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Volume 696: debated on Monday 26 November 2007

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Peter Hain) has made the following Statement.

Over the past decade huge progress has been made in reversing entrenched unemployment, child poverty and benefit dependency with the creation of 2.8 million new jobs and one million people off key out-of-work benefits since 1997. But we are not prepared to rest there. We want a society in which every city, town and village in Britain is a working community.

There are still too many people who are not sharing in the rising prosperity of the nation. The ability to get, and keep, a job and then to progress in work is the best route out of poverty. The Government will provide increasing support and opportunity to ensure that our people have the skills to keep them in work and make them better off.

To do that we need to do still more to help disabled people and those with health conditions, lone parents and long-term unemployed people get into rewarding and sustainable jobs. That means a stronger framework of rights and responsibilities for benefit claimants so that people who can work have the right support to enable them to do so. It means making the support available more responsive to the needs of individuals and employers. It means a new emphasis on skills so that there is a focus on retention and progression, not just job entry.

Today my department and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills are setting out how we will bring progressive welfare and skills provision together. Copies of our joint publication Opportunity, Employment and Progression: Making Skills Work will be laid later today and will then be available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.

We are clear that in future good training to develop the skills that employers want has to be a central part of helping people into jobs, and helping people stay in jobs. Our goal is sustainable employment, not cycling between short-term work and repeated spells on benefit. We want to support progression in work as well as entry to work. That has major implications for the way the training system supports those who need to gain new skills and qualifications. The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills will be setting out these implications more fully in a Statement today.

Helping people into work is a key challenge. But it is only the start. We must unlock the talents and skills of our people to equip them to compete in the globalised world and earn more for their families. Otherwise we will not improve social cohesion or provide the skills that British businesses need to succeed in the 21st century.

There are also major new policy developments that fall to the Department for Work and Pensions. New claimants of out-of-work benefits will go through a systematic skills screening process to identify basic numeracy, literacy or language needs. Those identified with skills needs which are a major barrier to finding employment will be referred to attend a full skills health check, delivered by the new adult advancement and careers service. For claimants reaching six months on jobseeker's allowance or the new employment and support allowance, we will enable personal advisers to mandate a skills health check if appropriate.

Based on the results of a skills health check, the personal adviser will decide whether the claimant should be referred to training focused on getting them back to work. We will pilot making such training mandatory for claimants who reach the six-month point on jobseeker's allowance.

At present lone parents lose eligibility for income support when their youngest child turns 16. However, we have been consulting on whether this age should be lowered. To ensure that all lone parents are making the preparations needed to engage with mandatory job search at this point, we will encourage them to undergo a skills health check two years before their eligibility for income support is due to end. And we intend to consult on whether this should be mandatory.

Currently benefit rules prevent jobseeker's allowance customers studying for more than 16 hours per week, for more than two weeks per year. In the future, we will enable customers who have been claiming JSA for six months or more to undertake full-time training for up to eight weeks, provided that the training is focused on a return to work—by moving them onto training allowances. We will also remove the so-called “16 hour rule” in housing benefit for short-term recipients of incapacity benefit.

And because we recognise the particular challenges faced by some vulnerable groups who require housing benefit while undertaking necessary full-time training, we will consider whether it might be practicable to define limited exemptions from the “16 hour rule” for specific groups—such as young people living in supported accommodation.

We will roll out two elements of the current employment retention and advancement pilot nationally for lone parents:

in-work advisory support from Jobcentre Plus to help customers with the transition to work and to help them advance in work; and

the in-work emergency fund which gives lone parents moving into work of 16 hours or more per week access to discretionary payments (up to £300) to avert financial emergencies that might otherwise prevent them continuing in work.

My department is currently rolling out the Pathways to Work programme for new claimants of incapacity benefit, and next year will be introducing the new employment and support allowance. Today I am also announcing that we will gradually roll out pathways support to existing incapacity benefit claimants who are aged under 25.

Through tax credits, in-work credits and the minimum wage, this Government have already done a great deal to make work pay. We now intend to go further, to ensure that long-term benefit claimants moving into work see an increase in their income of at least £25 per week—thereby making allowance for reasonable travel costs.

These measures will play an important part in the next radical phase of welfare reform which will open up unprecedented opportunities for disadvantaged groups to contribute to and to benefit from national prosperity. Tomorrow I intend to publish further details on how we will work with the private and third sectors to deliver this vision.

There are more than 600,000 job vacancies in Britain every day. Our mission is to get British benefit claimants into British jobs to become British workers.

A copy of the Prime Minister’s speech delivered today to the CBI will be available at