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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 495: debated on Monday 29 June 2009

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What estimate she has made of the cost to the public purse of Remploy’s operations in the latest period for which figures are available. (282345)

The last available figures, which are for the financial year ending March 2008, show that Remploy received £195.8 million of direct funding from the Department, comprising £145.8 million of grant in aid and an additional £50 million of modernisation payments to help with the restructuring of the company. Managing the level of funding for Remploy is one of the key aims of our modernisation plan, which was why we secured a £555 million modernisation fund over the five-year period.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. In the response to my parliamentary question 270816, Members were able to see that, over the last three years, Remploy’s senior managers have claimed £4.3 million in bonus payments, including £1.7 million in last year alone. That is six times the amount of money paid out in bonuses in 2000-01. Given that Remploy is losing money, that factories have closed and that job numbers are falling, does my hon. Friend not agree that it would be more appropriate for no bonuses to be paid until Remploy is making money, not losing it?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She will know that there are two parts to Remploy: the enterprise operation that runs the factory of about 3,000 employees, and the employment services, which got more than 7,000 people into jobs last year. Part of the bonus programme was that those managers whose pay is about £30,000 got a bonus of about £5,000 for getting disabled people into work. Their pay and performance terms compare favourably with those of other companies or comparable organisations. The bonus scheme is for the company, but it needs to be seen in perspective, in the context of the overall organisation.

People who are disabled or who have special educational needs—very good people who want work—can suffer more than others in trying to find work during the recession, so what more can the Minister do to promote sheltered employment units in privately owned companies?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. He will be aware that we are doubling the access to work fund, which has seen some 44,000 disabled people into work. Using access to work as an indicator, we are not seeing any of those who benefit from the fund losing their employment. I am sure that he would also welcome the learning disability employment strategy, which I and the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), launched last week. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that despite the world economic downturn, we will continue to concentrate on helping disabled people get into work and stay in it.

Employment (Benefit Claimants)

2. What recent assessment she has made of her Department’s performance in moving people from economically-inactive benefits into employment. (282347)

It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr. Speaker.

The Department is continuing to help people from incapacity benefit and income support back into the labour market and jobs. Despite the recession, and although unemployment has risen, the number of people on inactive benefits has not risen over the last year, which is in contrast to what happened during the recessions in the early ’80s and early ’90s.

High levels of economic inactivity inevitably mean high levels of poverty, particularly child poverty. Over the past decade in Glasgow, we have seen incremental reductions in the number of people claiming incapacity benefits, but if that incremental approach continues, we are going to see those levels of poverty inflicted on yet another generation. Does my right hon. Friend share my impatience? Is it not time that we moved from an incremental approach to a step change in moving vast numbers of people off benefits and into work?

My hon. Friend is right that huge problems can be created for the families of those on incapacity benefit and those left out of the labour market for a long time, even though they may be able to come back into work. He will also know that after the numbers on sickness benefit rose for more than 20 years, they have, in fact, been falling since 2003. I think that some of the measures in the Welfare Reform Bill will help prepare people for work in the future as well as helping those who can get back into work do so in the short term.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the best incentive to get people into work would be a serious increase in the minimum wage?

The minimum wage has played an important part in making work pay for a huge number of people who were previously stuck on poverty pay. We take the advice of the Low Pay Commission in setting the minimum wage so that we can support the economy more broadly, but there is no doubt that, along with tax credits and other measures, it has helped to ensure that people are better off in work.

Given that the number of workless claimants under retirement age has fallen only from 5.6 million to 5.2 million at a time when 3 million new jobs have been available—nearly all of them taken by people coming to this country to seek work—what plans does the Secretary of State have to free up local offices and give them their own budgets so that they can find more effective ways of moving people from benefit into work?

As my right hon. Friend will know, we are introducing the flexible new deal, which will provide more flexible and personalised support. We are also seeking, both though the Welfare Reform Bill and through pilot programmes, to introduce more flexibility, focusing on individuals’ personal problems and the reasons why they may not be able to return to the labour market. I hope that he will recognise that important progress has been made to reverse what was an inexorable rise in the number of people on sickness benefits, and that there have been no increases although the labour market is under considerable pressure as a result of the recession.

I am afraid that the Secretary of State simply is not correct. The Government’s target is to remove 1 million people from incapacity benefit and employment support allowance by 2015. The last set of official statistics showed an increase, as do early estimates from the Secretary of State’s own Department. Let me return to the question asked by the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris). How exactly will the Government hit that 1 million target, given that they have been singularly unsuccessful in doing so thus far?

I am sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman ask that question, but the answer is clear: we will invest additional sums to help people back into work. Conservative Front Benchers have opposed that investment. It is tragic that they should oppose £5 billion of additional support to help people to return to work during a recession. It should also be recognised that in the early 1990s, between 1990 and 1991, the number of people receiving inactive benefits rose by more than 200,000, and that it has not increased over the past 12 months.

I was told by a very experienced individual who had been a job centre manager during the 1990s about the really tough targets for moving people from employment benefits to incapacity benefits at that time. We also discussed the fate of the cohort who have failed their employment support allowance medical and who have not so far turned up again on the jobseeker’s allowance rolls, although they might have been expected to do so. Either they have found jobs, which would be a good thing, or they have fallen out of the system altogether, which would be a bad thing. What research is the Department conducting to ensure that no one who needs help and support is losing out as a result of the new system?

My hon. Friend will know that we are monitoring all the changes to ensure that we support the most vulnerable, and that we help people back into work. He will also know that some people have managed to find work for themselves. However, we should also focus on more individual problems. We should examine the individual reasons why people may not be receiving the support that they need, and ensure that we can provide it.

Financial Assistance Scheme

3. When she next expects to meet occupational pensioner groups to discuss the operation of the financial assistance scheme. (282348)

I am glad to hear that. Is the Minister aware that I represent a number of constituents who were members of the Albert Fisher pension scheme, which unfortunately failed? They all qualify for assistance under the financial assistance scheme and were originally promised that they would receive about 90 per cent. compensation, but they have now discovered that they will receive much less than that. The fine print shows that many will receive less than 60 per cent. Why have my constituents had their hopes raised only to see them dashed in such a cruel way?

I am happy to have more detailed discussions with the hon. Gentleman about the particulars of the pension scheme that he mentioned, but through the financial assistance scheme we have provided 90 per cent. assistance, subject to a cap of £26,000. That is what the scheme is designed to deliver, and it will do so.

Nothing is more frightening to people than paying into a pension scheme for many years only to find that it does not produce the benefits that they were expecting, so will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the 53 members of staff in York who run the FAS, which has rescued 834 pension schemes and has some 12,000 pensioners in payment? Does she also agree that when the state provides a safety net it is important that that safety net is not so gold-plated that it creates perverse incentives for employers to close down schemes, and that it is extremely important, too, that the state safety nets that this Labour Government have introduced are maintained?

Order. It is also extremely important that the reply should be a little bit briefer than the question.

I shall see what I can do, Mr. Speaker.

Currently, 12,031 people are being helped by the FAS, which has paid out £55 million gross so far. It was never intended to replace benefits completely if schemes begin to be wound up without being fully funded, but it does provide 90 per cent. assistance subject to a cap of £26,000.

May I congratulate the Minister and the Secretary of State on their new appointments? Does the Minister not accept that the FAS pensioners feel like the poor relations because they are told there is not the money to give them full compensation, when there was money, for example, when building societies were bailed out to put 100 per cent. of the shortfall of those pension funds in at the time? So this is clearly a matter of priorities. Does she also accept that this 90 per cent. figure that she uses is highly misleading—I am sure not deliberately so—because it is not just capped, but there are big issues about the inflation protection? Does she accept that many pensioners will get much less than 90 per cent., and that over the years they will see annual falls in their real pensions? Will she look at those cases again?

Without this Labour Government’s having introduced the FAS, there would have been no help whatever. Clearly, there is indexation at 2.5 per cent. for post-1997 accruals. We have also extended early access for those with ill health who have had to retire within five years of retirement age, and for those with a progressive disease we have introduced early access which is unreduced. This is more than we promised to do when the FAS was created. I am happy to keep looking at this, but I think the hon. Gentleman ought to acknowledge that we are providing great assistance where there was none before.

Means-tested Benefits

The latest estimates of take-up across the five income-related benefits in 2007-08 were published last Thursday. For the income-related benefits that my Department measures, £35.2 billion was claimed, which represents overall take-up by expenditure of between 77 per cent. and 85 per cent.

Between £200 million and £300 million per day is going unclaimed in jobseeker’s allowance, income support, pension credit and council and housing tax benefits because people—especially the poorest pensioners—are unaware of their entitlement, confused by complexity, or unwilling to take what are seen as handouts. Will the Minister step up a gear on take-up campaigning, and move at full speed out of the present means-measuring morass towards the automatic payment of benefits, as Help the Aged is urging her to do?

I agree with my hon. Friend that take-up is vital to tackling pensioner poverty. He has raised the Help the Aged campaign for the automatic payment of benefits. We are taking powers in the Welfare Reform Bill to enable us to undertake pilots to do precisely that. My hon. Friend is assiduous in defending the interests of his constituents, and I congratulate him on launching the first contact pilot in North-West Leicestershire, which brings together the work of the local authorities, the Department for Work and Pensions and the voluntary sector and is precisely aimed at increasing take-up.

Over the weekend, a constituent came to my surgery who has been a higher rate taxpayer but is now not entitled to any unemployment benefit because of the levels of his savings. Does the Minister not agree that that kind of means-testing discriminates against those people who have paid substantial amounts in taxation over many years and gives perverse incentives to people not to save?

In response to the problems faced by people with large levels of savings, the Chancellor announced an increase in the capital disregard from £6,000 to £10,000, which should have a significant impact on constituents such as the hon. Gentleman’s.

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position. Is it any wonder that, with £5 billion of means-tested benefits going unclaimed by pensioners every year, 2.5 million are living in official poverty? Why are Ministers trying to sweep under the carpet the effect of means-tested benefits on the new system of personal accounts? Does she not care that many thousands could end up worse off as a result of being auto-enrolled into personal accounts?

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that 95 per cent. of people are covered by personal accounts. I am not sure whether he is conscious of the fact that since November it has been the case that claims for housing benefit and council tax benefit can be made in one telephone call, alongside those for pension credit. That will speed up the process and make it far easier for people to get their council tax benefit.

Jobseekers Allowance (Training Courses)

5. What recent assessment she has made of the effects on the assistance available to jobseeker’s allowance claimants of their participation in training courses; and if she will make a statement. (282351)

Training can be an important part of helping people back into work and that is why we are increasing training support for jobseekers, particularly those who have been out of work for more than six months. For training support to be most effective for jobseekers, it needs to be accompanied by a continued search for new jobs.

What would the Secretary of State say to a constituent of mine who wanted to renew his forklift truck driver’s licence, which could have got him a job, and was told that, despite his having been out of work for six months, he was not eligible to have the costs refunded or to have any training not because he was not entitled to it, but because he lived in the wrong area? Why is there a postcode lottery when it comes to giving training to people who want to find work?

I am obviously very happy to look into the individual case that the hon. Gentleman raises. Across the country, we have provided increased support for training. He is right, I think, to raise the case of a constituent who has been out of work for six months, because the longer people are out of work, the harder it can be to find new jobs. Although new vacancies are being reported all the time, if someone does not have up-to-date skills or recent work experience, it can be harder. That is why we have provided additional investment in training to help those people. I shall look into his individual case.

The Secretary of State has just said that the longer people are out of work the more difficult it is for them to get back into work. Is that not particularly true for young people? Unemployment rates have doubled in Cornwall over the past year. Does that not mean that help, such as training, needs to be introduced and to be available to people before they have been unemployed for a year, so that they do not get trapped in a vicious cycle?

The hon. Lady is right that we need to provide help for young people in particular. We saw what happened not only in the early ’80s, but the early ’90s, when effectively we lost a generation to work because of the long-term unemployment among young people. That is why, as well as the future jobs fund, which will provide more than 100,000 additional youth jobs across the country, we want training at an earlier stage. Young people can also benefit from the additional training provided at six months that was introduced in April. It is an additional help to people who need support at this time, in the middle of a recession.

May I welcome you to your new role, Mr. Speaker? May I also welcome the Secretary of State to her new position, albeit that I note that she is the fourth Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in two years? May I also note that Lord Freud has been introduced into another place this afternoon, which we welcome?

The Secretary of State talks about more help after six months, but in an economy with rising unemployment and falling vacancies, many people need to be able to retrain immediately. When will the Government adopt our proposal and allow people to retrain, full time, from day one of their claim for jobseeker’s allowance?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her kind words. She and I were on the Select Committee on Education and Employment together 12 years ago. It is good to see that she has maintained her interest in these issues. On the question of what training support is provided from day one, people who have lost their job can already get up to 16 hours of part-time training and support from the skills for life qualifications and from the employability skills programmes. Last year alone, Jobcentre Plus referred just over 1 million people for skills and training in the first six months of their claims. A lot of support is provided already for training for people in the early months when they lose their jobs. She asks why we cannot introduce her policies. She would not be able to introduce her policies or most of ours because she opposes the £5 million additional investment that we are putting in to support the unemployed this year.

The Secretary of State makes all these claims about the amount of help available for unemployed people but they ring hollow, given that, as from today, no new referrals to the new deal will be made across half the country, including in major cities such as Manchester and Birmingham. Why are the Government abandoning the unemployed in half the country?

I do not think that the right hon. Lady understands what the employment programmes are. We have already introduced additional support that is stronger than the new deal in many areas since April. After someone has been unemployed for six months they can get additional job subsidies and additional training support; they can get all kinds of further help that is better than the new deal for adults, which was offered across the country. We are going further; we are introducing the flexible new deal. I must say to her that she can talk as much as she likes about “hollow words”, but the hollow words come from her party, which will not fund additional help for people whom it previously abandoned. We are determined to help these people get back into work, whereas she simply opposes the funding for them.

Jobcentre Plus

As announced in the Budget, Jobcentre Plus will be recruiting up to 10,000 more staff this year, on top of the 6,000 new staff already announced in, and recruited since, the pre-Budget report. Jobcentre Plus is coping well with the increased work load, paying benefits promptly and seeing people quickly to discuss help in finding them work. Every working day, its advisers see 50,000 people to support them in looking for work.

Extra help to support hard-pressed staff is welcome, but may I ask the Minister to examine the staffing of phone lines? Many constituents have complained to me in recent months that they have tried for days to get through on phone lines without success and have ended up frustrated at Jobcentre Plus when they have subsequently been told that they cannot have an appointment there and then because they have to call a phone line in order to get one.

I have had some concerns relating to anecdotal stories such as the ones that my hon. Friend rightly raises with me. I am advised that about 95 per cent. of such calls are answered in our contact centres that deal with them, and that is a good figure by any commercial comparison. However, I am keen to look at this area in more detail to see whether or not we can improve the systems to ensure that people who are claiming can obtain a referral and get an appointment as quickly as possible with Jobcentre Plus.

Perhaps I can help the Minister with his puzzlement as to why these people cannot get through. Since 2002, 520 jobcentres have been closed by this Government—one a week has closed in the past 12 months while the number of unemployed has been rising. Why is that?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the jobcentre closures have been suspended in response to what is going on in the jobs market as a result of the global recession. He will also know that those closures were part of efficiency changes designed to make public money go further. If he is saying that jobcentres should be reopened or should remain open, he would need to find the money for that. Given that his party opposed the £5 billion extra that we are spending to get people back into work, his claims ring hollow.

Child Poverty

7. What recent assessment she has made of progress towards meeting the Government’s 2010 child poverty target. (282353)

We expect to lift about a further 500,000 children out of poverty with the measures announced in and since Budget 2007. We have already lifted 500,000 children out of relative poverty and halved the number living in absolute poverty since 1997.

The question was about the Government’s 2010 child poverty target. Is it not time that they came clean and admitted that it will not be met?

Everyone, even the hon. Gentleman, must understand that in the current economic circumstances meeting the 2010 target is a real challenge. However, in the middle of a recession we are continuing to take action, which is why we published the Child Poverty Bill this month. Our approach contrasts starkly with the policies that his party pursued. Had we continued with those—

The increase in child poverty in each of the last three years would seem to justify the Treasury Committee’s belief that the Government will miss their 2010 target to halve child poverty by a significant margin. Many of us were hoping to debate the Child Poverty Bill today, but can the Minister tell the House how it will foster enterprise in those areas in which more than half of the working age population are not in work, and what it will do to strengthen families, given that we know that the children of parents who separate are more than a third more likely to be unemployed themselves?

As the hon. Gentleman must be aware, the Child Poverty Bill includes the scope for strategies with local authorities to deal with the regional differences to which he referred. It would be helpful if he could indicate whether he intends to support the Bill, which will make a significant difference to children in this country.

What steps are the Government taking to co-operate with the Governments in Cardiff and Edinburgh in respect of their equally ambitious anti-child poverty programmes, especially given that those Governments face cuts, by some accounts, of several hundred million pounds over the next few years?

The strategy that will be written under the Child Poverty Bill will be UK-wide, but of course the devolved Administrations are free to make their own choices in the areas of health and education. The decisions they make are a matter for them.

Jobcentre Plus (Over-50s)

8. What support and training Jobcentre Plus offers people over 50 years old to assist them to re-enter employment. (282354)

We are increasing the range of back-to-work help for unemployed people of all ages, to meet every jobseeker’s individual needs. This support includes the Jobcentre Plus rapid response service for those facing redundancy, and extra help after six months of unemployment. For those who are still unemployed at 12 months, we are introducing individually tailored help via contracted providers.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that last Thursday Corus announced substantial job losses, which include 500 managerial and technical staff at their works in Scunthorpe? What will be done for people in that sector, given that they tend to be a little older, to help them to get back into the workplace? Has he considered devising some sort of apprenticeship scheme for older workers?

Clearly I am aware of the sad news for those individuals of the Corus job losses, including the 500 at Scunthorpe that come on top of 93 already announced. I am aware that the profile of many of those jobs is professional, technical and managerial. Through our rapid response service, we have made contact with Corus in Scunthorpe and we will go in to offer help, including signposting older workers into training so that they can refresh some of their skills prior to becoming redundant, so that they can get back into work as quickly as possible. Apprenticeships for older people are an interesting idea. I am meeting the Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs later this week and I will have a chat with him about it.

So many more people are now going through jobcentres that the personalised service for people over 50 seems to be getting lost. What is the Department doing specifically to ensure a focus on getting the over-50s back into work?

My hon. Friend is very knowledgeable in this area, and she knows that it is important that we pay particular attention to the problems that older workers may have in getting back into work and to any age discrimination that may exist. We need to work with employers to break down some of their misunderstandings about the business gain that may result from employing workers from the rich pool of talent of those aged over 50. Part of the more personalised approach that we are taking to advice in Jobcentre Plus is to understand what talents are available in individuals and how some niche training can help them. That can be available from day one, but it is certainly available as part of the six-month offer, in which we offer a training allowance to all workers. That is a vast improvement on the situation under the new deal.

Future Jobs Fund

10. What estimate her Department has made of the proportion of future jobs fund jobs that will come from the third sector. (282356)

We are strongly encouraging the third sector to make bids to the future jobs fund. We believe that there is great potential in the third sector to deliver good jobs that help the community and provide important training and work experience for young people.

Last month I arranged a job summit in South Ribble with a number of partners. We are seeking to make a bid in the first round of the future jobs fund at the end of this month. One of the issues raised at the meeting was the fact that many voluntary sector bodies, charities and small businesses employ only a handful of people, and therefore would not be eligible to apply individually to the future jobs fund. South Ribble seeks to bring a number of partners together to support small businesses and bodies in the charitable and voluntary sector that employ people in ones and twos. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that bids made by such partners will be acceptable?

My hon. Friend is right. May I congratulate him on the work that he does on the subject, to support jobs in his constituency? We want partners to come together to put forward proposals. That includes drawing on not only small businesses but small charitable organisations and other kinds of small groups that may be able to provide help. We set up the programme as we did in order to be able to deliver very rapidly more than 100,000 youth jobs, with a further 50,000 for the most deprived areas. It is an ambitious programme, but we think it is the right one, given the need to support people through a difficult time as a result of the world recession.

What response will the Secretary of State make to the Centre for Cities report, published last week, which shows that the future jobs fund is quite inadequate for dealing with the likely number of youth unemployed, which will rise to approximately 350,000 by the end of 2011? That rise will have a big impact in places such as Sunderland, Barnsley, Swindon and Peterborough. What action is the Department for Work and Pensions taking to ameliorate the concerns raised in the report?

It is exactly in order to prevent long-term youth unemployment, and long-term unemployment across the board, that we are investing in measures such as help for people who have been out of work for six months, and additional support for people from the very day they lose their job. If we can start bringing unemployment down faster than it came down in the early ’80s and early ’90s, it helps not only families who would otherwise be scarred by long-term unemployment but the wider economy and the public finances. That is why it is right to make that investment. The hon. Gentleman’s comments would be rather more credible if he and his party supported the £1 billion future jobs fund, which is so critical to giving opportunities to the young people he mentions.

Employment Programmes

11. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of her Department’s programmes aimed at assisting people into work; and if she will make a statement. (282357)

Over the past decade, the new deals and employment zones have led to a major transformation in employment support for long-term jobseekers, helping more than 2 million people to move into work. Our active labour market policies have helped to reduce the number of lone parents on income support by more than 290,000 since 1997, and the number on incapacity benefits by 160,000 from its peak in 2003. Our benefit reforms and the success of our employment programmes mean that the numbers of people on benefit are not escalating as they did in the last recession.

Although I appreciate all the efforts that the Government have made on the issue, the Minister will appreciate that in certain parts of the country, such as Tyneside, there are areas where persistent and stubborn unemployment is far greater than in other parts of the country. Will he tell us what he intends to do to try to solve that ingrained problem?

My hon. Friend makes sure that I do not forget the particular problems that his constituents face in Jarrow, and those faced in the area around his constituency. Through the working neighbourhoods fund, and particularly through the future jobs fund, I hope he will be able to engage with us and continue to act as a strong advocate for his area. I hope he will ensure that we take advantage of the £1 billion future jobs fund, which Labour Members are supporting, to make sure that we get as much activity going as possible, and get real work—real sustainable jobs—in his area.

The Minister will have seen, I hope with alarm, reports in The Observer newspaper suggesting that there is widespread fraud among those in the private sector who are supposed to be assisting people into work. He will perhaps know from constituents, as I do, of job creation schemes that are frankly job substitution schemes. What action is he taking to root out that fraud wherever he finds it? Will he ensure that we think very carefully before there is any further privatisation of that service?

Naturally, we take any incident of fraud extremely seriously. We have robust systems in place to discover incidents of fraud, as has happened in the majority of cases that are being reported. One provider was highlighted by The Observer yesterday, and I am aware of another. To my knowledge, there is no evidence of any systematic fraud on the part of those providers. Indeed, the private sector providers have got 250,000 people into work. Those are individuals with whom Jobcentre Plus has been working for a considerable period and has not managed to get into work, but thanks to payment by results, we are getting good results from the private sector providers.

Jobseeker’s Allowance (Preseli Pembrokeshire)

12. How many jobseeker’s allowance claimants there were in (a) the UK and (b) Preseli Pembrokeshire constituency on the latest date for which figures are available. (282359)

In May 2009, there were 1,516,921 jobseeker’s allowance claimants in Great Britain, and 1,416 in the Preseli Pembrokeshire constituency.

Unemployment in my constituency has gone up by more than 100 per cent. in the past 12 months. One piece of good news is the new RWE gas-fired power station, which will create 2,000 jobs during its construction phase at the site in Pembroke. My constituents well understand that Ministers cannot guarantee jobs for British workers, let alone Pembrokeshire workers, but what steps has the Minister taken through his Department and through Jobcentre Plus to ensure that people in my constituency are at the front of the queue for the construction and engineering jobs being created at that site?

The hon. Gentleman is clearly right: as a result of the global recession—the first global recession for many years—unemployment has risen, but he will of course have noted that long-term unemployment has fallen by 94 per cent. in his constituency, and long-term youth claimant unemployment has fallen by 73 per cent. in his constituency. The important thing for us is that we have a sufficiently active welfare state to turn people around when they become unemployed and get them back into work as quickly as possible. Thanks to the welfare reforms that the Government have put in place, we have made good progress on that. As for getting his constituents to the front of the queue, I continue to meet my colleagues at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and work through some of those interesting issues.

In constituencies such as that of the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) and in mine, where technology has removed many jobs from the petrochemical sector, there have been structural changes over recent years that have required a change of approach by everyone—local authorities, the Department and employees in the community. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that he works closely with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that the structural changes that are going on are supported by the Government, and that we see moves into the new kinds of jobs as quickly as possible?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that reassurance. In my new role I will be working closely with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Communities and Local Government. One of the things that I am particularly keen to pursue is the opportunities created by bringing together skills and business in a single Department so that we can ensure we are keeping pace with the sort of changes that my hon. Friend mentions, and linking them into the employment work that we do in the Department for Work and Pensions.

Jobseeker’s Allowance (New Forest, West)

14. How many jobseeker’s allowance claimants there were in (a) the UK and (b) New Forest, West constituency on the latest date for which figures are available. (282361)

In May 2009, as we have just heard, there were 1,516,921 jobseeker’s allowance claimants in Great Britain, and 963 in the New Forest, West constituency.

That figure of 963 has increased faster than the comparable figure in almost any other constituency in the land, principally because of the large number of small businesses that are located in the New Forest, many of which have very good order books but have cash flow problems. Were the zombie banks able to lend to them, they would have survived. Does the Minister agree that if the Government had got on the case and had a much more impressive loan guarantee scheme on the books earlier, those businesses would have survived?

Certainly I am aware of the increase in the claimant rate in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. He can give statistics based on proportions that start from a very low base; I can give him back statistics based on the actual numbers, which make the picture look slightly better. On his substantive point, it is important that the Government support small businesses. I, myself, ran a small business for 10 years before entering Parliament, and he will of course have noted and been pleased that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs helped more than 100,000 businesses by allowing them to delay their payments to it. That is far more effective than what he has talked about—and probably does not have the money to fund.

In relation to people in the building industry claiming jobseeker’s allowance, real problems have been raised in my constituency about their ability to obtain it because of their special employment status. Will my right hon. Friend comment on that and agree to meet me to discuss their problems further?

It is always a delight to meet my hon. Friend, and I should be very happy to do so in this case; it will be a relief not to have to talk about the problems of the schools in Northampton when I do. There is clearly an issue for large numbers of construction workers who are self-employed and have chosen to pay class 2 rather than class 1 national insurance contributions. That decision removes their right to some entitlement-based jobseeker’s allowance, but I am happy to discuss the issue with her. She will understand that there is a basic principle involved, but I hope that her constituents understand also that, thanks to the Government’s accelerated introduction of capital spending, the public sector is doing a lot to help the construction industry.

Topical Questions

Tomorrow marks the end of the first round of bidding for the £1 billion future jobs fund. The information that we currently have leads us to expect several hundred bids from a range of organisations: local authorities in particular, heritage organisations, third sector organisations and other groups. They are proposing jobs in a range of sectors, including green jobs, public services and housing. We are also seeking further bids over the summer because we want to create 150,000 jobs throughout the country. Shortly, the Prime Minister will set out in his statement further steps that we are taking to ensure that young people are not left behind and that another generation is not lost to work.

At a time when businesses have enough on their plate, is it not unethical, underhand and an abuse of taxpayers’ money for the ethnic minority employment task force in the right hon. Lady’s Department to send out false job applications with foreign-sounding names to try to smear businesses with allegations of racism?

That is simply not an accurate description of what is happening. In fact, the task force has funded a research project to look at whether there is discrimination in particular areas as part of its work to ensure that people from all ethnic minorities get on, find jobs and have proper opportunities in work.

T3. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Speaker.

People with disabilities are very keen, even in this challenging job market, to be able to continue to look for jobs, and the welcome that they receive in job centres is central to that. Will my hon. Friend assure me that people with disabilities are dealt with properly, and that access issues are dealt with, so that wheelchair users achieve access and are dealt with as we would expect to be dealt with? (282372)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. There are disability employment advisers in each job centre, and they are able to advise potential employees about a range of support programmes, including the access to work programme that I referred to earlier, which will double over the next few years. There is an additional £8 million this year. Indeed, we are striving to assist people who are furthest from the labour market, including people with mental health issues and learning disabilities. There will be no let up in helping disabled people to get into work.

T4. The Minister for Employment will be aware that, according to last week’s figures, the rate of unemployment is growing twice as fast in Scotland as it is throughout the UK. Indeed, in my constituency, we have seen a 74 per cent. increase in 12 months. Does he agree it is absolutely crucial that Governments in Edinburgh and London work together to tackle the growing problem of unemployment in Scotland? What contact has he had with Scottish Government Ministers to tackle it? (282373)

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, right: we need to ensure that the Government in Westminster work closely with the Scottish Government and local authorities in Scotland, including in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, to tackle unemployment. He will be pleased to know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be in Scotland next week. She will meet Fiona Hyslop, the Minister, to discuss those matters.

T5. In June, the director for enterprise and business at Remploy invited senior managers to a hotel in Leeds for a brief training course, lasting from 12 until 4.30, followed by a black-tie dinner, an overnight stay at a hotel, a non-business speaker and a race evening. Would it not have been more appropriate for that public money to have been spent on helping unemployed disabled people in constituencies such as mine, which has a Remploy factory, rather than on jollies for Remploy business managers? (282376)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. It has been alleged that the event cost £50,000, but she will be aware that that is not the case—the cost was more like £14,000. The hotel fee was about £120 a night, which I think hon. Members would consider a reasonable amount. MPs and others have been requesting that the sales team improve; the event brought together all the work force and sales team so that they could get additional sales. That was the purpose of the day.

At the end of the evening, there was a non-business speaker—a Paralympian motivational speaker. The focus of the day, however, was on improving sales. That is what my hon. Friend wants in Bridgend and what we all want in Remploy factories across the board. It is right that the company should focus on improving sales; if it was not doing so, I am sure my hon. Friend would have other words to say.

T6. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has projected, on the basis of DWP figures, that expenditure on social security and tax credits will increase by 1.7 per cent. per year between April 2011 and March 2014. Do Ministers accept those assumptions? If they do not, do they have alternative numbers? (282377)

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the IFS does its own analysis. As he will also know, we do not set forecasts for unemployment. However, we are clear that the more we invest at this stage to help people back into work, the faster we can bring unemployment down. That will cut social security bills in future and allow us to provide more investment in important public services—unlike the Conservative party, which would prefer to make public sector cuts.

T7. This year, Conservative-controlled South Ribble borough council has cancelled its apprenticeship programme, and I have been trying to persuade it to reverse the decision. Is there anything that my right hon. Friend can do to help me to provide the council with some incentive to help young people in my constituency into apprenticeships, perhaps through the future jobs fund? (282378)

I am disappointed to hear that from my hon. Friend. We hope that not only his local council but councils across the country and organisations in the private and public sectors will work with us to help young people into training and employment at this critical time. We want to expand the apprenticeships scheme and we are working to get as much support as possible for it and for the future jobs fund. I shall be happy to talk to my hon. Friend further about the issue because the Local Government Association generally supports the future jobs fund. It is working to support additional bids for the fund and for apprenticeships across the country. That makes South Ribble borough council’s pulling out of apprenticeships all the more disappointing. [Interruption.]

Order. There is quite a lot of chuntering going on, mainly by people who have just entered the Chamber.

Ministers will be only too sadly aware that the United Kingdom has the highest level of youth unemployment in Europe and that the figures are likely to be added to during the summer, as many thousands of graduates leave university and look for work. Can the Minister help me to tell my constituents what advice and help will be available to them as they try to find a place in the job market?

As I said earlier, young people, like others, are affected by the worldwide recession. It is worth noting, however, that long-term youth claimant unemployment is still 56.6 per cent. lower than it was in 1997. We are being successful in quickly turning around people, including young people, who are becoming unemployed. The hon. Lady will be aware that when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, he announced an internship scheme in order to help graduates leaving university. Over the summer we will be talking more about that, as well as other opportunities for school leavers, including the September guarantee, which the hon. Lady’s party opposes.

I think those on the Front Bench are well aware that the biggest problem is pensioners’ entitlement to allowances and benefits, millions upon millions of which, however it is dressed up, go unclaimed each year. What more are Ministers going to do to ensure that those pensioners get the money they are entitled to?

Take-up of pension credit is close to 70 per cent., and that has taken 900,000 pensioners out of poverty. Since 1998-99, there has been a reduction from 29 to 18 per cent. in the proportion of pensioners on relative low incomes. We continue to do all we can to encourage take-up of pension credit among those who are entitled to it. I would be happy to assist my hon. Friend in doing what he can in his own constituency to get every single pensioner who is entitled to claim pension credit claiming it.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on her appointment. Will she agree to receive the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), who I am delighted to see on the Front Bench, and me to discuss the plight of the 70 Equitable Life victims whom we met at a meeting in my constituency just two weeks ago?

The hon. Gentleman will know that as a result of the Treasury’s response to the parliamentary ombudsman’s report, Judge Chadwick is looking into the circumstances around the events at Equitable Life in order to be able to provide additional support for the people who have been affected by them. I am sure that the Treasury will keep the House informed.

It seems that more and more of my constituents who were previously employed full time are getting new jobs with employers but on a self-employed basis. That puts the employer at a great advantage and the employed at a severe disadvantage, especially if they become sick or seek jobseeker’s allowance. What are the Government doing to stop this nonsense?

Clearly it is important that those individuals are well represented if they are being forced to do things against their will, and I hope that they are members of trade unions so that they can receive that kind of representation. Those who are self-employed need to take good advice on whether they could volunteer to pay class 1 or class 2 contributions. Those who opt for class 1 contributions should then pay in so as to be able to claim if they need to as a result of becoming unemployed.

Will Ministers agree to meet a delegation from Cambridge to discuss the deeply disappointing result of the broad market rental area review for Cambridge, which means that hundreds of Cambridge residents will continue to be in a position whereby their housing benefit is forcing them to move out of the city—a situation that the valuation office says results from the state of the legislation, not any discretion on the part of that organisation?

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that we will shortly be publishing a Green Paper on housing benefit. When we do, we will look at how to create a system that combines efficiency with maintaining work incentives and is fair to people across the country.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the jobseeker’s pledge that my hon. Friend the Minister for the West Midlands launched today in Stoke-on-Trent to create 250 apprenticeships in the public sector in Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire. Will he give me an assurance that the Department for Work and Pensions and jobcentre staff will do everything possible to ensure that we get local apprentices in those local jobs?

I certainly did note the announcement by the Minister for the West Midlands, and I pay tribute to Staffordshire county council, Stoke-on-Trent city council, Staffordshire fire and rescue service and Keele university in particular for coming forward with apprenticeship pledges. It is crucial that we integrate skills and employment more, and I hope that the bids for the future jobs fund—the £1 billion fund that the Conservative party opposes—will include bids for apprenticeship places as part of that integration.

The jobcentre in Macclesfield is working exceptionally hard to get people back into work. Would that HBOS, a bank bailed out by the taxpayer, would do the same. It appears to be more interested in taking in administrators undertaking the liquidation of companies, because of the big fee that they get, and working in cahoots with an asset-stripping company. Will the Government do something about getting banks such as HBOS to be more sympathetic and understanding about saving jobs rather than losing them?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government did a lot to ensure that the major banks did not crash in the autumn, which would have put people’s savings at risk and would of course have had major job consequences and wider, catastrophic consequences for the entire economy. He will know, too, that regional Ministers and the regional development agencies are continuing to work with the banks that are going through restructuring, to support jobs in every part of the country.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman paid tribute to the work of Jobcentre Plus, which he will know is doing considerable and laudable work across the country in advance of redundancies being made, as well as to help people who have unfortunately been made redundant and need help and investment to get them back into work.