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9. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): What assessment he has made of the numbers of people of working age who are able and willing to work but are neither working nor registered as seeking work or as claimants. [3584]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown): About 4.1 million people of working age are not working or are in receipt of an out-of-work benefit, and we estimate that there are about 500,000 people of working age who are partners of benefit claimants and who are not working, registered for work or claiming benefits themselves.

Dr. Cable: I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he not acknowledge that, whereas the claimant count position

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is improving, the figure of 4 million is growing and that the problem particularly affects men? Is he aware that 27 per cent. of all men aged between 50 and 64 are out of work and that 30 per cent. of all unskilled men of all ages are out of work? How does he intend to re-prioritise the Government's labour market policies to address their specific needs and particularly the age discrimination element?

Mr. Brown: It is precisely that issue with which the new deal is designed to cope. The hon. Gentleman's figures are broadly correct, and it is a tragedy that people of working age are looking to the state benefit system for a form of early retirement.

As the hon. Gentleman knows probably only too well, such circumstances have come about as a result of the huge shake-out of labour in heavy engineering industries, mining, shipbuilding and steel works in the 1980s, when the then Government were effectively prepared to dump people on to incapacity benefit rather than to try to find them a place in the labour market. This Government reject that approach, believing it to be cruel. We want to help people into employment when they are of working age. That means focusing on the problems of those who are older but who can still find a place in the labour market. It also means making sure that we find them work and, moreover, ensuring that that work remunerates them more than being on benefits ever could.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): I have a constituent who has been helped through education and who is three quarters of his way through a degree course. A firm has paid his way but, unfortunately, that firm has folded and he is no longer able to complete his course. He has sought the jobseeker's allowance, but has been refused because he wants to study. Will my right hon. Friend's Department examine the jobseeker's allowance regulations positively to enable such people to stay in work and, indeed, improve their employability?

Mr. Brown: I am not sure that that is a matter for the jobseeker's allowance regulations, but I promise to consider the case of my hon. Friend's constituent and to examine the issue more generally. It sounds to me as though what he has described is an anomaly, but hardship funds are designed to help in such circumstances. I will ask my office to examine the individual case to see what can be done to help my hon. Friend's constituent.

Drug Rehabilitation

10. Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): What proportion of people on the new deal for 18 to 24-year-olds, who were referred to drug rehabilitation centres in the last 12 months, went on to full-time employment in the north-east region. [3585]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): More than 25,000 young people in the north-east have moved into jobs through the new deal. Separate data on the number of them who attended drug rehabilitation centres are not collected. However, we are committed to helping people

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with drug problems overcome them and move into work. We are therefore launching a £40 million programme of support for drug misusers early next year.

Ms Taylor: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but may I say to him that this is a very serious problem in the north-east and, particularly, in my constituency of Stockton, South? In what way does his Department work with the Home Office and the Cabinet Office to ensure that we put together a joined-up strategy so that young people and older people who are drug addicts know that there is help for them and—more important than just help—that there is pride at the end of the line because they will have a job?

Malcolm Wicks: We know that this is a serious problem in most constituencies and that it is complicated. That is why the Government have a joined-up approach across Whitehall. This Department's contribution is a £40 million programme to help to identify those who are drug misusers and bring into the community a co-ordinator to get the services working together, and with the voluntary sector. My hon. Friend is right: we need to work across Whitehall—starting, of course, with young people in our schools.

Pensioner Poverty

11. Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford): What progress is being made in combating pensioner poverty. [3586]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling): Some 2 million pensioners are now receiving the minimum income guarantee. On average, they are £15 a week better off than they would have been in 1997.

Dr. Stoate: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. It is certainly very good news for many pensioners who have lived for years in poverty. What measures can the Government take to improve the uptake of the minimum income guarantee, and approximately how many people might that equate to in my constituency of Dartford who may benefit from the improvements in their incomes?

Mr. Darling: Just over 1,500 pensioners in Dartford receive the minimum income guarantee. We have embarked on a substantial take-up campaign that has resulted in more than 100,000 pensioners throughout the country receiving it, and that group has received on average about £20 a week extra. In addition, the application form for the minimum income guarantee is being reduced to 10 pages and will be available shortly. That and other measures will ensure that more and more pensioners get the money to which they are entitled.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): Does the Secretary of State accept that the rules governing hospital downrating for pensions and benefits cause considerable hardship and distress for many pensioners? Will he take steps to review that urgently to ensure that the Department for Work and Pensions is not contributing to the Department of Health's problem with bed blocking?

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People find it difficult to get their benefits back on-line when they have been in hospital for weeks and have had their benefits first reduced and then stopped altogether.

Mr. Darling: I agree that we must do everything possible to ensure that people who ought to be discharged from hospital do not remain there, especially because of a problem with benefits. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that ever since the modern welfare state was established more than 50 years ago measures have been taken to stop the double provision of public funds. All such matters are, of course, kept under review.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Does the Secretary of State accept that more work needs to be done on the statistics that relate to the minimum income guarantee? Although the overall increase is welcome, it is not certain that it is evenly spread across the country. In particular, my constituency has experienced difficulties in obtaining figures for those who have claimed the minimum income guarantee, despite substantial take-up campaigns. Does my right hon. Friend accept that it would be helpful to identify those blackspots where a large number of pensioners have not been claiming so that we can focus further attention on them?

Mr. Darling: It is possible to identify the number of pensioners in each constituency who are receiving the minimum income guarantee. Of course, one can never be absolutely sure how many are entitled but do not claim because the state does not necessarily know their circumstances. However, my hon. Friend is right: the next stage of our campaign is to look at those areas where we have reason to believe that there are problems with take-up to ensure that every pensioner who is entitled to the minimum income guarantee receives it. As I said earlier, after the last campaign those pensioners who became entitled to and received the minimum income guarantee were on average £20 a week better off. That is a substantial increase in their income.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): The Secretary of State will be aware that his Department produced statistics and estimates on benefit take-up as recently as 27 September last. Is he not concerned that while last year 500,000 eligible pensioners were not claiming income support, this year's figure is much nearer 600,000, an increase of 20 per cent? That trend is also reflected in figures for council tax benefit and housing benefit, which are in fact slightly worse.

Does the Secretary of State not think that the only plausible explanation for that problem, which I am sure concerns and shocks us all, is that the system is becoming ever more complex? Does he not admit that the only possible solution offered by the Government will make the problem even worse?

Mr. Darling: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. In the report that he quotes, the estimated number of pensioners who fail to claim income support is between 300,000 and 600,000. The report itself says that care should be taken when interpreting the take-up statistics as they come from estimates from data that are less than perfect. That particular series of statistics has its limitations precisely because of the very wide range in the estimates.

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I assume that for the purposes of this question the hon. Gentleman is in favour of more pensioners receiving the money to which they are entitled, and I agree with him that we need to do more to identify pensioners who are entitled to the minimum income guarantee. However, I note that the new leader of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), said of the minimum income guarantee:

That is a very odd way to refer to a policy that gives pensioners an average increase of £15 a week.

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