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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.