiar with that, given that she has been a Treasury Minister—is a commitment only to “explore” implementing David Freud’s proposals in full. The Under-Secretary acknowledged that we are facing a difficult economic position, when we need to extend help and support. It is a time for not exploring but implementing ideas and delivering help and support to people who need it.
I support my hon. Friend’s comments. Earlier, I asked the Under-Secretary about Government plans, in the event of rapidly rising unemployment in the future and given the economic downturn, to adjust the budget for the flexible new deal because more people would need the sort of support that the programme involves. That was a golden opportunity for her—I offered her an easy lob—to say that the Government’s budget could be flexible if they adopted the Conservative party’s proposal, which they have already agreed to examine, simply because the budget would automatically rise pro rata as the unemployment benefits bill rose in the downturn.
The Under-Secretary knows that, during the Budget, the Secretary of State made it clear that he agrees with David Freud and wants to implement the report. Unfortunately, the look on the face of the Chancellor of the Exchequer demonstrated that, yet again, the Treasury is blocking the proposal.
Let me finish my point. The Red Book makes it clear that the Government will only explore the ideas. Given that the economy is contracting, that next year we will experience negative growth in every quarter, that 164,000 people have lost their jobs in the last quarter and that the position will get worse, it is a time for stepping up the help and support that we need to provide. That will not be done unless the funding is in place. When will the Government accept David Freud’s recommendations to allow benefit savings to be used in full to help fund the necessary support?
Let me make it clear that “explore” means pilots. Is the hon. Gentleman interpreting Government policy through a look on a Treasury colleague’s face? That is rather odd, or perhaps he has hidden talents. I emphasise that “explore” means pilots. That was the recommendation—how much clearer does he want us to make that?
The Secretary of State made it clear in the Budget debate that he wanted to move much faster. It is clear from the Red Book that he has been blocked from doing so by the Treasury. If the Minister is comfortable with the scale of the help and support that the Government will be able to provide in the recession, that shows a worrying complacency. Both he and his hon. Friends will regret that lack of ambition and the fact that the Government are not moving fast enough to make the proposal work.
Another crucial issue for getting people into work will be adopting the right commissioning strategy for welfare programmes. The current approach appears to be tilting the balance in favour of larger volume providers, at the expense of those smaller, specialist providers, who help some of those furthest from the labour market. That is a cause for concern. The Government need to think again and ensure that the most vulnerable are not parked to one side or ignored by providers. We need to refocus our efforts on what is best for the thousands of people who need our help to get into work and give them the support that they need, rather than risk the silo approach of having a small number of excessively large providers.
The Social Market Foundation recently published a comprehensive report into the issue, which said that “it is unlikely that” the flexible new deal
“will deliver the kind of step-change in performance that the government hopes for. The new programme is therefore in danger of failing to live up to its theoretical potential.”
The Social Market Foundation worked closely with the Department on its report. It is therefore disappointing that, instead of taking the report’s warnings seriously, the Department’s representative tried to rubbish it at a recent conference. The Government should pay attention to such concerns. Indeed, those bidding for such contracts or thinking of doing so have expressed many concerns to the Government, which they should take seriously.
Before I finish, I want to ask the Minister one or two questions that he can perhaps respond to when he winds up. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell recently met the Terence Higgins Trust, which raised concerns about the review of the special rules for those with HIV. The special rule benefits were introduced at a time when contracting HIV was expected to lead to rapid death. Owing to very welcome medical advances, however, some people have been on such benefits for a decade or more.
As a result of the special rules review, one in five people with HIV on such benefits have had their award removed and one in three have had it reduced and are expected to return to the workplace. That is absolutely right, but the Terence Higgins Trust is concerned that the support for such people to return to work is not adequate, as they have been moved on to jobseeker’s allowance only and are not receiving the proper help that they require. It would therefore be helpful if the Minister explained what support those people, who have been out of the workplace for perhaps a decade or more and who are coping with a highly stigmatised condition that requires ongoing medical treatment, will receive to return to work.
I want briefly to touch on the employment and support allowance, which the Minister mentioned in her opening speech and which I debated with the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford in a Committee considering the regulations. We agree with the broad thrust of the employment and support allowance. I thank him for writing to the Chairman of that Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), to address some of the issues raised that he did not have time to deal with in Committee. As he said, the previous system focused too much on what people could not do, as opposed to what they can do. We welcome that change.
Unfortunately, however, we are concerned that ESA does not live up to the reassurances that we were given. The Government have broken their promises on the ESA rates, which are lower than they promised. We raised concerns that the system favours people with fewer national insurance contributions and penalises those who have worked—that is, those on the contribution-based ESA, rather than the income-based ESA. The Minister acknowledged that problem in his letter to the Committee, but said that it applied only to relatively small numbers of people. It might therefore be helpful if he said how many people, of those going on to ESA, he expects to be on the contribution-based ESA and on the income-based ESA.
I tabled a written question, which was due for answer on 17 October, to ask
“whether the Disability and Work Division’s Employment and Support Allowance design team has undertaken an impact assessment”
into the introduction of that benefit. Despite receiving a holding answer, I am still awaiting the substantive answer. Perhaps the Minister will take this opportunity to prod his officials into action, unless of course the answer is awaiting his approval. I also tabled a further question for the Secretary of State, to which an answer was due on 10 September, to ask
“from which part of his Department’s budget”
the very welcome increase in the access to work budget would be drawn. A holding answer has been received, but a substantive answer, nearly two months later, has not. I should therefore be grateful if the Minister chased that up.
In conclusion, as we enter stormy economic waters, work and welfare policy will become ever more pressing. The Government’s record on welfare reform has been characterised more by disappointment than by real reform. Many thousands of people will look to the Government for the right support in getting into or returning to work. Should the Government look to accelerate the implementation of the Freud proposals, with that change to the DEL-AME rules, so that the benefit savings can be used to help people get into work sooner rather than later, we will support them. It would have been a lot easier to reform the welfare system in the good years, but that opportunity was squandered. It will be more difficult to do so now that we face difficult economic times. However, I agree with the Minister that it is hugely important that we do so.
This is the second day this week that I have had the pleasure of following the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper). On this occasion, however, I suspect that there will be less agreement than there was in Westminster Hall yesterday.
I welcome this afternoon’s debate, which gives us an opportunity to discuss various issues, not least the Green Paper, which has been referred to already, as well as support for lone parents, policies for tackling child poverty, and support for disabled people. My focus will be on policies to support disabled people. I therefore first welcome to his post the new Minister responsible for disabled people, who very kindly came to the all-party group on disability soon after his appointment. I am sure that we will continue to have good relations with him.
Let me also express not only my profound thanks, but those of the House and the wider community, to my hon. Friend’s predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire). I notice that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean referred to the latest issue of Disability Now at the start of his speech in order to make a comment—and not a very helpful one—about the new Liberal Democrat disability spokesperson. The same edition devotes a whole page to quotations from members of the disability movement congratulating and thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling on her work. The former chair of the Disability Rights Commission said of my hon. Friend:
“She was a smashing minister who did a lot for disabled people…She understood the disability movement and the importance of human rights and independent living.”
I, too, wish to place on record my thanks for her sterling work during her period in office.
I have no doubt that improving opportunities for employment for disabled people who are able to work is the best route out of poverty. That is why policies to secure full employment, a decent national minimum wage, the new deal, pathways to work and all other such policies are central to providing opportunities for disabled people. Why do one in three disabled adults of working age live in poverty? It is because half of them are unemployed, while those not in employment receive benefits that are simply too low. If we are honest, we will accept that they are in receipt of benefit income that is below the poverty level.
Progress has been made on the employment front, so I am genuinely surprised to hear the assertion that nothing has happened over the past 11 years. That is nonsense. Some 10 per cent. more disabled people of working age are now in employment. That has happened for the simple reason that we have had record employment growth and specific programmes to support disabled people into work and legislation to outlaw discrimination in the labour market. My view is that the successful economy and specific programmes have been by far the most effective. There have been changing attitudes among employers, too, and that should be welcomed.
The fact that 10 per cent. more disabled people of working age are in employment is progress, but clearly much more needs to be done. For example, the employment rate among people with mental health conditions is not 50 per cent., but only 20 per cent. For people with learning disabilities, it is 25 per cent. An important challenge that we face is to increase employment among those groups of disabled people. To address their needs, specialist and individual support is clearly required. We have all said that many times. That is why I warmly welcome the direction taken by the Green Paper. No one should be written off, and we should all support the thrust of the Green Paper.
I am, of course, delighted that funding for the access to work scheme has been doubled, finally. It will go up from £69 million per annum to £138 million by 2013. That is not quite as ambitious a change as I had in mind, but it is a significant increase and it is far better than the £15 million available under the previous Government. It is not what people say but what they do that matters in politics. Once that £138 million is spent yearly on the scheme, it will enable another 48,000 disabled people every year to enter and remain in employment by providing payments for the purchase of reasonable adjustments.
Along with many others, inside and outside the House, I have been calling for a substantial increase in that funding for many years. With the House’s indulgence, I should like to repeat the reason why it is a good thing to support disabled people into work. As the Department for Work and Pensions confirms, for every £1 million that is spent on enabling access to work, the Treasury gets £1.7 million. It is a no-brainer. At some stage I would be interested to hear whether we are not aiming for more than £138 million a year because there is no need for more money, or whether somebody has not realised that getting a £1.7 million return on a £1 million investment is one of the better deals at the moment.
We can move in the right direction and do good things; the access to work scheme is a good programme which I have seen in operation. I have had constituents who have benefited from it and it is outstandingly important. It is a win-win situation in every case. I would have thought that the amount of money available could be even higher. At some stage, I would like to know why we have to wait until 2013. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will no doubt answer that question when he responds. I support what is happening, but we could do things quicker.
We also need to ensure that employers are aware of the scheme—the Green Paper refers to this problem. Five or 10 years ago, it used to be said that the access to work programme was a closely guarded secret. Virtually no small employers knew about it, and about a third of large employers had heard of it. The implicit fear was that if more people knew about it, too many people might apply. I do not think that that is the case now. I would be pleased to get reassurance on that point.
Let me give an example. RADAR—the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation—estimates than only a quarter of employers know about the programme. It is a very important way of reducing discrimination by employers who might be worried about the additional costs of employing a disabled person. It is a critical programme: please, please can it have as much money and as much publicity as possible? [Interruption.] That statement is only slightly off message. We are talking about millions, not billions. If my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), the Whip, tempts me, I could be a bit off message later when we get to the economy. In all seriousness, can we do the best that we can with the programme?
I am not entirely happy that the Government argued in the recent debate that blind people could not be allowed access to disability living allowance higher-rate mobility allowance because the money was going to the access to work scheme. I was not impressed by that argument. Many of us were at the Royal National Institute of Blind People lobby, where constituents and others told us that people with sight impairments felt that they could not afford to leave their homes, faced considerable taxi costs and wanted to have independence but felt that they could not afford it. People with serious sight impairments should have access to the higher-rate mobility component of DLA. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give a positive response to that, too. It was quite disappointing that the extra funding for the access to work scheme was invoked as a reason why such a provision might not be affordable. That is not good enough for a Government who have otherwise made enormous progress in relation to disabled people and disability rights.
As I am talking about people who want to live independently, let me move on to some points on chapter 5 of the Green Paper, which is about delivering choice and control to disabled people. It is frequently said that with rights come responsibilities, but it is also true that with responsibilities come rights. If more is being asked of disabled people in making personal efforts to secure work, their right to support should be regarded as of equal strength.
In my view, rights to independent living are a prerequisite for successful welfare reform; they are not just an add-on that might come later. The Government’s independent living strategy defines independent living in the following familiar terms, saying it should mean
“disabled people having the same choice, control and freedom as any other citizen—at home, at work, and as members of the community.”
The Government’s strategy welcomed the principles of the Disabled Persons (Independent Living) Bill, introduced by my noble Friend Lord Ashley, which was passed in the other place. They welcomed and supported its principles, but have so far resisted encouragement to legislate on independent living and specifically to legislate so that disabled people have greater choice and control over their lives, particularly when it comes to individual budgets that could be used to support their social care needs, housing needs and so on.
Independent living should not be regarded as an add-on to the welfare reform programme. If people cannot get to work because of the transport system or the costs of transport, cannot live in decent accommodation, and cannot get the support of personal assistants or whatever else makes their life better—
I shall ask the Minister that question without repeating it. I have had constituents in precisely that situation, too. It is part of the general point that with responsibilities come rights. If someone is prepared to go to an interview to discuss work, to take up more training or to try out a work placement, that is the responsible thing to do, but unless that person has the right to access decent transport, proper support in the community and all the other things that people with disabilities or ill health require to do their day-to-day business that other people do not require, a significant extra burden is placed on them.
We all know that, sadly, despite significant extra funding going in to social care in this country, needs are not being met. More than 70 per cent. of English local authorities restrict access to support to just those who meet the highest eligibility criteria. We all have constituents who should receive support in the form of social care, but who find it difficult to access. Some are denied it by rising charges. That is a long-standing problem, which has been recognised in the Government’s independent living strategy, by the Commission for Social Care Inspection, by the Local Government Association and many others. Some needs that should be met so that disabled people and others can participate equally in society are not being met. In addition, hon. Members will need no explanation, but the present system of social care is also appallingly bureaucratic, wasteful and inefficient. There are also inconsistencies between local authorities, which gives rise to an important issue for employment.
Each local authority can set up its own system of support and its own care package for individual residents. Those packages are not portable from one local authority to another. One can get assessed for a care package in Lambeth, but if one were to move to Southwark to be nearer a place of work or closer to family and friends, one would have to be assessed all over again. If we are talking about people’s responsible behaviour, we also need to talk about their rights. How on earth can it make sense for care packages to be reassessed simply because people have moved from one local authority to another? I hope that the Government will legislate to make care packages portable as quickly as possible. Without that, it will be much more difficult for people to consider moving in order to secure employment. The right to independent living should therefore be a prerequisite to successful welfare reform. As I say, people cannot be expected to find and sustain a job without an adequate support package that gives them the necessary freedom and choice.
Let me move on to the role of the private and voluntary sectors. I welcome the Green Paper’s focus on outcomes—its view that in supporting individuals into sustained employment, the important thing is the outcome rather than the organisations that happen to provide that support. Many voluntary sector organisations—Mencap and many others—provide excellent support for disabled people, not least in their efforts to secure employment. I have no difficulty at all in saying that job centres cannot do everything today, as it is obviously true. I wish they could do more, but they cannot do everything. There is expertise in the voluntary and private sectors and it is right for the Government to harness it in order to give disabled people the support they need to secure employment.
I, too, however, have concerns about the contracts and I would certainly like some reassurance from the Minister that the contracting mechanism will ensure the desired outcome and not just support those closest to the labour market. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean raised that point earlier; I do not like phrases such as cherry picking, but it is one that people use, even in this context. The Government must have firm control over contractual arrangements to ensure that we get the best result from taxpayers’ money. We are increasingly having to support people who are a fair distance away from the labour market; they should not be left behind in the process.
I have a couple of concerns about the Green Paper. The gateway under the work capability assessment is tightening. The Department has mentioned a possible 10 per cent. increase in disallowance. I am concerned that the former incapacity benefit regime, which was widely described, including by Ministers, as one of the tightest regimes in Europe in its gateway and for jumping through the hoops, is to be tightened even further. I would appreciate the Minister’s confirmation that I have completely misunderstood that and that there is no question whatever of the new gateway being tighter.
I would also like an assurance that no one will be on a lesser benefit under the new regime than under the old one. Having looked at the numbers and having passed some of them to the Department—the Disability Benefits Consortium has produced some detailed work—I do not think that that is strictly true. A couple of years ago, we were told that employment support allowance rates would be set above the long-term incapacity benefit rate, which implied that nobody could possibly be worse off. I repeat that I would like an assurance that I have completely misunderstood the position and that I am out of my depth on it. I hope I am wrong, because we are talking about people on low incomes, living in poverty. Making them worse off would be unacceptable.
It is said that we are all Keynesians now. It is not true, not least because, sadly, not many people have read what the learned gentleman—and liberal—said. Rising unemployment significantly changes the context of welfare reform. It is not only about putting more effort into supporting people into work, as it is about running the economy at the macro level. I have to confess—no, I am proud of it, so I am not confessing—that I believe that Keynes and many others of his generation were absolutely right that when in a recession we should not simply use fiscal policy to drift into a slightly higher deficit in order to accommodate changes, which I believe to be the Opposition’s position. If we want to get out of the recession, we should rather allow the deficit to rise as a matter of policy, either through higher public spending and/or lower taxation.
It was once said that we cannot spend our way out of a recession, but if anyone can tell me how to get out of a recession without more spending, I will buy them a very good present. Extra spending has to come from somewhere: it might come from exports; it might come from consumption or private investment; otherwise, it has to come from the Government. If this lesson has not been learned—throughout the world—we face an even bigger problem than I thought.
I say genuinely that we must ensure not only that disabled people have skills to secure available jobs, but that more jobs are available, which requires a proactive policy. That is precisely what the Government have argued—that they will bring forward capital projects and look at ways of helping the economy out of a recession. I happen to agree that many of today’s programmes could be targeted for extra resources. One of the great virtues of increasing opportunities, either through employment or benefit payments, is that they go through to people on lower incomes, who by and large tend to spend the money. Having tax cuts for the rich is not a very clever way of trying to boost the economy during a recession.
In conclusion, I strongly support the Government’s proposals to increase opportunities for education, training and employment for disabled people. The Government have made very significant progress over recent years, and I repeat that that is the reason why fewer disabled people of working age are unemployed than was the case previously. We need to look further into having a more generous in-work and out-of-work benefit system and we need to simplify it in order to increase take-up. Most of all, we need to make rapid progress on independent living. That is necessary if—as is the aspiration of the Government and, I hope, of us all—disabled people are to have the same choice, control and freedom over their lives as other citizens.
The hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) made some valid and interesting points, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to them.
We have recently had several debates on similar subjects, and unfortunately I think we are likely to have many more over the coming months and years. I wish to focus today on the measures that are needed to help people to get back into work and the barriers that are stopping that happening. Members know of the multitude of problems that there are in the job market at present so I shall not rehearse them all, but it is clear that the effects of the credit crunch are starting to take hold in the real economy: we have rising unemployment figures and, most worryingly in terms of this debate, the number of vacancies is now just over 600,000, which is a drop of 40,000 from the previous quarter. That is a significant decrease, and it is a worrying sign for those trying to get off welfare and into work.
There is also an underlying problem with worklessness, which Labour has not tackled effectively enough over the past 11 years. In some groups, worklessness has even increased under a Labour Government. For example, almost 1.3 million young people aged between 16 and 24 are not in work or full-time education. That is 19 per cent. more than in 1997. That, too, is a worrying sign.
David Freud’s report highlighted the importance of early intervention in helping people into work, and the need to tackle issues at an early stage. To their credit, the Government seem to recognise this. They have included in the Green Paper a proposal to fast-track to the supported job search stage those with a history of long-term unemployment and 18-year-olds who are not in education, employment or training. Government figures show that 38 per cent. of people who have spent 12 months on jobseeker’s allowance expect never to work again, and the longer people are on benefits the more likely they are to think they are not going to work. That is a destructive cycle, so early intervention is crucial, particularly in supporting those who are the hardest to get back into work. Early intervention can help to tackle issues such as intergenerational poverty, serious skills shortages, alcohol or drug dependency or mental health problems. Leaving people with such problems sitting on benefits for months and months before anything is done is completely counter-productive and a total waste of their talent.
We also know that delaying intervention can cause serious problems for people who later try to get into work. However, although the Government appear to know that, the Green Paper sets out a rigid programme for the stages at which interventions can happen, and the flexible new deal will allow tailored support of a more specific nature only after someone has been on benefits for 12 months. That is a long time for people to be out of work before there is an attempt to tackle the problem. I also understand that six months will pass before they are offered basic job search support if they have not already been able to get into work.
Evidence on the new deal points to declining performance. There has been a significant drop in the proportion of people getting into immediate employment at the end of programmes. That is the case for all the programmes, but it is worse in some than in others. More than half those on the new deal for young people went into immediate employment in 1998, but the proportion is now less than a third. In 2001, more than one third of those on the new deal for lone parents got into immediate employment, whereas the proportion now is less than one in seven. This is a worrying indication of what is happening in the job market, and I am concerned that it will be even worse for young people in future. Whereas in the past a young person would go on to the new deal for young people after six months, after April they will no longer be entitled to access that support then; they will have to wait until November, when they will have been out of work for 12 months, before they are entitled to access that support. That is a counter-productive move, and I would like the Minister to clarify what will be done to make sure we do not waste the talents of those people as they are sitting on benefits waiting for the support they need to get back into work.
The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) mentioned the sustainability of jobs. There is an emphasis in the welfare reform Green Paper on getting people off benefits and into work as soon as possible. That is generally a positive thing, of course. However, the Government figures show a churn of 25 per cent. One in four people who move off JSA are back on it again within three months, and, according to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs figures, four out of 10 are back on JSA within six months. There are clearly underlying issues preventing those people from being able to access sustainable employment, and I believe that early intervention is the only way to identify and address the underlying causes that are stopping people getting sustainable jobs and helping themselves out of poverty. The churn of people going in and out of work does not do any good, especially for children. When I was a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, we heard some interesting evidence on the effect on children’s aspirations of their parents going in and out of work on a regular basis. The Government must tackle that.
Under the Government’s proposals in the Green Paper, it is unclear how people who pass in and out of work will fit into the timetable. Will they, for example, be expected to go back to six months of self-help at the beginning, when they sign on to JSA for the second, third or fourth time? Will that be the case even if it is clear to the personal adviser that they have serious skills shortages or there are other underlying issues that need to be tackled to enable that person to stay in a sustainable job? If that does not get taken into account, we will not be able to reduce the number of people stuck in this cycle, going in and out of work.
I take on board the hon. Lady’s point about the importance of timing the intervention correctly. However, does she agree that just doing that is not enough, and when the intervention comes it may be necessary to have a different scale of intervention for people who have multiple barriers between themselves and the job market? There is great concern that the Government’s proposals offer a flat-rate budget for each jobseeker regardless of the scale of the difficulties they face. Many countries—such as Holland, which the hon. Lady visited when she was a member of the Committee—have a greater variety of measures and a sliding-scale budget that can be applied to match different people’s requirements and to overcome the different barriers they face.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point to which I shall turn later, because I agree that there are problems in how the Government are framing the contracts.
The hon. Gentleman also flags up the fact that there needs to be discretion at the level of the personal advisers, so they can identify when somebody has particularly complex needs and may require more than one intervention. Some of the decision making should be devolved to a lower level to enable the people who are involved with an individual to make the decisions that are best designed to get them back into work, rather than have a one-size-fits-all approach, which is a problem with the Government proposals.
Let me deal now with the commissioning process. The Work and Pensions Committee, of which the hon. Gentleman is still a member, recently took evidence from a range of organisations, including the Social Market Foundation, the Employment Related Services Association, A4e, Serco and the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations. I have also been talking to providers about issues concerning the commissioning process and the contracts the Government are putting forward. My understanding is that providers broadly agree that the Department’s funding model will not meet the Government’s objectives—for example, of delivering personalised support for all clients and involving specialist and third-sector providers. Members have raised the issue of the need for specialist providers to be able to offer support to those with specialist needs. That applies particularly to those who have physical difficulties or mental health issues, and that may present problems in terms of the contract.
Providers appear to be backing up the Social Market Foundation’s argument that the proposed funding model does not incentivise providers to support those who are furthest from the job market—the point just made by the hon. Gentleman. The Government’s estimate in the tendering process is to achieve a 55 per cent. employment rate at 13 weeks, so 55 per cent. of all those going through the process have to be in work for a minimum of three months before the provider gets the full payment. The SMF said in September that that was over-ambitious, and that was before the most recent figures, which show that unemployment for the three months to August has risen at the fastest rate for 17 years. That makes the target of 55 per cent. even less realistic than it was before; however, the Department has not revised the target rate of employment that it is expecting from providers, which gives rise to a number of concerns.
Another very important issue is that providers do not have confidence that the contracts for which they are bidding will be profitable. If the targets that the Department expects to be achieved are completely unrealistic, it will be very difficult for providers to achieve them, which could undermine the whole exercise. Providers could go bust in the middle of a contract because they are unable to sustain the work that they are doing on the money they are getting back from the Government; or they could pull out mid-contract simply because it is not financially viable and that is the only way to avoid going under.
We already know that the economy is in a worrying state. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development suggests that the worst is still to come and, according to most estimates, unemployment is going to rise significantly. In the last quarter, an average of 1,600 people were made redundant every day. That shows that the changes in the job market are rapid, which has the potential to undermine the involvement of the private and voluntary sectors. They will find it even harder to provide services if the contract is not based on a realistic funding model.
We also need to be realistic and honest about the prospects of those who are already furthest from the job market—the long-term unemployed, those on incapacity benefit, those with very low skills levels. As unemployment gets worse over the next months and years, those falling out of work as a result of the economic downturn are the people most likely to be able to get back into work when conditions improve. They will be closest to the job market, more likely to have up-to-date skills, and so on. If we are not careful, we will have the same people out of work by the end of this recession as we have now. It will be even harder for those already out of work to find jobs in a narrowing jobs market, so to deal with that issue it is absolutely crucial that the contracts and the funding model are right.
The contracts need to ensure that those who are currently unemployed can get back into work, and that they get the necessary support. That also means looking at those coming off incapacity benefit or employment and support allowance and going back into the jobs market, who will have additional needs. We need to ensure that the contracts take into account the additional needs of those who will be furthest away from work.
At the moment, providers are saying that there is no room in the budgets for which they are being asked to tender for medical support for people with minor mental health problems—those, for example, with an alcohol or drug problem, or who need cognitive behavioural therapy to help them back into work. As more and more people fall out of incapacity benefit or the ESA and on to jobseeker’s allowance instead, there will be a pool of people on JSA who will need such support; it will not just be people who are going through pathways to work. Because of the way in which the Government propose to draft the contracts, there is not enough headroom for providers to fund such support.
I turn now to an issue raised by the hon. Members for Kingswood and for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose). There is not enough money in the contracts to provide support for those furthest away from the job market and with the most complex needs. Because there is a flat rate, those closest to the job market will be the ones creamed off by providers, because they will be able to get them back into work. Given the contracting job market, it will be even more important that funding is available to tackle the really hard-to-reach people, in order to make it profitable for providers—in the private and voluntary sectors—to support those furthest from the job market in getting back into work. I should be grateful if, when he concludes the debate, the Minister said what the Department is doing to take into account the changing labour market conditions when they look at the contracts for the flexible new deal. If we do not take the changing circumstances into account, there could be a real problem in the next 12 months or so with the contracts that the Government intend to put out.
Finally, there is a knock-on impact on Jobcentre Plus. Many Members, from all parts of the House, have raised concerns about overstretch for Jobcentre Plus staff. A number of people are concerned that the Government’s stripping down of the Jobcentre Plus network and staff during times of economic prosperity is looking increasingly unsustainable. Since 2002, 491 Jobcentre Plus offices have closed and at least another 12 closures are planned in the foreseeable future. That is having a real impact on accessibility of staff and the services provided by Jobcentre Plus. That is particularly true of many rural areas, where it has become increasingly difficult for people to travel to their local jobcentre to access support services.
The DWP is also cutting significant numbers of staff: it has cut 30,000 jobs over the past three years, and a further 12,000 jobs are due to go over the next three years.
I absolutely do, but I should be grateful if the Minister clarified whether he is saying that every single one of the jobs lost over the past three years is based in Whitehall, rather than in jobcentres around the country. In the light of the 491 closures over the past six years, it is clear that plenty of front-line jobs have been lost in that figure of 30,000 figure, as well as back-office jobs.
As the claimant count is rising significantly, the work load of the remaining Jobcentre Plus staff is increasing dramatically. Between 2004 and 2008, there has been a 33 per cent. increase in the number of JSA claimants per full-time equivalent member of Jobcentre Plus staff. That is a massive increase in the burden of work that such staff are expected to do. If personal advisers are taking on increased work loads, it makes it much harder for them to give the personal support that individuals need to enable them to get back into work. The impact of these reductions is already being seen in the effect on claimants. For example, the number of outstanding JSA claims across the UK at the end of September had risen to 66,000—up from 42,000 in December 2004. That is a big increase in the number of people waiting for their claims to be decided. On the social fund, rising processing times for crisis loans have reached nearly two days, and there has been a 50 per cent. rise in crisis loan applications over the past year. Clearly, there is a massive increase in the Jobcentre Plus work load, and we should be concerned about the deteriorating economy’s impact on that issue.
The hon. Lady mentions delays. Does she share my concern at the fact that the recent average figure for processing new housing benefit claims—sadly, this applies to many people at the moment—is about 34 days? Does she, like me, want to see that improved?
Absolutely, and that is another example of how the economic downturn is having an impact across the whole range of services—Jobcentre Plus, councils—provided for people who are really struggling. That shows that the system is starting to creak. I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
I have another concern, which has been highlighted by previous speakers. The situation for Jobcentre Plus is likely to get significantly worse over the next 12 months, not just because of rising unemployment and the accompanying claimant numbers, but because of changes to other benefits that are also pushing more people on to jobseeker’s allowance.
The Minister mentioned both ESA and lone parent changes. On the ESA changes, the Government estimate that over the next year the number failing the work capability assessment and therefore moving on to JSA will be 60,000 and the number of lone parents being moved from income support to JSA will be 110,000. Thus, in addition to the estimated 30,000 a month newly unemployed, 170,000 people will be moved by Government policies on to JSA. That will clearly put an extra strain on the overstretched Jobcentre Plus.
I would be grateful if the Minister clarified what the Government are doing to examine Jobcentre Plus’s ability to absorb those extra people going on to JSA and to ensure that the support they need will be available to them. The Government need to examine the range of offices available, the number of staff available and the staff-to-claimant ratio, because they must ensure that that does not get too high.
Although the Government appear, in many ways, to be travelling in the right direction, they seem dead set on making the same mistakes that have been made before, and not only in the UK; they are not necessarily learning from international experience. My concerns focus particularly on the issues of delaying support, rather than introducing it right at the beginning; on the setting of targets for contracts that are not achievable and will cause the commissioning system not to work properly; and on not enough money being put into those contracts to ensure that those furthest from the job market are able to get jobs. I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to some of those issues. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, he is querying a lot of what I am saying, so I look forward to his response and to his giving us an idea of how he plans to ensure that the Government do not copy the mistakes made by the Conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s, because we cannot afford to write off another generation.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise issues relating to employment and unemployment in my constituency, and people with disabilities. I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) in welcoming the Minister responsible for disabled people to his post and in praising the former holder of that post, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), for her brilliant work with disabled organisations.
In 1997, unemployment in some of the inner wards in Burton upon Trent stood at 17 per cent.; the reduction in employment in the brewing industry in Burton had taken its toll. The town of Uttoxeter had still not recovered from the loss of more than 2,000 jobs in the early 1980s, when the local dairy and Bamfords agricultural machinery factory closed. More than 2,000 people were unemployed in my constituency in 1997, many of them long-term unemployed and young, but between 1997 and 2007, unemployment in my constituency decreased by well over 50 per cent.
Until the recent downturn, Government policies such as the new deal, more help for parents through tax credits and the provision of better advice and support through Jobcentre Plus had transformed the job situation and the hopes and opportunities of hard-working people. Unfortunately, the number of people claiming unemployment benefit in Burton has risen steeply. However, I understand from Jobcentre Plus that it is still receiving 20 to 30 vacancies per day. Companies are still choosing to relocate to my constituency because of our excellent work force and strategic position in the country. Although unemployment has risen, 81.7 per cent. of those claiming unemployment benefit in Burton have been doing so for less than six months, compared with 69.9 per cent. in the west midlands as a whole.
These are difficult times and the Government need to do everything possible to support those who lose their jobs, to ensure that they can be retrained and can regain employment as quickly as possible. I welcome the Government’s decision to endeavour to help small businesses to withstand the downturn by making the swift payment of invoices a priority; I hope that local authorities will do the same. I also welcome the Government’s action in encouraging the banks to open up credit facilities for small businesses.
I also welcome the Government’s decision to maintain spending and to bring forward capital projects where possible. That is crucial in order to stimulate the construction industry, save jobs and build homes that people need, as well as to continue to improve this country’s public infrastructure. It is far better to borrow to maintain jobs than to have the downward spiral that we experienced in the 1980s. One of the first companies to be hit by the global downturn, particularly the downturn in the construction industry, has been JCB, whose headquarters is at Rocester, in my constituency. JCB’s UK work force, who are mainly based in Staffordshire, had increased by 44 per cent., from 3,900 to 5,700, between December 2005 and December 2007. Sadly, JCB announced earlier this year that more than 500 workers would be made redundant because of the worldwide downturn.
I am grateful for the help and support offered at that time by agencies such as Jobcentre Plus, Advantage West Midlands and the Learning and Skills Council, and by voluntary bodies, such as the citizens advice bureaux. More recently, JCB announced the prospect of further redundancies or the alternative of a shorter working week and fewer redundancies. I congratulate the GMB and the work force on deciding to accept a cut in working hours and pay in order to protect jobs. It will be a hard time for JCB workers and their families, but we hope that the company can quickly increase production again if there is an upturn in the world economy. Indeed, since that decision was taken we heard good news; when the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, led a delegation to Russia, the announcement was made that JCB had secured a £23 million order to supply machines to help build the transport infrastructure for the 2014 winter Olympics. I also commend Advantage West Midlands, the LSC and other agencies for the work that they are doing to try to protect the 950 jobs at Fox’s Biscuits in Uttoxeter. The west midlands is fortunate in having the expertise to help businesses to improve their production and training, and the skills of their work force.
Brewing and pub companies remain extremely important employers in Burton upon Trent, in my constituency. There has been a gradual decline in the number of people employed in brewing and there are great pressures on the industry. It is important for all Departments to examine how they can help that traditional industry. I recently co-chaired an inquiry into community pubs on behalf of the all-party group on beer. Our report suggests sensible ways of helping the pub and brewing industry. We urge the Government to reconsider their policy on beer duty, and to examine how the rating system can reflect the benefits that pubs bring to local communities, the differential between pricing in the on-trade and the off-trade and how red tape can be reduced. We need the Government to give a positive response to the report in order to save jobs in my constituency and elsewhere.
I know that besides trying to prevent unemployment, the Government want to ensure that those with disabilities and ill health are not left behind and that even in a downturn they are given equal opportunities to retain and find employment. I congratulate Jobcentre Plus on the work that it has done through the pathways to work programme. I also welcome the Minister’s reassurance on the training that Jobcentre Plus officers have received to help people with autism. I chair the all-party group on autism, so I know that those with conditions ranging from autism to lupus and other inflammatory arthritis welcome the principle behind the changes that the Government are making to prevent people from being disadvantaged in employment opportunities because of their disability. However, we must ensure that the process works well on the ground and that other agencies, such as the national health service, understand the need to treat people quickly to ensure that patients can retain their employment or train for new employment. Thankfully, the waiting times for operations have been greatly reduced. For conditions such as inflammatory arthritis, however, timely and correct referrals to consultants for diagnosis and treatment are important. We want not only to keep people in work or get them back to it, but to improve long-term prognoses so that people can be maintained in work. NICE should take account of the benefits of quick treatment and the most effective drugs when producing its guidance on drugs and treatment—it does not always do so.
We must ensure that the medical assessments of the Department for Work and Pensions are accurate. I recognise that the doctors who carry out the work capability assessments will consider what people can do irrespective of their medical condition, but we need to ensure that those doctors understand claimants’ medical conditions. Recently, I attended the Burton upon Trent scleroderma and Raynaud’s group, and was horrified when a lupus patient described her medical to me. The doctor had no knowledge of the condition, did not refer to a consultant’s letter or report and kept referring to the symptoms as having been caused by drugs; anyone who knows anything about the condition knows the symptoms caused by it.
We must ensure that people do not fall through the gap between incapacity benefits and jobseeker’s allowance, especially at a time of rising unemployment. We must ensure that people do not necessarily lose their benefits just because, following a medical, they are told that they are fit for work. Some employers keep people’s jobs open for them only until their consultants believe that they are fit for work. I recognise that for many people these are worrying times, but I welcome the proactive work of the Government and agencies such as Jobcentre Plus and the regional development agencies in trying to prevent redundancies and, when they do arise, to ensure that good advice, training and support are available.
When I was a young man—[Hon. Members: “Now.”] When I was a younger man, I lived for a while in America. About twice a year, I would fly back and forth, and I nearly always travelled economy class. Once, however, I was upgraded to club class. Having been called to speak so early, that is how I feel now—I feel like I have been upgraded to club class. I know that it will not happen again, so I am very grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I congratulate the excellent staff at the Waltham Cross Jobcentre Plus office in my constituency. They do an incredible job dealing with some very hard client groups and without expecting much thanks. They are truly professional and we are very lucky to have them. They also do their jobs without great financial rewards. They are excellent public servants. A few weeks ago, when I visited the office, I was told about some of the consequences of what we all know is happening in the economy: the number of clients visiting jobcentres was rising and the number of vacancies falling. We are in for a very difficult two years, and I imagine that all Members will be holding some very difficult surgeries. We will have many families and people coming to see us in very desperate situations—having lost their jobs and, tragically, their homes.
One of my concerns about the current system is that it is very difficult for people who have been self-sufficient throughout their lives to access help in their time of need. In a sense, they are not professional claimants, and they probably thought that they would never have to call on Jobcentre Plus and the Department for Work and Pensions. Many probably thought that they would always be employed and able to look after their families through their earnings. Suddenly, however, and through no fault of their own, they need some help—not for a long time, but to get them back on their feet. I hope that the Government, the Opposition, Jobcentre Plus and the Department are alive to those people’s needs. Over the next two years, we must be there to help them and to give them the leg-up they need.
When I visited the jobcentre, I was struck by its awareness of and concern about the number of professional claimants—people who believe that the state owes them a living and who have not done a stroke of work in their lives. We need to tackle that problem. Nothing makes hard-working people, earning the minimum wage or just above, whether they live in Broxbourne or Burton, more angry than seeing people in their streets taking the system for a ride. It is worth reminding the House that many of the Department’s advisers are also on very low wages, so I am sure that they are just as upset and angry when people present themselves, week in, week out, with no intention of getting a job.
All hon. Members need to work together to end this culture. I am well aware that the Government have tried to get people back into work; they have received pressure from Labour and Conservative Members about it. However, it is about time that people such as Charles Walker, the Member of Parliament for Broxbourne, got a bit of spine and backbone. All too often I have put pressure on the Government to act. We all know that many people who come to our surgeries have terrible and tragic stories, but we also know that some are just telling a story. However, instead of offering wise counsel and saying, “The Government are right and my best advice to you is to get a job, because you will be much happier that way”, I actually say, “Isn’t that appalling? This horrible Government! Let me take up your case. I shall write to the Minister and demand that your case be reviewed.” In doing that, I am not being honest with my constituent, myself or my constituency.
We hon. Members are good people who do not like to disappoint others, but it is incumbent on us to say to some people, “I am sorry, but it is in your interests to get a job, and that’s the end of the matter.” If they say, “I’m going to the local newspaper”, we should say, “Be my guest! Here’s the name and address of the editor and the news reporter.” If they went to the newspaper, the overwhelming majority of constituents, whether in Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat or independent seats, would say to us, “Good on you, Member of Parliament.”
Well, I look forward to not sending them. However, talk is cheap in this place, and I suspect that the Under-Secretary might still receive the odd letter from me.
Many people are desperate to get back into work. They might have been out of work for a number of years, had mental health or disability problems and lost their self-confidence. We need to help them rediscover that self-confidence so that they can re-launch themselves in the world of work. However, a small minority of people remain who simply will not work; they are, I am afraid, work-shy and believe that the state owes them a living. A life on benefits should not be an option for those people. We have an obligation to look after people in their time of need, but we need to put a time limit on benefits.
Of course, I am not saying that we should throw people and families into the street to starve. That would be ridiculous, but at some stage it would not be unreasonable to tell able-bodied people who are capable of working but choose not to, “Mr. Jones”—or Mr. Bloggs, or Mrs. Jones or Mrs. Bloggs—“your benefit needs to be earned. We’ve paid it for two years but that ends today. When you come and see us tomorrow, you will present yourself in this office at 9 o’clock in the morning and you will join a group of people going out into the community to do good and important work. When you have done that work, at the end of the week we will give you your money.”
Of course people will bitch and moan about that: they will be miserable at having to work, but they will have to if they want to get their money. Anyway, who knows? After two or three weeks or three or four months, some people frightened by the concept of work might actually discover that they like working with a group of people, and that they like to be motivated and achieve something as part of a team. At that stage, they might decide voluntarily to get a proper job with an employer.
Let us all work towards that. I am not a paragon or beacon of virtue. I have been work-shy in my past life, but very occasionally people close to me gave me a kick up the backside, and that was the motivation that I needed.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, thank you for calling me so early in this debate. I have thoroughly enjoyed making my brief contribution.
It will be hard to follow the speech by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), especially as I shall come at the subject from a completely different angle.
I want to focus on an area in the welfare and work agenda that, although small, is of the utmost importance to the constituents whom I represent. I want to underline the difficulties experienced by many in my constituency who are forced to live in temporary accommodation and who, as a result of the high rents that are charged, find it impossible to work and keep a roof over their heads. That is due almost entirely to the way in which the housing benefits system works, and I hope to be able to impress on my hon. Friends on the Front Bench the seriousness of the poverty trap that that causes.
I make this speech in the knowledge that we are just weeks away from a Queen’s Speech and new legislation. I have mentioned this matter at least twice in the Chamber and three times in Westminster Hall debates, and I hope that something can be done.
Professor John Hills’s report into social housing was launched in February 2007 by the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly). In her speech, she excellently summed up the Government’s aspiration for social housing:
“My key point today is that we should be more ambitious. Social housing must work better as a platform for social and economic mobility…The Working Future pilot in East London”—
it was based in my constituency—
“is testing how low rents and better employment advice can help families in temporary accommodation find work. It is only a small pilot, but the results are striking.
This is an area where seven in ten households contained no-one in work. Where nearly half of people had never held a job…The pilot gave intensive support to a group of participants. After 18 months more than a quarter are now in work and well over half are engaged in training or work placements.
We will evaluate this pilot closely. But I am clear that in the future, working with the Department for Work and Pensions, approaches that bring housing, training and employment together should be the rule, rather than the exception.”
I welcome the Government’s understanding of the interconnectivity of people’s social and economic circumstances that impact on their ability to work and thrive. I am making a call to action across Departments—the Government must take the right actions to help individuals and communities back to work. However, I believe that we have failed to consider properly the impact of a tax and benefits system that delivers a most extreme manifestation of the poverty trap.
My constituents are virtually imprisoned by the excessively high rents charged for temporary accommodation, which those on low wages can afford only because they are subsidised by the housing benefits scheme. We are talking about rents of more than £350 a week—not for a palace or a mansion but often for a two-bedroom flat above an insalubrious parade of shops or take-away establishments.
On one level of key importance, our Government are attacking the problem at the root by accelerating the creation of affordable housing. Housing that is available at a social rent will significantly improve the life chances of many of the people whom I represent, in all kinds of ways and not just in their ability to work. Additionally, I am pleased to welcome the small but significant step that has been taken in the right direction to reduce the depth of the poverty trap by disregarding child benefit as income when housing benefit is calculated. I believe that is an astute move, and I shall certainly support much more of the same.
I also welcome the Government’s undertaking to engage positively with the report of the London child poverty commission, and the review of working age housing benefit and its effectiveness in promoting work and fairness. I hope that someone from that review will take note of what I have to say today.
My message is that the housing benefit system is in desperate need of reform. To illustrate my concerns, I want to tell the story of a constituent of mine, a lone parent in her early 40s, who was working as an administrator at Guy’s hospital. She was renting privately and had good prospects, having been offered a promotion and additional hours. She wanted to purchase a property under the key worker scheme and was eligible to do so, but the high cost of living and private sector child care meant that she could not get a deposit together. However, she was still optimistic: she was still ready to go for it, and she came to see me to talk about the options available to her. It was gut wrenching for her that she could work only 16 hours a week and was thus not able to take up the promotion that she was being offered.
She then had to move out of her property because her landlord wanted to sell it. Her circumstances were really awful, through no fault of her own. She joined a scheme that allowed her a social rent for her home, but it was short-lived. She and her little girl found themselves in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and things went downhill from there. From the bed-and-breakfast accommodation, she was moved—with debts—to temporary accommodation, and her rent escalated.
Her rent for a two-bedroom property—which is mostly paid by housing benefit—is £355 a week. She went to the citizen’s advice bureau and asked for a calculation of her in-work entitlements. She was really struggling to make ends meet and could not work out why she was not able to survive. It was explained to her that she would be only £50 a week better off in work, although that estimate did not include transport costs. She had to travel only a short distance on the Jubilee line, but unfortunately her transport costs came to £100 a month, which meant that she would be worse off working.
I hope that the House will bear it in mind that I have set out only the up-front costs involved. Working incurs many more costs that are not included in Jobcentre Plus calculations of in-work benefits. For example, a person’s eligibility to claim free school meals can be forgotten, and that can have a large impact on their finances. Sometimes, too, factors such as travelling time are not calculated properly, and that can have an impact on the amount of child care that has to be paid for. I hope that hon. Members will remember those little illustrations as I continue my speech.
My constituent is not working at the moment. She simply cannot afford to keep the roof over her head for herself and her child. She does voluntary work for a small charity to keep her hand in—ironically, it provides advice on employment and benefits, as well as running activities for children.
My constituent has told me about the depth of her despair. She said that the events that I have described came at a time of her life when she wanted to progress. She said that she is
“trapped in benefits, prevented from returning to work—all my wages would just go to pay the rent and I would be worse off.”
She had been on the housing waiting list for four years, and she has been bidding under the choice-based letting scheme for three years. She has been told that it will take a minimum of between five and six years for her to be rehoused in permanent accommodation. She contacted the council’s homeless persons unit and has repeatedly asked to be rehoused in a property that has a social rent as she is desperate to work. Unfortunately, the unit could do nothing to help her.
Does the hon. Lady agree that people in her constituent’s situation are not helped by the bidding process? It actually works against them and they go further down the list, as other people outbid them for properties. That is certainly the case in my constituency.
Does the hon. Lady agree that it is not just a question of sorting out supply, as that will inevitably have to be a fairly long-term solution to the problems she describes? Another alternative, which might be quicker to achieve, would be to reform housing benefit, notably to make it substantially simpler to administer so that we do not have the long lead times at the start of claims that my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned. There should be much greater transparency in the calculation of local housing allowances; at present, they are largely secret, so when they are set too low, which sounds as though it may be one of the problems faced by the hon. Lady’s constituent, there is little comeback. Finally, withdrawal rates for housing benefit can be incredibly rapid, and the combination of that with other parts of the benefits system makes it extremely difficult for some people to remain in work—they are less well off in work.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who pre-empts the content of my speech, as I was about to complain massively about the housing benefit taper. However, I was planning to take a long time doing it, to prolong the pain for my Front-Bench colleagues in the hope that it might bring about the change that I want.
My constituent is a woman of positive outlook. She has been a health service administrator and she wants to make her own way. She wants her child to witness and copy her work ethic and get on in life. She knows that being out of work is not a good example for her little girl. She is skilled, articulate and motivated. The last thing she wants is to be caged in unemployment for years to come, but that is her position. That pernicious, self-perpetuating cycle of dependency on housing benefit traps a significant number of my constituents in temporary accommodation and out of work. More than 4,000 households in the London borough of Newham alone are living in private sector temporary accommodation, which costs about £70 million a year.
Those people have years to wait before they can expect to receive a council property; the average wait for a three-bedroom property is 13 years—and we have 25,000 families on the housing waiting list. I have heard from constituents who have asked their managers not to give them a pay rise, as after the recalculation of their housing benefit they would be worse off. Other constituents would like full-time work, or to increase their hours, but they have discovered that if they work additional hours they may lose financially once housing benefit is withdrawn. I could tell many similar stories.
When people talk to me about returning to work, there is hesitation—I admit that to the hon. Member for Broxbourne—but not because they are feckless; they are fearful, in most cases rightly, that they will not be able to manage financially. There may be people who would advocate that my constituent returns to work despite being advised that she will be worse off by £50 a month, so I want to enlarge the picture to include other women I have met during my time as MP for West Ham.
I attended a focus group—for want of a better word; it was not a focus group, but I describe it as such because Members will know exactly what I mean—looking into regeneration for an area, and I interviewed two groups of women separately about their living conditions. I asked them what they wanted to see improved in the area and what steps they thought we could take to improve their prospects. We talked about the obvious things—schools, nurseries, child care, education, antisocial behaviour and health. Then I asked about work, and I did not expect their reaction. I was shocked to discover that eight in 10 of those women had heard and responded to the Government’s call to return to work but after a period of only months they had to cease working, completely defeated. They found themselves in increasing debt, unable to manage the costs of working, which included housing, child care, school meals and transport. The calculations that had been made for them by professional advisers had been inaccurate or perhaps overly optimistic. Those women expressed complete devastation and despair that they had been defeated. Their confidence had been absolutely shattered by the experience. Before they went back to work they had not been in debt; they had found ways of managing. After going back to work they found themselves saddled with costs that they had not foreseen and they tried to soldier on hoping it would all work out—but it did not and it has left them crushed.
Despite recent falls in the rate of the probability of leaving work, lone parents are still almost as likely as non-lone parents to leave their jobs. One in five lone parents who leave income support return to it within six months; more than quarter do so within a year, a third within two years and almost two fifths within three years. Lisa Harker’s report on child poverty projected that if the rate of job exits among lone parents was reduced to that of non-lone parents, the Government’s target of 70 per cent. employment could be met with no increase in the number of lone parents entering work.
For some women, the loss of help with child care costs, rent and tax credit can mean that they face a marginal tax rate of 96 per cent. At the centre of that marginal tax rate is housing benefit and the problem centres on the 65p in the pound withdrawal rate of housing benefit as income increases. The Hills report, to which I have referred before, stated that a couple with two children paying a typical private rent of £120 a week—please: in my constituency we are talking circa £350 a week—would, as a result of reduced benefit and tax credits and a higher rate of national insurance, gain only £23 if their earnings rose from £100 to £400 a week. There is simply no incentive.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government would do more to achieve their target of helping more lone parents into work if they concentrated on overcoming the barriers to work and the difficulties of, for example, obtaining high quality reliable child care than by introducing sanctions and putting pressure on lone parents that could result in their losing their benefits?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I want a package that suits people’s locality. The workless population in West Ham is high, but there are reasons for that and we need to tackle them. One reason is the impact of the housing market on my community; people have to pay high rents. Another reason is the affordability of child care on a low wage. Even on the London living wage, it is hard to afford to live in our high-cost capital. The barriers will not be the same in other parts of the country, and we need an intelligent approach so that we can begin to overcome them.
For those in my constituency who are in temporary accommodation, and have high rent to pay through housing benefit, the impact of the Hills calculation is even bigger. In July, in his previous ministerial role at the Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms), my constituency neighbour, announced questions that the Government’s review of housing benefit would seek to answer. They include: does it help people into work? Does it promote financial independence? Is it fair? Is it giving the taxpayer value for money? I may be pre-empting the conclusions of the review, but at present, I believe the answer to all those questions is no. From the experience of my constituent and others like her, it is clear that housing benefit actively hinders people in their struggle to get into work. It may promote financial awareness, I suppose; after all, many of those trapped on housing benefit have learned the hard way that they cannot afford to work and pay private sector rents. However, it does not give financial independence to those receiving benefit, as they are more likely than not to be trapped in a cycle of housing benefit dependency.
My constituent’s story, which is but one example of a much wider problem, shows that the system penalises many people in such situations. Pumping vast sums of taxpayers’ money—about £15 billion per annum—into the pockets of private sector landlords by paying the extortionate rents demanded is not good value for money. In many areas, such as mine, those vast sums of money can significantly distort local housing markets. Tapering housing benefit at a slower rate may prove to have the most immediate impact on the situation, even if only in certain regions such as London, until the large numbers of additional affordable houses funded by the Government are delivered. The London child poverty commission recommended a proposal to reduce the 65 per cent. withdrawal rate. As housing benefit calculations are based on income, net of deductions and additions, making it more generous does not have knock-on effects elsewhere, unlike changes to the tax credit system.
Pilot schemes, such as the working futures programme, which was partly conducted in my constituency, tell us what we already know: if families can access affordable rents, as a result of being provided with social housing, or housing at sub-market rates, they can afford to work, and often do. They want to do so. The people who come to see me want to work. The report’s conclusion—that block-grant subsidies to keep rents at sub-market rates are cost-neutral—suggests that it would clearly be worth implementing a similar scheme on a larger, longer-term level.
We, as well as benefit claimants, have a responsibility. Our responsibility is, first, to minimise hardship and, secondly, not to discourage independence and work. Rather than concentrating on choice for those who have less choice in a year than some of us had at breakfast this morning, we urgently need to take hard structural measures to reduce the impact of the property trap, which drives people from work and keeps working families in poverty. Housing benefit is central to that.
Most hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree at a fundamental level that the benefits system should incentivise work and provide a safety net for all. In its present configuration, in my constituency, the housing benefit system does not do that. I hope that the Government’s review will seriously explore possible methods of ensuring that it does. If housing benefit did all that, it would help to restart the stalled project to reduce child poverty in London; in contrast to the rest of the country, we have sadly seen very little improvement in that respect since 2000.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown). All of us, no matter where our constituency, can appreciate what she said this afternoon. My constituency has one of the highest rates of incapacity benefit claimants in the country, so the Green Paper’s proposals will have a significant impact on the people who live there. The high level of IB locally probably relates to historical issues to do with mining and the steel industry, which go back many years. However, as we have heard this afternoon, all of us support a work ethic for individuals, and we must do all that we can to help those who can work to get into work.
On those lines, one issue that we have not really touched on this afternoon is the role of the general practitioner. The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) spoke of our role in encouraging people into work. A lot more work needs to be done on general practitioners; certainly in my area, for many years they have perhaps seen the benefit system as somewhere for people to go, because there are no jobs. We definitely have to expand on the role of GPs in persuading people that the best medicine for them is probably work. Having said that, at present, the availability of work in my constituency is limited, to say the least. As manufacturing has taken a significant nosedive, we have been left with the service industry, which in the couple of months—or probably the year—ahead will experience a significant decline. I accept that we must do what we can to find work, but it will be difficult.
A lot of work needs to be done on social enterprise. A great deal of European funding has come into my constituency for that purpose, but we have only scratched the surface of encouraging people to be entrepreneurs and to set up their own businesses. We have heard a lot about small businesses, and help for them, in the past couple of months, but representatives of two such businesses have come to me in the past week, and loans from the bank are not a help to them. They are struggling to pay back what they already owe. It will be a huge problem to turn around some of the small businesses.
One of our major problems with access to work is transport. My constituency is among those with the lowest car ownership rates in the country. We have to try to get bus service providers to see that agreements allowing them to drive into industrial estates would benefit them, as well as other people. Many of our bus services drop passengers off far from those estates, and people literally have to walk miles to work if they do not have their own transport.
Another worry, given the present circumstances and the problems that we are likely to hit next year, is loss of income. Many families in my constituency survive on the minimum wage. A lot of people on incapacity benefit have a certain standard of living at the moment. The figures have been quoted this afternoon; if some of those benefits are to drop, it will have a significant impact on poverty in my constituency. It would cut the amount of disposable income available, so the local economy would experience a downturn, too. All those issues need to be considered carefully.
My constituents regularly complain to me about the way in which they are told that they are fit for work. A general practitioner, or even a hospital specialist, will say that a person is unfit, but then a board of individuals who have perhaps never seen the person before may decide, within an hour and a half, that the person is fit for work. We need to overcome that issue. The lack of joined-up thinking about whether a person is fit for work is still a huge barrier. Another concern is the board’s understanding of medical conditions. We have heard about mental health issues, but boards may not have the experience and expertise to understand how other conditions, such as diabetes and addiction, affect people’s lives. We need to be mindful of that.
In my constituency, we are struggling to provide support services, including adequate child care, which we have heard about this afternoon, and training. Training centres are under threat as we speak. The voluntary sector is probably one of the areas that not only helps with training, but could be bolstered by people coming off benefits. Borough councils, and especially social services, have a huge role to play. The links with social services are important in supporting people who are looking to get back into the employment market.
My biggest worry about how we tackle the issue is the target-setting mentality. I worry that jobcentres are given a target for the number of people that they must get off benefits. It worries me that people may be coming off benefits not because they are fit for work, but because Jobcentre Plus, or whoever—there are other organisations involved—have to hit their targets. That is a major concern. I had a constituent of 61 years of age, who had been on benefits for some 15 years. All of a sudden, he was told that he was fit for work: he may have been, but the shock was immense. When he walks into a Jobcentre Plus office and sees young people sat around the room, he will wonder why he is being targeted. That is why target-setting worries me. For those who can work, there is no problem, but we must be mindful of the way in which we achieve it.
There will be further pressures on Jobcentre Plus, as we have heard, and its role in working with many agencies will be critical if the Green Paper and its plans are to succeed. I honestly believe that shutting Jobcentre Plus offices at this time is a mistake: to lose their staff’s expertise and experience will do nothing for the people whom we represent. I also worry about the further privatisation of the welfare state: putting the lives of our people in the hands of those who are there to make a profit is a real concern to me.
I urge the Government to listen to the words of the Social Security Advisory Committee, which has many concerns about the Green Paper, and to listen to, and negotiate with, the trade unions that represent the people who work at the sharp end, because, if we do not listen to the people who work in the incapacity benefit system and to those whom it affects, we may end up making very grave mistakes. There will be a negative impact—certainly on constituents in constituencies such as mine.
We need to look very carefully at why there are 600,000 vacancies, yet there are people who are not in work, because it is not always as easy as it might seem to match up the two. I shall begin by referring to our record and by asking: how do we make people go to work?
The first important thing is to have work for them, and the general economic situation over the past 11 years has provided opportunities where there were none before. In my constituency, there have been far more opportunities in the past few years than there were previously. Secondly, we have to make work worth while. The national minimum wage has been absolutely key to making going to work worth while for people, so keeping and increasing it must be a priority. There was enormous opposition when we first mooted the idea. The world was about to end, we were told—everything would collapse, everybody would be unemployed and nothing would function; it was a total impossibility. However, we looked at other countries where it worked perfectly well, had the courage of our convictions and went forward with it, and the fact that now nobody is expected to work for less than the minimum wage has made an enormous difference.
Working tax credits have made an enormous difference, too. One can earn a certain amount of money and the working tax credit and child tax credit help to make that income more worth while. We must be mindful of the fact that, without those systems, it is very easy for people to fall into the poverty trap of not being able to work because, with the additional costs that work brings, they cannot afford to make ends meet.
Flexible working has also been important in helping people into work. It is important that we recognise the needs of people, such as carers and parents, and the fact that trade unions such as the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, of which I am a member, have done a good deal of work. The way in which we have treated paternity and maternity leave has given people more opportunities to go back to work, to remain in work and to continue to do jobs that they enjoy, while having a family. However, we can still do a lot more, which is why we will shortly bring forth the draft equality Bill.
Although there have been improvements since 1997, it is true that disabled people are still more likely to be out of work than those who are not disabled, that one is still less likely to find work if one is from an ethnic minority than if one is not, and that among the over-50s there is still a feeling that their age counts against them when seeking work. That is why the Government are preparing the draft equality Bill, which will strengthen protection against discrimination and advance equality.
We all recognise the serious worldwide economic situation that we face, and it is difficult to predict how it will work out in the different job sectors. We know that even before the current difficulties our manufacturing industries faced severe competition from cheaper locations abroad. All those issues lead people to be anxious about the future, which is why Government action and support at this time is absolutely vital, and why we need to maintain our public spending programme and starting levels in public services, such as the national health service, education and the police force. It is also why we need to maintain our capital expenditure programmes, and not abandon them. That, in turn, provides jobs for the private sector. Thousands of private sector firms, large and small, depend on public service contracts or on work that they are going to do for public capital expenditure projects in order to maintain their incomes. It is far better for us to pay people to be in work and paying taxes than it is to support them through unemployment benefit.
I believe that our borrowing can be justified, because we have reduced our public debt considerably, from 43 per cent. of gross domestic product in 1997, to 37 per cent. last year. If we look at how we compare with other countries, such as Italy, whose debt is 101 per cent. of GDP, and the relatively strong economies of France and Germany, which have debts of more than 50 per cent. of GDP, we realise that we are in a strong position, and can take on more borrowing. When people talk about our economy slowing down more quickly than the economies of some other European Community members, they must remember that our economy has been like a jaguar—like a cheetah. It has raced ahead, and while it may be slowing down a bit, it is still working well and going faster than some of the more elephantine economies in the eurozone. Although we may be slowing down more quickly in relative terms, we are still doing better than many of our European neighbours.
We know that in spite of all the efforts to keep the economy going, however, there will be some redundancies and some sectors will be badly hit, so it is important that we have strong Government support for those who face losing their jobs. They are often highly skilled workers with many years’ experience, and that is why I welcome the £100 million of new money that will go to retrain people and help them find alternative employment. I know, too, that many people worry very much about losing their homes; it is their first worry when they hear that they might lose their jobs. They desperately want to keep a roof over themselves and their family, so it is important that we have introduced that measure, because it will help people considerably.
We have also brought forward, from 39 weeks to 13 weeks, the amount of time that one must be out of work before one can start to claim mortgage help, and we have raised the capital amount threshold from £100,000 to £175,000, in keeping with the average price of a home these days. Those measures are extremely important, because, often, the home is people’s first worry.
It is also extremely important that we are strengthening the Jobcentre Plus rapid response service to ensure that it can respond when there are major job losses, and I pay tribute to the excellent work of the Jobcentre Plus staff in my constituency. The work of personal advisers in helping people get back to work is absolutely invaluable. Many of our employers have also been helpful, particularly when dealing with people whom we might call very hard cases. The employers have had to have the patience of saints to encourage, cajole and help those people to overcome the considerable difficulties of returning to work. It was a great pleasure for me to attend an awards ceremony not long ago at which those employers were rewarded for the work that they do.
My local Jobcentre Plus has also managed to access some European convergence funding for a “want to work” programme. That dovetails very well with the Department for Work and Pensions programmes for getting people back to work, and it will be particularly effective in the Community First wards in my constituency. Those include Tyisha ward, Glanymor ward, Bigyn ward, Felinfoel ward and Llwynhendy ward. It will help considerably in enabling people to go back to work.
However, I would like to sound a note of caution on dealing with lone parents, which needs to be done sensitively and cautiously. Any system of sanctions will affect the child as well as the parents. We therefore need to use encouragement, help and support to get lone parents back to work, rather than a system of punishment. We also need to consider carefully the different factors affecting whether lone parents can work or not. We must accept that parenting is an extremely challenging role, and that it can be exhausting for a lone parent. Not only are they the only parent; they are also the only adult doing everything else in the household. That, in itself, is a full-time job. It is easy for us to look at a highly paid professional who has a car and who can do a few hours’ work, combine it with well-paid child care and organise their life, and forget that that is not the reality for those with the fewest skills.
The problem for those with the fewest skills is that their earning capacity is limited. They therefore have to work longer hours to make ends meet, and they often face difficulties with transport. In some of the outlying areas of my constituency, for example, the costs and the time factors involved in leaving children somewhere, getting to work and getting back from work in time to pick up the children can be extremely complex. That can make things very difficult. It often precludes children from being able to attend a breakfast club or an after-school club, because the transport times do not enable parents to return in time to pick up their children.
I am listening with great interest to the hon. Lady. She has made the point that many single or separated parents have to do everything themselves. Does she agree, however, that we need to move towards a much greater culture of co-parenting in which—in those circumstances in which it is safe to do so—we ensure that both parents share the load? In that way, a mother who has her children with her would not need to do everything, because the father would be coming in to do his bit to help her.
I should just like to point out that, when my father was widowed, I saw what it was like to be a single parent. As the eldest child, I also saw the responsibility that that situation places on the eldest child. Certainly, sharing parenting is very important, but we need to recognise that that is not always appropriate or possible.
I want to move on to the issue of child care. Not every school has a breakfast club or an after-school club. That is another difficult issue that we need to tackle when we are dealing with lone parents; we need to find out whether those facilities exist. That is why it is important that the Minister develop the encouraging statement that she made earlier that the circumstances of each individual would be taken into account before considering any form of sanction. That is extremely important, and something that we really must stick to. It has worried me that, last week in a statutory instrument Committee, the age of the child in the requirement for a lone parent to go back to work was lowered. I do not want us to go any further in that direction in relation to sanctions. We need to use encouragement, help and support, for the reasons that I have already outlined.
It worries my constituents that, of the people who are on benefit and among the now small number who are unemployed in my constituency, there is a very small minority who are playing the system. We need a welfare-to-work programme for such people. We need to make it absolutely clear that when people are fit and well and able to work, they should be encouraged to do so. There is a place for stricter measures for that very small minority who continue to play the system. In general, I very much welcome our Green Paper on welfare to work. I think that it represents the right way forward.
I want to make a number of points about the welfare programme and, in particular, the flexible new deal. Before I do that, however, I want to pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott). She mentioned the difficulty that people in rural communities experience in accessing a Jobcentre Plus. That is a worry not only for the moment but for the entire approach to this programme. Many of the providers that she mentioned have very little experience of delivering these products in rural communities. They have a good base in the urban communities, but they have no experience elsewhere. When talking to those providers, I have been conscious of the fact that, although they are aware of the differences and the additional costs involved, they do not really have a handle on the quantification of those costs and difficulties.
The Government models that I have seen so far have been largely based in urban areas. However, we do not have to go too far out of our cities—just 50 miles down the road from here to Henley—to see a constituency many of whose areas are already quite rural. I foresee a cost problem in Henley. We are already seeing a cost in terms of the claimant. If someone lives in a village for which there is only one bus once a week, they have no option but to use other transport, and that has a cost. There is also a cost to the providers that will operate there. Rural areas also have difficulties arising from distance and isolation; there are fewer opportunities to look for ways of getting back into work, and in many cases the economy is more on the margin. All those factors mean that, overall, more effort is required to achieve fewer outcomes.
The final difficulty with the Government’s approach is one of customer choice. One hopes that customer choice works well—particularly within the flexible new deal—in an urban setting, where different providers operate and there are real choices. However, that will not be the case in rural areas, where it will not be profitable for many providers to work at the same time. I would like the Minister to say how rural issues are to be tackled. Will he encourage some sort of differential in targeting rural areas? The problem is serious.
I turn now to the overall scheme. I have difficulties with how it is structured—that probably owes something to my background in management consultancy, a discipline that likes things to be just so and in place. I am happy, however, with the idea of a scheme being based on outcomes. In this case, the outcomes are essentially based on getting into work and on that work being sustainable. The difficulty is that, as the providers to whom I have spoken acknowledge, those outcomes are not easy to measure and we will therefore rely increasingly on proxies that bring us back to delivering something equating to those measures.
I have no problem with such proxies, although it is difficult to see which will be chosen. A proxy of getting people off benefits is an approximation to getting people into work, but it is clearly not the same. Combining that with tax information will add to it. If I understood him correctly, the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) made a point about one of the things of which I have become wary, particularly given that I have seen how it operates in the Netherlands. One proxy is to put the emphasis on the tender rather than on one of the other proxies. The difficulty with that in the Netherlands has been that it has skewed the whole system so that it focuses no longer on outcomes but on measuring proxies.
In the Netherlands, a whole system and bureaucracy have grown up that measure not the outcomes but the tenders; the tenders are tightened up all the time. In that way, any innovation is squeezed out of the system. That is partly because the measurement systems are not got right at the beginning, but it also comes from the enhanced suspicion and mistrust of the private sector that there often is when such schemes are put together. So we end up with more inspection regimes and a need for more funding and bureaucracy. We also end up with a post hoc justification of success, which is never a good idea if these schemes are to be successful in reaching the people whom they should be reaching.
As regards the hard-to-reach groups, we heard a request for early intervention and for the scale of that intervention to be much larger than originally envisaged. There is a third element, however. I detect a sequential approach to people who have difficulties other than being unemployed, whether those difficulties be drugs or lack of literacy, whereby the mentality is to tackle those problems first before moving on to the problem of unemployment. Having seen the situation in the Netherlands, I think it would be a mistake to continue with that. It is necessary to tackle the problems simultaneously. As we have seen from examples not only in the Netherlands but elsewhere, it is entirely possible to tackle the problems of literacy and drug abuse while somebody is in a job, so that the whole situation becomes a virtuous circle feeding into the individual getting to where we want them to be, and where they want to be, much earlier.
I made some remarks about skills in a topical debate a few weeks ago, but as only one Labour Back Bencher was present throughout the entire debate, I have no hesitation in giving the benefit of my wisdom to the larger number who have turned up today. The point that I made, which the Minister said that he would take away, concerned the need to address the lack of flexibility and granularity in skills programmes such as Train to Gain. The skills agenda must be matched with the skills needs of business and of an area as a whole. My constituency has less than 1 per cent. unemployment and a high-tech, high-end business sector. It therefore has fundamentally different requirements in terms of the skills market from other, less fortunate areas. The one-size-not-fitting-all approach is demonstrated superbly by comparing my constituency with another that is less fortunate. Unless we put flexibility into the system, we end up losing the competitive advantage in areas that have high-tech, high-end businesses and need those skills.
Small and medium-sized businesses in my constituency are already showing commitment. They have an extremely good reputation for providing training for apprenticeships and beyond apprenticeships into the future. The Conservative proposals for more workplace apprenticeships, including a £2,000 bonus for each apprenticeship, are welcome. More importantly, we can help small businesses in this regard. Big businesses are able to help themselves. When I was a cabinet member on a county council, my job was to restructure many aspects of the council, which meant getting rid of a number of posts. One way of doing that while retaining the skills that had built up was to set up a job-finder service within the organisation. That works well in large organisations but is clearly impractical for SMEs on their own, but we can encourage them and provide them with the resources to develop self-help schemes that can produce the critical mass to enable them to operate similar schemes.
In the summer recess, I went to work for a day at the local jobcentre that covers the southern part of my constituency. It was an interesting experience. Only one individual was too aggressive for the ladies who were dealing with him to cope with, and given that I have to face similar situations at surgeries, I felt perfectly qualified to be able to deal with it myself. I have to echo the comments already made about the staff at Jobcentre Plus; I have enormous admiration for the patience and diplomacy with which they deal with people.
Perhaps the most heartening experience of the day I spent working there was that of a young single mother who had rushed to the job centre within hours of getting a job because she could not wait to get signed off and to get on with her life. It would be nice to feel that any welfare-to-work system could bottle up that enthusiasm and independence and help to spread it. That is a good example of someone wanting to work and of support being provided through an opportunity to get out of the welfare system, which she clearly hated being involved with, and to get on with her own life.
Before I make the four points that I intended to make, I shall mention something raised earlier in an intervention. We face a recession that may be quite severe, but I would not commend as appropriate a xenophobic policy response that focuses on narrowing opportunities for those from overseas to work in our country. It has not been particularly edifying to see a certain amount of competitive spirit applied over that instinct. There are reasonable immigration controls, which I am perfectly happy to support, but the tenor of the debate on that matter has not been helpful to those who want a thriving economy based on appropriate skills, which are often delivered by people from overseas, or those who want a more tolerant society.
I shall now move on to the substance of my speech. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) sat through an Adjournment debate I initiated on a topic relevant to today’s debate—flexibility on retirement. I wish to refresh the memory of those on my Front Bench on some of the issues raised. Many of those who seek to work beyond 65 do so for entirely understandable reasons. They actually enjoy their life, and correctly recognise that a certain amount of work in older age is good for people. An active retirement is a positive contribution to longevity, and we should try to have systems in place that permit such retirement.
My Adjournment debate of two years ago focused on some of the things that we are getting wrong. I cited the example of a constituent—a marvellous man, who was 74 then and still a truck driver. He had just been injured, but talked at length to me about how much his job meant to him, and how we should have a society that encourages such behaviour. There are three little things that we could do to make matters easier. First, if an employer employs someone of that age, they continue to pay national insurance, even though the contribution to the state pension is redundant at that point—the person in question has normally fully paid up over the number of years that they have accumulated. It would be worth considering the national insurance obligations for employers of people who have gone beyond the point where maximum contributions can be achieved. Secondly, if a person defers their state retirement pension, they currently get a pound-for-pound reallocation of that saving towards their future pension. To be honest, that is a pretty substantial understatement of the benefit that they are creating by continuing to work. It would be reasonable to attach some premium to a person’s postponement of their claiming of the state pension, to facilitate their willingness to continue to work.
Thirdly, there may be merit in applying some fiscal measures to incentivise working beyond 65. I have no shame in returning to that topic. It is partly about individual liberty—we are permitting controls that employers enforce to drive people out of work at 65 when they are willing to continue—and partly about flexibility in our economy.
Let me give another example—I fear that not all these issues are linked, but the broad nature of the debate presents an opportunity to raise a range of topics. Derbyshire county council has drawn to my attention its difficulty in recruiting crossing patrols—lollipop ladies or men—and the problem of allowing someone to combine that work with claiming a benefit for which they are eligible. As I said in an intervention, we should examine the disregards that we apply to people who claim specific benefits to permit them to carry out such activities. The case that we are considering involves relatively few hours and rather modest pay. There are strong therapeutic arguments for such an approach in the case of someone who qualifies for benefits related to incapacity benefit, and there are obviously strong social advantages. To be honest, the loss to the Treasury is likely to be modest.
Such changes are worth considering as the minor adjustments necessary to open up opportunities at the edge of job markets for people who currently do not find it worth while to take on work. I should have made my next comment before my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) left her place, but she made an incredibly good speech about the marginalisation and exclusion that some people face. I am speaking, on the whole, about more fortunate individuals, relatively speaking, but we are considering the charmed circle of admission to work in our society and trying to find methods of building outwards and creating opportunities that are good for individuals and society.
It is good that one or two hon. Members who take an interest in the next subject that I want to raise are present. I know well the father of a now adult autistic boy, and I was struck by an earlier intervention about the difficulties that adult autistic people experience in migrating to work. I have a letter, which I shall not quote because I have not asked permission to do so, but I am prompted by that intervention to refer to some of its contents. The writer’s son has been trying to enter employment for nine years. His dad and those who saw him recognised that he needed help with that. He needed accompanying and appropriate guidance for a placement so that he could work effectively there. Sadly, despite repeat experiences, that has not been made available to him.
The latest letter was sad to receive, and gives the last such experience. Lengthy engagement took place with Jobcentre Plus, so that everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing. The son would turn up at the suggested placement and have an appropriate interview, which would suggest the sort of support that he might receive. The father and son turned up at the offices of the organisation involved, which was in the voluntary sector, presuming that Jobcentre Plus had provided a brief to the body about the son’s needs. They found that the organisation had not been briefed and had little history to which to refer of the son’s previous experience. There was a reference to a discussion with Jobcentre Plus staff, but it was not made clear with whom the discussion had taken place. The son was taken through a history of placements that bore no resemblance to those that he had attended. Reference was also made to a placement that he had never been on.
We are talking about a fragile young man who needed support to get into employment. He had experienced significant difficulties and frustration in the past and was unfortunately facing them once more, albeit fortunately with his dad, who could support him through that repeat negative experience.
The harrowing story that the hon. Gentleman is recounting will be widely replicated throughout the country, as the statistics attest, with somewhere between only 10 and 15 per cent. of adults living with autism in employment. Does he agree that helping people in that situation more effectively is right in terms of not only compassion towards and benefit for the individual, but benefit for society as a whole, which is cost about £28 billion a year by adult autism?
The hon. Gentleman is right, as he is very often. The point is not just about me feeling sad and compassionate; it is about a waste of a young man and his capacity to contribute to our economy and a waste of resources, in assisting him to stay workless, when with some imagination and proper information management, he could be helped and given an appropriate opportunity. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, this is not just about compassion.
I maintain a regular correspondence with that young man’s dad, who is a very capable man and who must find it most frustrating to deal with the problem repeatedly. I hope that we can reach an appropriate local resolution. The issue highlights the fact that the bold words used by the Minister about the level of available training and resources are perhaps more optimism than reality, at least on the basis of the experience that I have described and that of the hon. Gentleman, who knows far more about the subject than I do and who has quoted the reality.
The fourth issue that I want to raise is again completely different, but links to the speech of the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), because it relates to keeping people in work and close to the job market and providing them with the appropriate skills that they need. I have done some work on the issue with a body called the midlands engineering industry resource group, which was an excellent project that provided a network of engineering employers to pass on job opportunities and training ideas when jobs in the sector were threatened. Unfortunately the contractors lost the bid for the project’s continuance, but the basic principles remain.
I want to commend a similar project called the better west midlands project. One might say, “He’s an east midlands MP, so why’s he talking about that?” The reason is that I want it in my area, too. The better west midlands project, which is a partnership among various unions, the European Commission and the local learning and skills council, aims to deliver a range of interventions when jobs appear to be threatened, so that redundancies are consulted on.
The critical factor is union involvement, without which the typical position is to say, “We’re going to bargain over redundancies, but we’re not going to talk about any of the practical stuff to do with supporting people into future opportunities until we’ve gone through the consultation phase and resolved things.” That can mean losing 90 days straight away. With the unions’ participation, however, it is possible to launch into work on the practical issues with their support and enthusiasm, which includes the following: an initial assessment of the work involved; a Skills for Life screening; one-to-one confidential advice about future career options; a training needs analysis to work out where people are in their careers and what they might require to progress; the development of an action plan for people to follow; the provision of a certain amount of training and support to meet some of the needs that have been identified; referrals to specialist organisations, which may involve debt counselling and benefits advice; and help with job searches. That is excellent. It is an example of resources being targeted exactly as we will need them to be, I am afraid, during what look to be hard times. Such examples are not always available.
Sadly, when the unions involved approached the east midlands learning and skills council, admittedly a few months back, it produced the rather optimistic statement, “Well, we do not see too much call for that here.” Most of us who heard that thought, “That probably was not entirely accurate then, but sadly it is not likely to be accurate in the immediate future.” We will certainly need dedicated resources delivered in partnership with recognised trade unions, because that adds an additional edge to the capability of the project.
In all these areas, I am talking about protecting jobs and giving people individual rights to the opportunity to get a job in our society. As the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said, that is not just because I feel sorry for people—although I tend to—but because that is the basis of a successful economy and a more robust society, in which we would all seek to live.
Let me start by mentioning an issue that the hon. Members for Burton (Mrs. Dean) and for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) raised: getting autistic young adults and adults into employment.
I want to cite a story from when I was a councillor involving a young man whom I had known since he was a child. He was quite high up on the autistic spectrum, but he had specialist attention. When he left education, a large company asked him to join its training programme. We move on a number of years, and that young man is in his 20s; he is holding down a job in that large company and he is succeeding. The company is making exceptions and showing the great understanding necessary in such situations. One day, when the young man did not appear for work, someone from the company went round to where he was living, asked what was wrong and talked through the problems with him. He was back in work the next day. That is an example of what can be achieved.
I am not suggesting for one moment that larger companies, such as the one in my example, need any help by way of resources to offer such support, but I would like that approach to be spread across the business spectrum. Any good employer should help some of the most vulnerable in our society to achieve the maximum that they can achieve, which is obviously different according to each young person and each adult’s situation.
I welcome the Ministers to their new roles, and I thank their predecessors, who took a cross-party approach and met me to try to achieve such a solution. I do not believe that the issue is anything to do with party politics. If it is, it certainly should not be. We are talking about people’s lives, and we are in the House to try to help. It is irrelevant which side of the House we sit on.
How can we encourage businesses—small businesses might need some assistance through tax breaks and so on—to employ the most vulnerable and help them through? I am duty bound to mention an organisation, and as its patron I have a vested interest—the UK Autism Foundation, which was recently formed by a good friend of mine, Ivan Corea. I first met him when, as a Labour party candidate, he stood against me in a council election. Fortunately, I won, but you cannot have everything, can you? We became great friends, and through the work that he has done, he has been an inspiration. I have been able to help him, in some small way, in that work. The organisation is looking to raise funds through charitable causes to help with that very problem—in my own area and more widely. I also thank the National Autistic Society for its help and good work.
I hope that Members will note that this subject is very dear to my heart, and I would like to further the cause by relating one other story from my constituency. Some residents complained to me about what they described as a nuisance neighbour, but nobody had spent any time with that gentleman or tried to find out what the problem was. I went round and found that this was not a nuisance neighbour, but an autistic person, living a lonely life on his own, who did not realise that his neighbours were being disturbed. We got them together and this person is now carrying out odd jobs for the very neighbours who had complained about him. That suggests that we sometimes need to look wider at the root causes of what might be happening when constituents complain at our surgeries.
The current financial crisis, particularly its impact on small businesses and unemployment, provides another important issue. A small business might employ only one or two people, but one of them has to be laid off in order to cope with the crisis. A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a business, although I shall not name the business or the bank involved. It is a very seasonal business, with more than 80 per cent. of its trade coming over the Christmas period of December and January. Every year, it had from its bank a facility of £250,000 to fund the stock. Once the credit crunch started, however, the bank recalled the money, asking for it back “tomorrow”. The money was put into stock. It was a question of either giving the keys of the business to the bank as it was not possible to pay the money back or of the bank letting the business trade through the Christmas period so that it could pay the money back afterwards, with any interest, leaving money to live on for the rest of the year. Fortunately, another bank stepped in, but notwithstanding all that the Government are doing to encourage the banks to give money to small businesses, the banks are simply not doing so. I would therefore like to ask the Minister to use his good offices to speak to his Treasury colleagues to emphasise how important this facility is for small businesses—and perhaps sometimes for big businesses, too. The banks should certainly use the money they are being given more wisely to help the very people who are suffering from these problems.
Let me touch briefly on a number of other issues. I cannot remember who it was, but a Government Member spoke earlier about councils and the provision of social services packages—[Interruption.] Perhaps it was not even a Government Member; I am sorry. It is right that the problems differ from council to council. I know from my own London borough of Redbridge about the wonderful work that is done, but it does come down to resources. If the amount of money is finite, a council has to live with it. There are only two ways of getting the money: either through the Government of the day whose resources are finite, or through the council tax—yet we know that many people cannot afford rises at the moment. That has to be measured.
I am going to use some particular words now—I apologise to Ministers for not clearing these words with anyone—as perhaps some form of ring-fencing of moneys is needed.—[Interruption.] Perhaps that is why I am on the Back Benches—[Interruption.] I hear a sedentary intervention to the effect that I am apparently getting closer to the Front Benches.
The hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) spoke about people attending their constituency surgeries. My hon. Friend and I regularly write to the Minister. Everyone who visits my surgeries makes worthy cases, so I shall continue to write to the Minister. All these people genuinely want to be in work. I would go so far as to say that at my surgeries I have never come across anyone who does not want to work. The key thing is to help them into work where it is beneficial so that they enjoy a higher income and a better standard and quality of life than they could through not working. It is also important that they are given the ability to work, either through training or through the help that jobcentres can provide. It is beholden on all of us to try to help people back into work; otherwise, we should hang our heads in shame.
On the evidence of this afternoon’s contributions, I am sure that it is right to say that all Members share the Government’s aim that no one should be written off. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) that that aim should not be dismissed even if we are entering an economic downturn. However, the economic situation must be taken into account as we seek to achieve that aim, and there is some scepticism in all parts of the House about whether the programmes in place will be sufficient to achieve it in the current economic climate.
I agree with the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) that there is little evidence that there are significant numbers of people who are unwilling to work if they can do so. Hard cases make bad law. As my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) said, we should have a system that supports and encourages people, and that helps people—many of whom will have been in a very depressed state, often spending excessive periods at home—to regain their confidence and to be included once more in society.
I entirely support the concept of the flexible new deal, but I am concerned about how flexible the support offered will be in reality. I earlier gave the example of a constituent who is working 14 hours a week. Although he would like full-time work he has been unable to get that, but his current employer says he will give him full-time work as soon as he can. In the meantime, my constituent is being forced to attend the jobcentre to sign on at a time when he should be in work; the appointment is at 4 o’clock, which is when his work finishes. He has found it very difficult to be able to leave work early and get to the jobcentre on time to sign on. He has asked his advisers whether he can sign on at a different time, but they have refused point blank to be more flexible. I wrote to the Secretary of State expressing my concerns about the implications of this lack of flexibility for other people—for people who may be more vulnerable than this individual. There is considerable concern among those in the welfare-to-work business that the cash available and the targets being set are so unrealistic that those who find it hardest to get jobs will face long periods of inactivity while under pressure to find work, and that they could spiral into depression.
I am particularly concerned about people with mental health problems or other fluctuating conditions. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) emphasised that although the new deal for people with disabilities and pathways to work have been successful in helping many people into work, they have been less successful in helping people with mental health problems. The Secretary of State acknowledged that to me and said he is concerned about it, but it is unclear what measures are being put in place to ensure that people with such conditions will not be placed under even greater pressure than they are at present.
Debbie Scott is the chief executive of Tomorrow’s People, and she has said that
“with the budget on the table, it is a struggle to see how we would be able to get the hardest to help into work”.
At present, Tomorrow’s People receives between £2,500 and £6,000 per case, depending on the complexity of the needs of the person it is seeking to help. However, she says that significantly less money is being proposed under the new system—down to some £1,500. Dave Simmonds, chief executive of the Centre for Economic & Social Inclusion, a welfare think-tank, says that a further £1 billion is needed to allow for the likely increase in the long-term unemployed, now that we are entering a recession.
I am particularly concerned about the policies relating to lone parents, who are already subject to conditionality and have to attend work-focused interviews. David Freud acknowledged in his report that lone parents “want to work”. Although he advocated conditions on their receipt of benefits, he said that that should be dependent on adequate child care arrangements being available. Conditionality is justified by pointing to countries such as Sweden and Denmark, where more lone parents are in work, yet there are several different factors at play in relation to lone parents in this country. They are younger and likely to have children, and they are more likely to live in poverty than their European counterparts. Crucially, UK parents contribute some 75 per cent. of the costs of child care, compared with 11 per cent. in Sweden. Parental contributions across the EU are between 25 and 30 per cent.
I, too, thought that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) made an excellent speech. She referred to people feeling crushed by the system, and I am concerned that that could be exacerbated by the move from income support to a system in which lone parents have to sign on compulsorily. I have seen the benefits of the new deal programmes and of supporting people into work. I have spoken to people who have been helped, and to staff at Jobcentre Plus and in the private sector, such as those at WorkDirections. They get tremendous satisfaction from the work they do in supporting people to achieve their ambition—most people have such an ambition—to contribute through the world of work.
However, if these programmes are worth while, conditionality should be a last resort. The threat of losing up to 40 per cent. of benefits, which are not generous in the first place, is going to make life very difficult. It will make vulnerable people’s lives more difficult. My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli explained very effectively the pressures that lone parents face in trying to take their responsibilities seriously. Some lone parents have a disabled child or a disability themselves. In fact, the statistics show that very few lone parents whose children are over 11 are not in work, and those who are not usually have a disabled child or a disability themselves.
The DWP is well aware of the problems faced by lone parents. In its 2005 five-year strategy, it discusses the failed work test in New Zealand, introduced without a good child care infrastructure. It said that
“we think it would be wrong simply to move lone parents from Income Support onto the Jobseeker’s Allowance regime: an unrestricted requirement to search for work is inappropriate, given the complex and difficult circumstances many lone parents face…such an approach would be expensive, unfair and ineffectual.”
That is why I ask the Government to look again at the recommendations of the Social Security Advisory Commission, which says that, although it has supported the programmes for lone parents in the past, it feels that the proposed changes will make life more difficult for lone parents. It says that, at the very minimum, those changes should not be introduced until a comprehensive system of wrap-around child care is available. This is not just about the availability of child care; it is about the quality and reliability of that care. Although the Government have said that they will be flexible and that no lone parent will be sanctioned if it is clear that child care is not available, no detail has been provided about exactly what will be regarded as suitable and reliable child care. I would like the Government to address that point.
On the flexible implementation of these regulations, I also wish to highlight the situation faced by lone parents who educate their children at home. The Government policy is that such people have made a lifestyle choice. That may be the case in some instances, but I have had drawn to my attention an example where it has not been a lifestyle choice but a necessity. One of my constituents has written to me about his sister, who has a child with diabetes and Asperger’s. She decided to take her child out of school when his blood-sugar level was discovered to be dangerously low because he needs four injections every day and he had not been receiving them in a timely manner while he was at school. He also had to deal with the added disability of Asperger’s. She is very worried that she will have difficulty in continuing to support her child when the new regulations come into force.
Will the Government make it clear that they will make a distinction in respect of those parents who are educating children at home out of necessity and thus exempt them from the need to sign on for work? The Government’s argument is that when someone is being educated at home, the school week and the school year can be disregarded. That is true to some extent, but one would hope that those children might have at least some relationship with other children in the locality and might not be treated completely differently. In addition, it will be more difficult for those lone parents to get wrap-around child care, because that is often associated with the school that the child attends. I hope that the Government will pay more attention to the needs of such parents.
Finally, I wish to flag up the fact that income-based employment and support allowance is more generous than contributions-based ESA in relation to permitted work. Permitted work is very important in helping people to move into the world of work. The permitted work regulations and the therapeutic work regulations need to be more flexible. I understand that people can continue on such programmes for only a limited time—12 months—whereas many people who have disabilities, particularly those with fluctuating conditions, may find that only small amounts of work can be coped with on a regular basis. Such programmes should be encouraged on a long-term basis if longer hours are inappropriate, and there should be no automatic cut-off. Again, the flexible new deal will perhaps address the issue—I hope so. I must apologise for the fact that I will have to leave the Chamber shortly to attend a Select Committee meeting, so I will not be able to hear the Minister’s response. I will, of course, read it with great interest tomorrow when I collect my copy of Hansard.
We hold this debate at an opportune time as, sadly, unemployment is increasing at its fastest rate for 17 years. I join my hon. Friends the Members for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) and for Henley (John Howell), and the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) in praising the work of Jobcentre Plus staff in trying to help our constituents to get back into work. I am also pleased that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) mentioned Tomorrow’s People, because we should not forget those in what I call the not-for-dividend sector, who are also engaged in the very important work of trying to return our constituents to the labour market, or at least to get them more job-ready. The Opposition believe in a partnership approach between Jobcentre Plus and the not-for-dividend sector.
At this difficult time, we must do everything possible to boost employer confidence to help businesses weather the economic conditions. However, we can deal with those serious problems only if we recognise their scale and act accordingly with a plan to make the necessary changes. I had hoped for a slightly more serious recognition of the scale of the problems from the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) who opened the debate. Without such recognition, I fear that we will not see the scale of Government action needed. She said that things have gone relatively well over the past 10 years. I think that she said, “So far, so good.” I am sure that she is aware that unemployment in her constituency has increased by 27 per cent over the past year alone, and is 6 per cent. higher than in 1997. I am not sure, therefore, what her constituents would make of her remarks.
On 16 January, the Prime Minister boasted that this country had its best employment record in history. However, I wish to set out the real context of this debate, because I think that we have been lulled into a false sense of security about the situation in our labour market. The real level of UK unemployment is between 3 million and 3.5 million. How did I get to that figure? The International Labour Organisation unemployment count—the Labour party always used its figures when in opposition—is 1.79 million, and David Freud, whom the Government have quoted frequently this afternoon, said that 1.7 million incapacity benefit claimants want to work and should be able to do so with the right support.
In addition, 750,000 people are under-employed. We must not forget those who want full-time work and need more income, but who can only get part-time work. If the Government had recognised that, we could have had earlier and more urgent action on welfare reform involving personalised support to help people overcome barriers to work and creating a welfare system with a higher vision for the unemployed. It is frankly unacceptable that in some cases three or more generations of the same family have been lifelong benefit dependents when, with the right personalised support, jobs could have been found for them.
This is at a time when many hundreds of thousands of jobs have gone to people who have come to this country from overseas. In 2006-07, and the first half of 2008, the number of people in employment who were born in the UK fell by 365,000. However, the number of migrant workers finding jobs in the UK has risen by 865,000. I take issue with the comments of the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd). I think that those are real concerns, and our constituents would be amazed if we did not mention them today—it was another thing that the Under-Secretary did not mention, however. Those figures are an indictment of the Government’s skills and welfare policies. Since 2003, a staggering 1.6 million national insurance numbers have been issued to non-European Union workers, which we can do something about.
The hon. Gentleman referred to my comments. However, the migrant workers he mentions have not been forced into jobs, but have been willingly employed by employers who—presumably—found their skills appropriate to the jobs on offer. I am puzzled by his economic logic.
I think that the hon. Gentleman and I are at one about the fact that, in an expanding labour market where there is genuine demand for many jobs, we can cope. It is a given between us that any advanced international economy will always have a certain amount of migration—that is, immigration and emigration. However, I ask him to consider the relationship between the hidden, real level of unemployment in this country—welfare—and the arguments about immigration that I have just set out. We need to think more seriously about the interrelationship between those three factors in a way that we have not yet seen.
During oral questions only this month, we learned that in Newham, where the Olympic village is being built, 20,000 new national insurance numbers have been issued to foreign workers. In London as a whole, three times more new NI numbers have been issued to foreign workers than there are young people under 25 looking for work.
On the subject of jobseeker’s allowance, does the Minister intend to have any discussions with EU counterparts as to whether this country should carry on paying British JSA to EU nationals who have returned to their home countries and yet continue to claim? I think that many of our constituents will want to know about the signing-on criteria for those people. Will Ministers at least have a conversation with our European colleagues about that? I think that that is what many of our constituents would like.
What do we need to do about the current situation? Like many other hon. Members, I should like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) for her excellent speech. She quite rightly raised the need to reform the housing benefit system, and to look at the whole issue of benefit traps, of which housing benefit is easily the most significant. I think that every Member here will have recognised similar stories from their own constituencies.
The hon. Member for South Derbyshire also praised the hon. Lady’s contribution, and I can tell her that my party is looking hard at this matter, as are the Government. It is long overdue for serious reform, but we need to remember that jobs are created through enterprise and entrepreneurship. They do not grow on trees; they grow because people who have a vision, provide a service or manufacture a good are able to provide employment.
We need to look more seriously at alternatives. Recently, I have heard stories about some inner-city communities where there were very few formal jobs on offer. For example, one community, with some help from the local authority, was able to set up a new fast-food business. The people involved had worked out that a lot of money was going off their estate to fast-food businesses outside, and the new venture helped employ many people on the estate who were out of work. Another, similar example about which I heard recently involved the provision of social care for a community’s elderly people. The people behind the scheme looked at the needs of the community and at those who did not have jobs, and managed to marry the two together. We need to keep enterprise and entrepreneurship at the heart of this debate if we are to deal with the problems that have been identified.
Skills are also incredibly important, and they have not featured prominently enough in our comments this afternoon. Only 28 per cent. of British workers have qualified to apprentice, skilled craft and technician level whereas, if we cast our eyes across the continent, we see that the figures for France and Germany are 51 per cent. and 65 per cent. respectively. How can the Government reasonably expect our businesses to compete on the international stage when they so consistently fail to provide a suitably skilled work force?
Earlier, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) and I had exchanges across the Dispatch Box about apprenticeships, so may I put his mind at rest? My party wants 100,000 additional apprenticeships a year, and we will make it easier for companies to run apprenticeships. We are proposing a £2,000 bonus for each apprenticeship at a small or medium-sized enterprise, and we shall also provide an additional £5 million to make it easier for small employers to come together and form group training associations. In that way they will be able to pool their resources and talents to create and run their own apprenticeship schemes. We also plan to introduce a business skills development fund to promote the non-apprenticeship skills that businesses need and employees want. We are really engaged with skills, training and the types of apprenticeship that will lead to sustained work, which is what we need to talk about.
Welfare reform has featured throughout the debate. I have to chide the Government for making serious proposals only in their 11th year in office. The Conservative party made proposals before the Government did so. We want reforms in Jobcentre Plus so that, as soon as an individual enters the system, there is early assessment of their skills and the barriers to their working. We differ from the Government, who say that the work of private, not-for-dividend providers should begin only after 12 months. We think that the situation is too urgent to leave people without an early in-depth assessment.
We want individualised support to help people get back to work. That theme has featured throughout the debate, expressed skilfully by the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry). My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) and the hon. Member for South Derbyshire spoke particularly movingly about autistic people—an issue about which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) feels strongly, too.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Henley both on his excellent contribution and on recently joining the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, where I am sure he will make a valuable contribution. We shall note his warnings this afternoon about what the Netherlands has not got right.
We expect our proposed employment programmes and welfare reforms to provide much better job-search facilities, specialised training to increase suitability for work, personalised career and recruitment advice, with interview training with real employers, and greater help in preparing CVs. We believe that the private and voluntary sectors have something to offer. The results for organisations such as Tomorrow’s People, which was mentioned earlier—as was Debbie Scott—show that they have a good record. When we look at the research on the subject, there is no dispute about that. We believe in a partnership approach. Let us not get into stale, state versus private arguments, but simply look at how we can help people. We should find out what works and use it.
We should talk about what we can do to help businesses, which are suffering at present. My party colleagues have often talked about the need for reform of the insolvency system, yet each time we have mentioned it the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions says, “There’s no need—it’s all been dealt with by the Government in an earlier Act.” I shall explore briefly what we think we can do to help businesses keep people in work.
We want to introduce an automatic stay of enforcement of debt against a company by its financial creditors, while the management stay in place and attempt to negotiate restructuring. We want priority funding for distressed companies. In America, unlike the UK, firms in chapter 11 can raise finance even after they have petitioned for bankruptcy. Lenders will advance them money in exchange for “super priority” over other unsecured creditors; in fact, there is a whole market for such rescue funding in the US that does not exist in the UK.
No Member can want fundamentally decent businesses to go under if an extra financial lifeline could be thrown to see them through these hard times. I implore the Government to look again at those proposals. We will be happy to share our ideas; we may not have the last word on the matter but we really believe that there is something useful we can learn from the United States.
Businesses are suffering, so we propose cutting the main rate of corporation tax from 28p to 25p and reversing the Government’s planned increase in the small company rate from 20p to 22p. I find it incredible that in the current economic conditions the Government propose to increase the rate of corporation tax for small companies, which my colleagues will definitely oppose. Cutting corporate tax rates would be an important boost to the competitiveness of the British economy. We would pay for them by scrapping some of the tax reliefs that businesses and accountants find it difficult to administer, so there would be a simplicity advantage, too.
Encouraging flexible working will be key in helping people to stay in work and to balance their caring commitments. We also want a great expansion of personalised budgets, to help people to get back into work. There have been big advances in that respect in the area of social care. We want to break down the departmental silos. We want to pool budgets, intervene early, and work with whole families, inter-generationally if necessary.
Let me go back to where I began. We will not deal with problems of the scale that we face unless we are honest about recognising them. The hon. Member for Llanelli said that the UK economy had been vastly superior to that of our European neighbours in recent years. I wonder whether she knows that the United Kingdom’s employment growth in 2007 was one of the lowest in Europe. That was in 2007, before our present difficulties began. The UK’s employment growth was level with that of Estonia, and we beat only Hungary and Portugal. That is a pretty shocking international comparison.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman realises that that was because other economies were catching up; they had been very slow to start with. Countries such as France, which were very slow to get their economy moving, were beginning to pick up. We had already had a large increase in our economy, so we did not look so good in comparison.
I hear what the hon. Lady says, but is she aware that the UK has a higher proportion of children living in workless households than any other EU country, including Bulgaria and Romania? Frankly, the international comparisons are not quite as rosy as some Labour Members would have us believe. The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) said that there are 1.3 million young people aged 16 to 24 who are not in work or full-time education; that is 19 per cent. more than in 1997. As for the Department’s claim that long-term unemployment has been virtually eradicated, I wonder whether Ministers are aware that more than one in 10 jobseeker’s allowance claimants have spent six of the last seven years on benefits? Let us just have honesty. I do not want to have to score points on these issues; my contention is that we will not deal with the serious questions unless we are a bit more open and honest about the real situation that we face.
I have set out why we believe that the need for real welfare reform is urgent, that non-EU migration into a shrinking job market must be capped, that skills training must be enhanced, and that businesses must be given the practical support and confidence that they need to survive and prosper in future.
This has been a very good debate. Members on both sides of the House have made excellent contributions. The speeches have varied; some Members told heart-rending stories from their constituency surgeries, and others brought up more specific issues. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) discussed housing benefit, an issue that she has rightly pursued for some time.
At the beginning and the end of the debate, the Opposition spokesmen attempted to say that we had not secured any achievements on child poverty. Well, we have secured achievements on child poverty. When we say so and compare our record to the Opposition’s, they say, “Oh, that was 11 years ago.” As many Labour Members have said, it is not about saying but about doing. When the Opposition had their chance to do something, they froze child benefit year after year. We were at the bottom of the league when it came to child poverty in Europe. If the Conservative party wants to draw a line under that, and accept that we have moved on and that things are fine, we would accept that, but it tries to rubbish our achievements. We have taken 600,000 children out of poverty, and have put resources into the budget to ensure that we continue with our target to eradicate child poverty within a generation.
It is a challenging target, and we put in more resources at the last Budget. [Interruption.] Did the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) support that Budget? No, he did not. He talks about the issue, but will not act or put up the money. Furthermore, we have introduced our programme pathways to work, which has been applauded across the board. The Opposition chose not to mention pathways to work, but my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) referred to the 10 per cent. increase in the number of disabled people entering work. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) chose neither to talk about that achievement nor to welcome it.
There are many other examples of the progress that we have made. Indeed, the Opposition referred to their proposed reforms, but they came out of the Freud report, which the Government commissioned. The hon. Members for South-West Bedfordshire and for Forest of Dean both sought to deny our achievements, but we recognise what we have done, while realising that it is important to find other ways to move the agenda forward, particularly during the economic downturn that we face.
I welcome the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood made, and he, along with several colleagues, applauded our hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire). She held my current position for three and a half years; she was supportive and did a great deal of valuable work, so it is an honour for me to follow in her footsteps. Much of the work that she undertook helped to reduce the number of unemployed disabled people and to produce that 10 per cent. increase.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood, like a number of colleagues, referred to people with mental health issues or fluctuating conditions seeking employment, and the test of our reforms will be whether we can increase the number of people with mental health issues who enter employment. As part of that plan, we will undertake some pilot programmes and work in London alongside Mind to consider what works. It is important that we undertake those programmes to ensure that we work out the detail and get it right, because if we get it right and learn the lessons, we will avoid making mistakes down the line which cause distress and disappointment to those people whom we seek to help.
My hon. Friend mentioned the access to work resource, which we are increasing, and he said that he had seen it in action. I, too, have seen it in action. I was in Croydon a couple of weeks ago with a specialist private sector employment agency, 83 per cent. of whose staff are deaf. It provides employment opportunities for deaf people, and without pathways to work and the access to work scheme, it would not have been able to achieve what it has. While I was there, the agency found two people a job, and staff members said that, every day, they were finding people work. They were using their connections and relationships with a range of different employers to find opportunities for people to undertake work experience in the first instance, and many of those people then found employment. Those things did not happen under the Conservative Administration; it is reasonable for me to say that. We have improved the situation, but we need to learn lessons, and we will do so as we take forward our programme.
My hon. Friend and other Members talked about the difference in the quality of service that people receive from council to council, from local authority to local authority, and that is a frustration. How can we achieve greater uniformity across the piece? We will not do so by using levers in Whitehall. We are not going to push a lever to make everything the same across every council area. That is not going to happen—it is not our direction of travel.
I believe that there is consensus among the political parties in that we all want local decision making, so how can we better engender an application that fits the needs of local service users with the services being provided by councils and other public sector organisations? Two mechanisms will be involved. The first is the local area agreements which, I believe, have cross-party support. They will bring together the service providers within a local area and enable them to talk to user groups and identify how services are to be developed. They are still in their infancy but, as they mature—and as the different charities and parent organisations better understand the new infrastructure for local government and in the local areas—they will be able to take part and they will be listened to. Better still, local authorities and health authorities will be able to respond to any concerns that are expressed by parent groups or user groups.
In addition, we are seeing the advent of individual budgets. We have conducted 13 pilots around England, involving a variety of rural, urban and suburban authorities, to determine how people can use their budgets to make decisions for themselves on which services they get. The evaluation of the pilots has shown that young disabled people and people with mental health problems in particular have found individual budgets empowering, as they enable them to decide who provides their services, and when and where they are provided.
We need to do some more work on elderly care and for adults with learning disabilities. However, we can envisage the day—as we carry out the pilots, and learn more in order to get this right—when we will be able to bring together national and local benefits, and when individuals on their own can determine the services that they receive. Also, a situation might arise in which a group of disabled people, for example, come together jointly to commission services, pooling their individual budgets. With people working together to match up the local area agreements with individual budgets, it is possible to see how a better, more consistent level of services could be achieved across the piece. That is part of our reform process.
We are very much in agreement with the proposals for individual budgets. I think the Government said that about 1.7 million people receiving social care were potentially eligible for an individual budget, and that it was planned that all those people would have the option of getting such a budget over the next three years. Now that the evaluation has taken place and been reported to the Government, can the Minister give us an idea of how quickly he thinks this process will move forward, especially for the categories of people he has just mentioned, who might particularly benefit from having individual budgets?
We want to get on to them as soon as possible, but it is important to get this right, particularly as we try to align some of the national benefits with what is happening at local level. That presents some interesting challenges, and there will be different views on these issues across the various groups that the hon. Gentleman and I both talk to. For example, when I have spoken to the Disability Charities Consortium, I have heard mixed views on how devolving a national benefit such as the disability living allowance down to local level will impact on individuals. Some people might be concerned about that because, in the main, DLA works well for people. This is all part of the debate that we need to have, but that is our direction of travel—
I am not going to give way just at the moment.
We have had the pilots, and we are evaluating them. We shall then have the discussion on how to take the programme forward. If the hon. Gentleman were to join that debate, rather than just saying “Get on with it!”, I am sure he would be able to make a more sophisticated contribution. I have every confidence that he will do that.
There are real issues about devolving allowances such as DLA, but I do not want to go there. I want to ask about portability. As a former local councillor, I am keen on some localism, but most disabled people I know are not clamouring for localism to continue in respect of care packages. However, if it does continue, when will there be portability from one local authority area to another? At present, people are imprisoned in their local authorities, are they not?
That is the clash: local services being accountable to the local council and also having levers of requirement from the centre. Those are the competing demands.
I mentioned the local area agreements, but we are also seeing the advent of multi-area agreements. We may see local authorities all signing up to portability in a multi-area agreement, as my hon. Friend hopes. However, we have to resolve the clash of competing demands. One authority may choose to put a great deal more resources into social care than another, and the local electorate may support that. However, through the independent living fund we have committed to ensuring greater consistency across the piece. That is part of the debate as we go forward.
I want to refer to a few of the comments made by other hon. Members. The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) referred to contracts and concern about specialist providers having part of the market. That is absolutely right. Within the structure, we need a system that allows entrepreneurialism to come through and small specialist providers to meet the needs of specific groups. I referred to a group in Croydon that I visited a couple of weeks ago, and many other providers offer such services. Earlier I mentioned Mind, the association with which we will set up a pilot for people with fluctuating conditions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) mentioned fluctuating conditions and her conversation with the Secretary of State in acknowledging that the issue is difficult and we need to improve it vastly. I am certainly committed to ensuring that the issue gets the attention it deserves. I shall be closely watching the contracts in the roll-out and how they ensure that they do not cherry-pick and provide employment opportunities only for what my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood referred to as the low-hanging fruit; the issue is also about those who are more difficult to place. That will be the test of our reforms.
My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean), who is in her place, is the chair of the all-party group on autism and also has an interest in lupus. She referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling. She discussed the reduction in unemployment in her constituency between 1997 and 2007 and mentioned the partnership between the GMB and JCB in her constituency. We want such partnerships to go forward. That partnership and positive working were part of what made it possible for the company to land that £23 million order in Russia. We all welcome that. My hon. Friend also mentioned the all-party beer group, for which she has worked hard, and I shall pass on her remarks to my colleagues at the Treasury. Like many hon. Members, my hon. Friend referred to Jobcentre Plus and the staff who work there. I know that they will be grateful for hon. Members’ comments.
The Jobcentre Plus environment is very different from what it was during downturns in the past, when jobcentres had screwed-down seats and were places of despair with screens. If a person who had lost their job walked into a place like that, it did not uplift them or give them reason to be optimistic. We invested in Jobcentre Plus; the Conservatives did not. When we had the opportunity, we did it; when the Conservatives had the opportunity, they did not. That is the difference between us. Nailed-down seats were adequate for unemployed people in the ’80s and ’90s; they are not adequate for people under a Labour Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Burton also referred to the NHS and the impact of getting timely treatment, which is very important.
The speech by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), who is not in his place, was a tour de force. In previous debates we have discussed angling, which, as I am sure many hon. Members are aware, is one of his loves. He talked about the young woman whom he met when he spent the day at the Jobcentre Plus in his constituency, who was bursting with energy and wanting to work. He also referred to people who did not take the opportunity to work, and spoke about not sending me letters and telling his constituents, if he felt they should be working, that they should go and get a job.
Within any system, there will be people who choose to abuse it. It is particularly galling for someone on a low income to see someone abusing the system, because they are working hard and can see that someone is not playing by the rules. However, as part of this conversation we must recognise that many disabled people—they may have a mental health condition; they may have autism, or be a wheelchair user—want to get a job and have tried repeatedly to get one. We need to be careful with our language. Of course people should play by the rules, but we do not want to tar everyone with the same brush. People who are feeling fed up because they cannot get a job do not want us as Members of Parliament to do that, particularly at this time. We praise and salute people’s efforts in that regard.
The star of the evening, by universal acclaim, was my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, who brought to the House a story about a young woman in her constituency. She highlighted the difficulties of getting housing, training and employment opportunities and talked about accelerating the interconnectivity that is required across the work of Government. We need to build more social housing. Earlier, I challenged the Conservatives to say which part of the programmes that we have announced since the downturn they would cut. One of those programmes brings forward additional social housing. I hope that they will support that additional housing, because it is needed in every constituency. In my own region, 200,000 people are on the waiting list. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has advised me that we are looking to the conclusions of the housing benefit review, which must include work incentives. She said that any proposals will be tested against the very good case that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham brought to the House. I thank her for her contribution.
The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) talked about his support for the work ethic, and I think that the whole House would agree with him. He talked about the difficult times that his constituency has faced, and he made an important point about the relationship between someone who is not in work and their general practitioner. I can advise him that, as part of the employment support allowance programme, the Department has spoken to GPs. We have provided advice because it is easier for a GP to provide advice if he knows the structure of the new system, and GPs will receive that advice. The hon. Gentleman mentioned incapacity benefit, and people on that benefit will receive it at the current rate—it will stay the same.
My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) praised the minimum wage and the difference that it made in her constituency. She talked about the right to flexible working. If I recall correctly, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire mentioned flexible working, but when the Opposition had the chance to vote for and support paid leave, they did not do it. The first instalment was four weeks’ paid leave, and when they had the opportunity, the Opposition voted against it. When we introduced flexible working, Opposition Members chose to vote against it, but many of them have taken advantage of that policy. Again, when they had the chance to do something, they did not do it. We will say what we have done, and compare our records. That is completely legitimate.
I heard the second half of the speech of the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell). I thank him for going to a Jobcentre Plus and for acknowledging the good work done there. It is much appreciated.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) talked about flexibility in retirement, and referred to lollipop ladies and men—my late mother was a lollipop lady. He has made those points before, and it is the case that for some people in retirement, doing work makes a huge difference. As he said, it is good for the individual and for society as a whole. I will pass on the remarks that he made. Like so many things, the issue is about the balance between what the Government want to provide for the individual in society and how much expenditure we have. My hon. Friend referred to an autistic adult, and his story about Jobcentre Plus was not so positive. The mood of the debate generally reflected a positive view of Jobcentre Plus, but we obviously do not get it right every time, and we have to work harder.
The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) made an intervention on autism; last night, I was at the National Autistic Society, where I met people with autism who were in employment. The hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) talked about a young man in his constituency who is making a great contribution to the company where he works. He said that the young gentleman did not turn up to work one morning. That would have been out of his routine, and the employer understood that. In general, people with autism are always on time—they are never late. They start a task and they finish it, and they can operate at a higher level in many circumstances than any of us in this Chamber. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is a matter of ensuring that employers get that message. We have a programme called “Employ ability”, and it promotes the employment of people with a disability. We need to consider real-life examples of that. He is also right to say that we all have a role to play. It is not just a matter of asking the Government what they can do—we can all play a role by talking to employers across our constituency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak referred to the support and encouragement that she wants to see for lone parents. We are providing that, but it is reasonable, if we are providing a package of support through all our welfare reforms, and putting in that time and effort, to want people to engage with us. We are saying not that they have to get a job, but that they have to engage with us—get the necessary skills and training to go for a job, produce a CV and so on.
The debate has been good and we have run through a range of issues. We will have differences, and Labour Members will continue to point out where the Conservative party failed, where we will succeed and where we need to try harder. However, the general tone of the debate reflected the consensus that, in the downturn, we need to help people and work with them so that, when the recovery comes, we are as match fit as possible to take advantage of it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of work and welfare.