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Topical Questions

Volume 497: debated on Monday 19 October 2009

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.