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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): By the end of September, there had been nearly 17,000 participants in the new deal for lone parents in the north-east. Of those, nearly 2,000 had taken up education or training opportunities, and more than 8,000 had moved into work. Nationally, 118,000 lone parents have moved into work.
Mr. Jones: My hon. Friend's answer will be very welcome in the north-east, but is he aware of the concern felt by organisations such as the Derwentside citizens advice bureau in Stanley, in my constituency? The CAB has complained that the scheme is not well advertised, and that therefore people are failing to take it up locally. Will my hon. Friend assure me that it will be better advertised locally, so that more people in North Durham can have access to what is a very worthwhile scheme?
Malcolm Wicks: The best way for lone parents to find out about the scheme is to be invited for an interview with a new deal personal adviser. We have a rolling programme to ensure that that happens, and that all new claimants are invited in when their youngest child goes to school. We also have a programme enabling lone parents who have been on income support for some years to be invited in when their children are older. It is best to take part in a face-to-face interview to find out what is happening.
It is good news that since the 1997 general election the proportion of lone parents on income support has gone down by 10 per cent in my hon. Friend's constituency. That is not welfare reform rhetoric. It is good reality.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): How many of the 2,000 lone parents in the north-east currently undertaking education and training will go on to obtain a job? How many would have found work anyway? What added value is the new deal bringing to lone parents in the north-east?
Malcolm Wicks: I am surprised that this is a controversial matter in the House. I have already said that, in addition to the 2,000 who have gone into education or training, 8,00049 per cent.of those who had interviews have gone into work, so work is there. Some lone parents have fewer educational qualifications and skills than the population as a whole. That is why it is right and proper that sometimes we talk about welfare through education into work. I would have thought that that was welcomed.
Malcolm Wicks: Not so much fast food as fast and sloppy rhetoric. Why cannot the hon. Gentleman rejoice in the fact that 8,000 lone mothers in the north-east are now in work as a result of the new deal? That is good news. Even in the most hard-pressed regions there are still job vacancies. That is why the skills and training agenda is so important. We are determined to enable everyone on income support, including lone parents, to have the best advice about training and job opportunities. That is what the new deal is about and it is what Jobcentre Plus is about.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling): As I announced on 28 November, we are strengthening and expanding the help we can offer people facing redundancy. The rapid response service is on track to be fully launched in April 2002 and will receive an additional £6 million over the next two years.
Mr. Dhanda: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on measures such as the new deal and the jobs transition service, which in my constituency of Gloucester have reduced unemployment to 2 per cent., the lowest for a generation. Does he have any plans to visit Gloucester? If he has, I will take him to Action for a Fairer Gloucester, a local initiative that is working with the local authority and the Employment Service to help to reduce unemployment among the most vulnerable people in society, including people with disabilities and from ethnic minority backgrounds? Does he agree that by supporting initiatives such as Action for a Fairer Gloucester, we can not only reduce unemployment but tackle poverty and social exclusion?
Mr. Darling: On the latter point, my hon. Friend is right to make the link between work and the fight against poverty. One of the reasons why child poverty trebled during the term of the last Conservative Government was that unemployment was very high. My hon. Friend makes the point that unemployment is at its lowest for some time in Gloucester, and I think that long-term youth unemployment in Gloucester is down by almost 70 per cent.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): The Secretary of State's announcement on the rapid reaction force was welcome, but given that it is predicated on the basis of major closures and redundancies, can he tell me what criteria will be used for the allocations? As he and I know, closures in smaller communities such as market towns can have a devastating effect on the local work force and economy. Such closures do not make the national headlines and are not seen as employment emergencies, but they need the sort of support that the agency will provide.
Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The purpose of the rapid response service is to enable us to send people from Jobcentre Plus or the Employment Service to those companies that announce large redundancies, simply because when a lot of people are involved it makes sense to send in advisers in advance to discuss training options for them. That programme has been successful so far. The hon. Gentleman is right that it is also important to help anyone who loses their job for whatever reason, and that is why we are improving the service we offer through Jobcentre Plus. We are making arrangements to convert the entire Employment Service and Benefits Agency estate so that Jobcentre Plus is available across the whole country. That will enable us to provide interviews and assistance which, together with the tax and benefit reforms we have introduced, will help anyone, no matter where, who is faced with losing their job.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): We have in place a range of measures to help disabled people, including those who are partially sighted, to take up work. These include the access to work programme, the job introduction scheme, work preparation and workstep. In addition, the new deal is providing disabled people with more opportunities to move from benefits into work, while changes to the incapacity benefit rules are designed to provide work-focused help for sick and disabled people who wish to try to get back to work.
Linda Gilroy: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. She is aware of the achievement of my constituent Mr. Andrew Shipp, who is the first visually impaired person to be admitted to associate membership of the British Institute of Professional Photography. His film "Courageous Plymouth" has been shown several times at the imperial war museum just across the Thames and he is determined to set up his own production company. Can my hon. Friend assure my constituent and the House that she and her Department will continue to bring down the barriers for people who face such challenges in obtaining employment?
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Does the Minister agree that the issue of partial-sightedness not only affects entry to employment but attracts the danger of early retirement as sight begins to fail, and is therefore a significant social ill? In that connectionand I hope we would all agree with that assertionwill she take particular measures to ensure that the access to work programme is better publicised, better marketed and, if necessary, more appropriately resourced than it has been so far? Will she also publicise the work of the disability employment advisers and take another careful look at the workstep programme? There is no intrinsic problem in moving people into open employment, but many disabled people who have been in supported employment do not wish to feel that they will be forced out into the open labour market when that might not be appropriate for them.
Maria Eagle: There is no question of those for whom the workstep programmewhich replaced supported employmentis inappropriate being forced to progress into open employment. We aspire to ensure that those disabled people who are on the programme and can make progress into open employment have a chance to do so. One of the problems with the supported employment programme was that people did not progress, and there were fewer opportunities for those who could benefit from using the programme as a stepping stone. On the access to work programme and the other specialist disability programmes, we advertise the services that are available to disabled people and we do our best to ensure that people who may benefit from them are aware of what is required, necessary and available. Our disability employment advisers in the Employment Service do a very good job in ensuring that disabled people have access to these programmes to assist them into work. We intend to make sure that they continue to do so.
Mr. David Miliband (South Shields): Does my hon. Friend agree that voluntary agencies have a particular role to play in helping those who are hard to place into work? Organisations such as the Shaw Trust in my constituency are making special efforts to help disabled people into work. Does the Department have any plans to extend the role of voluntary organisations in complementing the universal reach of the Employment Service?
Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is right to mention the Shaw Trust, and there are other examples around the country of voluntary organisations that have particular expertise in this area. He may know that the new deal