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House of Commons

Thursday 26 October 2000

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]



Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

New Deal

1. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): What action is being taken to increase the support offered to young people in the new deal gateway. [132585]

The Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities (Ms Tessa Jowell): I know that we will all want to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Speaker.

I can announce today that 244,000 young people have moved from benefit into jobs, helped by the new deal and the Government's sound economic management. That means that there are now more people in work than ever before. The new deal is equipping young people with the skills to take up the jobs that are coming up all over the country. We will continue to improve and intensify the support for the increasing numbers of disadvantaged young people, tackling their problems of numeracy, literacy and basic employability, so that they can not just get a job but enjoy the prospect and opportunity of staying in work for the rest of their lives.

Helen Jackson: Welcome, Mr. Speaker.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the hallmarks of the Government was the speed with which they moved when they came to power in 1997 to get young people off the dole and give them a life with some hope? Some 477 people in my constituency are now in work and off the dole. What further steps will the

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Government take to continue that programme, so that allowing youngsters to spend years on the dole becomes a part of history?

Ms Jowell: I thank my hon. Friend for the support that she provides to the new deal in her constituency. When we came to office in 1997, 80,000 young people had been out of work for a year or more. The figure is now 6,500. However, the challenge is getting greater. About one in five young people comes to the new deal with barely the reading age of a seven-year-old. There are other types of disadvantage which mean that, as unemployment falls, so we must intensify and increase the help available to young people not just in my hon. Friend's constituency but throughout the country. The new deal will do that.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I welcome and congratulate you, Mr. Speaker.

Is the Minister familiar with the Industrial Society's critique of the new deal, published in two reports over the past few weeks? Is she aware that the society criticised the new deal in a number of ways, and revealed that 40 per cent. of jobs gained by new deal participants last less than 30 weeks? It also revealed that in the 20 areas of worst joblessness, unemployment is twice the national average. The society suggested, in particular, that the crucial gateway phase of the new deal is chronically underfunded. Is the Minister going to refute or disregard those findings from an independent and well-respected body, or does she have detailed proposals to deal with those particular problems?

Ms Jowell: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his first outing at the Dispatch Box. I have studied the Industrial Society report closely and I know that it has been selectively quoted by the hon. Gentleman. We are used to that from the Opposition, who offer no solution to long-term unemployment among young people, but only attack them and their right to opportunity. The Industrial Society praises the new deal, identifies the unique contribution of personal advisers, and praises the benefits reported by young people themselves. We recognise that in areas of low employment, the new deal must do more and work harder, which is why it is working with action teams, established by this Government, in the 40 districts where unemployment is at its highest.

We will take no lessons from the Opposition on how to manage unemployment. Under the Conservatives, on three occasions the claimant count rose to 3 million in the 1980s and early 1990s. They failed to deal with unemployment, whereas we are tackling it. Long-term unemployment among young people is down by 70 per cent. since the election. That is a tribute to young people and we are proud of that.

Mr. Speaker: That was a full and frank answer, but we have to get through the Order Paper.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): My right hon. Friend will recall the meeting that I had with her and her civil servants about my proposals for a new deal overseas programme to allow thousands of our young

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people and 50-plus new dealers to go overseas to work and train in third-world countries. Is there any progress on that front?

Ms Jowell: I hope to be able to write to my hon. Friend very soon about his interesting and constructive proposals, and to build his ideas into the flexibility and diversity of help and support that we intend to continue to provide through the new deal.

School Meals

2. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): What guidelines he issues on the proportion of children at a comprehensive school who should be able to sit down for school dinner within the allocated lunchtime break. [132586]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith): The Government recognise the importance of an enjoyable and well-balanced school meal, and that is why we are introducing minimum nutritional standards for school lunches--the first for 20 years. However, it is for schools to decide how to organise the delivery of lunches to pupils who want them, so we have issued no guidelines on how many children should be served in the lunch break.

Mr. Jack: I thank the Minister for that answer. I think that her Department is aware that the Lytham St. Anne's high technology college in my constituency, the largest comprehensive in Lancashire, is daily turned into what I can only describe as a culinary battleground, as there are seats for only one sixth of the 1,800 or so children to have a school dinner. The remainder who want to find a place to eat their sandwiches are scattered to the four winds in the rest of the site. That is unacceptable. The head and other senior staff members have to give up their dinner hour to supervise the maelstrom. Will the Minister be kind enough--[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have appealed for brief answers, and I also expect brief questions.

Mr. Jack: The question will be brief, Mr. Speaker.

Will the Minister be kind enough to get one of her officials to visit the school and see the chaos, and then have discussions with Lancashire county council to find a lasting solution to the problem?

Jacqui Smith: I note that the right hon. Gentleman has taken a close interest in this problem. I understand that, despite the fact that the school has received more than £1 million to expand and more than £700,000 because its specialist status, the problem remains. Perhaps I can make some positive suggestions. The Government have already supported lunch facility improvements at 117 schools, through all phases of the new deal for schools. I do not believe that Lancashire applied for funding through that scheme. The expansion of direct capital funds for heads to spend--this year, for example, Lytham St. Anne's high school has had just over £30,000 from those funds--may prove a way forward.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced that the funding will increase by two and a half times by 2003-04 and can be rolled over from year to year to fund larger projects. The seed challenge capital

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process, which we have also extended to more schools--under which a contribution can be matched from funds from outside the school--may also be a way forward. Given the right hon. Gentleman's persistence, I am willing to ask one of my officials to visit the school to investigate the problem.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): The introduction of nutritional standards for school meals is a massive step forward. What research are the Government undertaking to boost the low take-up of free school meals? Will my hon. Friend applaud the hugely popular initiative by Squirrel Hayes first school in Biddulph, which has introduced a free breakfast service, which means that pupils are in on time and ready to start the day and learn appropriately?

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend makes an important point and I commend the activities of that school in her constituency, which is one of very many schools being given the support that is provided through Education Extra and our partners, Kellogg's, to develop breakfast clubs. I agree that we also need to ensure that those children who are eligible for free school meals take them up. That is why the Department has funded the Child Poverty Action Group to carry out research into what prevents the take-up from being as full as it could be, and to come up with practical suggestions on how we can improve the situation by next spring.

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