Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 502: debated on Monday 7 December 2009

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Youth Unemployment

1. What assessment she has made of the causes of the change in the level of youth unemployment in the last 12 months. (304061)

Young people have been particularly heavily affected by the impact of the global financial crisis and the recession. Many employers have chosen to delay new recruitment, which is why the £5 billion investment that we have put in place to help the unemployed includes a £1 billion future jobs fund as well as extra training and support for young people across the country.

I thank the Secretary of State for her reply. She will be aware that many people who are not graduates also need help and support in finding employment. What measures are the Government taking to ensure that those without degrees are given as much help and support as those who have left university?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point because we need to help young people, whatever their circumstances or their level of qualifications, to be able to get into work as rapidly as possible. Currently, more than half of young people are managing to leave the claimant count new jobseeker’s allowance within three months, so a lot of people are getting help. As well as support for graduates, particularly through internships, we are providing additional help for young people through additional training places, the September guarantee, and the young person’s guarantee that no young person should become long-term unemployed. The future jobs fund is also providing youth jobs in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and I hope that his party will change its policy and support it, as it is making a difference to young people.

Will the Secretary of State place in the Library information on the breakdown by educational qualification of those who are young and unemployed? That would show just how important the Government’s education reforms are in supporting a safe move from school into work.

I am certainly happy to make sure that that information is available. My right hon. Friend is right that those with lower qualifications and skills are at higher risk not just of unemployment generally but of becoming long-term unemployed. That is why it is important not only to raise the education-leaving age so that more young people stay on in education, but to provide the guarantee that young people do not end up stuck on the dole for the long term. The £5 billion investment to support that is also important.

In the last Department for Work and Pensions questions on 19 October, as reported in Hansard at column 620, I effectively asked the Government to adopt our proposal to give the young unemployed specialist help through welfare-to-work providers after six months. The Secretary of State dismissed this, but yesterday in The Sunday Telegraph, it was reported that the Government were going to change the young person’s guarantee so that in future it will kick in at six months. That is not enough, but will the Secretary of State now admit that she got it wrong and we got it right?

Let us be clear of the consequence of the programme we have already put in place. Youth unemployment figures for the right hon. Lady’s constituency show 2,200 young people on the dole at the moment compared with 4,300 in December 1992—half the level it was in the early 1990s. I would also point out that the investment we have put in place not only provides support at six months but provides it from day one of unemployment—from the very beginning when young people lose their job and need to find work. We are investing to deliver the young person’s guarantee with £5 billion of additional investment. Her party opposes that and she also opposes the young person’s guarantee that we want to bring forward. She has opposed it because she cannot support the investment to guarantee jobs and training for young people.

The Secretary of State is always keen to contrast the performance of the last Conservative Government and this Labour Government with selective figures, so I will give her a contrast. In the last five years of the last Conservative Government, youth unemployment fell by 251,000. In the five years of this Labour Government before the recession began, youth unemployment rose by 129,000. We will give earlier help through welfare-to-work providers and create hundreds of thousands of new apprenticeships, training places, places at further education colleges and work pairings. Is not the clear contrast the one between a Conservative party that has policies to help young people and a Labour Government who have let them down?

What utter and complete nonsense! The right hon. Lady will not guarantee young people a job or training or real-work opportunities for young people right now, and she will not fund the additional investment of £5 billion to help young people right now. As long as Conservative Members oppose the £5 billion investment, they cannot back our young person’s guarantee and the extra help. I have to say to her again that the 18 to 24-year-olds claimant count is 462,000 right now; in the early ’90s it was 784,000; in the mid-80s it was 980,000. This investment helps young people through the recession rather than abandoning them like the Conservatives did time and again in previous recessions and want to do again now because they want to cut the investment and support that is aimed at giving those young people a chance.

May I bring to the attention of my right hon. Friend the report from my constituency, “Northampton Young People and the Recession”? Will she say how she is going to meet one of the challenges mentioned in it—providing targeted help for young people who have quite complex needs and making sure that they get support with social issues as well as training to get them back into the job market as quickly as possible?

My hon. Friend is right. People, especially those with complex needs, need individual support to deal with particular circumstances. She will know that the future jobs fund is providing real job opportunities for young people. The Conservatives have said that they would abolish it, but I know that it is already making a difference in her part of the world. We want to expand on that to provide additional help for, in particular, those with the greatest needs, who might otherwise be at the greatest risk of long-term unemployment.

Winter Fuel Payments

This winter, older people will again receive the higher levels of winter fuel payment: £250, and £400 for the over-80s. We are also maintaining the cold weather payment at last year’s higher rate this winter.

Given that, of all the initiatives introduced by the Government, the winter fuel payment is probably the most universally popular with the over-60s, what does my right hon. Friend think of Members who have described that assistance as a gimmick and believe that it should be abolished?

There are pensioners across the country who certainly do not regard extra cash in their pockets at the time when they need it most as a gimmick. They regard it as a lifeline that helps them to pay their fuel bills in the winter. In 1997-98, about £60 million a year was spent on helping pensioners with fuel bills; now we spend about £2.7 billion a year. I think that that represents a justifiable increase in investment in helping people to get through the winter months.

Workplace Pension Saving

Our reforms to workplace pension saving, including automatic enrolment and the introduction of the personal accounts scheme, will result in between 5 million and 9 million people newly saving, or saving more, for their retirement.

The Minister will be well aware of Conservative criticism of the Government’s appalling record on pensions and the savings culture, but she may not be aware of the comments of the chief executive of the National Association of Pension Funds, who said the other day:

“"The Government can no longer sit on its hands. It must take bold and positive action to help support employer-sponsored pensions.”

Even at this late hour, can the Minister get a grip on the issue, do something about it, and reverse the culture towards pensions that has prevailed in this country for far too long?

The Government are determined to support the provision of good private sector schemes. That is why we are in the middle of putting into effect the Turner commission’s proposals, which will ensure that between 5 million and 9 million people who do not currently have an opportunity to save begin to do so. We know of the hon. Gentleman’s views on the stresses on defined benefit final salary schemes so perhaps he will explain why the Conservatives want to reduce pension saving in the public sector.

What evidence have the Government that tax relief on pension contributions, particularly for higher-rate taxpayers, has any effect on savings for pensions? If the Government have such evidence, will they please send it to me?

I have seen no such evidence, although I have heard plenty of assertions since my right hon. Friend the Chancellor decided to reduce the tax relief available to those who earn more than £150,000 a year. As for the distribution of tax relief accorded to pensions savings, I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware that 230,000 of the best-off people in the country currently receive £6.1 billion, or 25 per cent. of all that tax relief.

The Minister will know that the Personal Accounts Delivery Authority is now reduced to just two potential bidders to provide the massive IT system for personal accounts and that it will have personal data on millions of employees who have never been pensioned before. Is she concerned about that and, in particular, would she be concerned if one or both of those bidders held those sensitive data offshore?

I would certainly not be concerned about the fact that the competitive dialogue being led by the authority has now reduced the number of potential bidders from four to two. One would expect that as part of a dialogue. Clearly we must be careful about the way in which personal data are held, and it is certainly true that the security of personal data is very important in this context. I assure the hon. Gentleman that those concerns are being taken into account adequately in continuing discussions between the Personal Accounts Delivery Authority and the potential bidders who are still left in the competition.

Workplace pensions are extremely important for employers and employees, but will the Minister also have discussions with the trade unions to encourage them to play a positive role in encouraging such schemes?

I regularly see stakeholders on all sides of the pensions issue, including trade unions, as well as suppliers and stakeholders in the pensions industry itself. The trade unions have long played an important role, such as by providing trustees to ensure that pension funds are properly and adequately looked after and administered. I intend, of course, to continue seeing representatives of all sides of the pensions industry. It is important that employees as well as employers have the confidence that the pensions they are putting aside are being properly administered. That is why it is also important that, for the first time ever, we have the Pension Protection Fund, which ensures that, in the event of private sector insolvency, there are protections for those who have paid into, and invested in, private pension funds.

But can the Minister confirm that 100,000 pension schemes have been wound up since 1997 and that the number of active members has halved from 5.1 million in 1995 to 2.6 million according to the latest Office for National Statistics figures published very recently? Is it any wonder that a survey conducted by the Minister’s own Department showed that 51 per cent. of people do not trust the Government to act in their best interests on pensions?

It is important to understand that the decline in final salary or defined benefit schemes, which the hon. Gentleman refers to, has been going on since the 1960s, when I was at school, so it was rather a long time ago. There is no magic bullet in preserving defined benefit schemes. Perhaps he will also acknowledge his party’s role in the creation of personal pensions and the mis-selling scandals of the 1980s, which also destroyed confidence in pension-saving schemes.

Disability Benefits

4. What plans the Government have for the future of disability living allowance and other disability benefits. (304065)

11. What plans the Government have for the future of disability living allowance and other disability benefits. (304072)

The “Shaping the future of care together” Green Paper set out our vision for a new national care service. There may be a case for bringing together some disability benefits and the adult social care system into a single system, as a better way of providing support to older and disabled people. The Department keeps all our benefits under review.

Many folk in Clacton who have disabilities and whose need is genuine have contacted me to say they are very concerned that they could lose their allowances. Can the Minister guarantee that the deficit will not be fixed on the back of vulnerable people in Clacton who genuinely need these allowances?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s interest in disability benefits. We are, of course, concerned about pensioner disability benefits—both attendance allowance and disability living allowance. As the hon. Gentleman will know, about 1.7 million extra people are going to need social care by 2026, so we do need a new system, but I can assure him that those people who are receiving the affected benefits at the time of reform of the care service nationally will continue to receive the same level of cash support.

I represent the most centenarians in the country, and a huge number of senior citizens in my constituency are greatly concerned about any changes to their allowances. Will the Minister put their minds at rest by saying that the changes to, or even abolition of, the attendance allowance, as referred to in the Green Paper, will not mean that 2.5 million pensioners will be £3,500 a year worse off?

I have given an assurance about the arrangements for existing claimants if we introduce a national care service. Many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents are currently living to 100, and he will be aware that that number will quadruple in 20 years’ time—and I hope he is among them, and that you are, too, Mr. Speaker. The Wanless report identified that, because of the ageing population profile in this country, we will need an additional £6 billion, so we do need a new system. I have assured the House that existing claimants will continue to receive the same cash levels as before, but I think that everyone recognises that we need a new system, and that is why we are determined to bring forward this debate.

The Government have a good record as far as disabled people are concerned, but does my hon. Friend recognise the genuine anxiety among many disabled people about the Green Paper? It is necessary to reassure them that no one who is genuinely disabled will lose out as a result.

My hon. Friend will have heard the scaremongering from certain quarters. I think that we all accept that, with the ageing population, we need a system that is fit for purpose. With increasing age comes increasing cost, and there is a demand for more quality, too. Grappling with these competing demands necessitates that we should come up with a new system. If we do not, the current system will buckle and fall. I hope that my hon. Friend will take the assurance from me that existing claimants will continue to receive the same cash level of support if we introduce a national care service.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to a problem that is affecting some of my constituents who are in receipt of disability and other benefits? If they report any change in circumstance, there seems to be a very long time lag before their new benefit is agreed. In the meantime—and these people are on very low incomes—they are left with no income at all. Will the Minister look into this?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing to our attention the concerns of her constituents in Milton Keynes. If she provides me with the details of those constituents who have experienced a delay, I shall certainly look into the matter.

It is no good the Minister pretending that this is all Conservative scaremongering, because 34 Labour Members have signed early-day motion 1 and they, along with all the disability organisations, oppose taking away attendance allowance and disability living allowance and folding them into the social care system. The simple question for the Minister is this: the Secretary of State herself, in evidence to the Select Committee, said that older people valued attendance allowance and disability living allowance and the independence and control that they gave them, so how do they benefit if those benefits are taken away and, at best, they are not even given back to them in an individual budget or, at worst, if they lose that independence and control? How do they benefit?

The hon. Gentleman is approaching this from a one-dimensional perspective. I have set out that we have an ageing population and that there will be additional costs in order for us to deliver on a required new system. It took the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues about four months to read this paper before we got a scaremongering response. I have said to his hon. Friends and other hon. Members that existing claimants will have their cash-related income protected as regards attendance allowance and DLA. We need to put in place a system that is fit for the future. We will have a national care system in the same way that we have a national health service, and that is opposed completely by the Opposition.

Jobseeker’s Allowance

5. What the percentage change has been in the number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants in (a) Wellingborough constituency and (b) England between 1997 and the latest period for which figures are available. (304066)

From October 1997 to the end of October 2009, the numbers claiming jobseeker’s allowance in England have gone up by 163,277 and in Wellingborough by 1,578. This is a change of 14.1 per cent. and 105.1 per cent. respectively. In the same period, employment has risen by 2,685,200 in England and by 11,700 in Wellingborough.

In 1997, Tony Blair said that things could only get better. In Wellingborough, unemployment has more than doubled since 1997. How could Tony Blair have got it so wrong?

Things have certainly got better for those 11,700 people who, thanks to the policies of this Government, are now in work and who would not have been in work before. Things have got better for the 137 people net who came off jobseeker’s allowance last month in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I do not hear him celebrating the fact that the figures are now starting to come down in his constituency. All in all, the management of the economy that we have seen over the past year through this recession is in stark contrast to that when his party was in power, when unemployment was deemed a price worth paying. We have now seen unemployment figures that are 400,000 less than those predicted at the time of the Budget in April.

In Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, including in Wellingborough, those who have been on jobseeker’s allowance for 12 months are referred by the local jobcentre to a private sector organisation, the offices of which I visited last week to discuss its approach. How confident is the Minister that the training and support that those outsourced contracts provide will be appropriate to those who seek to find work in a very difficult market?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that, however good the providers are, we also need to ensure that we have policies in place to create work for people to move into. Those providers are paid on the basis of results—for those whom they successfully get into work—and that is a strong incentive for them properly to match the support that is needed with the individuals. The biggest threat comes from the policies that have been put forward by the shadow Chancellor, which The Economist has said would lead to a doubling of unemployment to 5 million.

Was not the pledge of Labour in 1997 to get 250,000 under-25s off benefits and into work? Is it not the case that today there are 300,000 more under-25s out of work than there were in 1997, and that that figure has been rising for many years? Was it not higher before the recession took hold than it was in 1997? Is there not a problem of structural youth unemployment today, and do we not need some fresh thinking rather than the failed policies of the Government?

I am afraid that that is more rubbish from the Conservative party. The pledge on the famous pledge cards in 1997 was about long-term youth unemployment and what would be delivered through the new deal. As the noble Lord Freud said a year ago, that was a huge success. We were able to tackle long-term claimant youth unemployment, which is currently an 18th of what it was in 1997. It has been slashed, thanks to the imaginative ideas of the Government. The problems that we have now are in relation to short-term levels of unemployment.

Youth Unemployment

6. What steps her Department is taking to reduce unemployment among young people; and if she will make a statement. (304067)

12. What steps the Government are taking to reduce the level of youth unemployment; and if she will make a statement. (304073)

We have launched a number of targeted initiatives to tackle youth unemployment, as hon. Members have been hearing. From next month, the young person’s guarantee will ensure that all 18 to 24-year-olds on jobseeker’s allowance will be guaranteed either the offer of work, work-focused training or meaningful activity. They will then be required to take up one of those opportunities. The future jobs fund will create 150,000 jobs. About 95,000 jobs have already been approved and some have already started, but the Government cannot prevent youth unemployment on our own. That is why we have launched Backing Young Britain, and I am delighted to report that, as a result, more than 330 employers are already pledging new opportunities for young people.

What measures within the future jobs fund and other initiatives within the Department are focused specifically on disabled young people, the vast majority of whom want to experience the same job opportunities and job satisfaction as has been the experience of their peers?

My right hon. Friend is well known in the House as a champion for disabled people. The future jobs fund is designed to help all young people and, with my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), I am looking to secure good access to all future jobs fund opportunities for young disabled people. Among the future jobs fund bids, First Movement in the east midlands will offer creative arts and outreach activities for people with disabilities, and, in Scotland, the Royal National Institute of Blind People has proposed a number of jobs, including positions such as facilities officers, conferences officers and an admin director.

Programmes such as the young person’s guarantee are to be welcomed, and I am sure that they will do a lot of good. However, does my hon. Friend realise—I do not know what was in the press yesterday, but as far as I am concerned this is the case with the rules today—that there are daft rules? There is a 39-week eligibility wait before one can qualify for that scheme, which means that about a third of young unemployed people in the north-east will not qualify at all. Will the Minister look into this issue and scrap the rule to make sure that all young people get their rights from day one?

Given that my hon. Friend comes from the part of the world that he does, which has been hard hit by the recession, I naturally listen carefully to his encouragements. Of course, we continue to consider the point at which people become eligible for increasing levels of support, according to the risks that they have of becoming long-term unemployed. We will have more to say about that in the next few days.

I am sure that the Minister recognises the anger and frustration of young people and families who find themselves unemployed at this time. Why have the numbers been rising steadily, even before the credit crunch? Does he understand and accept that unemployment when one is young has a long-term, scarring effect, from which people often do not recover?

We know only too well, from our memories of the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, when the Government of the day thought that unemployment was a price worth paying, about the scarring effect of unemployment, especially on young people. It can damage their self-confidence for the rest of their working lives. That is why we have put such a focus on preventing long-term youth unemployment through the £5 billion investment—opposed by the hon. Gentleman and his party—which has been successful, as I have already said in answers today. That is why, if we consider the international position, we see that our youth unemployment is below the European average and that of countries such as France, Italy and Spain.

Local Housing Allowance

7. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the rules governing local housing allowance. (304068)

We are taking forward a review of the first two years of the operation of local housing allowance. In many respects, it is effective, but we will shortly consult on the reform of housing benefit. Our aim is a system that is fair to customers, landlords and the taxpayer.

Does the Under-Secretary agree that more private rented accommodation might become available if tenants could opt to have their LHA paid directly to the landlord? The landlord would thus be guaranteed to receive the rent and tenants would not be at risk of accumulating unmanageable debt.

I am afraid that we have no independent evidence to support the hon. Lady’s proposition. Indeed, the number of people living in the private rented sector has increased by 200,000 since November 2008.

The local housing allowance was designed to give people an incentive to shop around; if they could get a rent for below the going rate, they could keep the difference. However, the Under-Secretary knows that the Government plan to scrap that. In those circumstances, why would landlords offer rents below local housing allowance level? Will not they simply put up rents as a result? Is not that a direct transfer from the taxpayer to landlords?

At the moment, we are considering the consultation responses to our proposals about the £15 excess. We will respond to that in due course. I am afraid that I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s proposition. We believe that the freedom that we have given tenants enables them to shop around. It also gives them more choice, enables them to manage their benefit payments and open bank accounts, and improves their financial inclusion generally.

But why do the Government persist in refusing tenants’ request to have their local housing allowance paid directly to their landlords? That is what tenants want. There is much evidence to show that money goes straight to loan sharks or drug dealers. The policy also reduces the supply of social homes to local housing allowance tenants. When will the Government give tenants the choice for which they are asking?

As I have said, the evidence is unclear. The feedback that we have had from local authorities generally is that most tenants manage their benefit payments and do not get into increasing arrears. Choice is only one aspect of the local housing allowance; responsibility is a key principle. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would accept that principle.

Pensioner Poverty

Through targeted support and additional funding, we have got 900,000 pensioners out of the relative poverty in which they were living in 1997. However, there are still 2 million pensioners in relative poverty, which we define as 60 per cent. or below of median household income.

Does the Minister acknowledge that a reason for that is the complexity and delay involved in applying for benefits, particularly pension credit, for which the form is 18-pages long and the guidance is 19 pages? Does she not accept that, for many people, that is simply a deterrent, which means that they do not claim benefits? Is that not the Government’s intention? If it is not, surely they could find a better way of ensuring that people who are entitled to benefits get them.

First things first: I am proud to be part of the first Government ever to end the link between poverty and old age. A report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on 3 December revealed that there has been a historic reversal in the fortunes of pensioners over state pension age, who are now at the lowest risk of being in poverty than any other age group. I do very important work with the Pensions Service in attempting to encourage pension credit recipients to claim, and that service makes 13,000 visits a week to the homes of vulnerable pensioners to take them through the claim form. People can claim for pension credit, housing benefit and council tax benefit in the same phone call, and the hon. Gentleman’s own local authority—Aberdeenshire—is one of 203 local authorities working in partnership with the Department for Work and Pensions to improve the take-up of pension credit, and we believe that we are succeeding.

Jobseeker’s Allowance

9. How many jobseeker’s allowance claimants there were in (a) the UK, (b) Wales and (c) Clwyd, West constituency on the most recent date for which figures are available. (304070)

In October 2009, there were 1,582,555 jobseeker’s allowance claimants in the UK, 78,234 in Wales, and 1,603 in the Clwyd, West parliamentary constituency. Employment levels have risen since 1997 by 121,200 in Wales and 6,700 in Clwyd, West.

Almost half of the last quarterly increase in unemployment across the UK was attributable to job losses in Wales, which was particularly hard-hit by the downturn. I know that the Minister’s Department works closely with the Welsh Assembly Government in the delivery of their ProAct programme, so can he explain why in the 12 months to October this year, not a penny was spent under that programme in the county of Conwy, which includes my constituency, where there has been a 50 per cent. increase in unemployment?

The hon. Gentleman is right that I regularly meet Ministers from the Welsh Assembly Government. Over the summer, we were pleased that Wales appeared to buck the trend and be moving in a positive direction. Some people put that down to the effectiveness of ProAct and ReAct. I cannot give him a detailed answer on spending in his part of the world, but I can tell him that in the past year, employment has risen in his constituency, inactivity has fallen and the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance fell in the past month.

Gloucester Works Project

This is a good-quality project, providing support to unemployed people and businesses in Gloucester, and bringing together the public and private sectors to ensure that local communities benefit from regeneration. During the first phase of the Quays development, the project has delivered 236 jobs for local people, 67 per cent. of whom had previously been unemployed or facing redundancy. I was very pleased to see this for myself when I visited the project in October to meet people who have secured jobs thanks both to the investment Government are making and to the tireless work of their excellent local Member of Parliament.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who will be aware that Gloucester Works has contributed to a reduction in unemployment in the city of Gloucester in four of the past six months. The project is worth something like £4 million of investment from the Government, so does he share my concern that that funding would not continue should the Opposition ever come to power?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern, because the funding has come from two organisations about which the Opposition are sceptical—the regional development agency and the European Union. As I have said, the project has delivered 236 jobs that would not be delivered if the Opposition’s policies had their way.

Local Housing Allowance

To return to where we were on Question 7, would the Minister be surprised to hear that, despite a private landlord contacting Scarborough borough council to inform it that three months’ rent that had been paid to a tenant had not been passed on, and that, before eviction proceedings could take place, the tenant absconded, the council said that it had no alternative but to pay the subsequent payment to the tenant, although they had left the property with three months of arrears?

The hon. Gentleman has told this story, but the overall picture is quite different. In total, across the whole country, there are a million people receiving local housing allowance. It is, on average, £110 a week, and they use that to pay their rent.

I am sure the Minister saw the story in the newspapers last week of a family in west London who were receiving some £180,000 worth of benefits, most of which formed their housing allowance. The hon. Lady previously had plans to cap the very large sums of rent that were paid to families. Can she explain how such an extraordinary state of affairs came about?

We have already acted to cap those high levels of benefit by capping the local housing allowance to the five-bedroom rate. We will shortly be consulting on reform of housing benefit to make it fairer and support access to reasonably priced accommodation. The hon. Lady makes a fair point. Nobody expects housing benefit to pay for a small number of people to live in extremely expensive accommodation, but I point out to her that fewer than 100 households across the whole country receive housing benefit of more than £1,000 a week.


16. What recent steps she has taken to reduce the level of unemployment; and if she will make a statement. . (304077)

We are taking decisive steps to reduce the level of unemployment, as we have been discussing. Since November 2008, the Government have made available £5 billion to provide more support to jobseekers prior to redundancy, when they are newly unemployed, and at the six and 12-month points of their claim.

My right hon. Friend rightly describes what has been put in place when people are unemployed. Would it not make sense to support people while they are in the workplace? Perhaps we ought to introduce something similar to the ProAct scheme. In that way we will be subsidising people to keep their jobs, rather than retraining them at the jobcentre afterwards.

Thanks to the extra £5 billion that we are spending, one of the areas of investment has been in the rapid response service, which goes into workplaces and works with those immediately facing redundancy, before they start their claim for jobseeker’s allowance, reskilling them so that they can go straight into a different sort of job. In respect of ProAct and whether we should have some kind of wage subsidy scheme, in England we have chosen not to go down that road because of other schemes that are in place. We have heard some debate today about its effectiveness or otherwise in Wales.

Can the Minister tell me why, when in 1997 youth unemployment in the Vale of York and across the country was going down dramatically, we now have record levels of youth unemployment in the Vale of York, as well as those 18 to 24-year-olds not in employment or training?

This may come as a surprise to the hon. Lady, but there has been a global recession. Thanks to that, unemployment has risen, which normally happens during recessions. It has happened during every previous recession, but the measures that have been taken—the £5 billion that we have invested—have lessened the impact of unemployment. We have done considerably better during the present recession than in previous ones.

Will my right hon. Friend urge our right hon. Friend the Chancellor not to cut public spending in the areas of public services and construction in particular, which are labour intensive and should make a considerable contribution to future employment?

Naturally, we are deep in discussions with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but it is beyond my pay grade to comment at this point on the outcome of those discussions.

Private Pension Schemes

17. When she next expects to meet representatives of occupational pension campaign groups to discuss private pension schemes that have been wound up. (304078)

My predecessors and I have frequently met representatives of occupational pension campaign groups and trade unions, and I will continue to do so.

The Minister will know that I represent a number of constituents who are in occupational pension schemes that have failed. That has caused substantial concern and grief. Can she confirm that the financial assistance scheme will pay out the 90 per cent. as promised, without conditions? Can she also confirm that there will be full protection for widows and partners of deceased members of schemes?

I am aware that the hon. Gentleman represents areas where there are pensioners in several schemes that have entered the financial assistance scheme because he has been in correspondence with me about that, and I have been more than happy to correspond with him in reply. I can confirm the promise that we issued when we introduced the financial assistance scheme: that members would get 90 per cent. of expected pension, subject to the cap, revalued from the date of wind-up. This is not the pension that they could have expected to retire on if they had continued paying all the way to retirement, but the rights that they had accrued to date.

Disability Living Allowance/Attendance Allowance

18. What plans the Government have for the future of disability living allowance and attendance allowance. (304079)

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave earlier to the hon. Members for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) and for Southend, West (Mr. Amess)

The Minister did, indeed, reply to Question 4, and his response centred on the rising elderly population and on the escalating costs. He rested his case on false accusations of scaremongering, but I have with me a number of letters from real people, showing the vulnerability that they feel in the light of the threatened withdrawal of attendance allowance and disability living allowance. Why do the Government so blatantly discriminate against the over-65s on disability living allowance?

The arrangements for disability living allowance have been in place for many years, and they precede this Government’s entry into office, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, and as I am sure he will tell the people who have written to him. We need to set out a new care system. People want a system that ends the postcode lottery: they want a system whereby, if they move from one town to another, they do not have to battle to receive such services. In my earlier reply, I said that an existent pensioner claimant who is in receipt of attendance allowance or disability living allowance will get the same cash total under the new system. In order to reassure the people who have written to him, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will tell them that, and not repeat the scaremongering that we have heard from those on the Opposition Front Bench.

Topical Questions

Today, the Secretary of State for Health and I announced a number of publications on mental health conditions and employment. Because of the devastating impact that mental health can have on people and their families, we know that it also costs the economy between £30 billion and £40 billion in lost production, sick pay, NHS treatment and unemployment. We want to do more not only to help people—and their families—who have mental health conditions, but to improve their employment chances, because that is good for the economy, as well as for such individuals and their families. Later this week, the Department will publish its back to work White Paper, with extra help for young people and others who are struggling to find work.

But does the Secretary of State recall the parable of the 10 wise and foolish virgins? Would it not have been wiser for the Government to have prevented the £3 billion worth of benefit fraud and overpayment each year, rather than to set up yet another taskforce, which is foolishly 12 years’ too late?

The hon. Lady will realise that the Government have done a huge amount of work to reduce fraud and overpayments. The progress that we have made has been hugely important, but we want to go further, so it is right that we look both throughout the government and in the private sector at how we can go further and build on the very considerable progress that has already been made.

A constituent of mine, who was successfully helped back into work by the new deal for lone parents, found herself within 3p of losing her carer’s allowance when the minimum wage went up in October. What work is the Department doing to synchronise minimum wage rises with the earnings threshold for carer’s allowance?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and we are looking at what more can be done to help carers who are often very keen to work, even if they are able to do so for only a limited number of hours, so that they can combine such work with their caring responsibilities. That is one of the issues that we have looked at as part of the back to work White Paper—how we do more to support carers and parents who need more flexible work. I am happy to talk further to my hon. Friend about that issue and the concerns of her constituent.

May I tell the Secretary of State of a constituent who came to see me on Saturday morning? His partner died on 8 September, and he is having tremendous problems getting the child benefit and tax credits that should be paid over to him. He is in desperate straits, and so are his children—obviously suffering the terrible loss of their mother. If I give the Secretary of State’s office the details, will she ensure that the situation is sorted out by Christmas?

I can say that I will look into this immediately. If the right hon. Gentleman gives me the details today, I will get my office on to it straight away. It is important that people are provided with rapid support at a very difficult time. We are trying to work right across government so that, particularly in cases of bereavement, it is possible for people to tell not only our Department but any other area of government, just once, about what has happened so that all areas of government concerned can work together to provide that support rapidly. I am very sorry to hear of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent’s case.

T2. This morning, together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, I had the pleasure of attending a youth impact project run by Charlton Athletic community trust in partnership with CARE—the Charlton Athletic race equality project. The project works with NEETs—people not in education, employment or training—and it has had a high success rate. We heard some very moving stories from young people who had been through the project. The funding for this successful project comes to an end in March, and it is looking for funding to take the project forward. May I urge the Secretary of State to enter into negotiations with such projects in order to get secure funding? (304087)

I am very encouraged to hear the stories of how successful Charlton Athletic is being in engaging with young people in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Last week, I was at Stamford Bridge to take part in the launch of the premier league Into Work initiative, which is trying to do similar things. It might be worth Charlton’s linking up with the premier league and Richard Scudamore on that work.

I am happy to discuss funding with my hon. Friend to see whether there is any more that we can do.

T5. Given the exchanges that we have had on Questions 4, 11 and 18, and the Government’s attempts to suggest that nobody who is on existing benefits will suffer, can the Minister give the equivalent promise that those in future need will have equivalent benefits in cash? (304090)

The hon. Gentleman knows that we have a Green Paper, on which we are consulting, to provide—[Interruption.] To answer the sedentary question, the problem is that we have an ageing population with increasing demands, and we need to find solutions in order to meet those demands. We have a Green Paper, which we are consulting on, and we are listening carefully to what people have to say. We need to ensure that those who are most vulnerable—those in the greatest need—[Interruption] If the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) would listen, I repeat that those in the greatest need require support and care, but all she is doing is scaremongering about elderly people in a vulnerable situation. We will come forward with a national care service that will be popular and will meet the needs of future generations, whereas the Conservatives have a blank sheet of paper and can offer nothing other than—

T7. The future jobs fund has the potential to provide 134 new jobs in my area after the Conservative-controlled local authority submitting bids to the fund. However, can the Minister help me with a dilemma—namely, how does the position of my local authority square with the position of the Conservative party? (304092)

My hon. Friend knows that the future jobs fund is creating jobs in the Dumfries and Galloway council area in gardening, community development and customer services. I take on board his comments in welcoming it. As for how it squares with the policy of the Conservative party centrally, it does not. The Conservatives opposed the investment, and the borrowing that financed it, which has been spent on the future jobs fund. Without that investment put in by this Labour Government, my hon. Friend would not have those 91 jobs in his constituency.

T6. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that poverty, unemployment and repossessions started to rise as early as 2004? (304091)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that as a result of the support that we have put in, particularly for those who are at risk of losing their mortgages, the number of repossessions has in fact been considerably lower than people expected at the beginning of the recession. That has helped a lot of families who had lost their jobs and were at risk of losing their homes to stay in their homes and to get additional support, whether from their local council, from the Government, or from their mortgage company. That has been helpful, and it means that we have not been turning our backs on people as the hon. Gentleman’s party did in the early ’90s.

T8. Despite resistance from the official Opposition, the Access to Work scheme has proven extremely successful in either getting disabled people back to work or getting them the benefits that they are entitled to. However, there remains a problem for people with autism in trying to get back into work or get their benefits. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State meet representatives from the National Autistic Society to explore whether the difficulties can be solved? (304093)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his commitment to working with people with autism and all disabilities. We seek to provide more opportunities to get into work, and disabled people have seen employment levels rise by about 10 per cent. in recent years, assisted by Access to Work, for which we are doubling the resources to about £138 million, helping about 34,000 people. However, we do need to do more to help people with autism, and I will be pleased to meet him and representatives of the NAS to discuss how we might make Access to Work more flexible and tailor-make it for people such as he refers to.

T9. Despite promises of action back in October, Ministers have continued happily to pay for a family of Afghans to live in a seven-bedroom, £1 million townhouse in west London. Will they now offer the same right to homeless ex-British soldiers living on the streets of London? (304094)

As I said in answer to an earlier question, the number of people being paid exceptionally high levels of local housing allowance, which I agree are not acceptable, is very small indeed. We will bring forward proposals to tackle the problem in our consultation document on housing benefit, but the hon. Gentleman sheds no light whatever on the matter by suggesting that it is somehow to do with immigration.

On 1 November 2008, the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission took over the Child Support Agency, which had a woeful record of using its enforcement powers. Can the Minister tell me, if not today then later, how many driving licences were removed in each of the past five years? Was that power ever used?

I am sorry, but I cannot give my hon. Friend that information immediately. I will have to write to him. As he knows, that is an additional power that we are using to get more non-paying, non-resident parents to pay the maintenance that they owe their children.

T10. I sat down at the weekend to help a constituent fill out an application for disability living allowance, and I was appalled at the length and complexity of the form. Have Ministers ever tried filling one out for themselves? If so, what suggestions do they have for making the process far less lengthy and complex? (304095)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will appreciate the competing demands in any benefit form. On one hand we must get the right information, and on the other we want to ensure that there is no fraud and mitigate against appeals, which we want to reduce. We have recently revised the DLA form for children, which has been welcomed by a number of children’s organisations. We keep all benefits under review and work in partnership with a range of organisations that advise us, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and his constituent understand those competing demands.

In a few moments we will hear more about smarter government. The Department is leading the Government’s “Tell us once” programme, which reduces the number of times individuals have to contact Government to tell them about changes that have affected them. How is it going?

The “Tell us once” initiative has been very effective, bringing together a number of agencies. For example, there has been some excellent work on bereavement in particular, especially children’s bereavement, by St. Guy’s and St. Thomas’s hospital and Lambeth council. We want that successful initiative, which reduces bureaucracy and eases people’s pain, to be expanded, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be satisfied with the responses on it that come forward.

Will the Secretary of State be able to offer any Christmas cheer to those of my pensioner constituents who are victims of Equitable Life?

The hon. Gentleman will know that Judge Chadwick is currently reviewing the circumstances of many people who were affected by Equitable Life, and that there are a lot of problems for a lot of pensioners who have been badly affected. The Government have said that additional support should be given, and we are waiting for Judge Chadwick’s response.