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Topical Questions

Volume 487: debated on Monday 2 February 2009

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.