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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 483: debated on Monday 24 November 2008

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Cold Weather Payment

1. How many households in Milton Keynes he estimates will be eligible for cold weather payments if the temperature falls below the level which triggers payment of the allowance in 2008-09. (237962)

We estimate that the number of households that would be eligible this winter for a cold weather payment in Milton Keynes, should such payments be triggered, is 84,000.

I am sure that my constituents will welcome the extra money should it be required, but would it not be a better long-term solution to insulate more houses more effectively? Is my right hon. Friend’s Department considering sharing data with other Departments, so that Warm Front grants, for example, can be more effectively targeted at those who are known to be on low incomes because they are in receipt of various benefits?

My hon. Friend raises the important question of how we get the information to people who may be eligible. As I am sure that she knows, people on certain means-tested benefits are eligible for Warm Front grants, but they have to claim them. We are working with the Department for Energy and Climate Change to make sure that we can use some of the ways that we used to ensure that people on lower incomes were aware of benefits such as pension credit. We will work with the Department for Energy and Climate Change on that basis.

Of course, many of the households in Milton Keynes that the Minister mentioned will be made up of pensioners, who will be delighted that finally, after months of dithering, the Government have renewed the Post Office card account contract. Does she not believe that those pensioners should be allowed to use that account to pay their utility bills, so that they can enjoy the benefits gained by others who pay by direct debit?

Pensioners are already able to arrange a direct debit payment with other banks, but in the longer term, we will of course look at ways in which the Post Office card account could increase its functionality.

Domestic Heating Engineers

2. What steps the Health and Safety Executive takes to ensure that workers in the installation and maintenance of domestic heating systems are fully qualified. (237963)

Gas safety law requires work in domestic premises to be performed only by competent people. The law also requires installers to register with the HSE-approved body, CORGI. That includes demonstrating that employees are approved in the correct way. Self-employed installers must also fulfil those requirements. The HSE enforces the law.

My hon. Friend will know that three of my constituents, including a little boy of 10, Dominic Rodgers, were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. Many of us in this House are part of a campaign to make sure that such a thing never happens again. CORGI is to end as a brand, and as a trainer, and Capita will take over, so it is a sensitive time for the gas industry and its safety. Can my hon. Friend assure me that the transition will be smooth, and that in April we will have a better product than we do now?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and I am aware of the campaign that he has been involved with in his constituency relating to the Dominic Rodgers Trust. There has been a reduction in the number of fatalities due to carbon monoxide poisoning, and we continue the work of raising awareness. He is right to point out that the transition arrangements for the new contract awarded by the HSE will include further awareness-raising, and will allow a smooth transition to ensure that customers and installers are aware of the new requirements under the contract.

CORGI estimates that as many as 20,000 people are working illegally with gas in the UK. What more can the Government do to ensure that the public are aware of the dangers of employing unqualified workers?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. He is right: about 10 per cent. of installations are still carried out by people who are not registered with CORGI, and more needs to be done on that. As part of the arrangements for the new contract with Capita, that body will donate about £1.7 million to a charity. My noble Friend Lord McKenzie is asking other energy providers to put in resources, too. That fund will be used further to raise awareness. The more we do to raise awareness, the greater the reduction in the number of fatalities will be.

Will my hon. Friend ensure that engineers who install heating systems are well aware of some of the toxic substances that surround heating systems, such as asbestos? Will he make sure that people get the proper equipment when working with that toxic substance, which causes disease, as there are long-term cancerous effects from working with it?

My hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention to the necessity for people receiving installations to ensure that the fitter is reputable and properly registered, and to workers’ health and safety, and I am grateful for his comments.

In 2005, two young people died in my constituency of carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of inadequately attended gas installations. Two pensioners died a year ago in my constituency for the same reason, and, 10 days ago, another pensioner died of suspected carbon monoxide poisoning, and his wife was lucky to survive. Will my hon. Friend do everything that he can to promote the use of carbon monoxide monitors to complement the work that he talks about, perhaps by ensuring, for example, that every time a house is sold, the home information pack requires there to be a carbon monoxide monitor in the house?

As I said in answer to an earlier question, under the new arrangements, the operator, Capita, will put in substantial sums of money, and we want there to be further amounts of money to raise awareness, so that people know that the installation of their gas central heating system, which is the predominant heating source in this country, will be undertaken by an appropriately qualified installer. I shall pass on my hon. Friend’s comments about monitors to my noble Friend Lord McKenzie as he works with the industry to ensure that the number of deaths continues to fall.

Jobseeker's Allowance

3. How many jobseeker’s allowance claimants there were in (a) the UK and (b) Ludlow constituency on the latest date for which figures are available. (237964)

The number of people in the UK claiming jobseeker’s allowance in October was 980,900. In Ludlow, the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance was 651.

I am delighted that the Secretary of State is aware that unemployment in Ludlow has gone up by 10.5 per cent. in the past year alone, but why are there 300,000 fewer British people in work today than two years ago, while there are almost 1 million migrant workers in work?

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, we totally understand that people will be worried about the economic circumstances, and our commitment is to do everything that we can to help people get back into work if they lose their job. That is why we have announced, for example, an extra £100 million—to do exactly that. We will do that to ensure that we never reach the unemployment levels that we had in the past—almost 3,000 people, not 651, in his constituency—at the height of the previous recession.

The fact that the numbers of people on jobseeker’s allowances are rising is, nevertheless, a big contrast compared with the 1980s and 1990s, when people were just abandoned in the terrible Tory years. [Interruption.] As we are entering a period of turbulence in the jobs markets and rising unemployment, will my right hon. Friend specifically look at the question of people not receiving their benefit and support quickly, if not immediately, particularly in respect of mortgage relief and of those who are made redundant? People should receive their benefit right away and then be helped back into work, instead of languishing for a period in no-person’s land.

We are introducing today the lone parent changes, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for that radical welfare reform package, for which he was responsible. He is absolutely right: we need to ensure that we get people their benefits as soon as possible, and that is why we have brought forward the help that people receive if they lose their job and need to pay their mortgage, from 39 weeks, as it was under the Conservative Government, to 13 weeks.

I know that Opposition Members did not like it, but my right hon. Friend was absolutely right to remind them that in the ’80s and ’90s, millions of people were abandoned when the Conservatives massaged the figures to get people on to incapacity benefit. We will not repeat that mistake.

Given that the number of new jobseeker’s allowance claims is rising quickly alongside unemployment, and that Government policy changes mean that an extra 350,000 people will be moved on to JSA between now and 2011, at the same time as the Department for Work and Pensions plans another 7,000 job cuts on top of the 16,000 jobs that have already been lost, will the Secretary of State guarantee that Jobcentre Plus staff will have the time and resources to deal with the increasing work load? Does he agree that this is the time to recruit more Jobcentre Plus staff, rather than to continue with job cuts?

The hon. Lady is right to say that we need to make a commitment to do everything that we can to help people find their next job. However, she misunderstands the nature of the efficiency changes that we have made; they are about moving people from back-office jobs to the front line. Actually, there are 1,500 more personal advisers today than two years ago, so we have got more people to the front line. On top of that, we are retaining an extra 2,000 people who were helping us with the introduction of the employment and support allowance; they will now help us with the higher volume of claims. The hon. Lady will have to wait for the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s announcement later this afternoon to see whether anything further is coming.

Will my right hon. Friend look towards ensuring that there is a skill match for people who have lost their jobs and that if those people need to be trained, training is available immediately, rather than their having to wait a long time before qualifying? That would begin to help the situation at Leyland Trucks, where jobs have, tragically, been lost. With a bit of skill matching and extra training, we can get those skilled people back into work. That is the kind of support that they need. Will my right hon. Friend look towards assisting them?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The earlier we can get help to people, the easier it will be for them to find their next job. That is exactly what we want to do. We want to make sure that the rapid response service helps people when redundancies are announced, before they even lose their jobs, so that they can be provided with help on retraining. As my hon. Friend says, with a small amount of retraining, people with good skills can get back into work quickly. That is exactly what the extra £100 million that we have announced is, in part, designed to do.

I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne); he did not even attempt to answer my hon. Friend’s point about the impact of migrant workers. As the recession bites and unemployment rises, what plans does the right hon. Gentleman have to make representations to the migration advisory committee, so that when it considers shortage occupations, it looks first at people who will be helped by the Government’s welfare reform programme, rather than bringing in people from outside the country to do those jobs?

Is the Conservative party against migration now? The tone of its questioning is getting suspiciously close to that. It is important that we have a system for managing migration effectively, and that is exactly why we are bringing in the system based on the Australian points system. However, it is important to remember that in the past 10 years we have gone from being the poorest country in the G7 to being the second richest. Three million more people are in work than in 1997. We come from a context in which, earlier this year, we had the lowest unemployment count since the 1970s and the highest employment ever. We now need to make sure that we do everything that we can to help people fairly through the coming downturn. That absolutely involves welfare reform to get people back into work.

Occupational Pensions

The Government have introduced a more powerful and proactive pensions regulator to protect the benefits of occupational pension scheme members. The Pension Protection Fund and the financial assistance scheme provide protection to members of eligible defined-benefit occupational pension schemes.

In recent years, there has been a dramatic fall in the number of defined-benefit pension schemes, and that issue is likely to be exacerbated by the slump in the stock market. A gap has therefore opened up between provision in the private and public sectors, and there are those who suggest that the way to solve the problem is to reduce benefits in the public sector. Surely, however, we should be looking at the issue exactly the other way round. What more can my right hon. Friend do to try to protect and enhance defined-benefit schemes in the private sector, so that we can ensure dignity in retirement?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to achieve a balance between protecting employees’ benefits and the promises made to employees, and encouraging employers to continue to contribute to the schemes that they have set up. That is exactly what we intend to do. We are considering where we can reduce regulation—for example, by reducing the section 75 obligations when they get in the way of people restructuring appropriately. Furthermore, we have changed the inflation indexation and made it absolutely clear through the pensions regulator that contributions have to be affordable and should not put a business at risk. That is the right approach: balancing protecting people’s benefits with encouraging employers to continue to contribute.

Are we not looking towards a future in which only compulsory state earnings-related pension schemes for everyone, with good defined benefits, will make sure that there is no poverty in old age?

My hon. Friend is right to say that the additional part of the state pension is vital. That is why I am sure that he welcomes the changes that we have made to the state second pension; they will bring equality for women, recognise caring contributions and make the system an awful lot simpler. I am sure that he will also welcome the huge changes that will come through the implementation of the Turner commission’s recommendations. That will mean that instead of only a minority of people benefiting from company pensions, as in the past, all employees will have the right to an occupational pension matched by the Government and their employer. That fundamental change will increase people’s benefits and bring them equality, as was never achieved in the past.

As more employers become insolvent during the recession, will the Secretary of State have to come back to the House and ask for an increase in the levy for the Pension Protection Fund? If not, how will he balance the need to have enough money in the scheme to meet calls on it and yet not overload pension schemes, which are already closing under the sort of pressure that he has mentioned?

The Pension Protection Fund announced very recently that it did not foresee any increase in the levy and that it would keep it at its current level. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is glad that we fixed the roof while the sun was shining and brought in the pensions regulator and the PPF. That is in huge contrast to the Government whom he supported, who were warned about this by Labour Members in the ’90s and did absolutely nothing about it, so that we then had to pick up the pieces through the financial assistance scheme.

Given the importance of occupational pension security, which many workers feel is as important to them as the asset of their own home, and given the Labour Government’s proud record in introducing the regulator and the Pension Protection Fund, can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the new consultation will do nothing at all to diminish the responsibilities of employers to workers’ pensions?

Yes, absolutely. We have made that very clear in the consultation. Our aim is to make it possible for companies to have legitimate business restructuring, but only where the employer covenant remains just as strong. That is why the pensions regulator is there, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the important role that he played in my Department in ensuring that these changes were brought in.

When I asked the Department in July how many final salary schemes were in deficit, the answer was 5,000, but the then Minister showed no particular concern about or interest in this matter. Will the Secretary of State give an updated figure for the number of such schemes and tell us what he will do about the large number of companies that are, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said, obliged to top up final salary schemes in deficit and to pay escalating fees to the Pension Protection Fund, all in the middle of a recession? Will he now grip this problem rather than simply abandoning it?

We are gripping the problem. That is exactly why the pensions regulator gave the advice to which I referred earlier, which is that people have to continue to address their deficits but what they do must be affordable in the current economic circumstances. The last thing that anyone would want us to do is to push out of business a company that has a perfectly viable future, because of contributions being made at this very moment— but the pensions regulator has to be assured that those contributions will be made so that the deficit is addressed. On the hon. Gentleman’s specific point about the figure, I will write to him with the latest information.

Will the Secretary of State confirm to the House that it is only under his Government that over 70,000 occupational pension schemes have been wound up since 1997, and that savings in those that survive have halved in just the past 18 months? Does his consultation on the obligations of employers towards pension deficits show a dawning realisation on his part that heaping extra costs and red tape on to these schemes has served only to hasten their demise?

As the hon. Gentleman knows very well, the trend in defined-benefit schemes has been the same all around the world. Employers have been trying to get those risks off their balance sheets. Indeed, the Turner commission said that the previous system was a fool’s paradise where people were making promises that they could not afford to pay for, and where Governments of both colours, including the hon. Gentleman’s, loaded regulation on to schemes through legislation. We are now addressing that. As he knows—I think that his party supports this—we have changed the rules on indexation, we are examining the section 75 provisions, and we are looking into overriding scheme rules where that is appropriate. However, we need to do that in a way that protects employees, because it would be wrong to unwind the promises made to people who decided to work for those companies on the basis of such promises.

Mortgage Support

5. What support his Department offers in respect of mortgage repayments to people who have lost their jobs. (237966)

As part of income-related benefits, help is available towards the interest on mortgages. We have announced that from January 2009 help will be available for the first £175,000 of the mortgage for new working-age claims and that, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the waiting period for new claims will be reduced from 39 to 13 weeks. We are considering the effect that the 1.5 per cent reduction in the Bank of England base rate will have on the standard interest rate, and we will make an announcement in due course.

The loss of a home can have the most traumatic effects on a family, and in the long term can cost us all significantly more in human and financial terms than the cost of saving the mortgage in the first place. Will he do all that he can to ensure that protection from eviction lies at the heart of our Government’s policy?

I will certainly do all that I can on income-related benefits, and I will pass my hon. Friend’s concern on to those in the Government who have already taken significant action on the points that he raises about housing. We will have to wait and see whether anything else is forthcoming when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor makes his statement later on today.

Will the Minister tell the House how many people will be affected by the time limitation he is introducing in January 2009?

At the moment, considerable help is being afforded people. As and when more claims are made between now and 2009—

I do not know, and neither does the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] With respect, neither does the hon. Gentleman, for all his pomposity. It is simply a shift from 39 weeks to 13 weeks. Anyone who claims from January onwards will be directly impacted.

I welcome what the Minister has said. Would he agree that the thrust of Government policy has got to be to keep people in their own homes in this difficult period? I welcome what he said about help with mortgage payments being given wherever possible, but does he agree that where it is not possible, we need to keep people in their own homes? If necessary, the Government should take over property and convert mortgages into rents.

I am not sure about my hon. Friend’s last point, but as she rightly implies, the help given is but one small element of what the Government can do to help people protect their homes, and to ensure that they keep them. I agree with her broad point that the Government should work across the piece—much more broadly than the work of the Department for Work and Pensions—to ensure that people’s homes are preserved, especially in a period of economic downturn.

I welcome the Minister’s first answer, even though he seems to have gone slightly downhill since. Can he explain why the system, which has been encouraging people to own homes for the past 11 years, and quite rightly so, still does much more to support those paying rent than those paying a mortgage, even among those with modest incomes in modest houses? I welcome the changes, but why does the system still prefer those in rented accommodation?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I am not sure that he is entirely right about discrimination in the system in favour of tenants rather than home owners. There are, after all, two entirely different prevailing legal circumstances. With regard to income-related benefits, we are trying to do all that we can to provide support to both the home owner, given their circumstances, and the tenant, given theirs. They are not entirely comparable in the way the hon. Gentleman implies.

Housing Benefit

6. What assessment he has made of recent trends in expenditure on housing benefit for those in the private rented sector. (237967)

Expenditure on housing benefit for those in the private sector has increased in recent years, driven by increases in rents and a shift towards the private sector in the rental market as a whole. The latest forecasts of case load and expenditure will be published alongside this afternoon’s pre-Budget report.

A lot of media attention has been paid recently to a handful of cases of homeless households on housing benefit being placed in very expensive accommodation in the private rented sector. In seeking to respond to some of those extremes when looking at the wider reform of housing benefit, will my hon. Friend assure me that it is not the Government’s intention to ensure that swathes of our towns and cities are no longer affordable for low-income households, particularly bearing in mind that housing benefit is an in-work benefit? Will she avoid the trap we have fallen into so often in the past of crowding low-income households together into estates, communities and whole boroughs? That way lies all the social problems we are working so hard to overcome.

My hon. Friend is right to make that point. There is an intrinsic value in mixed communities, but an issue of fairness arises when people on benefits have access to higher quality accommodation than working families could possibly countenance. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has taken steps to cap the housing benefit rate at five bedrooms. As we develop our housing review proposals, I would be happy to work with my hon. Friend to test them against the circumstances in her constituency.

The decision to cut the backdating time limit will reduce the take-up of benefits, increase pensioner poverty and cause distress to many elder citizens. How can the Under-Secretary justify it?

We are working with lobby groups to make it far easier, especially for pensioners, to access the benefits to which they are entitled by reducing the number of separate forms that they have to fill in and creating greater behind-the-scenes liaison between the various parts of the public sector, thus ensuring that people get the help that they need and to which they have a right.

A landlord with 30 properties in my constituency came to me the other week and said that the new system whereby the rent rebate is paid straight into the tenant’s bank means that, unfortunately, when tenants are overdrawn, the banks take the rent and he does not get it. He has two or three tenants who are at least three or four weeks behind and he is having to take proceedings against them.

On the whole, the system is working well, but the new regulations contain provisions, which, without knowing the specific details of the case, I would think that my hon. Friend’s landlords could invoke. They provide that, if there is a genuine risk to the payment being passed to the landlord, direct payments can recommence. I therefore advise my hon. Friend to talk to his local authority to investigate that. However, across the board, a large increase in financial inclusion has occurred as a result of the proposals that we implemented.

The former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), was right to mention a few moments ago the slow processing of benefits. Does the Under-Secretary know that in some parts of the country people are waiting nine to 10 weeks to have a new housing benefit claim processed? If they have just lost their job, they do not want nine to 10 weeks of rent arrears. In other parts of the country, because of the way in which the boundaries of the broad market rental areas are drawn, some people experience huge difficulty in finding properties with the local housing allowance that they are given. Will the Under-Secretary undertake to examine those two injustices seriously?

The hon. Gentleman raises two issues that are local authorities’ responsibility. I share the concern when some local authorities process benefits relatively swiftly and others take longer. In the latter case, we always put in resources to support those authorities and try to encourage the spread of best practice. However, the hon. Gentleman’s question would be better addressed to the local authorities that should improve their performance.

Does the Under-Secretary share my concern about the many houses in the private sector that were originally council houses, which were bought at a considerable discount, that now have families in them who pay no rent but have the whole amount paid by the public sector through social services or social security? That means that, in many cases, the public sector pays for the house twice over because the madness of the Rent Service produces a rent for a former council house that is twice that of the council house next door. We must take steps to remedy that. What Anthony Crosland called the dog’s breakfast of housing finance appears not to have gone way. It is still biting hard.

Conservative party proposals led to a decision that, in its words, let housing benefit take the strain. That is one of the reasons for our new review of housing benefit. We want to ensure that it is fair to the taxpayer and individual families.

Lone Parents

7. What assistance his Department gives to lone parents to enable them to (a) return to and (b) remain in work. (237968)

Lone parents have access to a comprehensive package of in-work and out-of-work support and advice via the new deal for lone parents, which has, to date helped more than 600,000 people into work nationally, including 560 in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. With more people losing their jobs and fewer jobs becoming available, can she reassure me that lone parents on benefits, who are already among the very poorest, who cannot find good child care or suitable work will not have their benefit sanctioned?

The lack of availability and the high cost of child care are two reasons why it is difficult for lone parents, particularly parents of younger children, to return to work. What is the Minister’s Department doing to encourage greater access to child care and will she comment on the lower number of child minders over recent months?

The number of child care places has doubled under this Government. The hon. Lady mentions child minders. The proposals that we are introducing—they start today and will be rolled out over the next two years—apply to parents whose youngest child is seven and who will therefore be in full-time education. We have also introduced extra flexibilities to ensure that the regulations do not apply where neither appropriate child care nor the right kind of work for someone with such responsibilities is available. However, with the new duty on local authorities in England and the introduction of extended schools throughout the country by 2020, we do not think that that problem will be widespread.

Can my hon. Friend give me an assurance that where we encourage parents to look for work under the new regime, in which the age for single parent benefit has been reduced, the system will be one not of coercion, but of encouragement? Will she also look into the types of work that people are encouraged to go into, to ensure that the jobs that they are offered are sustainable?

We want to extend the support that has been available through the new deal for lone parents—and which has been shown to work—to single mums and dads of a much broader age range of children. However, as I said in response to an earlier question, if the job on offer is simply impossible to do because of that family unit’s circumstances, the parent will not be sanctioned for not taking it up. Similarly, appropriate child care must be available. Crucially, however, that is not a decision for a Minister to make; it is part of a conversation that takes place between an experienced professional adviser and the parent in question.

Lone parents are still saying that one of the biggest barriers to moving into work is that they may lose money as a result. That point has been made quite a bit over the weekend, in light of the changes taking place today and the new obligations on lone parents whose child has reached the age of 12. Can my hon. Friend please assure me that lone parents who are moving from benefit into work will always be better off?

Jobseeker’s Allowance

8. How many jobseeker’s allowance claimants there were in (a) the UK and (b) Hammersmith and Fulham constituency at the latest date for which figures are available. (237969)

The number of people in the UK claiming jobseeker’s allowance in October was 980,900. In Hammersmith and Fulham, the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance was 2,188.

The Minister for London will know that at 7.4 per cent., London’s unemployment rate is already the second highest of any UK region. Indeed, it is significantly higher than in either Scotland or Northern Ireland, which receive big public subsidies. Hammersmith and Fulham already suffers from a high unemployment rate. If the Minister came to my constituency, he would see shops and restaurants closing down and overcrowding on the tube and buses declining. Does he agree that now is the time to take another look at the amount of subsidy that London is paying the rest of the country, in an effort to do something about unemployment in our capital city?

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s starting characterisation. What I accept is that London’s employment is particularly high. However, we cannot, as he implied we could, tell the nation—quite rightly—that the Olympics are a matter for the nation and not just London, or tell colleagues that something as significant as Crossrail is a national infrastructure asset, rather than something just for London, and then demand money back because of the geographic location of the City of London. It is utterly simplistic, but not uncommon for the hon. Gentleman, to put things in those terms. Indeed, given the characterisation of London that he draws, he might want to explain—in writing would be perfectly fine—how an amnesty for every illegal immigrant in London, which is currently his Mayor’s position, fits into it.

May I urge the Minister to reconsider the threat of closure that hangs over the Whitstable jobcentre, in my constituency, at a time when there is considerable unemployment along the north Kent coast? Unemployment is rising both nationally and regionally, and the proposal will hit some of the most vulnerable people in my constituency.

I announced in passing last week that, given the economic downturn, I thought it appropriate to review the position regarding not only the 25 closures but the future estate rationalisation plan. I received the hon. Gentleman’s letter last week, and I shall respond to him and other constituency MPs in due course.

Pension Schemes

9. What recent discussions he has had with Treasury Ministers on the effect on pension schemes of Government tax policy since 1997. (237970)

My colleagues and I have frequent contact with Treasury Ministers on a range of issues, including pensions. Together, we are working to encourage pension savings through, for example, the pension reforms in the Pensions Bill that will be considered by the House tomorrow.

Government tax policy has cost pension funds £5 billion every year since 1997, as well as the growth that would have been realised had that money remained invested. Actuaries estimate that in the long term, the sum could reach £100 billion—a sum that might sound rather familiar by the end of this afternoon’s pre-Budget report. Will the Minister acknowledge that that tax policy has had a devastating effect on pension funds and their contributors?

As I am sure the hon. Lady knows, the changes regarding tax credits payable on dividends were made because there was an incentive for companies to pay dividends rather than reinvest in their future through investment in plant and machinery, for example. The changes were part of a package that included the reduction of corporation tax from 33 to 31 per cent. What made the real difference for pension funds and what was in them were the poor stock market conditions that followed.

The actions that we have taken to support the pensions industry, including the measures in the Pensions Bill, will improve the position of pensions saving in this country. That message has been built up following the Turner commission and through political consensus on the need to ensure that pensions saving is improved.

Child Support Agency

10. What progress has been made on the Child Support Agency’s transition to the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission. (237971)

The Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission took responsibility for the Child Support Agency from 1 November 2008, and is on track to meet its target for this financial year, which was set by the Department for Work and Pensions.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. During its existence, the CSA collected more than £6 billion, but billions more are still uncollected. Will that debt pass to the new commission, and will the commission’s new powers cover that debt, or will it be written off?

No part of the targets that I have just mentioned, which were set by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, include collecting more of the debt—another £70 million for this year, raising the sum to £1.08 billion in this financial year. The commission’s new powers are not in force yet, but we expect it to raise the amount of debt that is collected even further.

Does the Minister accept that many Members receive a large number of letters and representations from our constituents about the CSA? I am genuinely seeking information on this issue: what size is the backlog of cases as the CSA is transferred to the new body? The issue is critical, as many of my constituents wait a long time to get the maintenance that they require.

I am extremely happy to write to the hon. Gentleman and let him know exactly how many uncleared applications remain in the system. I can tell him, however, that this year we think that 40,000 more children will benefit; the number is already up 200,000 in the last three years, and the target is 790,000 children benefiting by the end of this financial year. We are also, of course, introducing a disregard for benefits claimants so that the whole operation of the child maintenance system will contribute directly to our child poverty targets—something that the hon. Gentleman’s party did not even seek to influence when it introduced the CSA in the first place.

Topical Questions

The primary responsibility of my Department is to ensure that people keep on getting the support and real help they need to get back to work quickly. I continue to work to ensure that Jobcentre Plus is well placed to help individual cases and to intervene rapidly in cases of major redundancies.

In light of that answer, which included the mention of work, and of the recession, does the Secretary of State agree with UKIP—and, since I see him in his place, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)—that unsustainably high levels of immigration are actually causing problems for the future for jobs in this country? Does the Secretary of State agree that, with rising unemployment, we need to stem the growth in the number of EU nationals being employed in this country, which would also help us to keep the benefit bill down in future years?

It is right to have a managed system. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are bringing in a system based on the Australian points system, which will ensure that we get the best out of migration and the very important contribution that migrants make to our country. It sounds as if the tone of his party and that of the Conservative party are becoming surprisingly similar; perhaps he would like to go back and join the Conservatives again.

T4. With rapid response receiving a huge amount of extra funding and a huge increase in demand, can my right hon. Friend reassure me that private sector employers are actually obliged to open their doors to rapid response? Will he ensure that the work of rapid response is promoted throughout the private sector to small employers who may not know what help it can give? (237990)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we need to promote rapid response to small employers so that they get the help they need, and I am glad that she welcomes the doubling of the rapid response service. We want to make sure that we can help in any situation where there are 20 redundancies; the point is to get there and offer help as early as possible. The contrast is between a Government who are prepared to take real action now—we will hear a little more about that very shortly—and the Conservatives, who have come up with schemes that have fallen apart within 24 hours of being announced.

T2. Why has the Secretary of State chosen this particularly difficult time to hit the least financially sophisticated and our most vulnerable with his swingeing reduction in the period over which pension credit can be backdated? (237988)

In actual fact, the changes regarding backdating fit into a general overall package that will mean that, from October this year, people will be able to find out their state pension entitlement, pension credit entitlement, council tax entitlement and housing benefit entitlement with just one telephone call. That is part of a package that has been generally welcomed by Age Concern and others. Overall, it will mean spending £250 million more in this area by 2050.

T5. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend is aware of the website www.benefitshelpline.com, which is run by a company known as StealthNET, operating out of Great Yarmouth, and offers UK citizens benefit services for the price of £1.50 a minute on a premium rate call? Now that he is aware of this so-called service, will he take steps to ensure that legitimate UK Government paid-for services are privileged over this sort of thing on health search engines and internet search sites? (237991)

My hon. Friend has already raised this particular issue with the Department. We need to make it clear that the Department makes advice on benefits and a wide range of other entitlements easily accessible to everyone through a variety of channels, including information leaflets, telephone helplines, websites and intermediaries. The loudest message needs to be that anyone requiring help on any aspect of the DWP’s work should go through those channels, not through premium-rate channels.

How much money is actually being saved as a result of the change to the backdating rules for the pension credit, moving from 12 months to nine months?

In fact, as the hon. Gentleman knows, in the medium term the package will cost money, because it allows us to pay for increased benefits for people. It has been supported by Age Concern, and I am surprised that he does not support it himself.

What is it about this Government that prevents them from ever answering a straightforward question? I asked the Secretary of State a simple question. This change affects a particular group of vulnerable elderly pensioners, including recently bereaved widows. How much money does the specific change from 12 months to three months actually save?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is part of a package that will cost more money. It allows us to improve the services that we give people, and it allows us to give more people more money. The real contrast is between his party, which wants people to suffer during the downturn and will do nothing to help them, and the extra help that will be announced very shortly and to which I am sure he is looking forward.

T6. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on saving the Post Office card account. What more can he do to ensure the viability of post offices? (237992)

My hon. Friend is right to say that we need to help post offices to offer as many services as possible to ensure their viability. As he knows, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform will work with Members to identify further such services that can be provided through post offices. I am glad that he agrees that we took the right decision. It demonstrates the support that the Government have been prepared to give to the Post Office—again in contrast to the Conservative party, which offered it no support at all.

T3. Given that this is warm homes week, are the Government aware that a growing number of people are complaining that they are not eligible for grants because they have part-time jobs, small savings or small pensions, and are not on benefit? Will the Government look carefully at the situation, and ensure that there are discussions with the appropriate Department? Many of the people applying for grants are truly deserving. (237989)

It is important for us to ensure that those who are eligible for the grants receive them. As I said earlier, we are working with the Department of Energy and Climate Change to ensure that all who are eligible know how and when to claim, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point on board and will pass it on.

T10. I thank my right hon. Friend for his wise decision not to proceed with the proposed closure of the Jobcentre Plus office in Penarth. However, once proposals of that sort are somewhere within the administrative machinery, they have a tendency to re-emerge in the fullness of time. Will he take the opportunity in the meantime to ensure that all options are considered, so that there is a long-term and viable service, albeit not necessarily at the present level, for the town of Penarth? (237996)

It is a perfectly valid exercise constantly to look at a rationalisation of the estates base of Jobcentre Plus. As I said earlier, we are reviewing the options for the current 25 offices and will make an announcement shortly, but I agree with my right hon. Friend that we should keep the matter—and both its positive and negative aspects, in relation to the individuals concerned—constantly under review.

T7. The Government claim to have virtually eradicated long-term unemployment, and indeed it is pretty hard statistically to classify it as such nowadays. However, plenty of my constituents are long-term unemployed, and in some cases the unemployment has lasted for generations. Do the Government really think that those people can be hidden away in numbers? (237993)

Let me say this very clearly: we will not take lessons on the long-term unemployed, the short-term unemployed or anyone in between from the party that did what it did in the 1980s and 1990s.

It was announced in February that the long-term unemployed who are seeking jobseeker’s allowance would be required to undertake four weeks of work-type activity. Given the benefits that that policy could bring both to the claimant and the community, can the Secretary of State update me on its progress?

I am happy to be able to confirm that we are going ahead with that proposal. Indeed, we are going further: we will require people who have been long-term unemployed to work for their benefits on a full-time basis, to make sure that people have both the right incentive and the right support to get back into work. We want to support people back into work, to make sure they reduce their family poverty and achieve the benefits for their communities that that can bring.

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) about the amount of savings brought about by cutting the time for which pensioners can claim their benefits, my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) asked the Pensions Minister how much that amount was, and was told that the information was not held centrally. Can the Secretary of State now confirm that he has been supplied with the answer to that question, and share it with the House?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirmed earlier, by 2050 we will be spending £250 million a year more on pensioners as a result of the changes we are making on backdating.

I would like to see whether we can close a particular loophole in pensions law. A constituent of mine has been in a same-sex partnership for 28 years and he and his partner are now in a civil partnership, but were he to die, his civil partner would at present not get the same survivor benefits from his occupational pension as would a married partner. That is not equal, and it is not fair. Can we look at that issue again, to see whether we can achieve equality?

I know that certain changes to the Pensions Bill have come back to this House from the other place. I will look at whether any of them apply to the case that my hon. Friend highlights, and I will write to him about that.

T9. Given the rapidly deteriorating unemployment situation throughout the United Kingdom, how satisfied is the Secretary of State that the regional benefit delivery centres have sufficient capacity to cope with the additional demands placed upon them? (237995)

We are very confident about that; we have been preparing for the past nine months. For example, the processing time for jobseeker’s allowance is 10 days, which is down from our target of 11.5 days. I want to pay tribute to the people in Jobcentre Plus, who have been working overtime and opening on Saturday mornings to make sure we maintain the excellent service that Jobcentre Plus provides.

According to the National Pensioners Convention, more than 60 per cent. of pensioner couples live below the Government’s poverty line of £151 a week, while the pensioner population is predicted to rise by 60 per cent. over the next 25 years. Is this not exactly the right time to bring forward from 2012 the restoration of the index link between average earnings and the state pension, and to combine personal tax allowances for pensioner couples? Would that not be a low-cost way of tackling pensioner poverty, and will the Minister slip that suggestion into the back of the Chancellor’s notes now?

I know how hard my hon. Friend campaigns on behalf of pensioners, but I have to say that were we to do what he suggests this year, the amount they would get would be lower, so this year is perhaps not the time to take such action. As he knows, we have committed to restoring the link between the state pension and earnings in 2012, or by the end of the next Parliament at the latest. Pension credit is, of course, already linked to earnings. I take on board my hon. Friend’s point about getting help to the poorest pensioners; we have lifted 900,000 out of relative poverty since we came to power, and we will continue to work on that.

Can the Secretary of State now answer the question that his colleague failed to answer, and tell the House how many workers have had their legitimate pension expectations confounded since 1997?

My colleague answered the question as set out on the Order Paper. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have been protecting people’s accrued rights and it is this party that put in place the pensions regulator and the Pension Protection Fund, unlike his party, which provided no protection for people at all, despite the facr that the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), was warned during the passage of the Pensions Bill of 1995 to do exactly that. We have put in place that protection. We fixed the roof while the sun was shining, and that is why people can be confident about their occupational pensions going forward.