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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 489: debated on Monday 16 March 2009

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Jobcentre Plus

1. What assessment he has made of how Jobcentre Plus in Devon and Cornwall is responding to the increase in demand for its services arising from the recession. (263313)

Jobcentre Plus in Devon and Cornwall continues to perform well despite rising work loads. New jobseeker’s allowance claims are being cleared within target. Jobcentre Plus is increasing staffing and ensuring it has the office and infrastructure capacity it needs to respond to the current economic situation.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, which certainly chimes with what district manager, Phil Weeks, told me when I met him recently. However, given the pressure and the great need among our constituents for the service, is my right hon. Friend absolutely confident that there are sufficient resources for us to be on the front foot not only now, but during the forthcoming, important months?

Yes, I think I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We are recruiting 6,000 extra people for Jobcentre Plus, 4,000 of whom have already been recruited. Thanks to that and the work that Jobcentre Plus staff are doing, we are processing claims in 10 days, compared with 13 days two years ago, and performance is up, even though more work is going through. I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in thanking Jobcentre Plus staff for all the work that they are doing.

Given that, within Devon and Cornwall, unemployment has risen faster in my constituency than anywhere else, I have visited staff at my local Jobcentre Plus, who are doing a fantastic job. However, is there any possibility of reopening Jobcentre Plus in Paignton? Frankly, the Torquay centre is becoming overwhelmed with the ever-rising number of people out of work.

If there are specific issues in Torquay, I am happy for the hon. Gentleman to write to me about them. Overall, however, we believe that the system is performing well—phone calls are being answered in a minute, and we are processing people’s claims faster than we were when unemployment was low. The key is for us to make sure that the system is flexible enough to respond to the high level of claims. We must also bring in extra help. We are, for example, bringing in extra training at six months so that people do not go from being short-term unemployed to long-term unemployed if they can get back into work with that extra help. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has congratulated Jobcentre Plus staff and I shall pass his words on to the chief executive.

Order. The right hon. Gentleman’s constituency is a bit far north of Devon and Cornwall, but we will hear what he has to say.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the problems facing Jobcentre Plus in the south-west, as elsewhere, is the lack of jobs to offer claimants who want to work? Is he not disturbed, as I am, that up to last month the Government allowed in 150,000 skilled workers on their work permit scheme without those jobs having been tested and advertised first in the Jobcentre Plus network in the south-west and elsewhere? Will my right hon. Friend contact the Home Office and the Treasury this day to get that rule changed so that no one from the rest of the world is allowed to work in this country on a skilled-work permit until the jobs have been advertised in Jobcentre Plus?

We have already said that that is exactly what we are going to do; jobs at tier 2 will be advertised in Jobcentre Plus. However, it is important that we recognise two things. It is now harder for people to find work and there are fewer vacancies, so we need to provide people with more help. However, we should also say that we should not give up on the notion of people finding work; more than 200,000 people left JSA last month. We need to recognise that times are tougher and to make sure that we do not give up on people, but help them get work—by providing them with more help, rather than cutting it.

I add my thanks to the hard-working staff at Plymouth Jobcentre Plus, many of whom are my constituents; they are coping well with the current crisis.

With the benefit of hindsight and given that unemployment in Plymouth has risen by 53 per cent. in the past 12 months, was it not a crass error of judgment to close Plympton jobcentre? That has simply added more pressure to staff in the centre of the city.

Not at all. We wanted to modernise the service and we would have done that whatever the level of unemployment. We merged Benefits Agency and Employment Service offices so that when people sign on, they have to look for work as well. That process was recommended and praised by not just the National Audit Office, but the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, who commended the modernisation as a model big public sector project of its kind. The modernisation has been done precisely to improve the service for people, and it has improved.

In Plymouth, we are processing claims in 10 days, which is a significant improvement on two years ago. We are able to do that because of the modernisation programme, which has made the system more efficient and released resources so that there can be more front line advisers and we can give better help to people. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman’s party supported efficiency, but obviously it does not.

Many of my constituents claim child benefit through their local Jobcentre Plus office, but they report delays of three to four months in processing claims, which has a knock-on effect on many other benefits. What can the Secretary of State say to assure those people that there will be joined-up thinking across Departments and local authorities to ensure that people get the support, whichever Department it comes from, exactly when they need it?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. She may know that we have been conducting a pilot with the Local Government Association and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to look at how we can provide a single place for claiming benefits from HMRC, housing benefit and benefits from us. That has been so successful that we are now rolling it out around the country. She makes exactly the right point: people should have a convenient service whereby they can go into Jobcentre Plus and claim all those benefits in one place.

Jobseeker’s Allowance

2. How many jobseeker’s allowance claimants there were in (a) the UK and (b) Reading, East constituency at the latest date for which figures are available. (263314)

In January 2009, there were 1,282,645 jobseeker’s allowance claimants in the UK and 1,585 in Reading, East constituency. Those numbers are based on seasonally unadjusted figures.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he ask his colleague, the Secretary of State, to guarantee two things when he visits Jobcentre Plus in my constituency tomorrow? First, will he guarantee to its hard-working staff that Reading jobcentre will not join the 38 jobcentres that have been closed by this Government? Secondly, could he explain to my constituent, Chris Richman, why he may soon be able to claim £300 for a new suit for an interview but is refused an advance of the travel costs to get to an interview?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will get the same warm welcome at Reading Jobcentre Plus as I did when I was there quite recently. I gave the assurance then that not only would it remain open but that it, along with all the others, will get what it needs in terms of people, as well as other resources, to carry on doing the splendid job it is doing. On the hon. Gentleman’s second point, I therefore assume that he is against what we have announced on the £300.

On yesterday’s “Politics Show”, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was asked whether he could live on £60.50 a week jobseeker’s allowance. I can tell him that it is almost impossible for someone to do that if they are feeding themselves properly, paying their utility bills, especially throughout this winter, and have commitments such as direct debits or standing orders for contents insurance. A close member of my family is on jobseeker’s allowance, and if I were not topping it up—indeed, almost doubling it—he would not have a decent standard of living. I plead with my right hon. Friend the Minister to consider raising it when Budget time comes around.

We have already announced that jobseeker’s allowance will go up in April; I am not sure if it is by 5 per cent. or 6.3 per cent. As my right hon. Friend said yesterday, very few people are required to live on jobseeker’s allowance alone; with a combination of other benefits, they will always be getting significantly more than that. I take my hon. Friend’s point, none the less. We have modernised and put efficiencies into the Jobcentre Plus network to try to get people back into work at the earliest opportunity.

The average age of engineers on the London underground is now 58. I have a large number of automotive engineers on my patch who have just been made redundant at prodrive—excellent guys with good engineering skills. What will the Department for Work and Pensions do with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and other Departments to try to ensure that where skills that are needed in one part of the country are available in another part, there is a match-up? At the moment, London Underground appears not to be able to recruit new engineers. It seems daft that we have very good young automotive engineers in one part of the country, yet we are preparing for the 2012 Olympics in London, including work on Crossrail, with an average age of 58 on the London underground. Why cannot we use engineers from the west midlands here in London?

I am sorry if I looked perplexed, but the hon. Gentleman is down to ask Question 11 and I was not expecting him to jump up quite so readily. He has now missed the excellent answer that I had for him on his own question.

Through what we are doing with DIUS and other Departments, and with Train to Gain, we are considering precisely that sort of skills mismatch in various parts of the country. To be perfectly fair to him, the Mayor of London, whose name escapes me for the moment, announced recently that efforts are being made to join up what is being done in recruitment and apprenticeships to the greater advantage of not only the London labour market but those beyond. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point, and I shall certainly take it up with the Mayor of London next time I see him.

It is very sad that in the face of the world recession, unemployment under this Government has now reached the level that it was at in 1997 when they came into power. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that this Government will not abandon the International Labour Organisation measure of unemployment, and will not seek to cook the books on unemployment statistics, which the previous Government did on 19 occasions?

If I had the time, I would go through the 19 times when the previous Government cooked the books. We have recognised the ILO’s figures and what they measure, and we are quite happy on a month-by-month basis to take full account of those figures as well as the JSA claimant count, which clearly measures something entirely different.

The Minister will be well aware, as is every jobcentre in the country, of the real pressure that is being put on front-line staff. That makes the ill-advised programme of cuts that we have seen very ill thought through. Reports are circulating that people are being taken away from other areas, such as disability and child maintenance benefits. Will the Minister assure the House that those people will not suffer to plug the jobseeker’s allowance gap?

As part of the overall rationalisation and greater efficiency of Jobcentre Plus, and in the context of everything that the Department has done, more and more staff were going to be moved from those areas to the front line anyway. That will not in any way damage the integrity of the front line in those services. I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance, but I shall take his point about ill-advised closures with the fatuity that was implied in it.

The unemployment rate in North-West Leicestershire has risen quite substantially in recent months. From a rate of 2.5 per cent., which put us in the lowest quartile of UK constituencies, it has risen by 40 per cent. to 3.5 per cent. That has included the closures of United Biscuits at Ashby and, worryingly, the long-standing firm of Pegson in Coalville. Will the Minister be willing to see me to discuss that run-down of staff, which includes their transferring to the firm’s country of ownership? I want to check that the firm is operating within EU guidelines.

The Secretary of State has kindly invited hon. Members to a seminar next week on the personalisation of the welfare system. What personal service can jobseekers expect, given that even after the current round of recruitment there will still be 10,000 fewer people working in jobcentres than there were four years ago, with rapidly rising unemployment?

But with more and more on the front line doing precisely what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State suggests—providing a greater personalisation of service, focused on the individual. Given the hon. Gentleman’s question, my only point about the seminar is that he should attend it and listen.

I have been contacted by a constituent who is concerned that the announcement of a Government package to help senior executives who have lost their jobs to get off jobseeker’s allowance and back into work indicates that we are not concerned about other people who have lost their jobs. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that we will make equal efforts to help anybody who has lost their job in the current downturn to find work again?

As was rather implied by the last question, we are seeking to personalise the service more to each individual. If there are gaps because of what the current recession has presented us with, we will seek to fill them. It is new to have executives coming through the system, and Jobcentre Plus needs to respond to that. However, we respond to each and every individual in their own terms.

Just as important, from my perspective, are those who up until now have been very successful in work. When people present at the jobcentre having been successfully in work for 15, 20 or 25 years, they need to be treated very differently in the initial encounter from someone who presents there regularly. I can assure my hon. Friend that we seek to provide the best service for each and every person who presents to Jobcentre Plus.

On 25 November, the Secretary of State said that

“we are today announcing a moratorium on Jobcentre Plus closures”.—[Official Report, 25 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 620.]

Does the moratorium still stand?

It is a funny sort of moratorium on Jobcentre Plus closures that allows jobcentres to continue to close. When the Secretary of State announced that moratorium, people assumed that it meant that no more jobcentres would close, but jobcentres in Orpington, Brixton and Feltham are closing. The one in Orpington will close on 1 April. People will have to travel to Bromley, where the jobcentre is already struggling to cope with the numbers. There are queues and people are getting only a three-minute interview with a personal adviser. Moreover, the Government will have to pay to extend the jobcentre in Bromley to cope with the increased numbers. Are the Government genuinely that incompetent or do they just take people for fools?

There is only one fool in the room. The right hon. Lady’s predecessor said on 25 November:

“Guess how many they were planning to close next year? Three. Some moratorium.—[Official Report, 25 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 622.]

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) knew in November that those three jobcentres were already scheduled for closure and not among the 25 that were announced as part of the moratorium. He got it in November; we are now in March—give her a bit of time and the right hon. Lady will get it, too.

Pensioners (Living Standards)

3. What additional steps the Department has considered taking to support pensioners who are dependent on interest from their savings accounts to maintain their standard of living; and if he will make a statement. (263315)

As well as protecting pensioners who are savers by preventing the collapse of the banks, this year we also added £60 to pensioners’ Christmas bonus, increased winter fuel payments and tripled cold weather payments.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. She is right—we have done quite a bit for pensioners, but many still have problems with their savings. In some cases, with interest rates going down, savings will not match the needs for which they have to pay. What do the Government intend to do to help those people? Is there more in the pipeline for them? Will she assure me that, even though half do not pay tax, the rest will be looked after, and that we will ensure that they do not suffer, especially towards the end of the year when winter approaches again?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. Obviously, we all feel sorry for people who are affected by the economic downturn. I confirm that half the pensioners who are over 65 do not pay tax. We have taken a series of measures to get real help to people now, when it counts. That is why we focused especially on the extra money for the winter fuel payments and the Christmas bonus. Although last year approximately £8 million was paid out in cold weather payments, the figure this year is £209 million.

Is the Minister satisfied and happy about the balance between the pain that borrowers endure and the pain that savers suffer during the recession?

As I said, we have tried to get help to pensioners, especially through the extra winter fuel payments and the Christmas bonus. Compared with 1997, when the Government came to power, the average pensioner is about £1,600 a year better off and the most vulnerable pensioners are about £2,200 better off. If we had continued with the 1997 Tory Government’s policies, we would spend £13 billion less on pensioners.

There has always been a mismatch between the assumed income that pensioners can receive from their savings and the interest that they could receive. Now that interest rates are so low, has the time come for the Government to re-examine pensioners’ assumed income from their savings? Obviously, there is no way in which they will get the assumed amount.

My hon. Friend is talking about the 10 per cent. rule—the social tariff. The Conservative Government introduced tariff income in legislation in 1987. It was never linked to interest rates; an assumption was made about a sum that could reasonably be expected to contribute to weekly income. Instead of assuming £1 for every £250, as the Tory Government did, we assume £1 for every £500. In addition, under the Conservative Government, no savings over £6,000 were allowed. We have raised that so that there is no limit on the amount of savings people can have if they are to access savings credit.

May I join the Minister down memory lane? Does she remember these words:

“The current system penalises pensioners who have prudently built up capital…by assuming pensioners get unrealistically high returns”?

She should recognise them, because they were in her Government’s consultation paper in 2000. Will she now revisit that unfair rule, which is causing extra hardship to hundreds of thousands of pensioners who have been prudent enough to save during their working lives?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was in the House when the regulations were introduced or whether he opposed them under the previous Conservative Government. I do not remember that, so perhaps he will correct me if I am wrong. We felt that the previous system was unfair, particularly the £6,000 cut-off point, at which no savings were taken into account, so we ignore the first £6,000 of savings. We ask people to contribute a small amount above that, but we have also made the rules more generous than they were under the previous Conservative Government.

What does my right hon. Friend say to pensioners who had low incomes during their working lives, who put something aside for a rainy day and who use the interest on savings to make essential repairs, but who otherwise live a hand-to-mouth existence? How is she promoting all the work that she says she is doing to make them feel that it is not as unfair as they feel it is?

One of the things we have done is raise personal allowances for older people, so that more than half of all people over 65 do not pay any tax. In addition, through the pension credit system we have tried to target money on the most vulnerable—those who perhaps saved a little bit, but who were penalised under the previous Government because of the little bit of money they had saved. We have changed the system so that it does not a punitive effect on the very people whom my hon. Friend talks about.

Jobseeker’s Allowance

4. How many claimants of jobseeker’s allowance there were in (a) the UK and (b) Clwyd, West constituency on the latest date for which figures are available. (263316)

In January 2009, there were 1,282,645 jobseeker’s allowance claimants in the UK and 1,403 in Clwyd, West constituency. Those numbers are based on seasonally unadjusted figures.

The Secretary of State may know that the Indesit-Hotpoint factory in Bodelwyddan, which employs 305 people, is due to close at the end of July. That will be a serious blow to an area with very little other manufacturing industry. The factory union has arranged an advisory day on 22 May, with a view to helping the workers deal with the financial consequences of the closure. Will the Secretary of State encourage the local Jobcentre Plus office to attend the event to give the workers the benefit of its experience and as much advice as possible in dealing with this severe blow for them and their families?

Yes, I am aware of those redundancies. I believe that we are still in the 90-day consultation period. I will ensure that we attend as part of the rapid response service. We will also want to work with the union and the Welsh Assembly Government, who have a good scheme—the ProAct-ReAct scheme—to ensure that we can get help that enables people to get back into work as quickly as possible.

The hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) makes a perfectly reasonable point. One of the difficulties in our area is that the travel-to-work area crosses the Welsh border and reaches into Chester and my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, in engaging with the work, the DWP takes into account the travel-to-work area and ensures that advice is given that crosses the border properly?

Yes; indeed, I met the Secretary of State for Wales and the First Minister recently to do exactly that, because the Welsh Assembly has some devolved responsibilities in this matter. We want to ensure that the offer that we have in place is seamless across the border. There are some differences between the Welsh schemes and our schemes, so that will be a challenge, but we are working closely together to do exactly what my hon. Friend wants.

The claimant count in Clwyd, West has gone up by 40 per cent. in the last year and the number of vacancies posted has gone down by two thirds. The same figures pertain to my own Caernarfon constituency. Is the Secretary of State aware that the director of CBI Wales, David Rosser, said on Friday:

“We believe the Welsh Assembly Government’s response to the credit crunch has been the quickest and most comprehensive of any devolved government in the UK.”?

What lessons can the right hon. Gentleman’s Department learn from the success of the Labour/Plaid Cymru Government in Cardiff?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that unusually friendly question. I can reassure him that we have learned directly from the ProAct-ReAct scheme. We think that this is the right approach, bringing about at its heart extra training opportunities and extra employment subsidies. That is exactly what we have done with our six-month offer, which will come into force in April, as the hon. Gentleman knows. We are working closely together and I hope that that will be to the benefit of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and all the people of Wales.

In response to a question put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) in last Tuesday’s unemployment debate, the right hon. Gentleman said that the Government were still committed to rolling out the flexible new deal on 1 October. On the same day, however, the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform said that the Government still aimed to do that, but acknowledged that, given the time slippage and delay in the Government’s issuing of contracts, there were concerns about whether bidders would be able to hit the timetable. Bidders have been asked to indicate in their tender submissions whether they can hit it, but given the Minister’s acknowledgement of these concerns will the Secretary of State tell us about the Government’s contingency plan?

We are still committed to October. In the same way as Jobcentre Plus had to amend its proposals in the light of the downturn, so must our providers. The reason the hon. Gentleman is raising questions about delivery is to distract from the fact that he will be cutting £2 billion from the employment budget, just on employment benefit—

It is not nonsense; it is the truth. The Conservatives have a policy of opposing the fiscal boost, so they need to own up to the consequences, which will mean cutting help for people just at the time unemployment is rising. We will not repeat that mistake, which was their mistake in the ’80s and ’90s.

Departmental File Stores

5. Whether agency workers are used by Capita for its contracted work in his Department's file stores. (263318)

Agency workers are employed by Capita for contracted work at all Department for Work and Pensions file stores. The number of agency staff employed can vary according to the specific project activities required by DWP. Capita undertakes strict security verification checks on all employed staff. DWP and Capita both take the handling and security of all data extremely seriously, and we have robust procedures in place that we review regularly.

Ten million files are in the file store in my Pendle constituency, so I want the Minister to reassure me that no one handling the sensitive files has a criminal record. I also want him to tell me that he does not take everything on trust from Capita, but that the Department carries out spot checks in the file store— because my spies are everywhere!

Right, well, we know where one of them is, anyway. I can assure my hon. Friend that DWP continues to review the processes. He wants to be certain that proper procedures are in place regarding the files in the office in his constituency and in others throughout the country. We are about to undertake a further audited internal review, in which we will look at security infrastructure processes, staff recruitment—both permanent and casual—security checks and procedures for staff training and compliance and monitoring processes. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend—and he can bring along his associates if he wishes—to discuss the outcome of that review. We take it seriously; it is ongoing; and I would be happy to discuss it when it is completed.

Citizens’ Pension

7. If he will consider the merits of introducing a pensions system in the UK based on the principles of the citizens’ pension system in New Zealand. (263320)

We did consider it, but, like the Pensions Commission, concluded that because of the complexity and expense that its introduction would involve, it was not the right approach for the United Kingdom.

Given that the Minister has ruled out the citizens’ pension on the grounds of its extraordinary cost, does she agree that it is pure fantasy politics for the Liberal Democrats to pretend that it is a feasible alternative?

I thought it was the Conservatives’ policies that were fantasy, but I am happy to describe all the Opposition parties’ policies as fantasy land.

The obvious problem with the Liberal Democrats’ policy is that it rules out the possibility of conveying help to the most vulnerable people. Without any element of means-testing, it is very difficult to help those people. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, once again, the Liberal Democrats have come up with an idea that is no solution. It represents, perhaps, the same level of thinking as that of their leader, who believed that the basic state pension was £30 a week.

Even given the introduction of personal accounts, a fair amount of evidence is emerging to suggest that in the next generation and the generation after that, significant numbers of retired people will be living in poverty. Is my right hon. Friend aware of that, and has any research been carried out that might lead to action that ensures that future generations can live in dignity?

I am sure my hon. Friend will know that as a result of the pension reforms that we are introducing, some 9 million people who have not been able to gain access to second pensions will have that access because of automatic enrolment. Let me also draw his attention to a European Commission report published last week, which stated that while in 1997 pensioner incomes in this country were 15 per cent. below the European average, they are now 9 per cent. above it.

Jobseeker’s Allowance

8. How many jobseeker’s allowance claimants there were in (a) the United Kingdom and (b) the South-West Hertfordshire constituency on the latest date for which figures are available. (263321)

As I said earlier, in January 2009, there were 1,282,645 jobseeker’s allowance claimants in the UK and 1,006 in the South-West Hertfordshire constituency. Those numbers are based on seasonally unadjusted figures.

Given the OECD’s prediction that unemployment in the UK will rise higher and faster than that in any of the other G7 countries, does the Minister believe that the UK economy was best placed to withstand a recession?

We are not in the game of making predictions about unemployment. There are many forecasts about where unemployment and, indeed, the economy may well go, but our job is to ensure that there is help and support for each and every person who is unemployed. In that context, the Jobcentre Plus network is very well placed.

Both the Minister of State and the Secretary of State have referred several times today to the ProAct scheme, which helps to subsidise wages and training in many companies in Wales but is not available to companies in England. Will the Minister, or indeed the Secretary of State—we have worked together well on other occasions—agree to meet me, and other midlands Members of Parliament, to discuss how the scheme could be extended to England so that we can reduce the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance and keep people in work?

If the hon. Gentleman chooses to visit his local Jobcentre Plus on 6 April, he will see that the scheme is part of the six-month offer.

Evidence from all quarters now suggests that there are many more jobseekers than there are vacancies advertised in jobcentres or vacancies in the economy as a whole—not least in the Secretary of State’s own constituency, where there are 18 jobseekers for every vacancy in the jobcentres.

I welcome the fact that Ministers have now given up on the complacent assertions that they were making until recently about the number of vacancies in the economy. I include the Secretary of State, who was making such assertions until very recently. Now that those Ministers have woken up to the reality that is faced by so many of our constituents who are having to visit jobcentres, may I invite them to give jobseekers the best possible opportunity to fill vacancies by making available to them the personalised employment programme that we have said should be provided at a much earlier stage in the handling of a claim than it does under the Government’s plans?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are more than aware of the reality facing people in this country. If there is any complacency, assertion and smugness, it resides on the Opposition Benches, whose Members indulge in fantasy politics and put no money up.

Mortgage Repayment Assistance

10. What steps his Department is taking to help people who have lost their jobs as a result of the recession to meet mortgage repayments. (263323)

From 5 January, we have doubled to £200,000 the size of the mortgage on which support for mortgage interest—SMI—is paid, and we halved to 13 weeks the length of time people need to wait to qualify. While it is too early to have precise figures, our latest estimate is that this should help prevent about 10,000 repossessions per year.

Will my hon. Friend look again at the people who are entitled to claim SMI? It is linked to income-based jobseeker’s allowance, whereas most of my constituents who lose their jobs are on contribution-based JSA and, as a result, are under real pressure and are losing their homes. Will she instead consider that it might be linked to the tax credit system, so that more help can be given more effectively to my constituents who face losing their homes?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue, and we will, of course, evaluate and review the SMI package in due course. It is worth making it clear that people can receive SMI even if they are on contribution-based JSA, if they are single and meet the qualifying criteria for income-based JSA in terms of the level of savings and so on. However, I suspect my hon. Friend refers to situations when somebody is part of a couple, in which case she is right as the remunerative work rule means that it is long held that they cannot access income-based benefits of any kind if their partner is working more than 24 hours per week. It is precisely to help and support this type of family in such circumstances that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing will shortly be introducing the mortgage support scheme.

In Wellingborough, there has been a 100 per cent. increase in unemployment in the last year, and one of the practical results that have been reported back to me is that many people are not getting their redundancy money quickly enough, so that they are unable to keep up with their home mortgage payments. Does the Minister think there is some merit in the Department for Work and Pensions taking over responsibility for redundancy payments?

The hon. Gentleman is always keen to quote figures from his constituency, but I do not doubt that the schemes we have introduced will support his constituents as well as people throughout the rest of the country. I am happy to look at what the hon. Gentleman has suggested, but it is also important to say that, by working together through the lending panel with banks and building societies, we are able to establish better codes of practice, so that lenders give more discretion to those having to pay their mortgages to ensure that, unlike in the ’80s and ’90s, people do not end up unnecessarily losing their homes.

Pension Credit

12. What estimate his Department has made of the amount of pension credit unclaimed by residents of Merseyside. (263325)

Estimates of the amount of unclaimed pension credit are not available at regional level. In Merseyside, there are 88,410 households—107,670 individuals—in receipt of pension credit.

I thank the Minister for that answer. A constituent of mine was refused pension credit on the not unreasonable grounds that he was in prison. However, he has never committed an offence or been convicted or gone to prison in his life. Does this not show we have some way to go in administering this scheme, or that we simply do not know who is in prison?

Obviously, the hon. Gentleman’s constituent would not have been very pleased to be accused of being in prison if he was not. However, we have been able to ensure that the targeting of pension credit has become increasingly successful. Of course we regret any errors, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will pass our apologies on to his constituent, but, in general, I hope he will realise that pension credit has helped millions of very vulnerable pensioners, particularly since this Government came to power.

Jobseeker’s Allowance

13. What targets apply to Jobcentre Plus for the time within which jobseeker’s allowance claims should be processed. (263326)

Jobcentre Plus has a target of 11.5 days average actual clearance time in which to process new claims for jobseeker’s allowance. Jobcentre Plus is continuing to meet the challenges it faces and is currently meeting this target within 10.1 days.

I am very happy to give the hon. Gentleman that information in writing. He will be interested to know that that figure is three days better than it was two years ago thanks to the £1.5 billion of efficiencies that we have released through our modernisation programme, which his party opposes. I know that he is the Parliamentary Private Secretary to his leader—perhaps he should send him one of his e-mails and say to those on his Front Bench that he is committed to £1.5 billion on top of the £2 billion that they will not support.


We have already taken steps to strengthen and protect the private pensions system to ensure that people can continue to have confidence to save for their future. In addition, under our pension reforms, employers will automatically enrol an estimated 9 million to 11 million eligible workers into a workplace pension from 2012.

Actuaries calculate that changes announced by the Prime Minister in his first Budget as Chancellor in 1997 have cost pension funds £100 billion, which is equivalent to £4,800 for every person with a pension, and there are also the deductions from pension credit payments that were discussed earlier. Is it any wonder that the savings index is as low as it is? It is historically low. Does the Minister agree that we have to get people saving again if we are to help get this country out of recession?

Yes, it is important that people save. Pensions in particular are one of the best ways of saving for security in retirement. However, under this Government, we have a Pension Protection Fund that provides a safety net for 12 million members of defined benefit pension schemes. We have the financial assistance scheme and the pensions regulator, which reduces the risk of problems arising in pension funds in the first place. None of that existed under the previous Conservative Government.

Topical Questions

The continuing responsibility of my Department is to ensure that people get the support they need to get back to work quickly. We are investing now so that those who have lost their jobs do not fall into long-term unemployment and so that those who have been out of the labour market for a while can be helped by the measures in our Welfare Reform Bill.

What progress is the Secretary of State making in promoting public procurement of Remploy products? In the factory in my constituency, a small band of very vulnerable people are left with very little work and the South West of England Regional Development Agency feels that a national approach would be more appropriate.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. She and I debated Remploy, and her factory in Poole in particular, in Westminster Hall. She will be aware that the regional development agencies, led by the Northwest Regional Development Agency, are developing and putting in place regional showcases where they invite local employers and businesses from the public sector to procure the many products that can be made at Remploy factories. Locally, we can all make a contribution to encouraging our public sector bodies to procure products from Remploy factories. Nationally, I am leading a cross-cutting Government committee on national procurement and I expect to make some positive announcements on that front very soon.

T2. Bearing in mind the cost to the Department’s budget of alcohol misuse, including the loss of working days, will the Secretary of State say what his response is to the recent proposals from the chief medical officer, including those on the minimum pricing of alcohol? (263339)

Clearly, I was asked about the overall policy yesterday. We made it clear that we would be sceptical about proposals that punished the majority for the sake of an irresponsible minority. We are taking powers in the Welfare Reform Bill, so that in future we can require people who have problems with alcoholism to take up treatment as a condition of their benefits. I am sure that my hon. Friend will support those proposals tomorrow.

T4. Blind people in Kettering and across the country would like to know when Her Majesty’s Government will make them eligible for the higher rate mobility component of disability living allowance. (263341)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking that question. We debated this during the Committee stage of the Welfare Reform Bill, and there will be an opportunity to do that tomorrow. Interestingly, although there was a contribution in the discussions from the Liberal Democrats and from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), who tabled an amendment on this issue, there was a lack of any response whatsoever from the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on whether he agreed or did not agree. I think that the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) needs to have a conversation with his own Front Benchers.

T3. Although I am not in any way downgrading the extent of the recent problems, one of the positive things happening in Gateshead is that Jobcentre Plus is working very closely with the local council, the local college and the regional development agency. Is that being replicated across the country, and do we have enough resources to make sure that jobcentres can work with these people to try to limit the damage? (263340)

Yes, that absolutely is happening around the country, and where we have funding that we can devote to, for example, training people before they are employed, we are keen to do that and to expand it. Indeed, the regional Ministers, of whom the Department for Work and Pensions is blessed with three, are playing a key role in making sure that exactly that integration is happening in regions around the country.

T6. Given the current economic situation, which obviously has nothing to do with the Government’s stewardship of the economy, does the Secretary of State think that it will still be possible to get 1 million incapacity benefit claimants back to work? If not, what sort of figure does he think is doable, and in what sort of time frame? (263343)

That is our aspiration. It has always been a stretching goal, and the reason we wanted such a goal was to make it necessary to have a fundamental reform of the welfare state to get to that point. That is exactly why we want to have re-testing for everybody who was on incapacity benefit, why we have abolished IB and replaced it with employment and support allowance, and why we have the measures in the Welfare Reform Bill, which will be discussed tomorrow. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman’s party is not proposing to support them. It wants to posture and to oppose measures that are supported by both David Freud and the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith). The Conservatives still have time to change their policy before tomorrow and to show that they are serious about welfare reform. Somehow, I doubt that they will.

As my right hon. Friend knows, the very first “Communist Manifesto” stated that we would give work to those who can and benefits to those who cannot. What it missed out was those rascals who will not work—those whom people in my constituency describe as those who have never worked or wanted to. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me and my constituents that the Welfare Reform Bill will tackle those individuals, and not those who genuinely need benefit?

Absolutely—anybody who is defrauding the benefit system is taking money from people who genuinely need it, which is exactly why we have halved fraud over the past 12 years and why we are taking measures to crack down further on people who defraud the system in the Welfare Reform Bill, which will be discussed tomorrow. As my hon. Friend knows, right from the first Labour MP’s speech in this House—that of Keir Hardie—we have argued for the support to get people back in to work, but also for making sure that they should have the obligation to do so. That is what tomorrow’s Welfare Reform Bill does, and it will make a genuine difference to reducing child poverty and to increasing employment all around the country.

T7. As the pension uprating is always based on the September inflation figures, and given that, as the Secretary of State will be aware, most economists believe that there will be negative inflation by this September, what will happen to pensions? (263344)

Of course, we do not speculate on Budget questions. What I can tell the right hon. Gentleman, which is a fact, is that we brought forward the uprating to this January by having the £60 bonus. His party opposed that. It should apologise to pensioners around the country, because it wanted to deprive people who needed it of that £60.

I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of the issues affecting the ceramics industry. What plans does he have to visit Stoke-on-Trent to talk to workers about what more can be done to help get them into work, and what more he can do at Cabinet level to try to get the investment in tableware and in bricks that could be part of the regeneration that we need for the country as a whole?

My hon. Friend may be glad to know that I plan to visit the area shortly to follow up on a conversation that I had with the general-secretary of the Unity union. It is pioneering an approach whereby it brings together its own money for investing in training with money from the regional development agency and from Jobcentre Plus, to make sure that we can give people help even before they are made redundant and to get them back into work as quickly as possible. I know that this is a vital industry in my hon. Friend’s area and that she has campaigned long and hard for it. I will continue to work with her on doing that.

T8. With the evolution of the Child Support Agency, does the Minister agree that when maintenance calculations are drawn up, a parent in receipt of a company car should be treated on the same grounds—on the same level of benefit—as a parent who receives money in lieu of a company car? (263345)

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and this issue, too, was discussed in the Welfare Reform Bill Committee. This depends on why the individual is receiving payment in the form of a company car, and each case will be different. If someone is doing so to reduce his child maintenance liability to his children, that should be taken into account, because every parent’s first financial responsibility should be to their children.

This Wednesday marks the 10th anniversary of the Government’s commitment to abolishing child poverty. Will the Minister reassure the House that despite the economic downturn, we will not depart from that ambition and we will do all we can to ensure that we meet our targets?

When the Conservatives ran this country, child poverty doubled—we turned that around, and I am proud of the fact that 600,000 children have been lifted out of poverty since 1997, with a further 500,000 children due to be lifted out of poverty as a result of policies that are being implemented. We want to go further, which is why my hon. Friend is right to raise this issue and why we will be legislating this year to eradicate child poverty in this country.

T9. I am told that the other week all the jobcentres in my constituency had only a dozen or so jobs available, yet many hundreds of local people were looking for work. What do Ministers propose to do—rather than just say—to help those people back into work and to stem the rising tide of unemployment in Essex? (263346)

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is harder for people to find work, which is why from April we will be bringing in extra training for people, helping people to set up companies and introducing recruitment subsidies to persuade employers to take on people who are in danger of becoming long-term unemployed. That policy will be introduced in April as a result of the £2 billion that his Front-Bench team opposes. Real help requires real money, and without the money, which his Front Benchers oppose, that help would not be made available in April. He should be lobbying his Front Benchers and telling them to reverse their policy, because it is the wrong approach—it is the one that they had in the 1980s and 1990s and that failed so miserably.

Can the Minister tell the House why, thus far, the Government have not supported the proposals to make blind people eligible for the higher rate mobility component of disability living allowance, as exemplified in new clauses 10 and 4 to the Welfare Reform Bill, which we will debate tomorrow, that were tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson)?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter, which we debated in the Welfare Reform Bill Committee and will debate again tomorrow. On his specific question, we need to establish a time when we can afford to make provision for this particular benefit—[Interruption.] I am always reassured when talking about finance to see my right hon. Friend the Chancellor appear. We will need to examine this carefully, because we need to be able to provide the funding not only for this year, but for many years to come. We are working closely with the Royal National Institute of Blind People and we are grateful for its input. As I say, this is about affordability—that is the primary reason for our approach—but we hope to be able to do it when resources become available.

T10. The Secretary of State will know that young people are particularly vulnerable during a recession. I know that the Department is helping apprentices who are at risk of redundancy in the construction industry, but what steps is he taking in other sectors, particularly in respect of the 115 apprentices who lost their jobs at Woolworths? (263347)

We want to make sure that apprentices can finish their apprenticeships whatever sector they are coming from, and we believe that the rules allow people to do that, because apprentices normally train for fewer than 16 hours a week. We are committed to ensuring that even if they are training for longer than that, they can continue to finish their apprenticeships, because they have made a real investment in their own skills and we want them to benefit.

What discussions will the Secretary of State have with staff at Luton Jobcentre Plus about reviewing the benefit entitlements of the Islamist extremists who so disgracefully disrupted the Royal Anglian Regiment’s homecoming in Luton last week, given that, self-evidently, they were not available for work?

The benefit entitlements of any individual are determined by Jobcentre Plus, but I share the implied anger in the hon. Gentleman’s question at the disgraceful protest by these individuals. We will take up the question of how such demonstrations will be policed in future with Bedfordshire police and the Association of Chief Police Officers.

The direct payments to carers initiative has been very useful in many ways, but what is the position of people whose spouses are in the final stages of dementia and who do not want to be bothered with the forest of administration and paperwork that is associated with that initiative? The alternative is a high charge from the local authority to do it on their behalf. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend would discuss that serious dilemma with me, and especially a specific constituency case that cropped up this very weekend.

I am happy to do that. My hon. Friend knows that nobody is required to use the direct payments service. If people are happy with the service that they get from their local authority or health service, they can continue with it, but the right to control—which is in the Welfare Reform Bill for consideration tomorrow—is important because it gives people the ability to spend the money as they see fit if they are not getting the service that they want or if they think that they could improve on it. I trust that my hon. Friend will support us on that tomorrow, as he will support the whole Bill.