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Topical Questions

Volume 492: debated on Monday 11 May 2009

We want people to have the support they need to get back to work quickly. That is why, last month, we extended our local employment partnership programme to help newly unemployed people as well as disadvantaged jobseekers. I am pleased to confirm that, in the last financial year, these local employment partnerships have been highly successful. More than 20,000 employers have recruited more than 146,000 people, which is 40 per cent. more than expected for the year. The number of people moving into work through local employment partnerships continues to grow, increasing by almost 500 a week over the last quarter, proving that, even in these difficult times, we are still helping disadvantaged customers into jobs in significant numbers.

During the 1980s, very little support was available to help young people to find work or training. I am conscious that the Government want to put together partnerships with local government, training providers and local employers to ensure that young people have the opportunity to enter work quickly. What advice can my right hon. Friend give to local MPs on helping to put together those partnerships? Is it not important that local authorities of all political persuasions come forward and play the game?

I am sure that they will. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform mentioned, the Conservative chair of the Local Government Association has strongly welcomed this scheme, and I urge all Members to work with local authorities, charities and social enterprises to bid for the future jobs fund, to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, when a generation was left on the scrap heap. Instead, we can guarantee to find young people work or training within a year, and hopefully much faster than that.

The Secretary of State will know that many elderly people in private residential homes are struggling to pay their fees. Why are those living in such homes not able to receive the winter fuel allowance, when they could if they were living in their own homes and paying for fuel and lighting?

The first reason is that, in many instances, the cost of the fuel is covered by the fees that are paid by, for example, a local authority. The second reason is that if fees are paid to the home privately, the energy costs are considered to be taken within the payments made. I have looked at this issue closely, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we feel that this cost is covered by the fees that are often paid by the local authority.

T2. Carers week, in early June, will celebrate and recognise the role of the United Kingdom’s 6 million carers. What measures are Ministers taking to assist carers, whether they are in work or not? (273508)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue of carers. He will be aware that the Government are investing more than £255 million to support carers in the short term. That includes £150 million to allow carers to have planned breaks, £38 million from my Department to help carers re-enter the job market and, importantly, £6 million from the Department for Children, Schools and Families to support young carers in the work they do. We have set out our carers strategy and are looking at reforming the benefit system, so as to avoid some of the complexities that carers complain about.

T3. Many benefit claimants are going to experience real hardship when their payments are moved from weekly to fortnightly in arrears, and they have been told that the answer is to take out a loan to repay the weekly amount. How will this change benefit recipients, rather than just the bureaucrats? (273509)

The reason why we are making these changes is, in a sense, to simplify the overall system. At the moment, some benefits are paid in arrears and some are paid in advance, which has caused confusion for recipients. On the loan, the idea is to give people a payment up front, so that they will still have the money and nobody will lose out as a result of the changes. The loan will ensure that people do not face difficulties in the transition period.

T4. The reduction in interest rates is clearly having a serious impact on pensioners’ income from savings, but the problem is aggravated for those on pension credit as a result of the official assumption that for every £500 over the threshold, a pound a week in interest is generated. That works out in the calculations as an annual rate of 10.4 per cent., which is clearly well detached from reality. Is there nothing we can do in these particularly difficult times to reform that assumption, which has essentially been inherited from previous Administrations—in the plural? (273510)

First, the assumption made in respect of the tariff income has never had anything to do with interest rates. It was laid down in legislation. We changed the position so that instead of assuming a pound for every £250 of savings, which was the case under the previous Administration, we make that assumption for every £500. We reduced the upper limit so that people could go much higher up the scale before they started to pay. In the recent Budget, following representations from hon. Members and a number of charities and organisations representing older people, we have changed the amount at which people have to start making a contribution from £6,000 to £10, 000.

T6. When in opposition, the present Prime Minister said that he wanted to see the end of means-testing for elderly people, and I think he was right to do so because means-testing penalises people who have done the right thing, worked hard, been thrifty and tried to save a bit for their old age. Given that the Government have expanded means-testing by an astronomical amount, will the Minister explain why the Prime Minister was wrong? (273513)

When we came into power, we said we would make the system for claiming extra benefits simpler. If the hon. Gentleman wants to abolish means-testing altogether, that will, of course, benefit the wealthiest people more. What we have done is to target money on the most vulnerable people. As I have said, overall, £96 billion more has been spent on pensioners under this Government, but what we have not done is to take away means-testing entirely, because that would have the greatest effect on the poorest people in our society.

T9. Ministers will be aware that Labour Members, particularly those in London, have been campaigning hard for changes in the housing benefit regime, particularly with regard to high-rent and low-wage areas and the phenomenon known colloquially as the “cliff-edge”, which disincentivises work. What progress has been made on this issue? (273516)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question and I am indeed extremely aware of the campaign that she and other hon. Friends have run, which has been very effective. I am particularly concerned, as she is, about work incentives for people in low-income areas who face high rents. That is a real problem in her constituency and in a number of others, quite a few of which are in London. That is one reason why we are looking at the whole operation of housing benefit, and I hope to publish a consultation paper on this very point in the next few months.

May I pick up a point made by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)? Given the current background of large increases in the number of redundancies and the lowest number of job vacancies coming on to the market since records began in 2001, will the Minister ensure that the newly unemployed receive the maximum possible assistance, that they are treated sensitively, that they are encouraged to widen their choice of jobs, and that it is pointed out to them very firmly that it is easier to improve one’s position when one is in employment—that is, to move from one job to another—than to obtain one’s first job from a position of unemployment?

All that is rooted in precisely what we are doing with the £5 billion of extra investment. As I said earlier, we have had to change the model slightly to offer much, much more both pre-redundancy with the rapid response service and when a person is first made unemployed, and then again after three and six months of unemployment. However, the hon. Lady has made a fair point, and I take it seriously. Given the present downturn, we are ensuring that Jobcentre Plus is learning all the time, and that it treats people differently if, for instance, they have a history of 15 or 20 years’ successful employment or come from backgrounds or professions that make them unaccustomed to using its services.

T7. What is the Department’s attitude to access to vouchers for food banks? Social services, the probation service and health visitors all provide such vouchers, but when charities want to provide them at Jobcentre Plus offices many refuse to issue them, saying that it is wrong and that according to the Department’s guidance they should not be issued. Why are the Jobcentre Plus offices doing that, and is it right? (273514)

I will certainly take the matter up further for the hon. Gentleman, but his starting premise is correct: the advice is not to disseminate information or procedures of that kind for the use of third parties, at least those in the public sector. However, the matter has been raised with me before, and I will take it up and get back to the hon. Gentleman.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that when the Conservatives were in power, high unemployment was a price worth paying, if it wasn’t hurting it wasn’t working, and a whole generation was abandoned to poverty and benefits? Is it not the case that we are trying to stop—

Order. The hon. Gentleman should ask a question. We have heard that statement and that speech before.

Given that the Secretary of State has talked about helping the disadvantaged and given that these are topical questions, may I ask what message he has for the disadvantaged victims of Equitable Life, who are the subject of repeated pleas by the ombudsman in unprecedented critical reports?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have said we will make ex gratia payments and also apologise where appropriate. As he also knows, the problem happened under both Governments and we have taken steps to put it right. If he has further proposals, he should say how he would fund them.

T8. The Building Societies Association has suggested that the Equality Bill could outlaw “silver saver” accounts for over-50s, which would mean diminishing returns on savings for many hard-pressed senior citizens in Southend, West. What are the Government going to do about that? (273515)

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we do not believe that the Equality Bill would have the effect that has been alleged on “silver savers”. I should add, however, that we shall be consulting on some of the detail in the coming weeks to ensure that there is no such detrimental effect, and that it is possible to make available products aimed at particular age groups.

Will my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench consider introducing a short-time working subsidy in order to keep people in employment, rather than paying them to be unemployed? That would be a way of ensuring that people are in the right place when we move forward and the economy picks up. Rather than trying to find the skills afterwards, we could keep the skills and allow people to be trained in the workplace.

I am sure my hon. Friend will welcome the fact that, thanks to tax credits, more than 300,000 people are getting an extra £35 a week to soften the blows from the current recession. He will also welcome the fact that people who are working short-time can claim JSA for a short period, and he may want to make that known to his constituents. What is most important, however, is that we take the necessary action to get the economy going again and to support confidence. We believe the actions we have taken have saved 500,000 jobs so far, and we will continue to do more.