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Work and Pensions

Volume 487: debated on Monday 2 February 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—

Child Poverty

1. What progress has been made towards achieving the Government’s target to eradicate child poverty; and if he will make a statement. (253024)

Since 1998-99, 600,000 children have been lifted out of relative poverty and the number of children in absolute poverty has halved from 3.4 million to 1.7 million. Government measures over the past two years will lift about a further 500,000 children from relative poverty. On 28 January, we launched the consultation, “Ending Child Poverty: Making It Happen”, ahead of a child poverty Bill that will enshrine in legislation the Government’s promise to eradicate child poverty by 2020.

Does my right hon. Friend share my belief that children should not be written off or consigned to a life in poverty just because they happen to come from single-parent families? Will he join me in rejecting calls for preferential treatment for the children of married couples and confirm that he believes that all children should be given the best start in life regardless of their parents’ circumstances?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is right that we should help children whatever their family backgrounds, and that means not only helping them through tax credits and reducing poverty in that way, but helping them into work, because work is the best route out of poverty.

But another report today emphasises the connection between relationship breakdown and adverse effects on youngsters. If the right hon. Gentleman means exactly what he says about ensuring an equality of outcome, can the resources that are currently spent on the consequences of breakdown be reordered, so that we do more to prevent relationships from breaking down in the first place, rather than picking up the bill for the consequences, which cost so much, not least to the children themselves?

Surely, we should do both. That is exactly why we are, for example, investing more in family intervention projects to help the families who are in the most difficult circumstances, while increasing the amount of money that we put into tax credits. We said in the last Budget that we would take, in total, another 500,000 children out of poverty. I do not think that the Conservative party would have pursued that policy if they had been in power.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are some hard to reach families—I know that there are some in my constituency—and that, sometimes, there are parents who are either addicted to hard drugs or alcohol? There are also children from families whose wider family have brought in a husband or wife, with no education, from very poor parts of Pakistan or Bangladesh. I am not sure whether there are any remedies for such very hard to reach families, but I would appreciate my right hon. Friend’s comments.

My hon. Friend identifies a very important issue, which is exactly why we commissioned Professor Paul Gregg to consider how we can help families in those circumstances. That is why we are saying that we would require such families to find out about the support that is available and then be required, once their youngest child is three years old, to take up skills training or drug treatment to get off drugs and into work. I only wish that the Conservative party would support those measures.

Griffiths, Evans, Jones—we are all the same.

Poverty for youngsters is often reinforced when a married couple separates by a missing parent who refuses to take their responsibility. The Child Support Agency is often deficient in chasing the missing parent. What action can the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the CSA takes to make sure that it tracks down missing parents, so that they pay for their own children?

In the past year, the CSA—now the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission—has collected an extra £156 million, but we agree that more needs to be done. That is why we are taking powers in the Welfare Reform Bill to be able to take away people’s passports or driving licences without a court process. That will make things much more speedy. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support that, unlike the Conservative party in the Lords the last time that that was proposed. That is also why we are saying that, where there is a payment, parents should be able to keep all of it and that there should be a complete disregard for child maintenance payments and benefits. We think that that could lift an extra 100,000 children out of poverty.

I welcome the publication of “Ending Child Poverty” by the child poverty unit and the road map to 2020 that it sets out. My right hon. Friend will know that, whenever we meet experts, they always raise the issue of financial exclusion and the problem that that causes in respect of child poverty. Does he agree that that will play an important role in helping us to meet that 2020 target? If so, will he consider building on the proposals that are currently in the Welfare Reform Bill?

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to do more to support credit unions and enhance financial literacy, so that people know, for example, whether their financial arrangements are not in the best possible order. More money must be put into reducing poverty directly, thus both giving people more resources and a greater ability to earn money. If we had kept to the same policy as the Conservative party, 2 million more children would be in poverty.

According to a recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 15 indicators of poverty and social exclusion had worsened in the five years preceding the onset of the current economic downturn, more than double the number in the previous five years. That includes the number of people living in very low-income households. Perhaps it is little wonder that the number of children living in poverty has risen by 100,000 in the past two years. How does the Secretary of State explain the Government’s poor performance?

By referring the right hon. Lady to the OECD report, which stated that we had the best record among the industrialised countries for reducing child poverty and inequality.

Yet again, the Secretary of State is very complacent about his attitude to the issue. Another example of the Government’s complacency is their refusal to end the couple penalty in the tax credit system, which would lift 300,000 children out of poverty. Why will the Government not do that?

The right hon. Lady has no policy of that kind, because she has no way of funding it. The Conservatives used to say that they would fund it out of welfare reform, but now they are not prepared to do as much welfare reform as us. If the right hon. Lady wants to repeat that claim, she will have to find new resources. Hers is a policy without a budget, and I hope that she will not pretend to repeat it.

Benefit Payments

2. What steps his Department is taking to ensure the prompt payment of benefits to people registering as newly unemployed. (253025)

Jobcentre Plus is recruiting the additional staff needed to maintain a good service in the current economic conditions, and new jobseeker’s allowance claims continue to be cleared within the agreed target of just over 10 days, on average.

As my right hon. Friend knows, moving into unemployment is traumatic in itself for many people, but it can also be very confusing because of the interrelationship between jobseeker's allowance and other benefits. Can my right hon. Friend give the House a guarantee that the Government, and those who work for the Government, will make creating a seamless exchange for new claimants a priority, so that they do not fall foul of the consequences of either overpayment or underpayment?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. That, ultimately, is the ethos behind the merger of the Benefits Agency and the Jobcentre Plus network. I know that Jobcentre Plus staff endeavour to give everyone, at the appropriate time, all the information that they need both on establishing a JSA claim and on the ensuing benefits. The staff also work closely with local government, when that is possible, in connection with other benefits such as housing and council tax benefits.

While we are discussing the topic of prompt payment of benefits, may I ask when the Department will be in a position to issue a statement on the payment of disability living allowance to those living in other European Union countries?

I understand that that will happen in the near future, but I will certainly get back to the right hon. Gentleman if the position is different.

Does the Minister accept that many of our constituents who have recently been made unemployed and who may have worked for 10, 20 or 30 years are slightly shocked that the national insurance benefit for which they paid over that period amounts to £60.50 a week, exactly the same sum that they would receive if they had not worked for a single day? What plans has he to reform and increase national insurance benefit, so that the national insurance fund, which is in surplus, helps to carry some of the burden of the recession?

My right hon. Friend is right in terms of the premise of his question, but he is not right to imply that that is all that anyone will receive in such circumstances. I will send him some worked-up examples of other benefits that apply, some—although not all—of which take account of the national insurance contribution history.

At the risk of putting my head on the block, let me say that I think that many of my right hon. Friend’s recent pronouncements about taking full account of the history of contributions are worth considering in the longer term.

As more people lose their jobs, many jobcentres will struggle to deal with the numbers coming through their doors. Will the Minister consider proposals to use other public buildings, such as council service points or libraries, to extend the reach of Jobcentre Plus, especially in communities where there may not be a jobcentre? That would particularly benefit people living in remote and rural areas such as those that I represent.

The hon. Gentleman has made a fair point. We are already doing that, but we may well need to do more given the volume of people going through the system. When I was up in Scotland fairly recently, there was much use of GPs’ waiting rooms and GP focus centres. As we implement children’s centres throughout the country, they will become another obvious possibility. Given that we are trying to move more and more towards a personalised service for each individual—often confidential, but sometimes involving groups—the space within which that happens will become almost a secondary consideration, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about using the wider public estate.

My right hon. Friend is right about the need to get people into jobcentres as quickly as possible, but can he assure me that the training will be up to scratch? We have observed lately that some of the people in Jobcentre Plus are not up to the mark in dealing with the sensitive problems experienced by some of my constituents, and I hope that the training will become a great deal better than it is at present.

I am sorry to hear that, and if my hon. Friend has details of particular cases I would be happy to look at them. I made a rather foolish and rash promise on a recent Radio 2 show to look at each and every individual complaint, so I am happy to report that there has been a trickle of such complaints, but not the avalanche that the officials who were with me—they fell off their chairs when they heard what I said—thought that there might be. My hon. Friend is right: we have to update the training of staff in Jobcentre Plus constantly, not least for the reasons alluded to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)—that many people presenting this time around to Jobcentre Plus will have been in gainful employment for 10, 20, 30 years or more, and this will be completely new territory for them. We are trying to get that message across to our staff.

Some of the newly unemployed are in urgent need of assistance from the social fund, so why is it that the Department can answer callers to the CSA within an average of 18 seconds, when it often takes applicants to the social fund days to get through? The Department does not even know how many calls it is losing. When will the Department make a commitment to give a decent level of service to the most vulnerable?

That is a serious point, but the hon. Gentleman should perhaps calm down. We are doing much better than we have in the past. It has been an area in which we have been lacking, but I am assured that things are improving considerably. If the hon. Gentleman has examples of that not being the case, I will happily look into them, but he will have to agree that the situation is much better than it was.

One group of people that has been contacting me recently is the self-employed who are now out of work because their businesses have gone bust. That particular group seems to be having difficulties. What are the Government doing to ensure that that group are getting some advice about what help they can get at this difficult time?

That is a fair point, and I will happily meet my hon. Friend and some of the people about whom he is concerned to lay out clearly exactly what is on offer for the self-employed. At the other end of the continuum, we are trying to say, especially with our enhanced support at six months, that self-employment may be a route out of people’s current circumstances, but it is imperative that we show clearly what a self-employed individual can expect from the wider benefits system as well as from Jobcentre Plus. I will happily talk to my hon. Friend about that in more detail.

Pensioner Poverty

We have made significant progress in reducing the incidence of poverty among pensioners. Through targeted support and £13 billion of extra spending, the proportion of pensioners in relative low income has fallen from 29 per cent. in 1998 to 19 per cent. in 2006-07, with 900,000 pensioners lifted out of relative poverty.

I congratulate the Government on the various initiatives that they have brought forward to help hard-pressed pensioners. One of the best is of course pension credit: the problem is that many elderly people do not take it up for some reason. What will the Minister do to increase take-up to help hard-pressed pensioners by hundreds—and sometimes even a couple of thousand—pounds a year?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must be vigilant in ensuring that pensioners know about pension credit. I am happy to say that in his constituency the number of households in receipt of pension credit has increased from 2,680 in November 2003 to 4,150 in May 2008. We are continuing to make changes—for example, housing benefit, council tax benefit and pension credit can be claimed over the phone in one phone call. We are also simplifying processes and making home visits to people who want them.

Many pensioners rely on interest from savings to supplement their state pension. They have seen that income drop considerably as interest rates have fallen. Will my right hon. Friend look again at the way in which the amount of savings held impacts on the range of benefits that a pensioner is entitled to receive?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government have not had a cut-off point for savings above £6,000. The amount that people are expected to contribute from their own resources used to be based on £1 for every £250 of savings, and we have increased that amount to £500. There is now no upper limit on the amount of savings that pensioners can have before they are entitled to some help through pension credit.

The Minister will be aware that there are a significant number of expatriate pensioners living in France and other European countries who are suffering considerable poverty as a result of the Government’s inability to honour the European Court’s findings and to pay to them the disability living allowance and other benefits to which they are entitled. When are the Government going to make a decision on that issue?[Official Report, 9 February 2009, Vol. 487, c. 10MC.]

We have been clear that if people claimed the benefit before they moved abroad, they are entitled to continue to claim it. For people who are eligible for it, it is frozen at the limit at which they received it before they left.

There is an increasing prevalence of one-stop shops in local authorities. I visited one last week in Halewood in Knowsley where constituents can access all sorts of services, including health services, social services, housing services and so on. One of the problems, of course, is identifying and making contact with those older people. Have the Government given thought to offering older people benefit health checks when they visit that sort of facility? That is a way of contacting the people who would otherwise not be claiming the benefits that they are entitled to and deserve.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We have been looking through some of the Link-Age pilots at how we can ensure that people have a one-stop shop approach to accessing services. He is quite right to say that that can be used as a way of ensuring that people have a benefits check at the same time.

One of the gravest charges against this Government after a decade is that 60 per cent. of pensioners in deepest poverty are still not receiving income support, minimum income guarantee or pension credit entitlement. Given the Government’s sustained attack on savers and the fact that there are now a number of proud pensioners in this country who have never claimed anything from the state and who shy from doing so, which leads to disguised poverty among pensioners, when will the Government wake up and present to those people that they, too, are entitled to some kind of support?

I set out earlier the measures that we intend to take to ensure that people know their entitlement. We have made a number of changes to that. Of course, the hon. Gentleman might not be aware of some of the recommendations of the Turner commission about automatic enrolment and automaticity, which will make a difference.

Occupational Pensions

This Government introduced a more powerful and proactive pensions regulator to protect the benefits of occupational pension scheme members. We also established the Pension Protection Fund, which provides protection to more than 12 million members of eligible defined benefit occupational pension schemes. About 140,000 people will receive help from the financial assistance scheme.

I thank the Minister for that answer. With the CBI and the TUC telling both employers and employees that now is not the time to withdraw or withhold pension contributions, what can the Government do to strengthen that message and get it across to people that pensions are now safer and a better long-term investment than they have ever been in the past?

My hon. Friend is right. I welcome the consensus on such a long-term approach. Obviously, fluctuations in markets will affect the value of assets in the short-term, but the fact is that it is the long term that is important for pensions. The framework that we put in place in 2004 is stable and durable, but it is important that we continue to work with the pensions industry to ensure that we respond to the points that are made. It is also important that we work together to give out the message that pensions are one of the best means to save for retirement.

The Pension Protection Fund has been increasing the levy that it charges on company pension schemes each year, and it might now be approaching the ceiling that it is allowed to levy over the next few years, particularly as company schemes close. Once it reaches that ceiling, the only other way for it to make ends meet will be to cut pensions in payment. If it approaches the Government requesting permission to cut the value of pensions in payment, will the Minister guarantee that she will refuse such a request?

The PPF has made it clear that it does not believe that it needs to increase the levy. In fact, it has frozen the current rates for the general levy and for the PPF administration levy. Of course, the hon. Gentleman will know that we have a rolling deregulatory review to see how we can make the systems simpler and less burdensome, and that we have reduced the revaluation cap from 5 to 2.5 per cent. These are all measures that we are taking to support pensions at the moment.

In view of the fact that some employers have announced their intention to close their occupational pension funds not only to new members but to existing members, is the Minister’s Department having discussions with such companies to try to dissuade them from taking such steps?

As I have said, we are trying to set the general framework, so that we can do everything we can to support companies and the industry at this time. I have outlined a number of the measures that we are taking, but we will continue to work with the industry on some of the concerns that is has raised, to ensure that we maintain that dialogue with it.

But does the right hon. Lady accept that the last line of defence for occupational pensions is the Pension Protection Fund, which some experts now believe to be heading for a £1 billion deficit? Does she believe that the extra burden should fall on struggling companies, or that the benefits paid by the PPF should be cut? Or is she now reviewing whether the Government should stand behind the PPF as guarantor?

As I have said, the PPF has made it very clear that liquidity is not a problem. It has £3 billion in assets, and it is paying out about £4 million a month in compensation. It provides reassurance and an essential safety net, and it has made it very clear that liquidity is not a problem at this point.

Jobcentre Plus

6. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of Jobcentre Plus services in dealing with an increase in the number of people registering as unemployed. (253029)

Jobcentre Plus continues to meet the demands of the rising number of people looking for work. Clearance times are at an average of 10 days, which remains the best performance since records started to be kept in 2003-04.

Some former Woolworths employees might be fortunate enough to get one of Asda’s 7,000 new jobs, but for many other redundant workers, there might be a mismatch between their present skills and those required for any other jobs that are likely to become available in the foreseeable future. In the light of the comments of a former Woolworth’s employee on television yesterday that she would have to be unemployed for six months before becoming eligible for any new training, what help with training can people expect from jobcentres, and what plans does my right hon. Friend have to introduce more flexibility in order to give redundant workers earlier access to training schemes, when that is clearly what is required?

Order. May I gently say, as I have said before, that although it is important that we argue for those who are unemployed, there should be no written statements made in supplementary questions? Also, supplementary questions should be short; I do not expect a prepared statement.

My hon. Friend makes the important point that we should be getting help to people, even before they are made redundant. That is why we have been working with Woolworths and others to get help for people to retrain, if necessary, and to improve their CV and their knowledge of how to look for work. From day one of their unemployment, people are able to train, as long as they combine that with a job search, and, after six months, we step up the support that we offer to people. We think that that is the right approach.

As we anticipate that mental illness is likely to rise with the rise of unemployment, what steps are the Government taking to ensure not only that the staff at jobcentres have adequate training but that they can refer people on so that they receive the necessary early intervention to ensure that their mental health does not deteriorate and further reduce their chances of getting back into work?

The hon. Lady makes a good point. We are working with pilots such as Talking Therapy, which she will know about, to make sure that employment advisers work side by side with therapists so that both employment prospects and people’s mental health are discussed. It is also important that we do not forget about people on incapacity benefit or employment and support allowance because of their mental health. We need to keep up the support and continue to reform welfare so that such people are not left behind because of their specific conditions.

In her question, my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) referred to a situation in which a large number of people were being made redundant and in which training might therefore be offered. In Milton Keynes, there are more than 500 vacancies but large numbers of people are being made unemployed from a variety of different places. Can the Secretary of State think about how those people could be put on training almost straight away, to upgrade their skills so that they match the jobs available locally? There are no low-skilled jobs available for them.

That is a good point, and exactly why we say that people can train from day one as long as they combine that with a job search. Furthermore, if they have not found work after six months, we step up the offer so that there is either a full-time training course to support people setting up their own companies or a job subsidy to make sure that people do not become unemployed long term. The real danger is that long-term unemployment becomes the scar that defaced so many of our communities in previous recessions.

How big an increase in staff is the Secretary of State planning for this year to deal with the unfortunately very large increase in unemployment that most people are forecasting?

Mortgage Assistance

7. How much funding his Department plans to provide in 2008-09 to people with mortgages who have lost their jobs. (253030)

We will provide the funding necessary to meet our commitment that people with mortgages who have been on income-based jobseeker’s allowance for 13 weeks can get help with interest on up to £200,000 of mortgage capital. Updated expenditure projections will, of course, be published in the Budget.

“Lose your job, lose your home” is the great fear that people have at this time. It is important that they should get quality advice when they first approach Jobcentre Plus having lost their jobs. There is a little confusion out there about the type of product on offer. The Government have made positive changes on support for people who have mortgages and lose their jobs. Will the Minister make sure that the advice given by Jobcentre Plus is of the highest quality?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. People who have been in work for a while and are paying mortgage costs may not be aware that the Government can, in some circumstances, take the burden of paying mortgage interest from them. We will be judged on how we respond to the recession that currently faces so many countries. In previous recessions, under previous Governments in this country, people ended up out on their ears and out of their homes due to the large number of repossessions. We are making sure that we are providing support to people where they need it. The first advice is always to talk to the lender, but the Government will now help after 13 weeks.

Two months after the pre-Budget report, why are the Government still unable to set out the costs of their proposed mortgage deferral scheme and to say how many people will take up the scheme? Two months after a Government statement that promised action to help people with mortgage problems, there has been no delivery. When will the delivery take place?

I simply do not understand the hon. Gentleman’s point because, as I just said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright), we will make the funding available to meet the commitments that we have stated clearly in the pre-Budget report. It has been estimated that, as a result of the more generous support for mortgage interest, about 5,000 repossessions will be avoided. Those repossessions might have taken place under the policies of the previous Conservative Government. Obviously, we are working with colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government to make sure that the package provided is what people want. Updated expenditure projections are always published in the Budget.

Interest rates are at a record low and home ownership is at record levels. Is it not sound economics to keep everybody in their homes?

As my hon. Friend will know, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister have been working with the Council of Mortgage Lenders to agree a deal to put to people who have mortgages with its banks and building societies. The details will be announced shortly; in fact, some have already been announced in the past few months. As a result of the pressure that we are putting on banks and building societies, the advice that we give people is clear: people should always talk to their lender first. There is flexibility there. After 13 weeks, the Government will help people on income-based jobseeker’s allowance who are having difficulty with their mortgage payments.

Does the Under-Secretary agree that one way of reducing the number of unemployed people who have to seek mortgage help is by her instructing her officials, and the Chancellor instructing his, that bureaucracy in the Government should not impose the firm rules for VAT, PAYE and other taxes? Companies can then survive for longer than normal because they are not pursued by the bureaucracy, which, with its rigid, authoritarian approach, drives companies to the wall and creates greater unemployment.

I do not know whether that point was directed to the hon. Gentleman’s Front Benchers or to ours, but we have already announced that companies can simply ring the Inland Revenue if they need help with rescheduling their payments to the Government. We are providing the flexibility. The problem with the Conservative party is that it will not agree to increase spending at this time to make such flexibilities—[Interruption.]

The help that the Government offer families on income support with their mortgage payments is welcome. However, in many families, one partner may be on short-time working, or one may have lost a job while the other is still in work. Those families are not on income support, but their reduced income means that they struggle hard with their mortgage payments. Can the Government do anything to assist families in those circumstances? Otherwise, we will have a lot of avoidable repossessions.

Absolutely. Obviously, every family is in different circumstances—that is why it is important that the Government can work constructively with the Council of Mortgage Lenders to ensure that banks and building societies give appropriate advice and flexibility to people in all sorts of circumstances. It is not in the interests of the banks and building societies for repossessions to take place.

Cold Weather Payments

The cold weather payment scheme is reviewed every year, normally in the summer. We consider the suitability of postcode to weather station links, and the effect of any changes to the postcode system made by the Royal Mail. Given today’s inclement weather, I hope that you will permit me, Mr. Speaker, to say that £165 million has been paid under the scheme so far this winter, including £16.7 million today to 668,000 people.

That is all very well, but hundreds of my constituents have been and are being deprived of cold weather payments, to which they should be entitled, especially in upland areas, because of the way in which the temperature is measured. For example, the temperature for Dartmoor is measured in the centre of Plymouth, where it can be between three and five degrees higher. Will the Under-Secretary take steps to review the method of measuring the temperature so that people in upland areas in Dartmoor can receive their cold weather payments?

We take the professional advice of the Met Office in determining which postcodes are linked to which weather station. As I said previously, if the hon. Gentleman wants to make representations on behalf of his constituency, they will be taken into account. I will look into the matter that he has raised.

Will the Under-Secretary reassure Labour Members that she will not revert to the sort of advice given by the former hon. Member for Salmonella and South Derbyshire in a previous Government: that older people should knit woolly hats? Does she agree that any action that we take should be tangible and well thought out, not specious and patronising nonsense, which probably damaged the woollen hat industry in my hon. Friend’s part of the world?

Indeed. My hon. Friend’s point speaks for itself. We are providing real help, which is why the cold weather payment increased from £8.50 to £25 this winter—I presume that that increase would not happen under a Conservative Government, since Conservative Members voted against it.

Does the Minister not accept that many elderly and retired people are very responsible and thrifty, and although they might benefit from a cold weather payment, they will hesitate to turn up their heating to give them an acceptable quality of life during a very cold spell such as today and, therefore, could well suffer from hypothermia? Is there any way—perhaps by following the suggestion from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox)—that one could re-examine the way that cold weather payments are met, taking account of the responsible and thrifty people who comprise a majority of our retired people?

We are looking at improving the communication available to people as to whether they will be eligible. Everybody on pension credit as well as other low income groups will be eligible, even if the forecast rather than the actuality is an average of less than 0º C over a seven-day period. People can therefore act with confidence in the knowledge that they will get their payments quickly and in time for their next bill when it lands on their doorstep.

My hon. Friend is aware that pensioners are afraid to put on their heating because of the high energy prices, but we must remember that huge profits are being made by the energy companies. Has she considered having conversations with the energy companies to see whether they will pass on some of their money to pensioners, rather than keeping the immoral profits? Let us see if we can ring-fence those profits and bring them back to pensioners through vouchers.

My hon. Friend knows that that is rightly not a matter for our Department, but I agree with the point that he makes. That is why I am pleased that my right hon. Friends managed to negotiate the social tariff. I urge all energy companies to ensure that they pass on information about the availability of that to all their customers who may be eligible.

Jobseeker’s Allowance

9. What proportion of the population in (a) the UK and (b) Banbury constituency is claiming jobseeker’s allowance. (253032)

Latest figures show that 3 per cent. of the UK working age population and 1.7 per cent. of the Banbury working age population are claiming jobseeker’s allowance.

Last Friday a weekly job club was launched in Banbury with the support of the whole community. Between 200 and 300 jobseekers turned up for the first day, which is an indication of how grim the situation is getting. What is Jobcentre Plus doing to ensure that notified vacancies are matched up to jobseekers as quickly as possible, and that jobseekers can as easily as possible access the Jobcentre Plus notified vacancies? Not every town has a Jobcentre Plus office.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, which is why we are making sure that there is outreach work, for want of a better phrase, directed at smaller towns and areas. He will know that the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire district has developed a local employment partnership through which many of the notified vacancies are filled. About 45 per cent. of all vacancies are signed up to through the local employment partnership, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must not only provide help and support, but get notified vacancies publicised to as wide an audience as possible. I will reflect on his point about rural areas and the sparsity of provision of Jobcentre Plus offices. They cannot be everywhere. Much of the work that we do in respect of notified vacancies is over the phone or the internet. None the less, it is a fair point and I will reflect on it.

Women in the retailing and hospitality industries, especially those in part-time jobs, are particularly vulnerable at this time. What is Jobcentre Plus doing specifically to address the needs of women workers who lose their jobs?

Again, that is an entirely fair question. On the figures up to now, I do not concur entirely with what the TUC said about last month’s figures—that this is turning in to an equal opportunities recession, with a disproportionate impact on women—save for the fact that we know that in all downturns or recessions, part-time work, short-time work and temporary work are the first to go. Those are the very categories that include women. We are making sure that Jobcentre Plus is doing all it can not just for women who present, but especially for those from the retail sector. Our colleagues will know and understand that, as I said in my previous answer, we need to link up much more directly the vacancies out there in the retail sector with those recently made unemployed in the retail sector. It is a fair point that—[Interruption.] Along with the impact on young people and others, we need to keep an eye on that point during these serious times, which the Opposition clearly are not bothered about.

Do we not have to put the figures that the right hon. Gentleman gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) against the background that the number of UK workers in work went down last year, while the number of non-UK workers has gone up, with most coming from outside the EU? Is it not the case that we need effective control over work permits for workers coming from outside the EU? We also need an effective welfare-to-work policy for the nearly 2 million people who are unemployed, and for the additional 2 million economically inactive people who want to work, but who have been left to languish on benefits. Can we have less spin, less dithering and some fresh thinking please?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has the front to say “less spin” at the end of that question. He does make some serious points, but let us be clear: about 8 per cent. of those in employment are foreign nationals and UK nationals account for more than nine out of 10 people in employment. Well over half of the increase in employment since 1997 is accounted for by UK citizens.

Through the points-based system, we are improving considerably the situation regarding work permits. Broadly speaking, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues agree that there should be a focus on the economy and the skills shortage in the migration process, but he must be careful when using the other figures that he bandies about. Either he is conflating the International Labour Organisation and incapacity benefit figures, or he is—[Interruption.] It is not possible to use them to arrive at the figure cited by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) of more than 5 million, giving the impression that they are all economically inactive, without including—at least in part—those on disability living allowance, many of whom are in work, and carers, to whom it is a complete insult to suggest that they are in such a position.

Jobseeker’s Allowance

Non-seasonally adjusted figures show that 959,419 people are claiming jobseeker’s allowance in England and 7,197 in North Yorkshire.

Can the Minister tell the House what happens at the end of six months when those claimants come off jobseeker’s allowance? Do they no longer feature on the register of the unemployed? How many of them are in work? It is an absolute scandal that those people receive money for six months, and then are no longer either in employment or on the unemployment register.

Their numbers are reflected in the ILO figures, which is why we accept without comment the notion of two sets of figures. I thought that the hon. Lady was going to say how wonderful it was that Yorkshire Forward and the Government have agreed on £54 million Train to Gain funds for those recently made redundant in Yorkshire. It is a shame that she did not want to celebrate that.

Topical Questions

The Government are determined to avoid the mistakes of previous recessions when, too often, short-term job loss became long-term unemployment. In addition to the £1.3 billion in extra investment through the pre-Budget report, we have now taken further action through an extra £500 million of support for people who have been on jobseeker’s allowance for six months. Those measures will mean that personal advisers can offer a range of additional options to help people to get the support that is right for them so that they can get back to work.

Will the Secretary of State clarify the Government’s plans to compensate Equitable Life pensioners? Will he take this opportunity to reject any suggestion that only those policyholders who are experiencing financial hardship should be compensated? It was not the recommendation of the parliamentary ombudsman that compensation should be means-tested. It should be paid to everyone who has suffered loss caused by regulatory failure.

The Government have apologised for the problems that occurred under both the hon. Lady’s Government and ours. We have said that we will make ex gratia payments, but that is a matter for the Treasury, and she is very welcome to ask the Treasury that question.

T4. I very much welcome the relaxation of the 16-hour rule and the fact that it is possible under the national voluntary training pathfinder for people in certain categories to get into training quickly. However, given the recession and the number of people in Stoke-on-Trent who find themselves out of work, there is an urgency about ensuring that they can access training from day one. Will my right hon. Friend review the integrated employment and skills framework, and will he get back to me on this issue? (253052)

I hope that I can do better than that. People can train from day one, as long as they combine that with a job search. Indeed, they can train earlier. For example, with Wedgwood and other major redundancies, we are going in from the moment that they are announced, to see whether we can retrain people so that they can get a new job, either in the same sector or, potentially, one that is close, but different. We want to provide training whenever it is appropriate.

T5. Given the rapidly worsening employment position in Wales, as illustrated most recently by the loss of 1,100 jobs at Corus last week, can the Secretary of State say how much his Department liaises with the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that those affected by redundancies receive as seamless a service as possible from all levels of government, to help address the financial consequences of their job loss and to prepare themselves for new employment? (253053)

We work together very closely; indeed, I met the First Minister recently to discuss how our employment policies could be best dovetailed. We have learnt from the ReAct and ProAct schemes that the Welsh Assembly Government introduced, which we have used for the six-month offer that we have introduced, which includes employment subsidies and training. We are learning from what is working in Wales and across the whole country.

T6. In my area of Teesside, a nylon plant is going to be closed down after 50 years in operation and 300 highly skilled people will be made redundant. What support can the Government give to those highly skilled people at this very difficult time and what help can they give, so that they can find alternative work? (253054)

I hope that in the first instance Jobcentre Plus will send in its rapid response service to deal with those individuals long before the redundancies kick in. That has been done successfully elsewhere, notably with Woolworths and some other companies, often on a regional basis, but I would be happy to talk to my hon. Friend separately about ensuring that it happens in this instance, too.

T7. The Government have admitted that unemployed people entitled to support with mortgage interest payments have on occasions received less than they should have done, owing to a computer glitch. How many people have been underpaid and by how much, and can the Minister now give an undertaking that not one of those affected will lose their home? (253055)

I can absolutely give the hon. Gentleman that assurance, because increased payments are going out from today for the next few weeks, so that the overall payment received by people is exactly the 6.08 per cent. that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor specified in the pre-Budget report. Just by way of explanation, the reason why people’s payments dipped slightly—and why they will be higher, so that the average is precisely 6.08 per cent.—is that the Bank of England reduced its base rate on 6 November, but the pre-Budget report was not published until 24 November. In the intervening period, our automatic tracker system went into effect, which meant that some payments were reduced, but that is now being compensated for. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question, although I will write to him with the precise number of people affected.

Sadly, with the huge decline in jobs in the ceramic’s industry in north Staffordshire over many years, the trade union Unity, the former ceramic union, has extensive experience of helping people back into work. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the work being done, particularly at Wedgwood recently, and would he care to visit my constituency to see the factory and meet workers and others affected by the downturn?

At the risk of accepting every invitation, I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend in his constituency to talk to Unity and others, not least about the work that the rapid response service has been doing and how it has helped, and about the outstanding difficulties in the ceramics industry.

T9. All Ministers present will be aware that the benefit system deems people to be earning a rate of almost 10 per cent. on their savings when it makes benefit calculations. Can any one of the Ministers tell us where such a rate of interest can be secured in these straitened times, when the bank rate is plunging towards zero? If they cannot, can they tell us when those assessments will be fairer? (253057)

I can assure the hon. Lady that there is no 10 per cent. rule. Tariff income is a simple method of calculating the contribution that people with £6,000 of capital are expected to make to help meet their living costs. Under the previous Government, anyone with savings over £12,000 was not eligible for any support at all. Also, the less generous rules assumed £1 a week income for every £250 of savings. The rate of tariff income is now half the previous rate, and we also abolished the upper capital limit, giving more people access to more support.

The Government have made it clear that training payments will be available to major companies that train those who are still unemployed after six months. Midlothian council is by far the biggest single employer in my constituency. Will the Secretary of State ensure that all local authorities are also entitled to that payment for training requirements?

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that. We want to make sure that we use the training subsidies in the most effective way possible. It is just a shame that the Scottish National party Government are cutting training, rather than increasing it.

As the Secretary of State is aware, the Buncefield incident decimated the commercial sector in my constituency. Sadly, unemployment is now 30 per cent. higher than it was in 1997. Lord Newton’s report specifically said that Hemel Hempstead required special status to help regeneration. Where is that help?

Although I am more than aware of the circumstances of the Buncefield fire, I do not know what is happening across government to provide the help mentioned in the report. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, or indeed to write to him in fuller detail.

The administrators of a company called Gibsons in my constituency have thus far failed to answer questions that I have raised about the employment rights of the people who were made redundant after the factory closure. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State encourage Jobcentre Plus to impress on employers their duties and responsibilities when they make redundancies? In this particular case, if my right hon. Friend finds anything suspicious, will he ensure that his colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform are made aware of it?

I think that my hon. Friend has just made my colleague from that Department, the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, aware of the matter. We want administrators, and companies that are going into administration, to live up to their responsibilities to their employees, and we want to make sure that they provide as much information as possible. There have been cases in which administrators have been reluctant to do that, and have even been reluctant to let in the rapid response service. We would be very worried if that continued to be the case. We want administrators and companies to help people who have lost their jobs as much as they possibly can.

In Newton Abbot, Jobcentre Plus shares offices with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. What assurances can the Secretary of State give that those people in Revenue and Customs whom his Government are about to make redundant will be found employment by their colleagues downstairs?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are working with HMRC to see whether precisely what he suggests can be done. If there is an opportunity to transfer people from Revenue and Customs to Jobcentre Plus, to which we are recruiting more people, we will do so. We are already in discussions with it about how that can be done.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the Secretary of State for Health, who yesterday called for a revision of the European posted workers directive to prevent the undercutting of terms and conditions, particularly in the construction sector, and to deal with various judgments of the European Court of Justice?

If my hon. Friend is patient for just three minutes, he can ask that question of the person who is responsible.

The Government used migrant workers artificially to boost employment over the past 10 years, when 80 per cent. of new jobs went to foreign workers. Does the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform now accept that there has been a failure to tackle the skills problem in this country, and to carry out the necessary welfare reform to make workers in this country best fitted to compete in these more difficult days of recession?

The hon. Gentleman’s starting premise is entirely flawed. The answer to the first part of his question is no, and the answer to the second part is nonsense.

A lot of people take out payment protection insurance during their working life. Do my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench think that it is fair that when those people lose their jobs, payments made under that payment protection insurance scheme are treated as income when they apply for unemployment benefits? If not, will they agree to review the situation?

I am happy to look into that issue. My hon. Friend raises an important question, and I shall write to him to let him know.

On this day of extreme cold weather, may I ask when the Government are seriously going to introduce proposals to extend the winter fuel allowance to severely disabled people, including groups of terminally ill people? Such people include my constituent, Matthew Pinder, who today will be sitting at home in his front room with one fire on because his family say that despite whatever the Government have said, they do not have enough money to heat their home.

That is precisely why we increased the Christmas bonus by £60 this year—that will go to people who are disabled. It is worth saying that there was no winter fuel allowance under the previous Government—we introduced it. They used to spend just £60 million a year, whereas we now spend billions on ensuring that people receive help in winter. We do so precisely because we want to ensure that people do not have to choose between heating their home and fending for themselves.