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Topical Questions

Volume 489: debated on Monday 16 March 2009

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.