House of Commons
Tuesday 10 March 2009
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Workplace Parking Levy (Nottingham)
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had no such discussions. In accordance with the ministerial code of conduct, the decisions on the city council’s workplace parking order and tram extensions will be taken by Ministers on the Secretary of State’s behalf because they might have an impact on his constituency of Ashfield.
Is the Minister aware that Nottingham has one of the most innovative transport policies in the UK? Yesterday, we celebrated the fifth anniversary of the city’s new tram line. If we are to have an additional tram line and many other transport improvements, it is vital that we get the go-ahead for our workplace parking levy. Many businesses have written to me in support of the levy—far more than the tiny number that have not. Will he clear the way so that we can get on and be even more innovative in Nottingham?
I send my congratulations on the fifth anniversary of NET Line One, which has proved extremely successful. I am well aware of the commitment shown by my hon. Friend, and by my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) and for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson), in their determination to secure transport improvements for the city.
Under the Transport Act 2000, we introduced a range of options for local authorities to address issues of traffic management. The workplace parking levy was one of those tools, and we are just completing consultation on the offences and enforcement procedure. Until we have done that, we are unable to consider the levy order, but we shall do so as soon as possible.
The British Chambers of Commerce has condemned the workplace parking charge as a stealth tax on hard-pressed businesses. Is this really a sensible time to introduce yet more taxes on businesses struggling for survival? Why are Ministers continuing to use the transport innovation fund to bully local communities into taxing workplace parking or introducing congestion and other charges?
We on this side of the House recognise that we cannot ignore the facts clearly set out in Eddington’s response on congestion. If we do not do something now, the cost to businesses across the length and breadth of this country will be some £22 billion by 2025. We need to be innovative in our approach, and allow local areas to introduce schemes that will maximise their attempts to deal with congestion. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met representatives of the local chamber of commerce only last night to discuss a number of issues. It is for those reasons that we have taken the opportunity to give local authorities and transport areas a range of tools to deal with the congestion problems that they face, both today and in the future.
Does the Minister agree that, during a period of economic downturn, it is even more important that we reduce the congestion that costs business £160 million a year? We are asking the people of Nottingham and not the Government to make a decision about the workplace parking levy. Ninety four per cent. of people there have said that they have complete satisfaction with the tram system, and 80 per cent. say that they want it to be extended.
Again, I recognise my hon. Friend’s commitment, and I congratulate him on the Adjournment debate on this matter that was held in this Chamber only recently. It was a shame that Opposition Members did not think it important to attend and listen to the issues and arguments. It is important that we take all possible steps to deal with congestion, and we will make a decision about Nottingham as soon as is practicable.
Does the Minister understand that other sections of his Department could look like plonkers if we get the decision wrong? The Department has made workplace parking a necessary part of the funding for the tram extension, which itself is an integral part of the proposals to widen the A453 with a park-and-ride extension. So can we have joined-up government to allow for the joined-up transport planning that Nottingham is trying to put in place?
Again, I recognise my hon. Friend’s commitment; over the past 10 years or so, he has been campaigning for the city of Nottingham. This Government introduced provisions to ensure wider understanding and improved governance on transport issues, allowing us to join those requirements together. However, we are talking about a matter for local authorities, as I indicated. The Transport Act 2000 introduced a number of provisions allowing local authorities to consider traffic management issues within their cities and given areas. It is for individual authorities to decide whether to go down the route of introducing a workplace parking levy—or, come to that, any of the other provisions available under the Transport Act.
We continue to regulate rail fares to balance the protection for passengers and taxpayers while allowing significant investment in rail. We have made it clear that the average cap—usually the retail prices index plus 1 per cent.—will be applied next year even if RPI is negative, leading to lower regulated fares in January 2010. From January 2010, the cap will also apply generally to individual regulated fares.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the horror expressed by commuters and passengers about the huge hike of more than 6 per cent.—the figure is much higher in some areas—in rail fares this year. I welcome his reaffirmation on behalf of the Government that fares next year will be pegged to the standard formula, but will he also assure us that rail companies will not cut services?
The hon. Lady refers to regulated fares. To deal with her last point first, the services are governed by the franchise agreement entered into by the train operating companies. Of course, we will not allow those agreements to be changed without a clear, good reason.
To deal with the generality of her observation, support for railways comes from two sources: fare-paying passengers and taxpayers. If we are to maintain the level of investment in our railways that I think we should have, we have a clear choice. We can either allow fares to be increased according to the consistent arrangements that have operated for many years, or we can increase the subsidy from the taxpayer. If she is unhappy about the balance that we have struck, she needs to say so, as does her party. Instead of simply making generalised complaints, I want to hear what specific proposals the Conservative party would make about fares and the level of taxpayers’ subsidy.
Does the Secretary of State share my concern that high fares might price people off the railways, and will he look again at the financing of the railways, so that we can avoid the situation that is planned, whereby in 2013 the fare payer will be paying three times as much as the taxpayer?
I do recognise that concern, and it is right that my hon. Friend should raise it, but I repeat the answer that I gave a moment ago: there are only two sources of finance for our railways. We have to strike a balance between the interests of fare-paying passengers and the interests of taxpayers. I believe that we have the right balance to maintain the necessary level of investment in our rail network.
Over the next five years to 2014, the money raised towards fares by passengers will increase from £23 billion to £39 billion, according to the Transport Committee, while the Government’s contribution will be significantly cut. Given that our rail fares are already the highest in Europe, and given the swingeing increases this year, how can the Secretary of State possibly justify that massive increase in the take from passengers, and why did he not freeze rail fares this year, as the Liberal Democrats advocated? We indicated how we would pay for that, too.
I have been doing a little research into what the Liberal Democrats advocate, and it is interesting that despite the hon. Gentleman’s clear personal commitment to transport, he is unable to persuade any of his colleagues to support him. The Liberal Democrats would cut £1 billion from the transport budget, in the highly unlikely event of their being elected to take responsibility for anything. We need to put anything that the hon. Gentleman says about transport in context: he has not even been able to persuade his own colleagues that transport is a good thing.
One of the things that rail passengers expect for their rail fares is a decent, modernised railway station. Will my right hon. Friend give me some indication of what encouragement he and his Department could give on the rebuilding of Wolverhampton railway station?
I had the considerable privilege of visiting Wolverhampton railway station only last week. [Interruption.] No, I make it clear to the House that not only did I visit it, but I got out at the station, too. Thanks to the assiduous efforts of my hon. Friend, I was able to see for myself the exciting plans for the redevelopment of Wolverhampton station and the nearby bus station, to provide a real transport hub for the people of Wolverhampton. I congratulate him on his efforts to bring real investment to Wolverhampton and to his constituents.
The facts show that the Passenger Focus report published in February this year highlighted value for money as the most serious concern for passengers. The facts also show that the most packed trains are running at more than 170 per cent. capacity and that, since 2003, regulated and unregulated fares have risen by a third. Do not the facts show that after a decade of Labour control, the story is one of overcrowded trains, value for money falling, and the taxpayer having to pick up the tab?
The Passenger Focus report is interesting. I look forward to meeting Passenger Focus and the Association of Train Operating Companies to discuss its contents.
I would not want the Conservative party to feel that I was letting it off the hook after the comments that I made about the Liberal Democrats. If the hon. Gentleman gets his way and eventually ends up on the Government Benches taking the decisions, he will have £840 million less to spend on the railways and on transport in general than has been spent by this Government. He and his party have to explain how they will manage to continue with investment in much-needed projects such as Crossrail at the same time as cutting the railway budget.
The Department for Transport takes safety and accessibility at stations very seriously. More than 1,100 stations have already been earmarked for access improvements through our £370 million Access for All programme. Meanwhile, crime levels continue to fall while the railways build on their already good safety record.
Swindon station’s disabled access has been improved considerably through the Access for All programme. Does my hon. Friend recognise that First Great Western, which is based in my constituency, has an excellent safety record and has been working innovatively with police community support officers and with train managers, leading to an eight out of 10 customer satisfaction rating? Will he congratulate First Great Western?
The short answer is yes. I am delighted that First Great Western has used the £20,000 from the small schemes funding to provide a safer and more secure station and I congratulate it. The latest national passenger survey indicates that personal security at First Great Western stations has increased over the past year.
But in the south of the county of Wiltshire, South West Trains has been sacking hundreds of its staff, it has closed the travel centre and, at Tisbury, it has virtually unmanned the station. What does that do for accessibility or safety? What will happen when disabled people want to use ramps on to trains and there are no staff at the station?
We have taken a number of steps in our Access for All programme at 145 stations, and the small scheme programme is helping to make 1,000-odd stations accessible and secure. There is also the assisted passengers reservation system, which is about helping people who have disabilities, and of course we work closely with the disabled persons transport advisory committee.
The Minister will be aware that the previous Mayor of London had an admirable programme for converting many stations to step-free access to improve facilities so that everyone could use the trains. Is the Minister not concerned that the current Mayor seems to be cancelling many of those programmes? At stations such as Finsbury Park that serve both Network Rail and London Underground, he has cancelled the scheme altogether, which is disastrous for those who have difficulties in accessing the station because of the lack of lifts or any other way of getting in. Will my hon. Friend please meet the Mayor of London and tell him that the people of this country want to see real accessibility to our whole transport network?
I am obviously concerned about any proposed cuts that would make accessibility for all difficult. I am delighted that in London, for example, all buses are fully accessible. With reference to London Underground, some 20 per cent. of stations have step-free access, and we are working to ensure that 25 per cent. are step-free by 2010. However, that needs commitment from all concerned—Transport for London and the Mayor of London—as well as our commitment to funding through the streams that I have outlined.
Will the Minister visit Alnmouth station in Northumberland, which has been turned down for the Department’s scheme? It has no disabled access from the northbound platform; disabled people who want to return to the station in the evening are told that they have to ask for a taxi from Newcastle, 30 miles away.
I am happy to look into the circumstances of that station. The requirement is to look at the programme that we are putting in. Many of the stations were built at times when accessibility was not a key factor, although obviously new requirements for stations and rolling stock all demand modern standards of accessibility. However, I am willing to look at the individual case. We are having to plan; in respect of the £370 million Access for All programme, we need to work on the stations used by most people, weighted by the incidence of people with disabilities using them. The small scheme programme, with its £25 million of Government money, has levered in third-party contributions, bringing in about £95 million worth of improvements. However, I will look at the individual case.
Can the Minister tell me whether Silverdale station is on his list of stations for safety and accessibility improvements? If he cannot, will he look at the issue to see what can be done? Schoolchildren use the station in the mornings, and they have to cross the track to reach the relevant platform. That is a safety issue. Furthermore, Silverdale is in an area of outstanding natural beauty. We get a lot of tourists, and it is dangerous for them to cross live rail lines.
It might surprise my hon. Friend to hear that I do not actually have at my fingertips a list with Silverdale on it. However, I am more than happy to look at the request.
High-Speed Rail Services
As I announced to the House on 15 January, a new company, High Speed 2, has been formed to develop the case for high-speed services between London and Scotland. Yesterday, my noble Friend the Minister responsible for rail wrote to Sir David Rowlands at HS2, setting out what the Government expect of the new company. As a first stage, it will report by the end of the year with a proposed route from London to the west midlands, setting out any necessary options, including for stations. It will also consider the potential for new lines to serve the north of England and Scotland.
Does the Secretary of State not agree that
“the time is right now for us to start thinking about high-speed rail as an alternative to air transportation”,
to quote the new US President, Barack Obama?
Not only are we thinking about high-speed rail, but we have put our plans into action. We have formed a new company, whose job is to advise the Government on how—not whether—high-speed rail will be done. I have asked it to produce by the end of the year practical proposals for bringing forward high-speed rail lines in the United Kingdom.
Following the decision on the inter-city high-speed trains, does my right hon. Friend agree that the award of the contract to Hitachi/Agility Trains means that if the manufacture of the trains does not involve many UK parts, there could be a sharp decline among companies in the supply chain for the rail industry in the United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend rightly represents effectively the interests of his constituents. He has put his case firmly to me, both on the Floor of the House and in private conversations, and he has been understandably vigorous in arguing for the people he represents. However, I emphasise to him that, as the House will be aware, decisions of this kind are governed by clear rules. We have followed those rules scrupulously in reaching the decision that I recently announced to the House.
It has taken 11 years for the Government to get to the stage of talking about a high-speed rail link—one that would go all the way up to Birmingham. That is where we are, but will the Secretary of State ensure that the interests of the north-east are considered? Given that the joint economies of Leeds and Sheffield alone, the two drivers of their region, total more than £30 billion—never mind the two city regions—will he ensure that at the next stage, the high-speed plans are brought to Yorkshire, and not only to Manchester? Frankly, we are sick of people seeing Leeds as a suburb of Manchester, as the Conservative party seems to believe it is.
I encourage the hon. Gentleman to go along to St. Pancras station and see the existing high-speed line that provides services to the channel tunnel and that will very soon provide high-speed services to the commuters of Kent and the south coast. We have built a high-speed link on time and on budget. He is right that it is important that the benefits of that link should be extended across the country; that is precisely why we set up High Speed 2 as the company to advise us on the practical steps that we need to take next in order to deliver that.
Will my right hon. Friend address the possibility of the electrification of the midland main line? As he will know from his experience of commuting to London, we are somewhat the poor relation. We were pleased to see that identified as a possibility in recent Government soundings. Can he give us more information on when we might know more about the timetable for that?
I share my hon. Friend’s view. It is important, as I set out on 15 January, that we look at capacity questions on our network, including a consideration of electrifying the Great Western main line as well as the midland main line, which serves his constituency. I anticipate that I will receive further reports about that later this year and will make an appropriate statement to the House.
We have heard the Secretary of State confirm this afternoon that the Government will make an announcement on a high-speed rail proposal next year. Will he pledge to the House that that proposal will match the Conservative commitment to building a high-speed rail line connecting London, Manchester and Leeds?
I made it clear that that announcement would happen this year. The difference between the two proposals is that ours will be a thought-through, well-considered, carefully costed proposal by experts in the railways, in contrast to the large envelope on which the hon. Lady scribbled a few lines to produce the Conservative plans. I challenge her on this; she can write to me or put out a press release. The shadow Chancellor has indicated that his priorities for spending for a potential Conservative Government include handing out large amounts of money in the form of reduced inheritance tax to a handful of multi-millionaires ahead of any efforts that she has been able to make to encourage a Conservative Government to spend money on transport.
I think we can take it that the answer is no. The Minister of State yesterday and the Secretary of State today confirmed that, even if the Government decide to go ahead, the only routes that they are asking HS2 to consider for the proposal that it is publishing, whether this year or next year, are between London and the west midlands. In February, the Secretary of State told the Lancashire Evening Post that the proposal that is being put together is for a line that gets only as far as Rugby—a mere 80 miles from London. Why does not he just admit that Labour is struggling to catch up with the agenda that the Conservatives have set on high-speed rail and that it is manifestly failing to match our vision and commitment to a high-speed rail future for the north of England?
I am sorry, but nothing that the hon. Lady says about transport can be taken seriously when she proposes to cut £840 million from the transport budget. If she cannot persuade her own shadow Cabinet colleagues of the importance of transport, how does she expect to persuade the House or the country of anything that she says on the subject of transport?
Trains (Catering Services)
The Secretary of State for Transport has no plans to meet representatives of train operating companies to discuss catering on trains.
That is a pity. Does the Minister share my anger and dismay that at a time when train operators on the continent are extending and expanding catering services, companies here are doing quite the reverse? Is he aware that First Capital Connect has cut the trolley service on the King’s Lynn line and that the Norwich line is about to lose its restaurant car? Is not that very short-sighted at a time when train companies should be trying to attract new customers?
I hope that all train operators will bear in mind the travelling experience in the round for all passengers, particularly on long-distance journeys, through the provisions that they make for the travelling public. The main concerns for us and the travelling public will be punctuality, reliability overcrowding and affordable fares. That is where we have concentrated our efforts as a Government, and we have ensured that we deliver in that way.
When the Minister next speaks to London Midland about catering, could he also talk to it about the lack of punctuality, the appalling performance and the dreadful conditions on Milton Keynes Central station since it has closed the travel centre and not sufficiently staffed—
Order. That is a far cry from catering.
Speaking from the nationalist Bench, East Anglia branch, could I ask the Minister to look at the franchise of National Express East Anglia, not only relative to its catering obligations, which are clearly laid down in the franchise, but also to the fact that it is sacking 300 workers in total?
In the franchise provision for National Express East Anglia, there is a requirement for a catering facility based on a trolley service, and I understand that National Express is providing over and above that requirement through an at-seat service for first-class passengers. I take on board and note the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but National Express East Anglia is meeting the requirements of the franchise agreement and going above them.
As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, work is already under way on an integrated ticketing strategy for England. The intention is to publish a consultation paper on this subject later in the year. Officials are meeting key stakeholders to make progress on the consultation paper.
Is the Minister aware of the advanced plans from transport stakeholders in the north-east for a regional smartcard travel scheme across all modes of transport? Is he willing to discuss with the regional development agency, One NorthEast, the £5 million shortfall that is now the only obstacle to an early introduction of smartcard travel across the region, with all the benefits that that would bring?
The prioritising of schemes for regional fund allocation funding is a matter for each region. In respect of the Nexus scheme in the north-east, the Department for Transport has approved £12.8 million to replace all ticket machines on the system with modern versions that take notes and cards. That is not smartcard ticketing, but readers can be installed at a later date. I hear what he says about the shortfall and the RDA. I am always happy to look at anything that he asks me to, but obviously I cannot give any commitments on funding.
We also need a national strategy on ticketing that includes airlines. Many of my constituents are suffering from the low-cost practices of companies such as Flybe, which do not give refunds or may demand exorbitant prices and fees for the changing of tickets due to changes made to a journey, even when given plenty of notice. What can the Government do to help travellers who are paying through the nose in these credit-crunch times—or even in difficult family circumstances—and who are having to pay for changes to tickets and travel without the possibility of a refund?
The hon. Gentleman’s constituents are obviously having difficulty in securing refunds. The regulator would be the first place to go to try to get this matter addressed. It is always difficult for constituents when there are cancellations. Criteria are set down on when refunds ought to be paid, depending on the nature of the cancellation of flights. If the hon. Gentleman writes to me, I will be very happy to point him in the right direction.
My hon. Friend will be aware that for a number of years, I have been urging the Department for Transport to work with Southeastern trains to ensure that the Oyster card is compatible with the reader machines on its network. It has promised that it will do that by the end of the year, but can I impress upon him the need to keep a tight rein on Southeastern trains to make sure that that change is implemented for the long-suffering commuters of south-east London?
I can advise my hon. Friend that we are close to reaching a deal with Transport for London and the relevant train operators to introduce Oyster pay-as-you-go on rail services throughout London. As part of the same agreement, ITSO will be accepted in due course on the bus and underground networks in London. We are monitoring that carefully and closely. We know that most commuters are very keen to see it happen, and we will do what we can to ensure that it happens as soon as possible.
Railway Ticket Offices
Officials in the Department for Transport have recently discussed ticket office change proposals made by South West Trains, First Capital Connect, National Express East Anglia and National Express East Coast. Some of those are small changes and some outline proposals.
I thank the Minister for that reply. At many stations operated by South West Trains, staff have been replaced with ticket machines. Those stations are often the smaller ones, and disabled constituents can no longer access a train at the station of their choice. Despite his well-meant access for all programme, is it not the case that access for disabled passengers is being restricted by penny-pinching initiatives by the train operating companies?
The hon. Lady will be well aware that South West Trains made a substantial number of proposals, many of which were in fact rejected by my noble Friend the Minister of State, Lord Adonis. Indeed, many of those proposals were made on the basis that there would not be unfettered continuation of ticket supplies to the travelling public where there was clearly demand for it. Decisions were taken about some ticket offices, but many proposals were rejected. I draw attention to the work that we, and indeed the hon. Lady, have done on access for all, secure stations and the assisted passenger reservation service.
My hon. Friend will be aware that First Capital Connect’s far-reaching proposal to reduce ticket office opening hours affects 28 constituencies and a large number of stations, including Enfield Chase and Gordon Hill in my constituency. It will affect security, and it represents a reduction in customer services and is not good value for money. I hope that the Minister will reject the proposal when he considers it, taking those grounds into account.
I know that my right hon. Friend has campaigned extensively in respect of the stations that fall within her constituency. She will be aware of the benchmarks that my noble Friend Lord Adonis put in place with South West Trains, one of which is that if there is an average sale of 12 tickets per hour in the hours that would be affected, a proposal will be rejected outright. That benchmark has required First Capital Connect to withdraw its proposals for 56 stations. Indeed, we have asked it to revise them again on that basis. I know that my right hon. Friend will be meeting my noble Friend in due course once First Capital Connect has made new proposals.
Following my statement to the House on 15 January, work is now well under way on developing proposals for a second high-speed rail line in the United Kingdom, as I set out to the House earlier. On 12 February I announced a funding package for London that included an extension of the East London line to Clapham Junction. Transport for London has committed to completing the new line by 2012.
Last week, along with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, I announced that the independent Environment Agency will police the EU emissions trading scheme, which, by capping net carbon dioxide emissions from aviation, will cut carbon emissions substantially right across Europe and provide real incentives for airlines to play their part.
Yesterday, I published a consultation document on proposals to reform the economic regulation of airports. Those proposals are designed to put the interests of passengers at the heart of a new regulatory regime, ensuring that airports make the best use of existing capacity while also having regard for the environmental impact of their operations.
Will my right hon. Friend take it from me that the most popular thing that he has done as Secretary of State for Transport is to give the go-ahead to phase 2 of the East London line extension? That will fulfil our manifesto commitment, create a London orbital network and link Clapham Junction to the tube. Can he tell the House when it is expected that work will be completed on that project?
Another station at which I got out was Clapham Junction, where I was delighted to meet my hon. Friend, who has campaigned long and hard for the extension. I pay tribute to his determined efforts, which have now been rewarded. As I said, Transport for London is committed to completing the new line to Clapham by 2012.
We have been in consultation with several London authorities and, indeed, with Kent county council, about proposals for dealing with roadwork schemes. That consultation continues. The schemes have to be robust and meet the requirements, but I recognise motorists’ frustration about the major roadworks to replace some of our major utilities. We are well aware of that, and I am in dialogue with the national joint utilities group to ensure that we make progress.
First, may I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s determination to maintain the availability of the Woodhead tunnel? She is right to ensure that that facility remains available in the long term, in case decisions are made that require its use. I am aware of the issue that she raises, and I would be delighted to meet her and any delegation that she would like to bring with her to discuss it.
I am aware of the consequential knock-on effects for the hon. Gentleman of the significant improvements on the west coast main line. We will carefully consider addressing those problems.
I am tempted to respond by suggesting that I send a copy of the speech that I gave on that occasion to my hon. Friend, but I anticipate, in the light of his observations, that it might not persuade him. In it, I set out the importance of recognising that his constituents and mine continue to want to fly, and of ensuring that that ambition is matched by a genuine commitment to reducing carbon emissions. The practical measures that I outlined are designed to ensure that not only can people take the opportunity of visiting family and friends and travelling for business, as they increasingly wish to do, but that they are fully conscious of the consequences of their actions for our environment. I will send him a copy of the speech after all.
In earlier answers we indicated that there is a programme to work on our stations to improve accessibility. I understand the frustration that the hon. Gentleman may feel, but that programme costs money. The money must be found and the priorities—ensuring better and more reliable services, ensuring that they arrive on time and ensuring affordable fares—must be set. We continue to roll out the access for all programme, as well as the smaller schemes, to make stations more accessible to all concerned.
We did not quite get to Question 10 on the Order Paper, which was my question about which sections of the M4 and M5 around Bristol it would be possible for people to use the hard shoulder on. Can the Minister tell the House how the proposal squares with the Government’s environmental objectives? Some people would interpret it as encouraging road use, rather than tackling the problems of congestion in the Bristol area.
I can reassure my hon. Friend that the proposal meets the Government’s objectives on climate change and reducing emissions. First, using hard shoulder running will mean fewer emissions than there would be if we had to widen the motorway. Secondly, more consistent travel times will mean fewer emissions from vehicles, because there will be less congestion. More reliable journey times will also mean that vehicles will reach their destinations on time, which means better planning. The proposal will lead to a reduction in emissions, which is fully consistent with the Government’s climate change programme.
No decision has been taken—we will shortly be consulting on the post-2010 road safety strategy—and there will not be a blanket ban either. Currently, local authorities may exercise discretion to reduce or increase the speed at which vehicles can travel on a particular road, depending on the nature of that road. However, 62 per cent. of deaths occur on A roads that carry only 40 per cent. of traffic, so it would be wholly inappropriate for us not to examine whether the opportunity exists to save lives and reduce serious injuries. The information and the data from the Transport Research Laboratory show that if we make the speed adjustment, we can save 250 lives and prevent 1,000 serious injuries. We have to look at the proposal, but we have not made a decision yet, although it may be part of the consultation, which will be out shortly, on formulating our road strategy for 2010 onwards.
With regard to the new high-speed rail network, may I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to be ambitious? Instead of looking at a single line serving Manchester and Leeds by a rather convoluted route, will he look at an alternative, which is to have two lines—one going to Manchester and the north-west and the other branching off at Rugby, serving Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield and Leeds, which are the major population centres of the east midlands, south Yorkshire and west Yorkshire? That option would have major economic advantages.
As my hon. Friend will be aware, I do not lack ambition in that respect. Personally, I am very attracted to what he has outlined, but it is for High Speed 2 to advise the Government on the practical steps that will be necessary, and we will draw its attention to his observations.
Women and Equality
The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—
Yes, the new single public sector equality duty will require public authorities to advance equality of opportunity for people of different religions or beliefs and for those of none. As part of being committed to creating a fair society with fair chances for everyone, we will tackle the discrimination and disadvantage that people can face because of their religion or belief or because they hold no belief, as well as the barriers that they can face when accessing public services such as health care. Extending the duty to cover religion or belief will also end the discrepancy whereby Sikhs and Jews are covered by the duties, but atheists, Muslims and Christians, for instance, are not.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer. The issue has been raised with me by constituents who are a little concerned, so can she emphatically tell the House that it is not about promoting any particular religion, but about protecting those who suffer adverse discrimination because they practise their religion?
Yes, I can. That is an important distinction to make. We are interested in getting public authorities to think about those individuals who, as a result of their religious belief, or the manifestation of that belief, face discrimination or disadvantage, so the duty should act as a spur to public authorities to take action to address the under-representation of Muslim women, for instance, or to tackle the health barriers that disadvantage some people because of a religious limitation on from whom they are prepared to take health advice. That is an important distinction to draw. It is about making sure that no one suffers when there is evidence of need.
Will this new duty cause the Government to address the inequalities that women suffer in the state pension?
Forgive me; I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to ask me a question about religion or belief, and I am having a problem linking that to the state pension and women. However, some pretty clear steps are being taken in legislation to try to equalise that position, and I am perfectly happy to get someone else to write to him about those.
Existing legislation already protects employees and service users against discrimination based on sexual orientation, race, disability, sex, gender reassignment, and religion or belief; it also protects employees on the ground of age. The equality Bill will maintain all that and extend protection on the ground of age to the provision of goods and services. Religious organisations providing public services are subject to the requirements of discrimination law in the same way as other organisations, save for very limited exceptions designed to ensure that people’s rights to hold or manifest a belief are not interfered with. Religious organisations carrying out public functions will be fully subject to the new equality duty.
I am grateful to the Minister for her answer. Does she accept, however, that there is concern among people in the lesbian and gay community, for example, that as employees of organisations that are tendered out to religious organisations—as the Government propose, not unreasonably—they might be the victims of discrimination? Is she at least willing to meet people from that community—and, indeed, from religious organisations—in an attempt to reassure them that the legislation that she describes will have an impact and prevent this kind of discrimination?
Yes, of course. I will be very happy to meet anyone with concerns about what we are proposing to do. The hon. Gentleman will recall that we have already spent an extra period of time consulting on this particular provision. In July, we announced that we were unsure whether to proceed with the requirement that we should fully implement the entire duty in favour of religious organisations. We then consulted 11 religious and non-religious organisations and re-consulted 20-odd public authorities. We also took in the views of four lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups and women’s groups. There was more or less a clear consensus that the provision should progress in the way that I have set out, and that there were no major problems with it, but if, despite that, there are still concerns, of course I will see people again.
Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that the women working in the Church—particularly women clergy; I have had a case in my constituency—do not have the same safeguards against discrimination and harassment in the Church? Will she therefore work with the Church Commissioners and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which has a working party on this subject, to ensure that women clergy and vicars are protected against discrimination and harassment at work?
Yes. I suppose that this question deals primarily with religious organisations delivering public services, and, in that situation, they will be entirely subject to the whole of the law. But, of course, if there are workers who are entitled to bring discrimination and harassment claims against Churches, we must ensure that they are adequately protected against that kind of unacceptable treatment.
Will the Minister accept that there must be a sensible balance in this debate? There are many religious organisations that provide valuable public services, but they have long-standing, genuine, sincere beliefs and philosophies. It would be a great shame if, for whatever reason, they had to stop providing those public services. There is always an alternative organisation to help those people who feel that they might be discriminated against. Should there not be a balance in a sensible country?
In a sense, there is a balance, in that if it is a genuine occupational requirement that someone should, for instance, adhere to a particular religion—a vicar in the case of Christianity—an exception is made for such a thing, but it is really not conceivable that we can allow public functions to be delivered in a discriminatory way.
Does the Minister share my concern that equality legislation is in danger of being brought into disrepute by cases such as that of nurse Caroline Petrie, who was disciplined for offering to pray for her patients. Do we not need to tackle the concern of many with religious beliefs, and of Christians in particular, who themselves say that they are facing increased discrimination?
I do not think that that question was about the equality legislation that we are bringing into force. Clearly, everybody has to behave in a balanced and sensible way, and the whole point of the legislation is to promote good cultural relations and good relations among people of all kinds and all faiths. We will drive on with that purpose.
Women (Public Appointments)
Action by the Government, and particularly by the Labour party, has increased the number of women in Parliament. However, the under-representation of women in public appointments has improved only slowly. Indeed, there has been a recent drop in numbers, which shows that there is more work to be done by all of us who believe that increasing diversity improves decision making across public services. I hope that the hon. Lady and her party will join us in doing that work.
I thank the Minister for that reply. She will know that research by the London Business School found that the best-performing teams are of an equal mix of men and women. In fact, a recent study of French companies found that the fewer women managers a French company had, the bigger the drop in its share price since January 2008. Of the 39 directors in the Government-owned bank, just three are women, so why have the Government not acted to put more women on the boards of banks and will they now do so?
I am interested to hear the conclusions of the research that the hon. Lady mentions. It is, of course, important to have diverse representation across all public appointments, which is what the question is about. We are shortly to introduce new diversity targets for public appointments, and I believe that the public sector should lead by example. I will pass on the hon. Lady’s comments to my right hon. and hon. Friends in other Departments.
I think that there is no other party in government than Labour that has ever done more to promote women in public life. What I am most concerned about for women is the impact of the economic downturn, which might be leading to an increase in domestic violence. What will the Government do to put in place plans to support women—
Order. The question is about women in public life, so the hon. Lady is straying from it.
As well as doing what the law requires, will the Minister use her good offices to interview any Church of England bishop who says that he will not appoint a suffragan who is prepared to ordain women?
I have to be careful about getting too involved in the internal affairs of the established Church, but I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s remarks to the appropriate people. He will no doubt be aware that the Second Church Estates Commissioner has questions on 19 March.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the Equality and Human Rights Commission report, “Who Runs Wales?”, which was published at the weekend? It shows that there is still good female political representation in the Assembly, with 70 per cent. of Labour Members being women, but it painted a dismal picture in other sectors—for example, there were no female chief executives in the top 100 private companies in Wales. What would the Minister advise to deal with that information?
We hope to lead by example, and I think that the Welsh Assembly has done a good job in ensuring that there is more equal representation. I believe that we all have to make more effort and one of the ways we can do that is by this Parliament showing a lead. In that respect, the conference that is looking into the representation of women, disabled people and ethnic minorities here in this House has a very important role to play. We must ensure that we make progress on such matters and show the rest of society—civil society, but also organisations in the private sector—the advantages that increasing levels of diversity can provide for the future.
Part-time and flexible working allow many women to carry out dual roles, but most of that work is available only in the service or retail sectors, so employers need to be educated as to the benefits at all levels. Does the Minister agree that that should also apply to the senior grades in the civil service? How many jobs at the highest level are offered part-time?
We need to make more progress on appointments, although the civil service is better than many other organisations in trying to improve its diversity and promote job shares and part-time working. It is much more flexible than some organisations in the private sector, for example. The points that the hon. Lady makes are good. We need to make progress in all those areas across the public and private sectors if we are to make a reality of equality and if we are to reap the full benefits that we all understand diversity can bring.
Rape Crisis Centres
This financial year—in addition to local authority funding and £1.25 million from the victims fund—the Government have paid out £900,000 from a £1.1 million special fund for rape crisis centres. Since the special fund was announced in March 2008, no rape crisis centre has closed. My officials have been working closely with Rape Crisis England and Wales and the Survivors Trust to shape how this year’s special fund will work. We will announce details of the fund shortly.
Many local authorities do not receive the funding that they need to establish rape crisis centres. Will the Minister commit to instituting a three-year funding cycle for rape crisis centres in all local authorities?
As I have said, we have increased the funding to local authorities and through special funds. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that it is important that he and all hon. Members look at what their own local authorities are doing and whether they are providing the services for which they have been financed. I would also say that the money and the investment in those much-needed services come from the Department for Communities and Local Government budget and the Home Office budget. Those are two budgets on which his party has not offered to match the funding that we are promising to put in. We want more funds to go in, but Opposition Members express concerns while not even being prepared to match our spending. I think that that lacks conviction.
The horror of rape goes on for many years, as my right hon. and learned Friend knows. The crisis arises at the beginning, but the pain goes on. Within that examination and the welcomed increased spending, has she looked at excellent services such as that provided by the rape and sexual abuse centre in Guildford, which serves my area and many others in helping women through many years of after-effects following the original rape?
I pay tribute to the Guildford centre, which my hon. Friend mentions. We need not only a prompt criminal justice response if the woman reports an incident to the police, but prompt and good health services. That is why our sexual assault referral centres are so important. Often, the trauma following a sexual assault or a rape can last a lifetime, and the overwhelming majority of such assaults are never reported, so we need a system that deals effectively with those assaults that are reported, but also supports women who cannot bring themselves to report but need help to find a way forward after such trauma.
The Minister really needs to get herself up to date on Conservative party policy, because we have announced £2.5 million for up to 15 new rape crisis centres. I welcome the fact that today she has said that the £1 million extra funding will continue into the next financial year, but we are three weeks away from the end of this financial year. Many rape crisis centres do not know whether they can continue, such as Rape Crisis in Wycombe, which serves my constituency. It has had to cut staff hours and reduce its services because it does not know its future financial position. When will the Government adopt our policy of three-year stable funding for rape crisis centres?
I am sorry, but I really am not going to accept that from the right hon. Lady: her party would cut funding to local government and to the Home Office, but we are being told that we are not spending enough. We have rolled out sexual assault referral centres and set up a special fund, and we are working with the umbrella organisations. Since we set up the special fund, not one single rape crisis centre has closed. If she is saying that more money should be put into this sector, she should say where it would come from because her party’s policies would see it cut. Unless the Conservatives can put their money where their mouth is on this, I am not going to be listening.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your guidance on a matter of procedure? I note that motion 5 on today’s Order Paper proposes that the House rise for the Easter recess on Thursday 2 April. On the same day the G20 summit, which is clearly a meeting of enormous importance, will be hosted here in London. Would it be in order for any Member to table a manuscript amendment proposing that the House rise the following day, in order to give the Prime Minister a chance to make a statement about the summit that he will have hosted?
The motion is unamendable, so it must be put forthwith, but hon. Members are, of course, entitled to oppose it.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday’s Order Paper included a meeting of the new Select Committee on North East Regional Affairs, but there is no mention of it in today’s Votes and Proceedings. I subsequently discovered that it could not meet because it was inquorate, and that the quorum was only three. Surely if a Committee of that kind could not proceed, the fact that it was inquorate should be recorded in Votes and Proceedings. This initiative was trumpeted by the Government as an important regional development, yet they could not get three of their MPs together to launch it.
I can only say that if no proceedings took place because the meeting was inquorate, there is nothing to report to the House.
Further to those points of order, Mr. Speaker. The West Midlands Regional Affairs Committee was also due to meet yesterday, and failed to do so because it was similarly inquorate. As a custodian of the resources of the House, Mr. Speaker, do you not agree that if there is a consistent pattern of regional Select Committees not meeting because they are inquorate, there is a case for reviewing their very existence?
That is a matter for members of the Committees. As hon. Members know, I have often chaired meetings of the House, and some days I have wished that those were inquorate, so that I could go for a coffee—but so often the opposite was the case. Members have a responsibility to turn up at meetings, and they should attend those meetings and do their duties. I will go no further than that.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.
I call Mr. Pritchard first, but I shall come to the hon. Lady, if she is patient. She must not worry.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
Sadly, the Wrekin Construction group, which is in my constituency, announced today that it was going into administration. The company has been around for nearly 50 years, and 1,100 people will be affected: 600 jobs will be affected directly, and 500 indirectly. Indeed, jobs will be affected in the great city of Glasgow as well as in Shropshire and the west midlands.
I alerted the Business Secretary to the fact that the company was experiencing short-term financial difficulty, and needed strong support and help from the Royal Bank of Scotland, back in December 2008. The Business Secretary has done absolutely nothing to help the company. Those massive job losses were avoidable. As I have said, the company has been around for nearly 50 years. It has an order book worth £50 million. It is profitable. It is an absolute scandal that although Ministers knew that this was avoidable, the Government have done nothing to save jobs. If the Business Secretary comes to Shropshire, rather than having green custard on his face, he will definitely have egg on his face.
Order. The hon. Gentleman made his case and made his protest, but he went too far when he mentioned the attack on a Minister. An attack on any Minister in this Government should never be allowed, and no Member should give any indication that he or she in any way approves of such behaviour.
All of us, from time to time, face redundancies in our constituencies, and we have a duty to fight as best we can. The hon. Gentleman has been a Member of the House for long enough to know that there are Adjournment debates and there are parliamentary questions, and that he can also seek a meeting with the Minister whom he mentioned. Those are the steps that he should take to try to help the job situation in his constituency.
Further to the point of order made by the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), Mr. Speaker. I am a member of the newly formed North East Committee, and I received an e-mail from the Clerk yesterday afternoon telling me, prior to that meeting, that it had been cancelled, so that is probably why nobody attended the meeting. I have all due respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I am not sure where he got his information from. If a meeting is cancelled, is there any way of recording that in Hansard?
The hon. Lady has managed to record that the meeting was cancelled, so there we are.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I know that you are in a difficult position on this, but the matter raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) highlights an important issue. Two regional Select Committee meetings were scheduled to take place, but in fact they did not—although perhaps one of them did take place but because it was inquorate, nothing occurred. Surely that should be registered on the Order Paper the day following such a scheduled meeting, Mr. Speaker, so will you look at whether these matters could be reported in the Order Paper of the House, because I can only say to the Leader of the House, “We told you so”?
The hon. Gentleman has a massive knowledge of these matters, and what I say to him is that the record shows the proceedings of the House, and if a meeting is inquorate and did not operate, it is not a proceeding of the House and therefore there is nothing to report. If this is a concern for hon. Members, they can take the matter up with the Procedure Committee.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your advice and guidance. During the Committee stage of the Coroners and Justice Bill, we had a lengthy discussion on clause 152, which brings in wide-ranging data-sharing powers. During the debate, as is recorded in columns 389-90 of the Committee Hansard for 26 February, the Minister replying said she would sit down with Opposition Members and bring in “a more streamlined version” of the clause. However, the Secretary of State announced in the Sunday press that he would drop clause 152 completely. Why is it that when Ministers give a commitment to deal with matters in Committee or on the Floor of the House, they then go to the press instead? Surely this must be condemned, Mr. Speaker? Because you uphold the rights of Parliament, what can you do to prevent Ministers from behaving in such a way?
What the hon. Gentleman can do is raise the matter when the Bill comes back from the Lords. He is entitled to do that.
Further to the point of order made by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), and your comments on that, Mr. Speaker. I have followed your suggestion that we ought to seek meetings with Ministers; in respect of both JCB and Waterford Wedgwood in my constituency, I have raised questions with Ministers, but we have not so far had any meetings. I understand that there are pressures on them, but I must say that although you have remarked that we should have meetings, Mr. Speaker, that does not necessarily mean that we get them. I appreciate that is not your fault, but I wish Ministers would do what they are asked to do.
The hon. Gentleman is a very experienced lawyer, and maybe I should have said that Members could “request” meetings, because the request is in the hands of the Minister concerned. When I was a Back-Bench MP with a difficulty, Ministers—who were not in the same political party as myself—were always very good at meeting a constituency Member. [Interruption.] Well, all I would say is that I would hope that when there is unemployment, or there are dangers regarding unemployment, in a constituency, Ministers take that seriously, and meet hon. Members. I think that is very important indeed.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I report that the West Midlands Committee, of which I am a member, did not meet yesterday?
Well, there we are; it has all gone on the record.
Bankers’ Pensions (Limits)
Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the pensions of board members of banks that are wholly or partly in public ownership to be limited in certain circumstances; and for connected purposes.
My Bill is born of public anger; there is hardly a household in the land in which anger has not been expressed, and outrage has not been felt, over the greed, selfishness and professional incompetence of a handful of Britain’s most prominent bankers. They, through a combination of overconfidence and professional arrogance, have completely undermined the reputation of, and public confidence in, the British banking industry.
Listening to these people’s mealy-mouthed apologies to the Treasury Committee some weeks ago, I just felt how totally detached they are from the world outside and from the daily experiences in the lives of people in my constituency. There is a total disconnect, and they seem to preside over a world wherein they are accountable to nobody. Their remuneration, pensions, and perks appear to be determined by a small tightly knit group of the privileged, who divvy out the cash like robbers stacking up the notes for the great share-out following a bank heist. Their ruthless decision taking has gone unchallenged for far too long. Since the big bang, successive Governments have progressively trusted them to operate within conditions of carefully manicured deregulation. They have exploited the opportunities that have been offered in a cavalier manner, and are now drawing us back into a period of greater regulation. They have only themselves to blame.
There has been almost a conspiracy of silence from the beneficiaries of those people’s largesse. In particular, institutional investors have rigidly remained silent, for fear of upsetting the dividend streams that have inflated the funds under their management; they themselves have feasted on a culture of fat bonuses and inflated commissions. At some stage it was all bound to come to an end, and now that we have reached that point, we must build on sturdier foundations.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has rightly said that the conduct of those bankers has been “unjustifiable and unacceptable”. If only the international community had responded more positively to his calls, made nearly 10 years ago, for greater international co-operation and supervision, things might have been different. The international banking community knew that no nation state could act in isolation, and step out of line by imposing tighter regulation, without undermining the credibility of its own national institutions. We have become the prisoners of international inaction, while greedy bankers at home have known the truth and have been able to gorge on it—they have dishonoured their profession.
Britain had once been the envy of the world for the success of its banking institutions. We had led the world in innovation with our banking products, investment management services, transfers and competition generally. Now the spivs have moved in to destroy a carefully constructed reputation. My Bill should make them sit up and think twice before they come running to the state for a bail-out at massive cost to the taxpayer; if they want our help they will have to pay for it, and we know that they will not like that.
My Bill would amend section 91 of the Pensions Act 1995, subsection (2) of which deals with the inalienability of occupational pensions and states:
“Where by virtue of this section a person’s entitlement, or accrued right, to a pension under an occupational pension scheme cannot, apart from subsection (5), be assigned, no order can be made by any court the effect of which would be that he would be restrained from receiving that pension.”
Subsection (5) allows the amendment of an entitlement in certain conditions, such as when there has been a
“criminal, negligent or fraudulent act or omission”.
Those conditions do not appear to arise in the Fred Goodwin case, although the issue of negligence is still to be decided on, following the inquiry being undertaken by United Kingdom Financial Investments Ltd. It would, however, be possible to amend subsection (5) to include the acquisition by the state of a majority of the share capital in the company when the company was deemed incapable of trading as solvent, and was faced with administration arising out of the actions of individual directors. That is the substance of my Bill.
We know from events over the past week or so that the Government are being advised that forfeiture or even amendment of the Fred Goodwin pension entitlement is problematic. We now learn in the press that an attempt might be made to sue two senior executives for negligence in the exercise of their discretion over the payment. Again, we are in unknown territory.
The pension situation for employees of RBS is very different from the one enjoyed by Mr. Goodwin. Since 2003, new employees of RBS have not been able to retire early on a pension until the age of 55. Mr. Goodwin, aged 50, closed the final salary pension scheme—the one from which he is benefiting—to new entrants. Next year no employee, irrespective of their start date, will be able to draw their occupational pension before the age of 55. Employees over the age of 50 who resign, and who might be eligible for a pension at the age of 50, can claim the pension, but it is reduced by up to 40 per cent. for early payment. For RBS employees and pensioners who were employed by the company before 2001, the company also applies a pension clawback when they reach state retirement age. Irrespective of whether they qualify for a state pension, RBS claws back up to 30 per cent. of the value of a basic state pension from their company pension. That is having a disproportionate and detrimental effect on older pensioners, especially women part-timers.
My Bill does not deal with the Goodwin case, as it is not retrospective. However, it at least deals with conditions that might arise in the future if further banks need bailing out. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House of Commons said in a recent BBC interview, the Goodwin settlement is not a pension,
“It is a severance payment.”
I say that it is a severance payment dressed up as a pension, and we want our money back. That is a message that the greedy and grasping Mr. Goodwin should take on board. We recognise that his pension pot, part of which was presumably transferred in, is small in comparison with the total of toxic liabilities that remain the responsibility of RBS.
Other banks, too, might wish to keep that message in mind. I am thinking of Lloyds Banking Group, which has just this week received further protection for further billions, made necessary by its takeover of HBOS. Lloyds has always been a first-class bank. Indeed, in October it ran an advert that read, “We’ve been rated Britain’s safest and most trusted bank. You could say we’re a bank you can bank on.” Within months of that advert, Lloyds, acting in the public interest to avoid HBOS’s collapse, had taken over the bank only to find that HBOS had failed to reveal the toxic nature of its liabilities, bringing Lloyds, a good bank, to its knees. When Eric Daniels and Victor Blank considered the bonus and £6 million pension pot of Peter Cummings, the former head of corporate lending at HBOS, did they really think that he deserved it?
My Bill would not sort out excessive pensions paid in banks that have been able to avoid taxpayer support and guarantees; neither is it retrospective. It is a Bill for the future. In the meantime, the country asks that those who mismanaged banks, destroyed savings, undermined share prices, depressed pension funds, threatened the existence of charities and the security of millions in retirement, and put tens of thousands on the dole should give some of their ill-gotten pension money back.
I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Ann Clwyd, Rosemary McKenna, John Battle, Mr. Michael Clapham, Mr. Peter Kilfoyle, Mike Gapes, Mrs. Anne McGuire, David Taylor, Andrew Mackinlay and Mr. Dennis Skinner present the Bill.
Ann Clwyd accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 July and to be printed (Bill 73).
[7th Allotted Day]
I inform the House that I have selected the amendments in the name of the Prime Minister in both Opposition day debates.
I beg to move,
That this House notes that unemployment rose by 146,000 to 1.97 million in the three months to December 2008, the highest level since August 1997, that the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance in January 2009 rose by 73,800 to 1.23 million, and that the number of vacancies in the UK fell by 76,000 in the three months to January 2009 to 504,000, the lowest figure since records began; further notes that unemployment among 18 to 24-year-olds was 616,000 in the three months to November, the highest total since 1995; further notes that the Government has failed to establish a national loan guarantee scheme to increase the flow of credit to businesses, and calls on the Government to establish such a scheme; further notes that the Government failed to introduce necessary welfare reform during the years of economic growth; further calls on the Government to relax the rules on jobseeker’s allowance to allow unemployed people rapidly to take up training opportunities; believes that the Government should immediately cut taxes for firms taking on new employees who have been unemployed for three months; notes with concern the failure of the procurement process for Flexible New Deal, and further calls on the Government not to backtrack on the use of the private and voluntary sectors in welfare-to-work provisions; and calls on the Department for Work and Pensions to expand the use of an ‘invest to save’ approach to welfare-to-work services, allowing the full potential of the expertise in these sectors to be realised.
I am sure that no one in this Chamber needs reminding of the unemployment challenge that this country faces. Every day, Members of this House deal with letters and e-mails from constituents who have lost their jobs and are unable to find another. People feel helpless, frustrated, distressed and utterly let down. Who can blame them? The recession is having a devastating effect on employment around the country. No industry or geographical area remains immune from this downturn and the people of Britain are dealing with its harsh realities every day.
What has been the Government’s reaction to this crisis? Have they taken immediate action to help people now? Sadly not; unemployment has been rising constantly for more than a year, yet the Government closed an average of one jobcentre a week in 2008. As late as last July, Ministers were still issuing press releases patting themselves on the back for record levels of employment, and brushing the unemployment problem to one side. As Ministers were reminding us that we should see the rise in jobseeker’s allowance “in context”, perhaps I can provide a little context for the Government, in the hope that it will get them to face up to the problems that we face.
There are 1.97 million people unemployed. Youth unemployment is at its highest level since 1995. There are record redundancies, combined with the lowest level of vacancies since records began. Jobseeker’s allowance claims are up by 55 per cent. in one year, with the claimant count smashing through the 1 million mark, and there are more than 130,000 fewer jobs in the economy since June last year. The reality is that Britain now faces an unemployment crisis.
Yet there is still no real action from the Government. Instead, true to form, they have given us only empty promises. In October, the Government announced £50 million of help for people “currently facing redundancy”. Five months on, how many have received that help? None. Why? Because the projects will not start until April. In December, the Government announced £79 million of funding. Two months later, they reannounced that help. Only then was it revealed that no new employment programmes would be in place as a result of that money until the end of this year.
The golden hello scheme was announced in January. We welcomed that—the Government had finally taken up the proposal for tax breaks for new jobs that we announced in November, but again nothing will happen until April. Yesterday, the Secretary of State announced in an interview with a newspaper that he was spending £40 million to provide extra support for white-collar workers with one-to-one interviews, which they are supposed to have anyway, and the creation of job clubs, which some job centres, such as the one in Maidenhead, already run.
We should pity the poor unemployed white-collar worker who heard that and logged on to the Department for Work and Pensions website to find out more, because there is no more information. Indeed, the announcement is not even on the DWP website. So what sort of commitment is it? Is it new money? How many job clubs will be created? Where will they be, and crucially, when will what has been announced happen? I cannot refer to job clubs without mentioning the excellent work that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) has done in setting up a job club in his constituency, which I am looking forward to visiting this Friday. I am sure that many people will be helped by it.
If press releases created jobs, we could believe the Government’s proclamations that they are offering real help now. Unfortunately, far too many people who are struggling to find work each day know that that simply is not the case. One of the reasons why the Government have been so complacent about tackling the unemployment crisis is their complete inability to acknowledge what caused the problems that Britain now faces. This is a global recession, but Britain entered it worse prepared than almost any other developed economy. If it is all America’s fault, why has the value of the pound plummeted against that of the dollar? Why is the UK’s economy predicted to be worse hit than any other major economy, and why has the OECD predicted that unemployment will rise faster in the UK than in any other G7 country?
If the Prime Minister cannot admit the mistakes that he has made, he cannot help the British economy out of this recession, so perhaps this afternoon the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will follow the advice of the noble Lord Malloch-Brown and take this opportunity to apologise to the 1.97 million people in the UK today who cannot find a job.
As we are talking about apologies and unemployment, will the right hon. Lady take this opportunity to apologise, 25 years after the miners’ strike, for the time when a whole industry and thousands of people lost their jobs and their ability to participate in socially acceptable community life?
I say to the hon. Lady that when the Conservatives left government, unemployment was coming down. Crucially, youth unemployment was coming down. Under this Government, unemployment is going up, and is predicted to go through the 2 million mark. The Government have an abysmal record on employment. After 10 years of economic growth, almost 5 million people are on out-of-work benefits. The Government boast of creating 3 million new jobs, but up to 80 per cent. of them went to foreign-born workers. There are pockets of deprivation where well over half the people are claiming out-of-work benefits, and we have the highest proportion of children growing up in workless households in the whole European Union. The challenge of dealing with rising unemployment is deepened by the huge figures for those already claiming out-of-work benefit. That is how prepared the UK was for the downturn under this Government.
In the past few weeks, I have spoken to jobcentre staff and unemployed people, spent time with providers of welfare to work services and listened to the experiences of my constituents. When someone becomes unemployed, they understandably often turn to the state for help, and usually they go to their local jobcentre for that help. What they badly need is support, advice, knowledge and reassurance, but the question that the Government must ask themselves is whether the Jobcentre Plus network can provide all those things. Despite grand announcements of billions of pounds of funding and thousands more staff, the reality is that the Government are just reversing previous cuts, not providing additional help.
Will the right hon. Lady confirm that she still opposes the Government’s fiscal stimulus, announced in the pre-Budget report?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. As he knows, we believe that parts of that fiscal stimulus have not had the effect that the Government said they would—notably the VAT cut, which cost £12.4 billion that will have to be paid off through future tax rises. As he knows, the Government were intending to put VAT back up not just to 17.5 per cent., but to 20 per cent. That will hit everybody in this country.
As the right hon. Lady continues to oppose the stimulus, will she confirm that she opposes the extra £2 billion that we put into Jobcentre Plus?
I have just made the point to the Secretary of State that the money that he has put into Jobcentre Plus merely reverses previous cuts that were made by his Government. His Government have closed 500 jobcentres.
Just wait. The right hon. Gentleman’s Government closed almost a jobcentre a week at a time when unemployment was already going up. The Government set their face against the reality of what was happening to the economy in this country. That is why any measures that they claim to have taken have not worked.
If the measure is making the system more efficient, the right hon. Lady should support that. Will she confirm, therefore, that she is opposing the £2 billion extra—yes or no?
I have said to the right hon. Gentleman that all he has done is reinstate money that was previously cut from the Government’s budget for Jobcentre Plus. If he is so pleased with himself, he might ask himself why the Government in the face of rising unemployment were cutting Jobcentre Plus offices and reducing the service to people who would become unemployed.
The truth of the matter is that Jobcentre Plus staff are doing an incredibly good job in incredibly stressed conditions, but most of the time they just about manage to get on top of new applications for jobseeker’s allowance. The Secretary of State needs to address his mind and his Department to dealing with the ever-increasing number of people who are out of work and want to get back into work as quickly as possible. Jobcentre Plus is not addressing their needs. It is not rocket science. None of the £2 billion is coming through for that group. I would welcome his coming to my constituency and meeting young automotive engineers who have been made unemployed and who desperately want to get back into the world of work as speedily as possible. Jobcentre Plus at present does not meet their needs.
My hon. Friend is right. I was going on to make exactly that point. The problem that Jobcentre Plus faces—
I will make a little more progress, then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
The problem that Jobcentre Plus has is that it is expected to support people in going back into work for the first 18 months of their jobseeker’s claim, but it is finding it desperately difficult just to be able to process the claims as people initially come in, because of the numbers that it is dealing with, as there has been a threefold rise in benefit claims.
I will continue to make another point on Jobcentre Plus. There will still be an opportunity for the hon. Gentlemen to intervene.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury that Jobcentre Plus staff do an incredibly difficult and important job, but they are also frustrated by a system that hampers their best efforts and often causes hardship for claimants. Claims are taking so long to be processed that individuals are forced to apply for crisis loans. That cannot be right. There are people who have worked hard, often giving years in tax contributions, who find that the archaic system means that they have to apply for crisis loans to feed their families. We should be seeking to ease the pain and trauma of becoming unemployed, not adding to it.
I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way. She is ladling compliments with a trowel on to Jobcentre Plus staff. Why, then, in her motion does she call on the Government
“not to backtrack on the use of the private and voluntary sectors in welfare-to-work provisions”?
All the available recent evidence shows quite clearly that where outsourcing has taken place in recent years, it is less effective, more costly and unlikely to contribute towards the resolution of the problems that the nation’s economy is facing. Is it not the case that her friends in the private sector will be able to cherry-pick, at great cost to the taxpayer and little benefit to the unemployed?
The evidence is the opposite to that. I am sure that the Secretary of State was pleased to receive the hon. Gentleman’s warm welcome for the Government’s Welfare Reform Bill, which is due to return to the House. If the hon. Gentleman comes along next Tuesday—17 March—for the final stages of the Bill, the Secretary of State will no doubt welcome his contributions to that debate.
What she just said seems to be contradicted by the evidence insofar as it relates to what is happening in Lancashire and Cumbria. On Friday I met Peter Chadwick, who is responsible for that area. I have a letter from him, in which he writes:
“Despite the increasing volumes, I am pleased to be able to say that our average actual clearance times for the main benefits are holding up well.”
He mentions jobseeker’s allowance being delivered in 10.1 days, compared to the 11.5-day target; incapacity benefit delivered in 13.1 days, against a 15-day target; and income support delivered in 8.5 days, against a 10-day target. So people are being dealt with more quickly than she would invite us to believe.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring to the experience that he quoted. Experience is patchy across the country and there are many areas where—[Interruption.] Ministers on the Front Bench sneer at that, but they should not do so. In some areas people have had to find charitable support because their claims are taking so long to get through Jobcentre Plus. What is happening is not something to be sneered at; it is seriously affecting people at some jobcentres. Such delays are one of the issues with Jobcentre Plus. Giving people the fast, targeted and relevant support that they need is vital, yet all too often the processes can be slow, cumbersome and generic. We should be able to provide a smarter and more efficient service.
As I said a few minutes ago, I am sure that everybody in the House will join me in saying that Jobcentre Plus staff are doing the best that they can in incredibly difficult circumstances; any steps that the Government take to streamline the processes that those staff deal with every day will be welcome. Creating a jobcentre system that is fit for purpose is an essential weapon in the battle to tackle unemployment.
What of the services that the Government offer the unemployed? They launched the new deal, their flagship programme, in a blaze of glory, but it can be described at best as a damp squib and at worst as a damning indictment of the Government’s failure properly to grasp the challenge of unemployment. In 2008, fewer than 30 per cent. of the new deal participants found a job. One third of participants on the new deal for young people had been on the programme at least once before, and that figure rises to 40 per cent. for the new deal 25-plus. There can be no denying that the new deal is an abject failure. Half of all young jobseekers who leave the new deal for young people end up back on benefits within the year. I hope that when he responds, the Secretary of State will accept the failings of the new deal system—
Wait—a little patience.
Those failings have been described by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), the former Minister and undoubted expert on the matter, as “woeful” and a calamity. If the Secretary of State does not accept that, will he accept the findings of a report published by his own Department last September? It said that claimants
“were more or less unanimous in the view that the New Jobseeker Interview and the Jobseeker Agreement served administrative purposes only. It was seen by almost all as a form-filling exercise that offered no real help in getting back into work or training. Very few had read the Agreement in detail before signing it.”
The right hon. Lady asked me about the new deal. Does she agree with her new boss, the soon-to-be Lord Freud, that by any measure the new deals have been a great success? He also said that they had been enormously successful.
That intervention does not even merit a response.
I return to the words of the Department’s own report, which found that half those interviewed said that they never spoke to anyone at these interviews; instead, they just handed their forms to a receptionist for processing. The view of one claimant was:
“It’s just: ‘okay, sign it, there’s your money, go’.”
Jobseekers get to the new deal after 18 months on jobseeker’s allowance. One person said that he just
“sat there for six months”,
received no work experience or training and
“spent the majority of the time playing solitaire on the computer or listening to music.”
In the motion to which she is a signatory, the right hon. Lady has put forward some interesting ideas that are worth debating; I am thinking of the loan guarantee scheme, relaxing the rules on jobseeker’s allowance for training and cutting taxes for new employees. I see those as pump-priming measures. Will she say what her party would spend up front on those three measures in the financial year 2009-10?
The hon. Gentleman is quick to suggest that we have a debate on the motion, and that is exactly what we are doing. If he is lucky, he will be able to catch Mr. Speaker’s eye and make a fuller contribution to the debate later.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) mentioned pump-priming and the Secretary of State talked about fiscal stimulus. Treasury Committee members were in Leeds this morning and heard remarkable tales about the capital programme in further education. It was completely suspended in December, leaving construction companies, which are waiting for the work and desperately trying to keep people in employment, floundering and unable to know how to proceed. Is it not ironic to hear about fiscal stimulus from a Government who prevent their own projects from going forward?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. There is, of course, a double-whammy: not only are jobs not being created because the work is not taking place, but there will not be the extra places that would have been available to people to retrain and reskill. At a recent forum on the new deal that I chaired in Maidstone, I heard from someone who had been on the new deal and from an employer, both of whom said that the right training was not being provided and that it did little to help people to get into work.
I am listening to my right hon. Friend with great interest and I support what she is saying; she is putting the real situation vividly before the House. Does she share my concern about the growing number of young people who are not in employment, education or training? Is not that another example of Labour failing in government?
I could not have put it better myself; my hon. Friend makes an extremely valid point. [Interruption.] We hear laughter from those on the Government Front Bench—laughter about the fact that so many young people are not in education, employment or training, and that their life chances are being affected as a direct result of decisions taken by this Government. It does not look from the reaction that we have had so far as if this is going to be possible, but I had hoped that Ministers might want to accept that reform is desperately needed. [Interruption.] I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) for pointing out to me the increase in the number of young people who are not in education, employment or training. Over the period from 2007 to 2008, there was an increase from 655,000 to 857,000, so 200,000 more young people are in that position.
My right hon. Friend is talking about the new deal. Does she agree with the Select Committee on Work and Pensions that there must be great concern about the viability of the flexible new deal now that, on Government accounts, there will be some 300 per cent. more entrants to the scheme than was first thought? How can it be viable with the same amount of money and so many more people?
I am very conscious of what the Select Committee report said about this point. As my hon. Friend says, it raised some genuine questions about what the Government are doing. We need clarification from the Secretary of State as to where things stand on the flexible new deal, because the numbers have increased. I would have hoped that the scheme would resolve some of the problems that we have seen with the Government’s new deal programme, but not only have concerns been expressed in the Select Committee report, but there has been a lot of speculation in the press that there are considerable problems with the contracting process and that the October start date is in jeopardy. I hope that today the Secretary of State will be able to guarantee to the House that the flexible new deal will start in October, as promised.
However, that scheme represents only small steps towards the kind of welfare reform for which my party has been calling for years. I hope that the Government will be in a listening mood and that we can finally persuade them to take proper measures to tackle this recession and the unemployment crisis. First, we need a proper national loan guarantee scheme, because businesses need to get credit flowing again; then firms can keep people in their jobs and the unemployment rate can be checked. We urgently need to protect the jobs that exist. I hope that the Secretary of State will accept the need to introduce a proper scheme that covers all businesses of all sizes and in all industries.
Secondly, we need more support, and sooner, for everyone who is unemployed. The flexible new deal will bring the wait for support down from 18 months to 12, but that is still too long. Under Conservative welfare reform proposals, no one will have to wait more than six months for a personalised employment programme, and for those under 21 support will be available after three months. Youth unemployment is at its highest point since 1995, and it is essential that people just starting out in their working lives do not become detached from and disheartened about the whole process of trying to find work. For everybody who has been unemployed for three months or more, we are calling on the Government to provide employers tax cuts for new jobs. With a record low of vacancies in the economy, it is essential that people have the skills to allow them to compete for every job they want to, so we need to relax jobseeker’s allowance rules to allow everyone the opportunity to go on a full-time training course from day one of their claim. This is not the time for half measures and timid steps forward. I urge the Secretary of State to be brave and to take the proper action that these times call for.
In the past few weeks, the Secretary of State and the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform have been keen to reassure us that jobcentres are better because they no longer look like those seen in the film “The Full Monty”. I have been somewhat bemused by their preoccupation with that issue, for what matters is not what the job centre looks like, but the service that it can offer. Whether someone is blue collar or white collar, when they lose their job such distinctions seem immaterial—they just want help and they want it as soon as possible.
The last 12 years of Labour government have left us woefully ill-prepared to deal with this recession and its impact on employment, but I call on the Secretary of State to prove his progressive credentials and to adopt our proposed measures. That would offer immediate help to people worried about their jobs and to people waking up everyday without a job to go to, and it would make a real difference to the lives of millions of people.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“notes that unemployment is rising in Britain and across the world; believes that unemployment is never a price worth paying and that as unemployment rises the amount of support that is offered should be increased; further notes that the Government is investing nearly £2 billion extra into giving additional assistance for the unemployed and that this will provide additional help to people losing their jobs, including a national rapid response service to react to redundancy situations, advice from day one of unemployment on skills and finding a job, assistance to pay mortgage bills to prevent people losing both their jobs and their homes, cash incentives for employers to recruit and train unemployed people, more training opportunities to help people back to work and more places on the New Deal employment programme; believes that it is preferable to invest millions into helping people now than to spend billions of pounds of public money on benefits in the future; further notes that in previous recessions the numbers on inactive benefits were allowed to increase dramatically; further believes that the mistakes of previous recessions must be avoided by investing now to prevent people becoming long-term unemployed today; and further believes that the Government should increase the support offered to people trapped on benefits by previous recessions.”
We are debating a serious issue today, and I expect that there will be some areas on which we agree. There is no disagreement in my party that this is a serious recession. We all recognise that unemployment is rising sharply. Although the Conservative motion does not refer to it, I think that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) will agree that rising unemployment is a global problem and that countries around the world are being affected by it. In the UK, for example, unemployment is 6.3 per cent. It is 6.9 per cent. in the United States, 8 per cent. in Germany and France and now nearly 14 per cent. in Spain. Industrialised countries are all trying to respond to the same challenge, and we are all trying to do two simple things: first, to prevent job losses wherever possible, and, secondly, to get people back into work as quickly as possible.
I am sure that the right hon. Lady agrees that those should be our aims, but there is a difference between us about how we should respond and, in particular, about how we should fund that response. In that respect, I thank the right hon. Lady for calling today’s debate to highlight the fact that she would cut £2 billion from the employment budget precisely when unemployment is rising.
The right hon. Lady says that she would not, but she confirmed it in answer to my question. She refused to say that she was in favour of the fiscal stimulus, so she would not put the £2 billion in. When my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) asked her where any of her policies were coming from, she refused to answer that question as well. She can intervene now if she wants to, and confirm that she would put that £2 billion in. Where would it come from? Exactly—she knows, and the whole House can see, that she would cut £2 billion from the budget precisely when unemployment is rising, repeating the mistakes of past recessions.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that an official Opposition whose motion proposes at least three plans to tackle the extreme difficulties facing our work force, but who refuse on the Floor of the House to put any figures on their plans, are merely full of hot air and are not a serious Opposition?
The first test of a serious Opposition is whether they are able to say how policies are funded, and they have completely failed that test today. As is so often the case when people try to divert attention from the fact that they are embarrassed about their policy, all the Opposition have succeeded in doing is draw attention to the fact that they would cut £2 billion from the budget. That is why, as my hon. Friend says, their motion is a mixture of straw men and fantasy policies. Their policy on national insurance is a fantasy policy; they have absolutely no way of funding it. They cannot say that they will cut tax on employers without saying where the money will come from. That is a fantasy policy—the sort of thing that the Liberal Democrats do most of the time. I would have thought that they at least aspired to meet the test of being more intellectually credible than the Liberal Democrats, but they have failed in that as well.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead says that people should be able to train from day one. That is a straw man: they can train from day one, as long as they are looking for work. People are doing that all around the country. The Opposition want to say that they would increase the pace at which the invest-to-save policy is rolled out. That is our policy, so that is another straw man. If they are saying that that would fund the £2 billion hole in their spending plans, it is not just a straw man, but a fantasy policy as well.
I am listening to the right hon. Gentleman talk about cuts and straw men. Let us leave the straw men to one side. Will he answer this question, which no one else in his Government has: why are his Government cutting half a billion pounds for Scotland over the next two years?
We are increasing spending in Scotland. Indeed, the money we are spending here will be spent in Scotland as well. The £2 billion will be spent in the normal way through Barnett consequentials in Scotland.
I think the right hon. Lady wants to intervene to tell me where the £2 billion is coming from.
I did indeed want to intervene on points that the Secretary of State is making, particularly about invest to save. He is absolutely right—he has followed our policy on welfare reform and he is adopting our proposals on invest to save. However, he is being timid about it, which means that people will not get the help that they deserve as quickly as they should. Will he not now adopt our welfare reform proposals in full, rather than take the rather timid approach that he has taken hitherto?
The right hon. Lady’s new boss—I am sorry to mention him again—said clearly that it would
“take at least six years to roll out a full system of provider contracts”,
which is exactly what we are doing. She is obviously happy to have him as a Tory Front Bencher, but she cannot say that he is right and then suddenly say that he was talking nonsense when he said that we were proceeding at the right pace. I am glad that she agrees with our policy on introducing that system.
The Opposition’s motion is a do nothing motion. They are not prepared to spend the money, so it is a motion full of fantasy policies. This is not just a theoretical debate, it is about real people. Every time someone loses—[Interruption.] They might want to listen to this, because it is about real people. Every time someone loses their job it is a crisis, but the fundamental thing to do to prevent it from becoming a tragedy is to help people back into work as quickly as possible. The inability to do that was not a theoretical debate in the past; it was Government policy. In the 1990s’ recession, the number of people claiming incapacity benefit increased by half a million. The unspoken Government policy at the time was to shift people off the unemployment roll and classify them as sick and disabled. As if that were not a sick enough policy, the truly sick thing about it was that when people were put on to benefits, they were given no help to get better and no help to get back into work. It is because of this Government that people are getting that help.
The reason unemployment was considered a price worth paying under the Conservative Government was simple: they were not prepared to spend the necessary money on employment services. The people who paid the price for their policy were the long-term unemployed. We are determined to ensure that that does not happen again.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his generosity in giving way for a second time. If his Government’s policies on people on incapacity benefits were so great, why do we still have 2.5 million people on incapacity benefit?
The number tripled under the Conservative Government. It went from 700,000 to 2.6 million. It is only because of our policies that it is starting to fall. I am happy to deal with welfare reform at the end of my speech, but I shall go through it in the right order.
We know the history of previous Tory Governments and their mistakes, but the extraordinary thing is that the Opposition want to repeat those mistakes. It is as though they believed that the ’80s and ’90s were not mistakes, and that they followed exactly the right policy all along. They are not prepared to pay the cost of increasing borrowing, so they would not be prepared to help people back into work over the next two years. We would therefore pay the cost over the next two decades, as we have over the past two.
When it comes to the Tory response to unemployment, it is not about theories. It is about the history of our constituencies and of too many families that were abandoned by the Tories’ policies. The danger of the right hon. Lady’s policy is that that could be the situation in the present, too. It is important to ask ourselves what an employment policy without the extra £2 billion would look like. That is the question that she wants desperately to avoid.
In considering that question, let us start with the rapid response service. Today, if a company announces redundancies, it is helped by the rapid response service. We announced last November that we would double the funding for the service, and we will double it again next year. That is not fantasy policy but real delivery. The right hon. Lady said that we have announced policies but not actually delivered them. Through the rapid response service we have already helped more than 800 companies, and we will continue to help. That is not fantasy policy but real delivery that is helping people, through jobs fairs, advice on writing a CV, debt advice and reskilling. If the Tories had their way, of course, those things would not be funded and we would have to cut the rapid response service.
Woolworths closed with 30,000 redundancies. What has the Secretary of State’s rapid response service done for those people?
We have been working with Woolworths ever since it went into liquidation. [Interruption.] We have provided help for people in job searches, and we have provided jobs fairs and a wide range of help. Indeed, a large number of people who worked in Woolworths have found work through Jobcentre Plus. Clearly the situation is very worrying for anybody who has not yet found work, and it is our responsibility to continue to help them.
Many constituents have come to see me not because they have lost their jobs but because their hours have been reduced—a lead indicator that businesses are in trouble and people are at risk of losing their jobs. Should not the Government pay more attention to supporting those businesses to ensure that redundancies are a last resort, and can be avoided when possible?
The hon. Lady is right—that is important. Losing overtime and hours is clearly a challenge. However, the right response is the tax credits policy, which we introduced. It will significantly cushion the reduction in people’s funds, but I believe that the Liberal Democrats oppose it. The right response to people who must reduce their hours is to say that the tax credits policy will help cushion that. She might like to discuss not opposing it with her colleagues.
Under the Conservatives, the rapid response service would be rolled back. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead nearly said some kind words about Jobcentre Plus. I agree with the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) that it has done an incredibly good job. Many people already recognise it as world class, but, in the past few months, it has really earned that reputation. For example, despite the doubling of the claims with which it deals, we are processing claims in 10 days, down from 13 days two years ago. The right hon. Lady said that it was wrong to close jobcentres, but I thought that Conservative party policy was to make public services more efficient. We have done exactly that. We have improved the service that people get and reduced the time that they have to wait to get their benefits, while decreasing spending on back-office processing and increasing front-line advisers. We have made the welfare state more active by making it more efficient. I would have thought that she supported that.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, when people lose their jobs, the rapid response team or those at Jobcentre Plus will inform them of all the benefits to which they may be entitled, and that the onus will not be only on the person to find out for what they are eligible? A constituent made that allegation to me last week, so I would welcome the Secretary of State’s confirmation that that is not the case.
The rapid response service cannot go into all companies—sometimes companies do not agree to that—but, wherever it goes in, benefits are clearly an important part of the information it gives people. I can therefore give my hon. Friend that assurance.
In November, we announced £680 million extra, which the right hon. Member for Maidenhead would oppose, for Jobcentre Plus. She claimed that we had announced but not delivered that, but we have already recruited 4,000 of the extra 6,000 staff that we said we would fund. Again, that is not fantasy policy, but genuine delivery. What would happen under Tory policy? Conservatives would cut all that help and revert to the position in the 1980s, when it was no longer necessary to sign on to receive benefit. Consequently, it is estimated that the claimant count in 1986 was around four percentage points higher than it otherwise would have been. That cost more than £4 billion in today’s money of extra benefit spending. Conservative Members would make exactly that mistake again today. They are not prepared to put the money in now to help people get back to work, and they would therefore increase the cost in future and the amount that taxpayers had to pay. The Conservatives thought that public spending was not a price worth paying; consequently, the long-term unemployed paid the price.
My right hon. Friend mentioned statistics. I know that he was in short trousers at the time, but I remind him that, when the Conservatives were in government, they changed the figures 18 times—an average of once a year. They cooked the books for what counted as unemployment and what did not. I pay tribute to the Government, who changed the figures once in 12 years to put them on the International Labour Organisation standard. The Government have kept the figures transparent. Does my right hon. Friend fear that, if the Conservatives got in, they would start cooking the books again on measuring unemployment?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point in his usual way. He is right—the Conservatives were more interested in fiddling the figures than in helping people back to work. That was no accident; they were not prepared to increase spending to get people back to work. As I have said several times, they would repeat that mistake.
I thank the Secretary of State for his continuing generosity in giving way. Before the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) interrupted him, the right hon. Gentleman made a point about being prepared to put money in to provide a service to people. The Department’s budget will be lower in real terms in 2010-11. What changes will he make?
I will deal with that later in my speech. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] I can do it now, if hon. Members want. We will continue to make efficiency savings because, like any industrial organisation—[Interruption.] It is extraordinary—the Conservatives claim that they can fill their spending black hole through efficiency savings in all Departments, without affecting front-line services, yet, when a Department achieves £1.5 billion of efficiency savings, they immediately say that they are cuts. We have been able to improve our services, reducing processing times from 13 to 10 days, precisely because we have achieved efficiency savings, but that has released money to go to the front line. We will continue to have those efficiency savings, by using automation, computerisation and better working practices, but we will also put in £2 billion of extra money. [Interruption.] The Opposition say that they would do that too, but they would not put in the extra £2 billion. They did not do that when they were in power, so why would they do it now?
Does the Secretary of State agree with the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform that the £230-odd million allocated for the first phase of the flexible new deal is adequate, or does he accept the concerns of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions that it is not adequate for the numbers flowing on to the system?
Actually, my right hon. Friend said that we had to look at that, and that is what we are doing. One of the uses to which we are putting the money from the pre-Budget report is increasing the amount going to the flexible new deal, precisely because the costings are increasing. However, the hon. Gentleman can ask me about that issue again when I turn to it later in my speech.
I was glad that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead recognised that job clubs already exist. Perhaps she should tell the Leader of the Opposition, because he keeps saying that we should introduce them. The truth is that job clubs continued after her Government lost power, but we modernised them, contracting with the private and voluntary service providers to deliver them. What we announced yesterday was an extra £40 million to ensure that we can widen the service and ensure that everybody gets a service that is personalised to them, so that, for instance, professionals and blue-collar workers get the right service for them.
That is exactly the right thing to do and, since the right hon. Lady asked, the programme will start in April, along with the rest of the six-month offer. [Interruption.] She says, “Along with everything else,” but that is when we said we would introduce the programme. We announced in January that we would introduce it in April and we will introduce it in April. She may not realise that the difference between being in opposition and being in government is that people actually have to do things in government—they cannot just put out a press release on something and somehow it magically comes along. When people want to do things in government, they need a certain amount of time to implement them. We said that the programme would start in April and it will start in April.
Let me turn to welfare reform. As I am sure the right hon. Lady would agree, the Government have made strong—and in some respects remarkable—progress on welfare reform over the past 10 years. That is a genuinely impressive record. Does she disagree with the soon-to-be-Lord Freud’s views on that issue? No. So I am sure that she will agree with him that we have made remarkable progress over the past 10 years. She will welcome the fact that 300,000 more lone parents are in work now than in 1997. She said that the level of people on sickness benefits was too high in this country. Actually, it was lower than in Finland, Denmark, Holland, Sweden, Australia and the United States. This country was at the bottom of the league of international comparison, precisely because we reformed the welfare state and had a labour market that got people into work.
Can the Secretary of State confirm the story in The Observer at the weekend that only 6 per cent. of claimants on incapacity benefits working through private companies secured employment? Can he also tell us why that report has not been made public?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has seen the letter in the Library from our head of statistics on 13 February—before the press speculation, therefore—which explains precisely why, in his professional judgment, he has to wait for the figures to be validated before they are issued in a parliamentary answer. We have to follow the advice of our head statistician.
I am happy to speak to the hon. Gentleman about the policy in general, however. Overall, private and voluntary sector providers have helped us to improve performance significantly. Last year, they got more people into work than the year before, despite the fact that the economy was declining. However, that is in no way to criticise Jobcentre Plus or to say that it does not have a fundamental role; rather, the truth is exactly the opposite. It has always been a false choice between public and private. The point is to have a system that, through competition, gets the best out of both and ensures that people can get the contracts that they can best deliver.
With pathways to work, we also had a number of teething problems when Jobcentre Plus started working with those groups. Hon. Members might remember people who had been on incapacity benefit—often for a long time—being subject to mandatory referrals. We recognise that we need to improve performance—that is an issue for our providers, but it is also an issue for us and for Jobcentre Plus. We need to work on how we are referring people to those private providers and ensure that our systems are properly integrated. That is what we are working on, and performance is already improving. As soon as the figures are validated, we will release them through a parliamentary answer.
The right hon. Lady asked me about the flexible new deal. There is no mystery about this. Jobcentre Plus has had to change its plans and get more money, to reflect the fact that unemployment is rising, and we have had to do exactly the same thing with the FND. Doing that with private providers in the middle of a contracting process has meant that we had to write to them and ask them to amend their plans, which they have done. We continue to be committed to getting this in October, so, far from being in crisis, as the right hon. Lady’s motion says, all that is happening is that we are adapting the policy to reflect the fact that the economic situation has changed since we started the contracting process. I hope she will withdraw the allegation that the system is in crisis.
I did indeed ask the Secretary of State a specific question about the flexible new deal. I did not say that it was in crisis; I said that there were problems with it. I recognise that there has been a need to go back to the contractors, but what I specifically asked him was whether he would guarantee that it would start in October. It is due to start on 1 October, and he has said that the Government are committed to an October start. Will he guarantee to the House that the flexible new deal will start in October?
Yes, we are committed to doing it in October. The right hon. Lady should read her own motion, which talks about
“the failure of the procurement process for Flexible New Deal”.
I hope that she will not be saying that again. She had not even read her own motion; that much is clear.
Is not the issue that we have two sorts of unemployment? There are those who have been unemployed for a considerable time, whom the welfare reform measures are trying to get back into work. The old job clubs were helpful for such people. Then there are the newly unemployed, about whom we hear practically every day in all our constituencies. They are desperate to get back into the world of work—they want to do it tomorrow. We require a step change in how we help those people by supporting them while they are out of work and getting them back into the world of work as speedily as possible. There is no lack of motivation among those people. I do not wish to make a partisan point, but I have to tell the Secretary of State that, until one started in Banbury, there was no job club in Oxfordshire. We are trying to meet the needs of those who have lost their jobs and who want to get back into the world of work tomorrow, if at all possible.
Two or three years ago, the people who came on to jobseeker’s allowance with very high qualifications—if they came on to JSA at all—were getting back into work very quickly. In the new economic circumstances we have had to adapt our policy and to expand job clubs. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that there should be more help for people early on, and that is exactly why we are putting in an extra £2 billion. I hope that he, unlike those on his Front Bench, will support that.
The hon. Gentleman is also right to say that there are two broad categories involved. The first includes people who have been out of work for a long time, including workless parents and those who are sick or disabled. For them, we need to ensure that we keep up the pace of welfare reform. Some people say that we should postpone that reform until the economy recovers, but I profoundly disagree. That would involve saying to someone who was sick or disabled, “Okay, you’re not going to get any help for the next couple of years”, or to a lone parent, “You’re not going to get any help with your skills or with motivational courses.” It would also involve telling drug users that they were not going to get any help to get clean and get back to work—
That is not our policy.
I did not accuse the right hon. Lady of having that policy, but I am happy to make that accusation, given that it actually is. She is obviously a bit too sensitive about it. We have to recognise that it is going to be harder for people to find work in the next couple of years. That is precisely why we should redouble our efforts, and not postpone welfare reform. I know that she agrees with that point.