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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 497: debated on Monday 19 October 2009

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Youth Unemployment

1. How many young people between the ages of 18 and 24 were unemployed on (a) the latest date for which figures are available and (b) the equivalent date in 1997. (293496)

The youth claimant count rate for September 2009, in the middle of a recession, stands at 5 per cent., the same rate as in September 1997 when the economy was growing. The latest figures show 469,600 18 to 24-year-olds on jobseeker’s allowance and 9,800 of them on it over six months. The equivalent figures for September ’97 were 385,000 on JSA and 65,000 on it over 12 months, and for September ’93, in the middle of the last recession, the figures were 805,000 on JSA and 209,900 in receipt of it over 12 months.

I am not entirely sure that the Secretary of State’s figures add up. My memory is getting a bit hazy as I get older, but I seem to recall one of the Labour pledges in 1997 was to reduce youth unemployment through the new deal. That figure is now up to almost 1 million, which is the highest rate ever—the Secretary of State has failed to mention any numbers in that regard. In fact, youth unemployment has been rising since 2005 when I thought we were booming, and not bust as we are now.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to discover what the figures are, I refer him to the Office for National Statistics. I should also like to point out to him the situation in the 1990s, before the introduction of the new deal for young people, when more than 200,000 young people were on the dole for over a year at the peak of the then recession. Today, that figure stands at fewer than 10,000 young people. Youth unemployment is rising in the middle of a recession, as young people are being affected as a result of the world recession and because of that problem we are increasing support, including an investment of £1 billion in more than 100,000 youth jobs, which the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench colleagues oppose.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on bringing forward schemes such as Backing Young Britain, as we need to focus on that. However, may I ask her to look carefully at some of the schemes that restrict entrance to new jobs to young people who have been employed for a certain amount of time, and which may therefore prevent young people who have not been unemployed but who have been working very hard picking up specific skills, such as in sport and leisure, from taking up key jobs? Will she make sure that such children are not disadvantaged?

The hon. Gentleman is right that part of the purpose of the Backing Young Britain campaign is to provide young people with support from the very moment they leave education or lose a job, so we can get them back into work as quickly as possible. A range of support is available for young people at all stages. I think it is also right to provide additional support for young people who have been out of work for many months. We have therefore introduced a guarantee to ensure that no young person should be out of work and on the dole for more than 12 months, because we need to prevent long-term unemployment that could scar them for many years to come.

I have to say to the Secretary of State that her complacency about youth unemployment is breathtaking. Under this Labour Government youth unemployment has reached a record high. One in five young people cannot find a job and we have the highest level of youth unemployment in Europe. At the beginning of a person’s working life, any period of unemployment can be devastating. Young people need help to get them into a job, so why are the Government making them wait 12 months before giving them that help?

The right hon. Lady’s claim is nonsense. As I made clear in answer to the previous question, we are increasing support by providing additional help for young people from the very moment when they lose their job or leave education. We are expanding the amount of available training and support, and we are investing more than £1 billion in youth jobs, which Opposition Members still oppose. Their stance is baffling. Councils and housing associations across the country all support creating jobs for young people so that they are never again abandoned to long-term unemployment, as they were by the right hon. Lady’s party in the ’80s and ’90s. We think it is right to keep investing to help young people get back into work; her party just wants to pull the plug.

The Secretary of State talks about extra help being given to young people at an earlier time in their unemployment, but the take-up figures for the young person’s guarantee show that only one in 136 young people is taking up the six-month offer; that is 1,550 out of 207,000 young people who have been unemployed for the requisite period of time. Is it not the case that this Government announce idea after idea to grab a headline, but are failing to give the real help that young people need? Is not now just the time for the Government to accept that the real help young people need will come from the Conservatives through our policy of referring young people to welfare-to-work providers after six months?

I think young people should be terrified at the prospect of help from the Conservatives, when the right hon. Lady’s party continues to propose cutting £5 billion from the support for the unemployed and wants to cut funding to the economy in the middle of a recession, something that Professor Blanchflower, formerly of the Bank of England, says would push unemployment up to 5 million. That would be devastating for young people. We should offer support early on and throughout any young person’s unemployment, and month after month keep increasing that support. That is what will get young people back into jobs.

Jobseeker's Allowance

2. How many people were receiving jobseeker’s allowance in Vale of York constituency on the latest date for which figures are available. (293497)

At September 2009, there were 1,186 jobseeker’s allowance claimants in the Vale of York constituency. In September, 285 went on to JSA, but I am sure that the hon. Lady will welcome the fact that 315 people came off it.

Does the Minister accept that this is a record number of unemployed in the Vale of York, particularly in the 18 to 24 years category? May I remind him that when the Conservatives left government in 1997, youth unemployment was falling? He will have to fight an election on rising youth unemployment—what is he going to do to solve it?

I think the hon. Lady welcomed the fall in the September unemployment figures in her constituency. As I have said, the off-flow was 315 and the on-flow was 285, and I think that 315 is more than 285. I hope that she will welcome the future jobs fund in her area. The Yorkshire and Humberside tranche has £19 million to support young people in her area, helping them to get jobs. It would be a blank sheet of paper when it came to the Tory policy.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Owing to that wholly unsatisfactory answer, I would like to apply for an Adjournment debate.

The hon. Lady and the House will be aware that as a consequence of that point of order being raised, any further exchanges on this question are immediately brought to an end. They cannot happen, so we move on to the next question.

3. How many people in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance subsequently entered employment in the most recent quarter for which figures are available. (293498)

In the quarter to September 2009, about 1 million people left jobseeker’s allowance. We do not know exactly how many moved into work because there is no requirement for people to tell us, and it would not be cost-effective to use staff time to follow up every case.

I appreciate that the Minister has to be cost-effective, but can he give us some idea of how many people remain on JSA and for how long, and what happens to them afterward?

About 50 per cent. of people leave jobseeker’s allowance within three months, about 70 per cent. within six months and more than 85 per cent. within 12 months. Naturally, the vast majority of those are getting into work. There is still plenty more to be done on unemployment, but this party will keep up the investment that has been successful so far in minimising unemployment levels during this recession.

Unemployment in my constituency has risen by more than 100 per cent. in a year and by some 80 per cent. since 1997. What figure is the Minister’s Department contemplating as the peak of unemployment in this country, and when does it expect that to happen?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows from his previous work in my Department, we do not make our own unemployment forecasts, but it is interesting to note that the independent forecasters have been downgrading their predictions. I read of one this morning predicting that it would peak at 2.7 million. Meanwhile, forecasters such as Professor Blanchflower are saying that unemployment under the hon. Gentleman’s party, with the policies advocated by the shadow Chancellor, would mean unemployment rising to 5 million.

Are we keeping jobseeker’s allowance, which is just £64.30 a week, at very low levels to encourage people to enter the workplace? If it had kept pace with earnings since 1980, it would be worth over £100, and if the link had been reintroduced in 1997 it would have been £75. Will he encourage the Chancellor in his pre-Budget report to re-link it to earnings, as the TUC, all the poverty organisations and early-day motion 543 are urging?

I always listen carefully to my hon. Friend, as a critical friend, and I am sure the Chancellor will also be listening. It is important when considering JSA rates to consider also the entitlement to other benefits that go with it, such as housing and council tax benefit, so it would be untrue to say that that is the only money people have to live off.

Among the jobless in my constituency is a significant number of newly unemployed professionals who have a very long-term record of paying tax and national insurance contributions, and who find that the help available to them is minimal. What more will the Minister do under the newly unemployed professionals scheme, and how many people in this category have been assisted in my constituency?

We will continue to look at what we need to do for the executive unemployed. As the hon. Lady knows, from day one of unemployment, they have the opportunity for referral to an executive recruitment agency to assist them with job-seeking skills and getting them back into work. In September, 408 people flowed off jobseeker’s allowance but 393 flowed on, so the numbers actually fell in her constituency last month; but I cannot tell her how many of those were at the executive end.

Jobseeker’s allowance is one of those benefits whereby when the Department has overpaid because of official error, it has written to people to try to claw the money back. That process has been ruled unlawful, so can the Minister tell us what the Department’s practice will be in the future and whether it will be refunding money that has been unlawfully reclaimed from claimants?

I am sorry to give the hon. Gentleman a dull answer—that is territory with which he is very familiar—by telling him that we are considering the judgment in that case.

Will it not have been depressing for a newly unemployed person to have heard the Secretary of State’s response in today’s exchanges? Her first response to the unemployment crisis is to reach for the history books and rewrite the statistics from the 1990s. May I take the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform back to the question that his colleague failed to answer about the young person’s guarantee? Does not that guarantee take effect at 10 months—his policy and her policy is for 10 months—not 12 months, as she seems to think? [Interruption.] Is it not far too long for a young person to have to wait until they have been out of work for 10 months before they get the help they need? Would it not be far more appropriate for a young person to receive specialised individual help after six months?

Order. I have to say to the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) that that question was too long as well.

The hon. Gentleman will know that a range of things are available to people from day one, such as basic skills training and referral to experts in respect of CV writing and so on, and that the young person’s guarantee comes into force at 12 months. The future jobs fund, which his party opposes, comes into play at 10 months—so, of course, the Secretary of State was right. He should know that the Tories are the party of unemployment; in this recession, they oppose measures that the International Labour Organisation says saved between 7 million and 11 million jobs worldwide—500,000 in this country—and they are proposing measures that would put the level of unemployment up to 5 million. Time and again the Conservatives have moved people off unemployment and on to incapacity payments—we are reversing that.

Pensioners

This winter, pensioners will again receive an additional payment on top of the winter fuel payment and be entitled to increased cold weather payments as part of a wider package of measures to provide real help to pensioners in the current downturn.

May I say to the Minister that I welcome that answer and the Government’s commitment to support pensioners, especially as it will be a cold winter? Will she consider the reintroduction of the £60 winter bonus? Will she have a conversation with the Treasury about that matter?

I am always happy to consider any suggestion made by my hon. Friend. During the pre-Budget report period I will ensure that the Chancellor has his attention drawn to my hon. Friend’s question.

Many pensioners, including many veterans, qualify for disabled facilities grants from their local councils, but up and down the country far too many pensioners are being placed on waiting lists rather than being provided such facilities within six months, as is the mandatory requirement. Many pensioners are having to wait six months or longer to get facilities installed. Could her Department look into that, because many pensioners would benefit if the Government were to focus on that grant?

I am happy to make inquiries as a result of the hon. Gentleman’s question. Although this sounds like an issue for the Department for Communities and Local Government, rather than for the Department for Work and Pensions directly, I shall look into it and drop him a line.

Would my hon. Friend pledge that it is not Government policy to revert to the situation that existed prior to 1997, when the only help that pensioners received with their fuel bills was the cold weather payment, whereby they had to be freezing for seven—not five or six—consecutive days and then perhaps £8 was given? We do not want to return to that under a Tory Government.

My hon. Friend is quite right. I hope that he will give this Government credit for increasing the cold weather payments last year and this year to £25 a week, because fuel bills have been high. I point out to him that, as I am sure he already knows, a mere £60 million a year was spent on winter fuel payments when we came into office. We now spend £2.7 billion a year.

Youth Unemployment

Young people are being particularly affected by the world recession. That is why we are funding hundreds of thousands of new opportunities for young people to help get them into work, including more than 100,000 youth jobs and targeted training in those areas that are recruiting, such as the care sector. We are also providing more apprenticeships and further education places. The most important priority is to prevent long-term youth unemployment.

A report from the Prince’s Trust, which is widely valued and respected, found that young people without qualifications are twice as likely to seek jobseeker’s allowance as young people with qualifications. Can the Secretary of State tell us how Government policies and plans will address that very serious problem?

The hon. Gentleman is right that the problem is most severe for those who have the fewest qualifications. They can find it difficult to get into work and that is exactly why we have introduced the September guarantee this year, which guarantees that all 16 and 17-year-olds can stay on in education. We have invested an additional £600 million in order to make that possible and to provide those additional places. We need to ensure that we have a growing number of apprenticeships and further education places, too. I notice that in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency—I think that he will welcome this—the number of 18 to 24-year-olds on the claimant count actually fell slightly last month.

One reason for youth unemployment is those 16 to 18-year-olds who leave school, do not go into education or training and fall out of the system because they do not qualify for benefits. My right hon. Friend has just mentioned the fact that the education leaving age will be raised to 18, but will she explain why that is so important, as the Scottish National party Government in Holyrood have said that they will not do that?

My hon. Friend is right that we need to ensure that young people do not fall through the net and that they get the support they need. That is why we think that it is right to make it an obligation that all young people should stay in some form of education through to the age of 18. That is the best way to provide them with a better long-term future as well as to increase their chances of staying in employment. That is why, as well as funding the additional education places, we need the requirement for young people to stay on in education.

The Secretary of State is aware that, as she has mentioned, record numbers of students have enrolled on apprenticeships and FE courses. What discussions has she had with the Business Secretary about ensuring that all those places are fully funded and that colleges are not losing out?

As the hon. Gentleman would expect, I have had discussions not only with the Business Secretary but with the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Family about how we can work across the Government to increase the support for further education places and apprenticeships. We are also increasing the number of graduate internships to help people take that first step on the employment ladder as well as enabling them to stay in education.

Will the Secretary of State consider the situation in which a young constituent of mine finds himself? He is on jobseeker’s allowance and he has found a three-month Government-funded course in his chosen profession of leisure and training, but because he is technically not seeking work during those three months he has had his jobseeker’s allowance stopped. That has caused him financial difficulties. If we are trying to help young people to gain skills and to move into work, should we review that ruling?

I am happy to look into the individual case that my hon. Friend mentions. He will be aware that there is a lot of support to provide training for those people who are seeking work, including short-term pre-employment training places, which help people to get specific jobs, as well as longer term opportunities. It is right that we should provide those training opportunities and it is also right that we should do as much as possible to help people into work and to get that first work experience. People need training and, often, the work experience, too.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Kent county council, which reduced the number of young people who are not in employment, education or training in Kent by 12.5 per cent. whereas the equivalent figure rose by 11 per cent. in the rest of the south-east? Would she further agree that rolling out Kent’s example of technical schools and apprenticeships across the country would help to reduce unemployment among young people across the UK?

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that, in fact, Kent county council backs the future jobs fund, which is one of the programmes in which it is involved, to help young people get jobs and get back into work. Councils across the country support those youth jobs, and it is deeply disappointing that the Conservatives are the only people who oppose those jobs and want to pull the rug out from beneath them.

Long-term Unemployment

Long-term unemployment is lower than in 1997, much lower than it was during the recession of the 1990s, and much lower still than in the recession of the 1980s. Despite increases in unemployment, the numbers on key out-of-work benefits have fallen by about 450,000 since 1997. However, we are not complacent. The tailored support offered by the flexible new deal is the right strategic response to the challenge of long-term unemployment. The future jobs fund and the young person’s guarantee are the right measures for long-term youth unemployment.

I thank the Minister for that response. It is crucial that we ensure that the long-term unemployed have the right support, assistance and training to be able to access the jobs market again. Given that the practice in previous downturns was to encourage people into inactive benefits, what assurances can my right hon. Friend give the House that the number of people on such benefits does not increase in this downturn?

I thank my hon. Friend for the opportunity to remind the House that when the Opposition were in power they shifted people from unemployment on to incapacity benefit, whereas in just the last year, if we exclude students, inactivity as a proportion of the working-age population is down 0.2 of a percentage point over the past year at 15.3 per cent., which is testament to the efforts of the staff working in Jobcentre Plus, who do the work capability assessments, move people off incapacity benefit on to jobseeker’s allowance and then, crucially, into work.

That was a very helpful question from the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). There are 2.5 million people on incapacity benefit. Under the Government’s invest to save proposals, for almost the whole of the next Parliament, if they were returned to office, only about 10 per cent. of those people could expect any help. Why do the Government not follow our approach, rip up the Treasury rules and start to help all those people from day one?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, both his party and my party are going in the same direction of travel, but he wants to go at a rate that there is simply not the capacity in the system to be able to deliver. He would have to hire 1,500 doctors from somewhere. I do not know where he is going to get them from—perhaps his cuts in the NHS will be so severe that they will be made redundant by the Health Secretary.

During the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Britain maintained a policy of long-term full employment, not unemployment, following the prescriptions of the great John Maynard Keynes. May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that we return to those prescriptions, fully embrace the wisdom of Keynes and abandon neo-liberalism once and for all?

My hon. Friend, who is a wise student of these things, will have noticed that the slightly unorthodox approach that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister co-ordinated at the G20 London summit was much more Keynesian in character. As a result, as I said earlier, the ILO has assessed that the effect on unemployment across the G20 is a reduction of between 7 million and 11 million—with 0.5 million here in the UK—thanks to the policies adopted by the Prime Minister.

Personal Accounts

11. What recent progress has been made in the implementation of personal accounts; and if she will make a statement. (293506)

Apart from the ever-increasing delay on personal accounts, and the ever-increasing expense, is not the real problem that by forcing people to save in a scheme that will then be means-tested, the Government are effectively setting up the greatest pension mis-selling scandal of the 21st century?

The proposals on which we are consulting and putting into effect were a result of the Turner commission, which began its deliberations in 2004, and the subsequent political cross-party consensus, which I thought we had, has led us to the implementation phase. The hon. Gentleman appears to indicate that the consensus is over. Is that the case?

Perhaps the Minister remembers that Turner said that the scheme should start in 2010. Does she accept that it would be sensible for any new Government to hold a review of personal accounts, especially in the light of the four-year delay in implementation that she recently announced? Can she confirm that the delivery authority will not sign any binding contracts with providers prior to the date of the next general election?

It seems to me, then, that the consensus is ending. I have not announced a four-year delay. What I have done is agree with the considered advice from the Personal Accounts Delivery Authority, which has looked at the sheer scale of the auto-enrolment that will see up to 10 million people saving for the first time into workplace pension schemes, with a guaranteed employer contribution. It would be folly to decide to do that too quickly and collapse the whole scheme. There is no delay; there is just good implementation that will not put at risk the architecture that we have to create from scratch.

Child Support System

12. How many cases are being dealt with under the (a) old and (b) current child support system. (293508)

There are currently 687,000 cases on the statutory scheme which are assessed under the current scheme rules, and 569,600 cases on the statutory scheme which were assessed under the rules in place prior to 2003.

Considering the controversy that exists, is there more scope for voluntary agreements? If the Minister agrees that there is not, should there not be a model voluntary agreement written and piloted by Government and backed by sanctions?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion. At present the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission can provide support through the new child maintenance options service so that where both parents can agree, they can move out of the statutory scheme to private arrangements that best suit their circumstances. Perhaps if a model were provided, it would not give the flexibility that parents are looking for.

Does the Minister accept that a figure of over half a million people on the old scheme represents untold unfairness and hardship for many of those families? Will she look particularly at the position of those who are on war pensions? I have a constituent who is on a war pension and who has to pay more than £20 a week to the Child Support Agency, notwithstanding the fact that that war pension should be going to him.

Although I understand the concerns that the hon. Gentleman expresses about the different impact of the two schemes on different people, the fact is that for every parent who would gain by switching from the old scheme to the current scheme, another parent would lose. Therefore it would not be practical to transfer cases simply on the say-so of one side. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me about his specific case with respect to war pension, I shall be happy to respond.

I am afraid I have to disagree with my hon. Friend. The Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008, which we are implementing, introduced stronger enforcement powers to tackle the minority of parents who persist in avoiding their responsibilities. These include deduction of maintenance from bank accounts, recovery from deceased estates, application to courts for curfew orders and passport withdrawal, disclosure of information to credit reference agencies, lump sum deduction orders and deductions from private pensions. Further measures are being taken in the Welfare Reform Bill.

Child Poverty

Measures that we have taken in the past decade have lifted 500,000 children out of relative poverty and halved the level of absolute child poverty. Had the Government simply uprated the 1997 tax and benefits system in line with prices, we estimate that around 2.1 million more children might live in poverty today. Measures announced in and since Budget 2007 are expected to lift at least a further 500,000 children out of poverty by 2010.

At the 2005 Labour party conference, the current Prime Minister announced his ambition to halve child poverty by 2010. Will that target be met? A simple yes or no will suffice.

We are now in 2009, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman realises. The latest figures that we have relate to 2007, and our best forecast is that the measures taken since then will lift a further 600,000 children out of poverty. That will take us two thirds of the way to our target. The opportunity still exists to take further action and the economy is changing, so I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be patient and wait until Question 1 in 2012, when we will have the answer to his question.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the biggest increase in child poverty took place between 1979 and 1997—in particular, when child benefit was frozen? Does she agree that any potential Government who in future froze child benefit would lead us to the biggest increase in child poverty, again, that this country has seen?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Child poverty figures doubled from 1.7 million to 3.4 million. We continue to increase child benefit and child tax credit, and that is why we have successfully halted and reversed the previous trend.

Does the Minister accept that the Child Poverty Action Group reckoned that £3 billion was required to do away with child poverty and move forward, and that, therefore, it is not going to happen?

No one said that the task was going to be easy. On the contrary, because it is difficult we have introduced the Child Poverty Bill to maintain the pressure on the Government, in all circumstances, to achieve the eradication of child poverty by 2020. The most important thing, however, is that in the depths of the recession this Government have continued to take action to tackle that scourge.

Youth Unemployment

Is my right hon. Friend aware of an organisation in Blackpool called Progress Recruitment, which, by working with Jobcentre Plus and the Connexions service, is helping young people with disability to get into work? One of its many successes is Rachel Lambert, who at just 17 and with severe physical disabilities has been helped into self-employment, now has her own business and is supported by further training at the Blackpool sixth-form college. The entrepreneurial can-do spirit applies to young people, and, whether they have disabilities or not, that is an option for them.

My hon. Friend is right, and we must ensure that we also help young people who have different disabilities and need additional help with different ways into work. She may also be interested to know that the proportion of disabled people in work has increased by about 7 per cent. to more than 50 per cent. in the past eight years, so for the first time there are more disabled people of working age in work than there are out of work—precisely because of the kind of programme that my hon. Friend talks about.

Is the Secretary of State aware that 947,000 young people between 16 and 24 years old are unemployed, of whom 500,000 claim jobseeker’s allowance? Some 38 per cent. of all unemployed claimants are young people, and the young unemployed of today are likely to be the long-term unemployed of tomorrow. Does she not agree that we need radical action to tackle youth unemployment? What are the Government doing to tackle it?

The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the fact that young people are affected by the recession. I think that he refers to the International Labour Organisation figures for 16 to 24-year-olds, which include more than 250,000 young people who are in full-time education and also say that they are looking for work. It is right that we provide a range of support from the very moment that young people become unemployed. So far, our work is preventing the long-term youth unemployment of previous decades, so about 10,000 young people are on the long-term claimant count, compared with 200,000 in previous decades.

Has the Secretary of State yet had the opportunity to consider the report published by the Federation of Small Businesses last week—“Small Businesses, Big Employers”—in which it makes the point that some 69 per cent. of apprentices are employed in small businesses but only 5 per cent. of small businesses are aware of the full range of help that is available to them for apprentices? What is she going to do about that?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. That is exactly why we announced only this year that we wanted to work with the Federation of Small Businesses so that it could take on not only more apprenticeships but more internships, particularly for graduate interns, who can often provide additional support for small businesses. Internships are also a great opportunity for young graduates to get their first bit of work experience. That is how they can benefit small businesses and young people. We are looking at ways to increase the support in jobcentres for small businesses to do exactly that.

Personal Accounts

16. What recent progress has been made on the introduction of personal accounts; and if she will make a statement. (293512)

Eighty-six per cent. of smaller employers have said that they will review their pension arrangements ahead of the introduction of personal accounts. Of those, 41 per cent. have said that they will consider closing down their existing schemes as a result. Is not the Minister worried that this is a levelling down?

The real issue is that two thirds of people who work in the private sector have no opportunity of a workplace pension at all. That is why Members on both sides of the House agreed to introduce automatic enrolment in the 2008 legislation on pensions. The hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing, much as the Conservative party argued when we introduced the minimum wage, that if there is a minimum everybody reduces their arrangements to that minimum. It has not happened with the minimum wage, and I do not believe that it will happen with pensions.

Will the Minister ensure that employers contribute their share to the personal accounts of their employees and do not, under false pretences, get their employees to opt out when it is not appropriate?

We will design the information for employers and employees to ensure that we make the case positively for those who are automatically enrolled to stay in personal accounts. It is important that they contribute to pension saving to build the second tier of pensions on top of the improvements to the basic state pension that we are introducing next year, which will make it more universal, fairer and more generous.

Jobseeker's Allowance

19. What the percentage change was in the number of people claiming jobseeker's allowance between the end of September 1997 and the end of September 2009 in (a) England and (b) Wellingborough constituency. (293515)

From September 1997 to the end of September 2009, there was an 8.6 per cent. change in the number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants in England, with a 96.3 per cent. change in Wellingborough parliamentary constituency. However, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that in September the number of people leaving JSA exceeded the numbers coming on to JSA by 51.

Unemployment is higher across the country now than it was in 1997; unemployment in Wellingborough is actually double what it was in 1997. Why is it that when every Labour Government are thrown out of office, unemployment is higher than when they came to power? Is it not true that Labour is the party of unemployment?

As I have already said, it is not true: it is the hon. Gentleman’s party that is the party of unemployment. It is worth his noting, for example, the employment rate—2.5 million more people are in jobs now than in 1997. It is also worth noting that the number of lone parents on benefit in his constituency has fallen by 23 per cent. Looking at long-term unemployment, the numbers of young people claiming JSA for more than 12 months is a seventh of what it was when we came to power and a twentieth of what it was during the last recession.

My right hon. Friend realises that unemployment is a tragedy for those unemployed, but will he give us the percentage of those unemployed and those in employment over the past few years? If he does not have the figures now, will he send me a copy and put one in the Library?

I will gladly write to my hon. Friend with the detailed statistics that he asks for. I am grateful to him for his question, because beneath the exchanges that we have over the Dispatch Box it is important to remember that every person who is unemployed, and their family, is going through a crisis. However much heat we might generate in the House, we must not forget that.

Incapacity Benefit

20. How many recipients of incapacity benefit who have been reassessed for employment and support allowance (a) have been placed in the work-related activity group, (b) have been placed in the support group and (c) did not meet the qualifying criteria. (293516)

I am grateful for that answer, but my experience from my constituency case load, and the experience of the Inverness citizens advice bureau, is that the new rules for ESA are being used to exclude far greater numbers of people than were excluded from the previous benefit. In one case, a former member of staff at the Department for Work and Pensions was rendered unfit for work and retired on the grounds of ill health thanks to an assessment by an Atos Origin doctor. That same doctor then gave him a nil score for ESA. There is huge inconsistency in the process. Can the Minister assure me that Atos Origin doctors have not been instructed to—

There is a new assessment, which considers what people can do rather than what they cannot do. As I said, 195,000 people have begun that process, which is backed up with the pathways to work programme. We are assisting people to find employment. The incapacity benefit test is very different from the work capability assessment under the new arrangements, and part of the programme is that we want to see more people in employment rather than confined to incapacity benefit year after year.

Topical Questions

My Department is today publishing research that has found that there is still significant racial discrimination in recruitment, so that similar applicants with ethnic minority names are less likely to get a positive response. We believe that that is completely unacceptable. It is also bad for business, because it is missing out on talent. We are considering ways to strengthen the approach to governance and procurement, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform is looking at further ways to address the problem.

I thank the Secretary of State. We spotted that problem a long time ago, and I am glad that her Government now have too.

Over the summer, a 79-year-old disabled and deaf pensioner in my constituency had his pension payments suspended for a fortnight as a result of one of the random checks carried out by the Pension Service, for which he has received an apology. Will she undertake that in future, no pensioners will be left without any money at all because of an administrative checking system that clearly does not take any account of the needs of individuals in receipt of pensions?

I am very happy to look into the case that the hon. Gentleman refers to. If he wants to supply me with details, I will look into that case and the wider repercussions.

T3. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this Government have spent more than £100 billion on pensioners since 1997, but can we also have a commitment that they will not increase the pensionable age by 2016 and that people will know that when they retire, the money they have paid in is protected and they do not have to work an extra year? (293523)

My hon. Friend is right that we have increased the support, which has helped lift pensioners out of poverty. He is right also that it is not fair on people in their 50s, particularly their late 50s, suddenly to make them rip up their retirement plans and say that they have to work an additional year before they can get their pension. We know that we have an ageing population, and we have set out long-term plans to increase the retirement age, but people should have security to plan for their retirement. It is not fair otherwise.

T2. With reference to future employment prospects, is it a good thing or a bad thing that Royal Mail is taking on 30,000 temporary staff? (293522)

T10. Has the Minister seen the recent report from the TUC stating that if a person loses their job, their out-of-work benefits are just 10 per cent. of the average salary? They were 19 per cent. in 1970. Does that not show that it would be wrong to launch another assault on benefit levels, as the Tories want to do, when they are already difficult for people who lose their jobs? (293530)

I have seen that report from the TUC and, as ever, its interesting analysis. I refer my hon. Friend to the reply I gave to our hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who asked a similar question. It is important to take into account all the benefits to which people are entitled—not just jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance, but council tax benefit and housing benefit. In the end, it is also important to ensure that we make work pay. My concern about the Conservatives’ proposals is that they want to shunt people around the benefits system—

Order. I say to the Minister of State that we are interested in his comments on Government policy rather than that of the Opposition.

T4. Unemployment in the Shipley constituency is now 31 per cent. higher than it was in 1997. Do the Government take responsibility for that, and what do they propose to do to help people in the constituency back into work? (293524)

Clearly, the recent serious rises in unemployment in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, as elsewhere, have been as a result of the global recession. Unemployment has been rising all over the world, but it is worth noting that long-term unemployment in his constituency has fallen by 48 per cent., that long-term youth claimant unemployment has fallen by 32 per cent., that the employment rate has risen by 0.1 per cent., and that the number of lone parents out of work has fallen by 1.2 per cent. I am very happy to take credit for those figures.

On cold weather payments, inland areas in my constituency have their temperature measured 30 miles away on the coast, which is neither accurate nor acceptable. What more can the ministerial team do to address that?

My hon. Friend is no doubt aware of the decision to maintain at £25 the cold weather payment for this winter. We will shortly be announcing the results of the annual review of the weather stations, which we do in consultation with the Met Office.

T5. Is there any other country in Europe today that has a higher proportion of children growing up in workless households than we do here in the UK? (293525)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, in fact, the number of children growing up in workless households has dropped since 1997 as a result of programmes such as tax credits, which help people back into work, and as a result of the substantial support that has increased employment among lone parents, and is continuing to do so even during what is a difficult recession. The Government believe that we need to keep cutting child poverty by continuing to support children and by supporting families into work.

Will my right hon. Friend take steps to stop the benefits of pregnant women being sanctioned? She will be aware that employers are not exactly falling over themselves to employ pregnant women. That goes absolutely nowhere towards meeting our child poverty targets.

My hon. Friend is right that we need to ensure that pregnant women are not discriminated against in employment. She may also be interested to know that we have recently tabled an amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill to remove the sanctions for families with children under one so that they are no longer financially penalised if they miss a work-focused interview when, for example, the child is very young and we would often expect parents still to be on maternity leave.

T6. What discussions has the Minister had with the Treasury about the system of child support when the care of the child is split equally between two former partners? I have a constituent who cares for her child fully half the week, but because she is not named as the recipient of child benefit, she is deemed by the Department for Work and Pensions to be the non-resident parent. She therefore finds herself in a fight for resources with her former partner and is impoverished as a result. Her former partner receives the full amount of child benefit and is also entitled to maintenance payments from her. (293526)

The hon. Gentleman raises a specific case; there are a small number of people in the same situation as his constituent. Obviously, operational matters are dealt with by the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, to which I will refer the case.

Earlier today the Minister told me that the Child Support Agency was going to get even more powers for enforcement. When will the Government stop giving the CSA more powers for enforcement and actually ensure that it uses the enforcement powers it already has?[Official Report, 29 October 2009, Vol. 498, c. 5MC.]

I can inform my hon. Friend that CMEC is using its powers extremely effectively. The maintenance collected has now reached £1.136 billion, which is £157 million above the target.

T7. Throughout Question Time, we have heard talk of billions of pounds invested in job creation and grandiose schemes, and constant attacks on the wicked Tories. I see Ministers in denial. Can the Secretary of State tell us simply whether youth unemployment has been rising since 2005 and is it now at a record level approaching 1 million? (293527)

We have had this discussion already. In fact, the ILO figures to which the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) referred include more than 250,000 young people who are in full-time education and say that they are looking for work—including part-time work. We are also concerned that youth unemployment has been affected by the world recession, and that is happening in countries across the world, but it is important that we do everything that we can to help young people and increase the support for getting them into work and training, rather than—as Opposition Members still want to do—to cut that investment just when it is needed most.

Some two thirds of tracing inquiries for mesothelioma and other industrial asbestos victims relate to post-1972 exposures when insurance was a legal requirement, but fewer than two in five are successful. What is the current position on the setting up of an employees’ liability bureau, as suggested by many Labour Members?

My hon. Friend will know that 98 per cent. of people can trace the insurance cover from their former centre of employment, and the Government are working with the insurance industry to look at those thousands of cases that remain. The insurance industry is looking to bring together all the different insurance policies so that they can address this. The work done by the unions and hon. Members has been raised with Lord McKenzie, and will be taken into account. We are keen to move forward.

T8. I was staggered to hear that, after all these years of Labour utopia, 40 per cent. of year 11 children in my constituency are not getting a C grade in English or maths. How does the Minister propose to ensure that those kids do not end up not in education, employment or training? (293528)

The hon. Gentleman will have noted the significant improvement that we have seen in results over the last 12 years in his constituency and elsewhere. In 1997, only one third of young people managed to get 5 A*s to C, including English and maths, at GCSE, and now it is around a half. That is significant progress. The problem of NEETs is something that we are all focused on addressing, and that is why we have brought forward the September guarantee of a place for every 16 and 17-year-old in school or college, which his party does not support. That is also why we have brought forward the future jobs funds, funded by Government borrowing, which his party does not support. That is why we have brought forward a range of measures, costing £5 billion of Government borrowing, which his party does not support.

Will my hon. Friend consider linking the cold weather payment to the price of fuel, so that no future Government can let it wither on the vine?

That might be difficult because of the volatility of the price of fuel. My hon. Friend will realise that in deciding on the level of the cold weather payments and the winter fuel allowance the general level of fuel prices is one of the factors taken into account.

T9. Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway), can the Minister of State tell me how many 18 to 24-year-old NEETs there were in the country last year, and how many east European migrant workers were here during the same period? (293529)

I asked the same question to Sir Leigh Lewis 14 times and the Secretary of State six times in the Select Committee last week. I unfortunately got the same non-answer that the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) got today, although it did indicate that the Government are looking at two thirds of the child poverty target next year. Is there any Minister who will admit what we all know—that the Government will not hit their 2010 child poverty target?

As we have made clear, we set the 2010 target and we continue to make progress towards it. We have measures in place, which are being introduced at the moment, that will reduce child poverty by a further 500,000. It is right that we continue to make progress and work towards the target, because too many of our children are still living in poverty and we want to bring those numbers down.

What contribution should be made by grandparents to the maintenance of children where the absentee father is under age?

The hon. Lady knows that the legal maintenance obligations are on the non-resident parent. What she is suggesting is an extremely radical departure and not one that we intend to take.