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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 507: debated on Monday 15 March 2010

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Work for Your Benefit Measures

1. What recent assessment she has made of the effects on low-paid workers of her Department’s “work for your benefit measures”; and if she will make a statement.

I am sure that all Back-Benchers and other Members of the House would want to share in your comments, Mr. Speaker, and, especially, to pass on our condolences to the family of the Member. (321772)

I would like to reiterate your points about Ashok Kumar, Mr. Speaker. He will be sadly missed, I am sure, by all colleagues right across the House. He was a good colleague and fine parliamentarian.

The “work for your benefit” programme will provide work experience placements, not jobs. These placements will be over and above the staffing requirements of the host employer and in addition to the existing or expected vacancies. As such, we do not expect the programme to have an effect on the employment of existing workers, whether low paid or otherwise.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he accept, however, that there is a danger that certain less scrupulous employers will take the opportunity to pay less to have one of these placements instead of paying the minimum wage, which has been so hard fought for?

The hon. Gentleman is right to remind the House of the minimum wage, which was introduced by the Labour Government and resisted in many quarters; I am pleased to say that there is now some consensus. We will ensure with contractors—our providers who ensure that we get places for people who have been out of work for two years, beginning with the pilot areas of Greater Manchester, Cambridge, Norfolk and Suffolk—that there is no displacement. This is about work experience. For people who have been out of work, that is an important part of their being able to get back to work. We think that if people are given that opportunity, they should take it.

Jobseeker’s Allowance (North Wiltshire)

2. How many jobseeker’s allowance claimants there were (a) nationally and (b) in North Wiltshire constituency (i) on the latest date for which figures are available and (ii) 12 months before that date. (321773)

May I also pay a personal tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland, who we will all sadly miss and whose family are in our thoughts today?

In the past 12 months, as a result of the recession, the claimant count nationally has risen from 1.3 million to 1.6 million—500,000 fewer than expected this time last year. In Wiltshire, it has risen from 5,250 to 7,300 in the past 12 months, but remains less than half the 15,000 level that it reached during the last recession in the 1990s.

The question was about the North Wiltshire constituency rather than the county of Wiltshire. In North Wiltshire, in January this year, the figure for jobseeker’s allowance was 1,735—some 500 higher than this time last year, and the highest figure since Labour came to power. That is against the figure of 294 jobs advertised in North Wiltshire. Will the Secretary of State comment on so-called ghost vacancies, which may have inflated that figure? These are vacancies that do not exist but which employment agencies have created in order to collect CVs more or less fraudulently.

The way in which the unemployment figures are calculated would not be affected by any inaccuracies in the list of vacancies, because it looks first at the claimant count and also at the labour force survey, which is very detailed. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that in his own constituency the figure is 1,735. He will also be aware, however, that the 500,000 lower than expected figure for unemployment translates into an improvement of about 700 in the claimant count for every constituency right across the country. I hope that that is something that he would welcome as a result of the investment that we have put in, which, unfortunately, his party has opposed repeatedly over the past 18 months. As for what employment agencies are doing, it is important that they act reputably and do not operate in any way that is fraudulent when putting forward vacancies, whatever their motive for doing so.

First, may I associate myself and my hon. Friends with the remarks that have been made about the untimely death of Dr. Ashok Kumar? He was indeed widely respected across this House, and of course our condolences go to his family and friends; our thoughts are with all of them today.

Official figures published today show that the UK accounts for one in seven of Europe’s entire hidden jobless population. After 13 years of a Labour Government, why is that?

In fact, as the right hon. Lady will be aware, unemployment in this country is significantly lower than in most of our major European competitors. In addition, we have seen a significant number of people going into further education and full-time education. We are proud of the increase in the number of students that has taken place over the past few years. I am sorry that her party refused to support funding for the September guarantee, which has helped a lot more young people, in particular, to stay on in education and has helped to reduce the number of people who are unemployed.

But what the Secretary of State failed to address was the issue of the hidden jobless, which was what my question was about. There are 2.3 million people in this country who want to work but are not in work and are not counted in the unemployment figures. In those figures, of course, one group for which unemployment has been rising in recent months has been those on incapacity benefit. The Government’s figures now show that they are going to miss their target of getting 1 million people off incapacity benefit by 2015, not by 100,000 or 200,000 but by 700,000. Is it not the case that five more years of this Labour Government will leave 700,000 people needlessly written off to a life on benefits?

We should look at the facts. In fact, the number of people on inactive benefits has fallen by 300,000 since 1997, despite the recession. That is in marked contrast to the figures when the right hon. Lady’s party was in government, when the number of people on incapacity benefit trebled from 1979 because her party consistently turned its back on people, wrote them off and ignored people who were on long-term benefits such as unemployment and sickness benefit. If she wants to get serious about helping people back to work, will she finally support the £5 billion extra that we are putting into helping people back to work, which her party has repeatedly refused to support?

Youth Unemployment

We are backing 470,000 additional youth opportunities, including through the £1 billion future jobs fund, as well as extra training and job opportunities. That is part of a youth guarantee, which is that all young people should be guaranteed a job, training or a work placement if they have been unemployed for more than six months.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but does she recognise that 923,000 young people aged between 16 and 24 are now unemployed? That is a 50 per cent. increase on the number in that age group unemployed when this Government came to power in 1997. Will she admit that the Government have got it terribly wrong for the youth unemployed?

No, I think the Government are right to provide additional support for young people, through a youth guarantee that the hon. Gentleman’s party opposes, and the future jobs fund, which it would abolish. He asked about the figures. In fact, if we exclude the number of full-time students from those figures, there are 657,000 young people who are unemployed according to the definition of the International Labour Organisation, compared with 830,000 in the early ’90s and more than 1 million in the early ’80s. It was the hon. Gentleman’s party that turned its back on the young unemployed and left a lost generation, whose scars we have seen for very many years. We are not prepared to do that, which is why we are investing in the youth guarantee that his party opposes.

May I add my condolences to the family and friends of Ashok Kumar? He and I became very good friends, not least because he was the only Member of Parliament who had read my father’s seminal history of British Steel.

How can the Secretary of State say that the Government have done enough on youth unemployment when one in five young people still cannot find a job, the young person’s guarantee, which she mentioned, has been delayed for a year and only half the jobs that she claims have been created under the future jobs fund have actually received any funding?

Again, the hon. Gentleman does not have his facts correct. The youth guarantee started this January and is already offering substantial support for young people across the country. I am surprised, frankly, that he cares when it started, seeing as he opposes it and his party wants to abolish it. To point out the facts in his area, there are currently 2,455 youth claimants in Oxfordshire, compared with 5,865 in the early ’90s recession. It is because we are putting in extra investment that we are preventing youth unemployment from rising as high as it did in previous recessions, but we agree that we should do more and will do more next year. His party opposes that.

Thankfully, there is very low youth unemployment in my constituency, but I spoke to a large youth conference last weekend and I can tell the Secretary of State that very few young people have any idea of the work that her Department is doing. What will she do to ensure that some of the young people who may unfortunately become unemployed are aware of the work that is going on?

If young people are unemployed, signing on and going to the jobcentre, they should certainly get a dedicated personal adviser who should be able to tell them about all the help available in their area. We are also working with the careers service and with colleges to ensure that we can make as much information as possible available; the internet is important, too, because we know many young people will increasingly gain their information from those kinds of sources, and we are trying to provide better information for young people in that way.

The question is how successful the Government’s policies have been and how well they have kept their promises. They came to power in 1997, saying that they would get 250,000 young unemployed off benefits and into work. Is the Secretary of State aware that there are now 250,000 more unemployed young people than there were in 1997, that there were more unemployed young people before the recession began than there were in 1997 and that the number of unemployed young people has been going up since about 2001? Is it not time for some fresh thinking to give chances to our young people, or is the Secretary of State going to tell us at exactly what point since 1997 the Government claim to have kept their promise?

In fact, the new deal for young people helped huge numbers into work and off benefits. Indeed, the 250,000 figure of young people helped into work was met more than 10 years ago, exactly as a result of the support we put in. Young people have been more heavily affected than older workers as a result of the recession. That is why we think it right to put in additional support to guarantee them that extra help to get back to work, but if the fresh thinking the hon. Gentleman is calling for involves cutting £5 billion of help for the unemployed and abolishing the future jobs fund, which is helping huge numbers of young people to get good career opportunities, I have to say that that it is not a form of fresh thinking that Government Members are interested in.

Defined Pension Benefit Schemes

We continue to look at ways of supporting defined benefit pension provision while protecting members’ interests through our ongoing deregulatory review. We have today laid new employer debt regulations to help the restructuring of companies. These are due to come into force in April this year and will save employers up to an estimated £49 million a year.

Starting with the tax on pension funds, the Government have introduced a number of policies over the years that have discouraged final salary schemes. I have always wondered whether that was intentional or due to incompetence. It looks like incompetence; am I right?

No, there are very many reasons why defined benefit pension schemes have been in decline. The decline began in the 1960s when I was still at school. Among the main reasons for it are increases in longevity and changes in FRS 17 and various other accounting rules. There is no single magic bullet to try to ensure that defined benefit pension schemes continue, but we are looking through the deregulatory review to give such help as we can. We also need to balance that by protecting those who are already members of schemes.

The reality is that defined benefit schemes have been in decline for decades and it is unrealistic to expect to reverse that tide. May I suggest, however, that the reality for the future must be a compulsory state earnings-related scheme for everyone, as that is the only way to avoid forcing millions of people into poverty in old age?

We are creating for those currently in work the national employment savings trust, which will ensure that those on medium and low earnings can for the first time in their working lives have a workplace pension scheme with a guaranteed employer and Government contribution. We are working very hard to introduce that new scheme.

Can the Minister tell us why her Government have presided over the closing of 100,000 pension schemes and the halving of active membership of those schemes? Why have her Government been so timid about supporting risk-sharing models so that employers and employees alike do not have to face the stark choice between DB and DC—defined benefit and defined contribution—schemes?

Current law allows a range of risk-sharing models, but they have not been much taken up by employers, and we have to remember that DB pension schemes are a voluntary arrangement between employers and employees. We have introduced changes to the employer debt regulations and we have reduced the revaluation cap from 5 per cent. to 2.5 per cent., all of which has saved £300 million. We have also introduced statutory override and we continue to look at other deregulatory measures that might encourage employers to maintain provision. I add that 2.6 million people are still accruing rights in the private sector and DB schemes, which remain a very important part of the pensions landscape.

Tax relief on pension contributions costs £18 billion a year in forgone revenue. Does the Minister have any evidence whatever that tax relief encourages people to save for pensions, because her Department certainly did not used to have any such evidence?

My hon. Friend makes a very interesting point, but I suspect he needs to direct it to the Chancellor in the run-up to the Budget rather than to me.

Child Poverty

5. What recent progress has been made towards meeting her Department’s 2010 target on child poverty reduction. (321776)

The decisive action taken by this Government has significantly reversed the trend of rising child poverty. As a result of the policies introduced since 1997, we have lifted 500,000 children out of relative poverty and halved absolute poverty. Measures announced in and since Budget 2007 are expected to lift around a further 500,000 children out of poverty.

Half the children in poverty live in a family in which someone is working, yet the Government’s reliance on means-tested benefits has created a poverty trap, in which it does not pay to work or pay to work longer. What measures do the Government propose to make work pay and ensure that more children are therefore brought out of poverty?

The introduction of tax credits and the national minimum wage have, of course, been a huge success in ensuring that those families whose parents are in work are not living in poverty. Furthermore, in his pre-Budget report, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced an extension of free school meals to primary school children whose parents are on working tax credits. That, too, is a significant improvement for that group of families and in relation to work incentives.

We know that the availability of part-time work is critical to achieving our child poverty targets. Does the Minister think that child poverty might now not be rising, as it unfortunately has been over the past few years, if more Government Departments had led the way by providing more part-time jobs? Is she happy that five major Departments have fewer than 10 per cent. of their staff working part time? Are the Government going to do anything about that?

The Government have already done something about that. We have introduced flexible working and the Department for Work and Pensions has led a taskforce on part-time working, which brought together people from the public, voluntary and private sectors to look at how we might increase the amount of part-time working across the whole economy.

Jobseeker’s Allowance (Wales)

6. How many jobseeker’s allowance claimants there were in (a) the UK, (b) Wales and (c) Clwyd West constituency on the latest date for which figures are available. (321777)

The unemployment rate in Wales is not only the worst of any of the home nations, but worse than that of countries such as Romania, Slovenia and Bulgaria. Is that a matter of concern to the Secretary of State, or does she share the satisfaction of the Secretary of State for Wales that at least Wales is doing better than Rwanda?

We are putting in place a lot of additional support for people who have lost their jobs in Wales. That is the right thing to do. We are helping people in Wales back to work significantly faster than was the case in previous recessions. The hon. Gentleman will know that although the figure is 80,000 today, it was 130,000 in the 1990s and 160,000 in the 1980s. I think it is right that we keep up that support.

In fact, I went to Merthyr Tydfil just a few weeks ago to look at the work being done there to support the future jobs fund, and to provide opportunities for people to get back to work as rapidly as possible. We will continue to do that, but we have set out investment for it. The hon. Gentleman’s party wants to cut that investment, and that would hit Wales hard.

Just before I ask my question, I should just put the Secretary of State right. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) asked about incapacity benefit. She was clear that the number of people on incapacity benefit in May 1997 was 2.616 million, and that the latest figures—those of August 2009—show that it is 2.632 million. It has gone up by 16,000 since the Government have been in power, not down, and it may have gone up because the Government’s White Paper said that pathways to work—the flagship programme that is supposed to be dealing with this matter—had no employment impact when it was rolled out. The Government’s latest research report reveals that there is

“management pressure to focus on”

the clients who are easiest to get into employment, “parking”—leaving clients who are difficult with no help—and steering people away from helping disengaged clients. We really do need a change. We cannot go on like this. We need a programme that is successful in returning disabled people to work, which is what our “Get Britain Working”—

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) asked about the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s report and about worklessness. The figures relating to the number and proportion of workless households have indeed fallen.

The right hon. Lady also raised the subject of incapacity benefit. As Conservative Members will know, incapacity benefit trebled under a Conservative Government. It rose steadily for about 30 years, and the first falls were a result of the Government’s support before the recession. The additional support that we are providing as part of the new work capability assessment and the employment support allowance is also making a difference, making it possible to find more people who are fit for work.

Support for people receiving long-term sickness benefits does need to be improved. We will not only apply the new work capability assessment but increase support for those receiving those long-term benefits as well as the long-term unemployed, because we do not want to see—and are not seeing—the big increases in long-term sickness benefits that were encouraged by the right hon. Lady’s party during the last recession.

Jobseeker's Allowance

7. How many jobseeker's allowance claimants there were in (a) the UK and (b) Wellingborough constituency on the latest date for which figures are available. (321778)

I have here a booklet entitled “Britain forward not back”, and also entitled “The Labour party manifesto 2005”. It can be found in the fiction sections of all good libraries. In bold letters, chapter 1 promises “Low debt and high employment”. Instead, we have record debt and high unemployment. Why should we believe any promises made by the Labour party?

The hon. Gentleman may have missed it, but 18 months ago there was a rather major financial crisis which involved major banks throughout the world nearly crashing to the floor and having to be rescued by national Governments throughout the world. Global trade has shrunk substantially, and as a result every country in the world has experienced recession and an impact on employment.

This Government believe that it was right to support the economy through difficult times. That is why we increased investment, and also why we have kept the unemployment level half a million lower than it was expected to be last year. Billions of pounds have been saved for the Exchequer as a result.

Pension Credit

8. What recent estimate she has made of the average annual change in income for pensioner households which has resulted from the introduction of pension credit. (321779)

Pensioner households are currently £600 a year better off on average as a result of increases in income provided by pension credit and its predecessors since 1997. The poorest third of pensioner households are around £1,100 a year better off.

Does my hon. Friend agree that another measure that would help to reduce pension poverty is the restoration of the link between earnings and the basic state pension? Will she reaffirm that it is the Government’s policy to do that in the next Parliament—in line with the Pensions Act 2007—and also to ensure that the retirement age is not raised until 2024-26?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that that is the Government’s policy. Indeed, we have legislated to restore the earnings link within the lifetime of the next Parliament. What we have not done is announce, in an “age of austerity” speech, that we will arbitrarily and suddenly increase the retirement age so that every man over 54 sees his retirement plans ripped up at a cost of £8,000 a year, and every woman is charged an extra £5,000 a year, because they are being forced to work for an extra year.

The Minister will know that pensioners can boost their incomes by paying voluntary class 3 contributions and that the special scheme for women born between April 1938 and October 1944 expires on 5 April. With the deadline coming, there has been a surge of applications. Can she offer me the assurance either today in the House or in writing urgently that people who contact Newcastle to get the detailed and complex information that they need to make the right judgment will be able to pay the money after 6 April, provided they make contact by the deadline?

I am happy to say that if we have proof of the contact in a timely fashion, we will be able to ensure that the process goes ahead.

Pension Credit (Take-up)

The Government are committed to ensuring that pensioners receive all the support they are entitled to. The latest estimate for 2007-08 is that the level of pension credit take-up by caseload is between 61 per cent. and 70 per cent. Take-up of the guarantee credit only, which is paid to the poorest pensioners, is higher, at between 72 per cent. and 81 per cent.

The House must recognise that the Labour Government have helped the poorest pensioners, particularly with the pension credit and in promising to re-index the basic pension to earnings. I hope that whoever forms the next Government will get on and do that quickly. But the take-up for pension credit is still too low, particularly for the poorest group; about a quarter do not take it up. Can whoever is in government after the election make sure that we automate that payment?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging the work that has been done to date with regard to pensioner poverty. We have taken 900,000 pensioners out of relative poverty and 1.9 million out of absolute poverty. The figure of 29 per cent. of pensioners in poverty that we inherited when we came into government is now 18 per cent. That is still too many, which is why we have to look at things such as automatic payment. Draft regulations before the House will look at automating pension credit payments on a pilot basis to see whether we can improve the take-up of pension credit, especially by the most vulnerable.

People over 80 are in particular danger of falling into poverty. What further steps can the Government take to ensure that these people have the help that they need?

We try to contact those who are older and may not be taking up their entitlement to pension credit. I am proud to say that we make 13,000 home visits to the most vulnerable pensioners every week. We also ensure that there are higher winter fuel payments for those over 80 and free television licences, not to mention the bus passes and free swimming. I wonder how much of that would survive a change of Government.

Social Security Fraud

12. How much money was recovered by her Department in respect of fraudulently claimed social security benefits in the last 12 months. (321784)

We have recovered £23 million-worth of overpayments categorised as fraud in the period from April 2009 to the end of February 2010. We specifically target fraud overpayments and, on the latest figures, 92.6 per cent. of such cases are under active management. At the same time, we continue to bear down on fraudulent claims so that there are fewer fraud overpayments occurring in the first place.

That is a tiny amount compared with the £700 million that the UK taxpayer loses every year to benefit fraud. Only a third of cases make it into court. Some 12,000 people last year were cautioned and only one in 100 was sent to prison. Is it not about time the Government started to take tough action rather than just producing more rhetoric and tough talk only?

The hon. Gentleman has given a rather selective picture of what is going on. Last year the Department for Work and Pensions and local authorities between them caught over 56,000 benefit fraudsters and took a range of actions, including administrative penalties and court action. Consequently the level of recoveries being made now has increased from £180 million to £280 million in the last five years.

The fraud figure has fallen from about £2 billion so although it is still too high, there has been some success. At the same time, the level of loss due to overpayments has increased dramatically. What is the Department doing to drive up standards of decision making to deal with that issue?

My hon. Friend has a very good understanding of what is going on across the board. In the last four years, the number of identified overpayments has increased from 992,000 to 1.6 million, but the level of official error has fallen as a proportion of the amount of benefit paid out. Next month we will introduce a one-strike provision, which should prove to be a further significant deterrent.

Carer’s Allowance

The level of carer’s allowance is reviewed annually and uprated in April in line with the September retail prices index. In 2009 the index was negative, so to help carers during the early stages of economic recovery we are bringing forward a 1.5 per cent. increase.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but can he give us a time scale for that, and is he aware that many carers are still struggling to make ends meet while others do not really know what benefits are available to them? What is he doing to target those people?

One of the measures we are taking to support carers is the establishment of carers’ support managers, who are based in every Jobcentre Plus, and whom I have met, alongside representatives of Carers UK, the Princess Royal Trust for Carers and Crossroads Care. They are making a real difference, bringing together the various carers groups in our communities to ensure that people know what they are entitled to, and assisting them if they wish to find work. That is why we have put aside some £38 million in funding to assist in paying for the care while such people undergo training.

I greatly welcome the Minister’s response to that question, and his recognition that there is much more to do to promote the take-up of this benefit, but does he accept that the level of take-up is not yet acceptable? Many more people could be benefiting from the allowance if they knew about it, and the Government need to look further into providing innovative ways of promoting take-up.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. It is vital that we have improved infrastructure so that our care partnership managers can reach out to, and meet, all the different carers groups. I can certainly put my hon. Friend in contact with the care partnership manager in the Leicestershire area, so he can find out what is being done there to assist carers in getting the benefit entitlement and the advice and support that we very much want to provide to them, as mapped out in the carers strategy that we published a couple of years ago.

Jobseeker’s Allowance (EU Claimants)

15. Whether she has made a recent estimate of the number of people from EU accession states who are claiming jobseeker’s allowance. (321790)

The information is not available in the form requested. Accession-country nationals who have worked and paid sufficient national insurance contributions, and who meet the other conditions of entitlement, may be entitled to contributory jobseeker’s allowance. Of those who have claimed income-based jobseeker’s allowance, it is estimated that 5,647 passed the habitual residence test—the test that must be satisfied to access income-related benefits—in the 12 months to September 2009. However, data on how many went on to receive the benefit are not available, as this information is not recorded by nationality.

Does the Minister find it surprising that thousands of eastern Europeans may well be claiming these benefits given that, despite the fact that we have had 13 years of anti-discrimination legislation, some companies are now allowed openly to advertise that they do not want to employ indigenous British people, but only those of Polish or other eastern European origin? Is that not outrageous?

No, if I can give the hon. Gentleman a little more information, he will understand that his claims are exaggerated, to say the very least. Last year, 162 A2 nationals passed the HRT. The number who passed for claiming income support was 40, the number who passed for making a claim for employment and support allowance was 16, and the numbers from the A8 countries were some 6,000, so the hon. Gentleman should set this in the context of the overall amount of benefits that are paid in this country.

Youth Unemployment

16. What steps her Department is taking to reduce the level of youth unemployment. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer to Question 3. (321791)

In north Oxfordshire, we are determined to ensure that no one gets left behind, including those not in education, employment or training—NEETs. May I make two suggestions to the Secretary of State? First, there is a need for greater connectivity between Connexions and Jobcentre Plus. Secondly, most of the businesses in my patch are small and medium-sized enterprises. Can we work out a way of helping them to offer apprenticeships, perhaps by introducing group apprenticeship schemes for SMEs?

The hon. Gentleman has raised some important points. He might know that we have been working with the Federation of Small Businesses not only on increasing the take-up of apprenticeships among small businesses but on helping them to take on interns, particularly graduate interns. There is a lot more that small businesses could do to help young people, and they are often keen to do so. If the hon. Gentleman is aware of any small businesses and employers in his constituency who might be interested in doing so, I hope that he will direct them to the Backing Young Britain website, which will provide them with the information that they need.

I fully support the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). The Federation of Small Businesses has advised Members of Parliament in a press release that some 69 per cent. of apprentices work in businesses with 50 or fewer employees. It has also said that many more apprenticeships could be created if the apprenticeship system were simplified and better promoted. Do the Government agree with that, and what action will they take to meet the views of that very sensible organisation, which represents the seedcorn of future businesses?

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point, and I agree that we need to do everything we can to make this easier for small businesses. Indeed, I have discussed the matter with the Federation of Small Businesses and other employers with the aim of doing exactly that. We have been working on this for some time, and we already have measures in place that are making it easier for small businesses to take this up. We want to urge as many small businesses as possible to find out about this and, as I have said, to take on apprentices and interns, because those small businesses that find it impossible to offer a full apprenticeship might still be able to take someone on for a temporary internship.

Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that evidence given to our Select Committee showed a clear link between employment without training and NEETs? Apprenticeships are the preferred option for many young people. Can we seize this last chance in the last weeks of this Parliament to get the full 5,000 apprenticeships with SMEs in place?

My hon. Friend will know that we have already increased the number of apprenticeships. If we look back 10 or 15 years, apprenticeships had pretty much died away in many areas, which was a tragedy for vocational training across the country. We have now put in the additional investment, which has substantially expanded the apprenticeship scheme, but I agree that we need to continue to work to increase the number of apprenticeships, not only in small businesses but with all kinds of employers across the country.

Jobseeker’s Allowance

18. What recent representations she has received on the criteria governing eligibility for jobseeker’s allowance; and if she will make a statement. We regularly receive, and respond to, representations about the entitlement rules for all benefits. The eligibility criteria for all benefits are continually kept under review. (321793)

May I express my condolences on the passing of Ashok Kumar? We worked together on the recent Flood and Water Management Bill. He will be sadly missed in the House and in his constituency.

May I press the Minister on this question? My understanding is that the Government have changed the criteria for jobseeker’s allowance, which has taken a large number of people who would otherwise have qualified for it off the register. I put it to her that the Government are massaging the unemployment figures in this way, and that the actual figures are far higher than they are indicating.

I am completely taken aback by the hon. Lady’s accusation. I cannot begin to think what leads her to that view. If she would like to write to me about this, I will be glad to respond to her.

Would the Minister agree that the future jobs fund is one of the key means to maintain our effort to combat youth unemployment? Will she underline that it is something that the Government will wish to continue?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The future jobs fund is a vital and critical policy in enabling us to keep down the level of youth unemployment. Across the country, it is projected to create 150,000 youth jobs.

Topical Questions

We are today publishing a paper on social fund reform with proposals to simplify the social fund so that it is easier to understand for customers and simpler to deliver. The proposals will also make it easier for people to get one-off help and affordable credit when they are in severe financial difficulties and will also provide more support and conditions for those who need repeat help so that they can have sustainable support to tackle their long-term financial difficulties.

The Chancellor stated in the pre-Budget report that retirement pensions would go up 2.5 per cent. In fact, it is only the basic state pension that is going up 2.5 per cent., while the state earnings-related pension scheme—SERPS—is being left with zero increase. Is this just another example of Labour trying to con the British people?

No. In fact, the details were made clear on the day of the pre-Budget report. My hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society gave a statement to the House in which she set out those details. We have been clear about that. As hon. Members will know, the retail prices index for this year would have meant that there were no increases in pensions at all had the ordinary uprating processes happened. We did not think that that was right and that is why we have had the increase in the basic state pension. We considered the implications for the additional pension, but as Opposition Members will also know, it is closely linked across the board to both public sector pensions and a range of private sector pensions, too. That is why we have ensured that there are still no real reductions in the value of the pension and we have increased the basic state pension by 2.5 per cent. too.

T2. Is my right hon. Friend aware that where they do it well, Jobcentre Plus offices play a vital and interesting part in Sure Start children’s centres and make a real difference to the possibilities of a family’s getting a decent income? Will she ensure that all 3,500 of our children’s centres get the same attention from Jobcentre Plus and can we ensure that Jobcentre Plus and her Department share data with the other players in children’s centres? (321796)

My hon. Friend will be aware that there is considerable work under way between jobcentres and children’s centres. In some areas, we have been piloting having outreach workers from the jobcentres working directly with parents in the children’s centres. We want to continue with that work. There is significant potential and we certainly agree that there should be close working between all children’s centres, Sure Starts and jobcentres. Frankly, anybody who thinks that it is a good idea to cut back on Sure Start does not know what it is like to bring up young children in most parts of this country.

T5. Will the Secretary of State accept that youth unemployment figures are higher now than they were when the Government came into office? Will she have the humility to accept that and to introduce measures that would counter it? (321799)

The hon. Lady will be aware from our earlier discussion that it is true that young people have been heavily affected by the recession, but that is exactly why we have provided additional support through the future jobs fund, with more than £1 billion, and through the youth guarantee, too. They are all measures that will help young people to get back into work and to get back into training and education opportunities. I have to say to the hon. Lady that they are all measures that her party opposes and would abolish. That is the real challenge that I give back to her.

Order. Patience will have its own reward for the hon. Gentleman, but I have called Mr. Cunningham at this stage.

I am sorry, but I did not catch my hon. Friend’s question—I know that he referred to the Jobcentre outreach service.

The outreach service involving children’s centres is already up and running as a pilot programme that involves a series of areas across the country. In fact, I have met some of the outreach workers and I think that they are doing a fantastic job. We are considering the potential for providing additional support in other areas.

T6. Will the Minister clarify why disability employment advisers at Jobcentre Plus are no longer supporting people with disabilities such as those with autism who are in a work programme provided by a private provider? That excludes them from all sorts of disability-specific services at Jobcentre Plus. (321801)

The new posts of disability employment advisers provide important support for disabled people going into jobcentres, and included in that will be people with autism. Once someone is on a programme, they are part of that programme and will receive ongoing support. If the hon. Lady has a particular point to make about a particular constituent, I will more than happily deal with that.

T7. Does the Minister agree that one of the Government’s greatest achievements at a time of global recession has been ensuring, through an investment package, that the global recession has not turned into domestic depression with perhaps 5 million, 6 million, 7 million, 8 million, 9 million or 10 million unemployed? Will she reassure my constituents that the future jobs fund will stay in being and that the 150,000 jobs for the young unemployed are just a start to maintain the stability of the economy? (321802)

My hon. Friend is right that the Government have put in place substantial support for the economy but also for the unemployed in response to the recession. We expected unemployment to be significantly higher, this time last year; in fact, it is around half a million lower than the average of the independent forecasts of last year, and it is likely to be around 650,000 lower during 2010 as well. That is saving us billions of pounds in unemployment benefits and other benefits for those who are unemployed, which shows that making good investment early on to support jobs and growth is also the best way of bringing the deficit down in future.

T8. Does the Secretary of State agree that our hugely complicated benefit system erodes incentives to work? What plans does she have to simplify it? (321803)

In fact, through things such as the tax credit system, we have already provided additional support and incentives for people to go back to work, and that has made the difference of, often, thousands of pounds for many families, to make sure that they are better off in work. However, we want to go further. That is why, from next year, we will introduce a better-off guarantee so that everyone who has been unemployed and goes back into work will be at least £40 a week better off as a result.

From those on the Labour Benches who are genuinely much opposed to unemployment, may I tell my right hon. Friend that during the 18 years when I sat on the Opposition Benches I saw very little concern—indeed, hardly any—from Conservative Members about mounting unemployment? The position now would be that much worse without the measures that have been taken by the present Government arising from the global recession.

Order. I hope that the Secretary of State will focus her reply on what the Government are doing, rather than on what happened 20 years ago.

My hon. Friend draws some important historical comparisons, but if the focus is on what is happening now, Mr. Speaker, the key thing is that the Conservatives would do the same again. They want to cut back all of the support now, so that would take us back to the 1990s—and to the 1980s as well.

T9. I wonder whether the Secretary of State will follow up her indication that the social fund is to be simplified—I am sure that many people would welcome that—with an indication that there will be more in the way of grants and less in the way of loans, as I do not think that we want to be pushing vulnerable people into more debt. (321804)

I think that the important thing is to provide both grants and loans for people in different circumstances. There are circumstances in which we think it is right for people to be provided with grants—if they do not have a way to repay the money and need additional help for particular things—but we also think it is right to provide access to affordable credit for people who would otherwise find themselves in considerable difficulties, because the modern financial economy has changed substantially. Most people need to use credit at different times to pay different kinds of bills, and if they do not have access to affordable credit and then end up in the arms of loan sharks and so on, that can make life extremely difficult. That is why it is important to provide a loan service in addition to a grant service.

Given that the last Government cooked the books 18 times, changing the way unemployment is measured, and that this Government have accepted the widely recognised International Labour Organisation measure of unemployment, can the Secretary of State give us some comparative figures for unemployment—the United Kingdom versus some of the other European Union member states?

Do you know, I wish I could. I wish I had that sheet available to me, because I could then point out what the current ILO unemployment figure is for this country compared with France, Germany, Spain or other areas.

I can tell my hon. Friend that the figure is lower than the EU average. It is also lower than the OECD average and lower than the G7 average. That is important, but I apologise for not having the precise figures in front of me as my hon. Friend asked the question.

I supported the excellent campaign by Age UK and its predecessors to abolish the mandatory retirement age. We had a positive announcement from the Minister for Women and Equality in January, so can the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions give us an idea about whether the Government will actually do something about it before the election?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. For many people across the country, the existence of a default retirement age simply does not fit with their expectations and their approach to working as they get older. That is why we set up the review of the default retirement age, and we are currently looking at the results of the review. The evidence has all been gathered, so we are looking at it and will set out the way forward. The important thing is to give people choice, not to tell people in their late 50s that they suddenly have to work for longer because their state pension is being withdrawn at very short notice. I think it is right to give people choice, as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

My hon. Friend will be aware that under the Child Poverty Bill it was agreed that one of the measures of childhood deprivation was that every family should have access to a living room that no one should have to sleep in; it should just be used for living, recreation, homework, eating and so on. Can she tell us how that measure is being taken forward?

My hon. Friend was most assiduous in promoting the need for improved housing as an important component of ending child poverty. We have, therefore, decided to ask further questions in the family resources survey about the quality of people’s housing so that we have reliable data on which we can base policy.

During the passage of the Welfare Reform Act 2009, we were assured by the Government that council tax benefit was to be renamed. What has happened to that assurance?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have taken the power to do that, but because housing benefit—following its introduction by the Conservatives—is administered by 400 different local authorities, there are some practical issues, particularly to do with IT and software, which we are, even now, working with them to overcome. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are making progress as quickly as possible.

For more than 25 years, the Carlyon print works in my constituency provided work opportunities to those who had physical disability or mental impairment. When it was closed down, more than a year ago, the Liberal Democrat and Conservative council that closed it down said there would be further opportunities for those people to take up in the local community, but many of them are still without jobs. What can my hon. Friend do to ensure that councils do not close operations such as that, which provide such an important service—

Obviously, local authorities have their own decisions to make in terms of what they provide, and I hear what my hon. Friend said about councils in his area. I can tell him that from October the workstep programme will become work choice, and we are extending the number of places on it for disabled people. He will also be aware that we are increasing the access to work programme with some specific places—about 3,500—for people with mental health conditions and learning disabilities. The public sector, including Whitehall, can do far more to employ people with learning disabilities, and I am pleased to announce that we are employing people with learning disabilities in Ministers’ offices.

The Government will be aware that many pensioners responsibly planned their retirement relying upon savings. The return from those savings is now virtually nil.

It is not rubbish. What thought have the Government given to help people who have fallen on difficult times through no fault of their own, having been responsible in their working life?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As a result of very low interest rates, which have been the right thing to support the economy as a whole, those who depend on savings income have been affected. That is why the Chancellor took action in the Budget last year to try to provide support for people through their savings. We will continue to do that through such things as individual savings accounts, but I agree with him about the importance of people being able to plan with some certainty. That is why I oppose his party’s policies to rip up people’s retirement age when they are already in their 50s.