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Work (Deprived Areas)

3. Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East): What plans he has to help people in deprived areas find work. [3577]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling): The new deal has helped thousands of people back into work. In addition to Jobcentre Plus, which will open this autumn, we have also introduced action teams for jobs and employment zones, which are helping people in the most deprived areas. Today we are increasing the number of action teams from 40 to 53, and further steps will be announced in due course.

Mr. Crausby: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, but what action is he taking to help the increasing number of people who are losing jobs in manufacturing to find other jobs in the industry? Does he agree that this nation cannot afford to lose those valuable skills?

Mr. Darling: I agree with my hon. Friend that we must do everything possible to ensure that we get people who lose their job, whether it is in manufacturing or elsewhere, back into work as quickly as possible. That philosophy has underpinned the Government's whole approach to

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their employment policies over the past four years, and it will continue to do so. It is worth bearing it in mind that, although there have undoubtedly been a number of redundancies—some quite large ones have been announced over the past few weeks—some 34,500 new jobs were announced in the month to 10 October. For some reason, the announcement of new jobs does not tend to get the same coverage as redundancies. I do not for one moment seek to play down the significance of the redundancies that have been announced and their effect on individuals and on the communities where they take place, but I assure my hon. Friend that the Employment Service will do everything possible, through its jobs transition service and other measures, to ensure that those who lose their job can get back into work.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): The Secretary of State will be aware that although rural constituencies such as the Vale of York have pockets of deprivation, they have no physical jobcentre. What will his Department do to give people in those deprived areas access to jobcentres, which are sometimes a considerable distance away?

Mr. Darling: I am well aware that many rural areas suffer unemployment and deprivation. The Government's policy right across the board, whether it is investment in education or in the Employment Service, is directed as much towards those people as it is towards people living in urban areas. Everybody, no matter where they live, has access to a jobcentre or the new Jobcentre Plus. There has never been a jobcentre in every high street; there was not when the Conservative Government were in power. The difference between our two Governments is that we are making sure at every opportunity, whether it is through jobcentres, new deals or action teams for jobs, that we do everything possible to help people who lose their jobs to get back into work, especially where there is long-term unemployment. We are changing the tax and benefit systems to make sure that work pays and doing more to ensure that work is possible for people who, until now, might have been denied that opportunity.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): On behalf of my constituents may I thank the Secretary of State for reminding us of the measures that the Government have already introduced to help people without jobs to find work? However, does he accept that many of us—now on both sides of the House—represent areas where, year on year, fewer jobs are available, while areas within travelling distance have more than full employment? Will he consider, as an additional part of his strategy of helping people into work, allowing people to choose personal advisers from areas with a shortage of workers, rather than from areas where there are not enough jobs to go around?

Mr. Darling: The present system, which we have introduced in the past couple of years, ensures that no matter where a jobcentre is, vacancies are linked up across the whole country. For example, somebody going into a jobcentre in my right hon. Friend's constituency could see on the touch-screen computer facilities the jobs available throughout the country. Simply because someone happens to live in a constituency with a more difficult employment situation, they should not be denied the opportunity—and, indeed, the help, which can be provided by the action

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team for jobs—to get work in areas where there are more jobs than people. It is important that we look at the employment situation across the whole country precisely to tackle the problems that my right hon. Friend knows only too well and that we see in other parts of the country.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Will the Secretary of State share with the House his assessment of the cost and cost-effectiveness of his new deal strategy? If he feels that it has been good value for money, how is it that unemployment has fallen less quickly under this Government than it did under the previous one?

Mr. Darling: I know that the hon. Gentleman spent many years as a Whip when his party was in government so he had to obey a Trappist vow and say nothing, but I did not know that he was not allowed to read anything either. He must have noticed the extremely high levels of unemployment that the Conservative Government managed to achieve on more than one occasion. To claim credit for getting levels down is stretching credulity.

The hon. Gentleman may care to consider the two independent surveys of the new deal for young people, which showed that, but for the new deal, youth unemployment would have been twice as high. That represents a substantial saving for our gross domestic product because of the benefits that we do not have to pay out and the increased tax payments from people who have got back into work.

We still have a lot more to do for the over-50s. It is a staggering fact that one third of people over the age of 50 are out of work. It is interesting to note that since 1979—I pick that date at random—that has cost the country £16 billion in GDP. Surely that is evidence that the Government are right to continue what they started, and to do even more through the new deal and other measures to get people into work.

Disabled People

4. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): What support his Department is giving to help people with disabilities get back into work. [3578]

14. Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): What support his Department is giving to help those with disabilities to get back into work. [3589]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling): Our objective is to help all those who can work to do so. That is why we are introducing a single gateway to the benefits system, so that there is not only a clear focus on work but we can ensure that people are getting the right level of support.

Linda Gilroy: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Those measures are already helping many of my constituents who are among the 1 million people with disabilities who the Disability Rights Commission says would like to work. Will he leave no stone unturned to ensure that his Department helps such people into work, so that they are not abandoned and forgotten, as they were for far too long under the Conservative Government?

Mr. Darling: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. The problem in the past was that, although the system

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offered some help to people who were registered as unemployed or jobseekers since 1996, it did precious little to help other people of working age who were not working for one reason or another. That is why in July this year I promised the House that I would lay regulations before it this autumn, which it will be able to debate through arrangements that will no doubt be made. Those regulations will introduce new measures to ensure that no one on, for example, incapacity benefit needs to go for more than three years without their case being thoroughly looked into to make sure that all opportunities for work are considered if that is appropriate, and if that is not appropriate to make sure that people are getting the right level of benefit. It is critical that we should not leave people of working age without any opportunity to work. That was one of the main failings of the system in the past, and we do not intend to perpetuate it.

Mr. Miller: Does my right hon. Friend agree that more needs to be done to inform employers and the general public about the contribution that people with disabilities could make to the work force? Sadly, in some sectors there is much ignorance about the potential of people with disabilities and the benefit of those people to employers and to the public.

Mr. Darling: I agree with my hon. Friend. Too many people are reluctant, for one reason or another, to employ people with a disability. Sometimes it is because of a wholly irrational fear. That problem needs to be tackled. One of the main purposes of the Disability Rights Commission is to raise awareness and to tackle prejudice. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government will do everything they can to tackle prejudice, which has no place in this area of employment. We are anxious to raise awareness and to ensure that we increase the number of people with a disability getting into work.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): The Government presumably believe that work-focused interviews are in the interests of disabled people themselves. They also tell us repeatedly that up to 1 million disabled people are not working and want to work. If the interviews are good for disabled people—and there are lots of them out there who want to work—why do the Government need to blackmail those people by threatening to cut their benefit if they will not turn up for an interview?

Mr. Darling: That is an interesting definition of blackmail.

The hon. Gentleman knows that a large number of people in this country who have a disability could work, with the right level of support. Our new deals have shown that. There are many people now in work who in the past got absolutely nothing, and they ought to be supported.

The new system that we are introducing through Jobcentre Plus will mean that everyone of working age, whatever their circumstances, will—as a condition of receiving benefit—have to come for an interview to see what options are available.

Mr. Webb: Or else!

Mr. Darling: I make no apology whatever for telling someone aged, say, under 25 who wants to sign on for jobseekers allowance, if there is no reason whatever why

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that person should not work, "You must come for an interview, and if you can work you ought to work." If the Liberals do not believe in that, I part company with them. As for people with disabilities, we have said yes, they must come for an interview, and yes, they must see what options are available to them. No one is saying "You must take a job, no matter what the circumstances are." We are saying "At the very least, you ought to know what options are available to you."

The point is simple. If there are 1 million people out there who want to work, we as a Government owe it to them to ensure that they receive the right help and assistance. I am astonished that the Liberals should be against that.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): What future plans has the Secretary of State for the therapeutic earnings rule to assist people with lifelong disabilities to obtain paid employment?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Lady has raised that issue on many occasions, and because of her own experience she is anxious for us to improve the situation. I am as well, but unfortunately this afternoon I am not in a position to tell the hon. Lady anything with a view to making an imminent announcement. I assure her, however, that I am keeping the situation under review.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): As we roll out the new deal for disabled people, the standard of personal advisers is crucial to ensuring that disabled people are given the right advice. That has already been mentioned this afternoon. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the training of advisers is of the highest quality, and that they are well trained in understanding the difficulties and anxieties experienced by many disabled people in regard to seeking employment—although they desperately want to work?

Mr. Darling: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. A heavy duty is placed on those who advise, and it is important for them to know the rules so that they can offer all the help that is available. As for the new deal for disabled people, which has only just been rolled out nationally, the fact that just under 40 per cent. of people have gone into work shows that these initiatives work.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant): The Secretary of State is right: it is important for us to do all that we can to help disabled people into work. Will he confirm that the number of people claiming incapacity benefit is now at its highest for three years? There is a clear upward trend.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is no good expecting even more medical tests when the Government cannot deliver the medical tests that are required already? Will he confirm that the last Minister for disabled people, whom he caused to be sacked, was right when he said this?

Talking about tests after three years is not really relevant, when the Government cannot even deliver the tests that are recommended after 18 months. How many medical tests are there now, within the 18 months recommended?

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Does the Secretary of State agree that the right way forward is to deliver the conditions that already exist in regulations and are not being properly enforced, rather than causing unnecessary distress to disabled people by changing regulations yet again when the current ones cannot be made to work?

Mr. Darling: I do not want to be churlish, but the last Minister for the disabled is still a Minister in this Government, albeit in a different Department.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his reappointment, if congratulation is appropriate. Perhaps he felt that he had no choice but to soldier on, despite the difficulties that he ran into in the last Parliament.

The object of our proposals is to ensure that people on incapacity benefit have the opportunity to be advised on their benefit entitlement, as well as on work opportunities, where appropriate. The problem is that too many people go on to incapacity benefit and are simply written off. They do not get the help and advice that they want.

Medical examinations are indeed appropriate and we are not proposing to change the regime in that regard, although the administration of the examinations is being improved.

The hon. Gentleman asked about trends in incapacity benefit. The number of people in receipt of the benefit has gone up in the past year or two, mainly because there are now more women with contribution conditions. I do not understand it to be the Conservative policy—yet—to strip people of their contribution conditions.

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