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Topical Questions

Volume 495: debated on Monday 29 June 2009

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.