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Welfare to Work

3. Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): What assessment he has made of the impact of welfare-to-work policies in London. [28139]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (

Malcolm Wicks): In London, more than 70,000 people have been helped into work throughour new deal programmes, including 42,000 young Londoners. In addition, more than 10,000 more have moved into work in some of the most deprived areas through employment zones and action teams for jobs. Altogether, our policies have helped to reduce unemployment in London by more than 30 per cent. since 1997 and long-term unemployment has fallen by nearly 60 per cent.

Ms Buck: Fraud is very important, but it is also important that those people who are entitled to benefits get the help that they need when they require it. It is of some concern to me that despite the national success of the working families tax credit in topping up the incomes of low-income families, Londoners are less likely to receive that benefit. In particular, low-income single parents are half as likely to receive working families tax credit as people in the country as a whole. Will the Government commit themselves to a research project to establish why we have these variations, and to find out how much of it is due to a lack of awareness and how much is due to structural problems that can be removed to make sure that Londoners get the help that they require?

Malcolm Wicks: I know of my hon. Friend's great interest in this matter in her constituency and London as a whole. I shall go through these matters with her to see whether there is a need for research. Across the country—including in London—the working families tax credit has been of enormous help to two and one-parent families. In London alone, some 95,000 families have benefited from the working families tax credit.

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In addition, 70,000 people in London have benefited from the national minimum wage. That demonstrates that along with making work possible for Londoners, and everyone else in the country, we also need to make work pay.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Is not the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) right to say that the key to the success of these policies is access? Given that the take-up of working families tax credit in her constituency and others in London is extremely low, will the Minister tell us what will happen when working families tax credit migrates to child tax credit in 2003? How will those who do not have bank accounts receive their credit if the universal bank is not up and running by then? Secondly, with 40,000 of his staff on strike today—a fact dismissed by the Secretary of State—is it not time that the Government and the management spoke constructively to their staff, to enable them to provide the advice that they should be providing to those who need it?

Malcolm Wicks: There was a lot there in terms of quantity, but the hon. Gentleman greatly inflates the number of people on strike. The strike has not been a success, and we urge people to return to work to make a success of what is already a successful project—Jobcentre Plus. We talked about fraud earlier, and just as we need to bear down on fraud—as we are doing—we need to enable people to claim the benefits to which they are entitled, in a variety of ways. We are pleased by the success of working families tax credit, and the new child tax credit will also be a success, but we will look at any sensible ideas for increasing take-up.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Does the Minister accept that part of the welfare-to-work programme involves an incentive, and that in London and other cities, such as Glasgow, where rent and council tax levels are higher, those in low-paid jobs do not have so much incentive to go into work because they lose their council tax and rent rebates when they do so? Would the Minister be prepared to consider the pilot project suggested by Glasgow city council to waive the loss of rent and rate rebates for a period for people going into work? If that project were successful, and if it were adopted elsewhere, it would undoubtedly assist people in London and Glasgow.

Malcolm Wicks: I recognise that we need to do all that we can to inform people about what will happen when they go off benefit full-time and go back into work. Many people are, understandably, ignorant about those effects. That is why, in Jobcentres and Jobcentres Plus, we do a "better-off calculation", to demonstrate to people exactly how much better off they will be in work. Many are pleasantly surprised at the result. That is because people still receive housing benefit when doing a low-paid job. They are also entitled to the minimum wage, and tax credits bite in with good effect.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): Is not the Minister concerned that so few of those leaving the new deal in London are being taken on by central Government Departments? Is he not also concerned that, since March last year, when the Select Committee said that it was "extremely disappointed" by the failure of Departments to

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recruit more people from the new deal—and when the Minister's own Department promised to set up special programmes to encourage Departments to recruit more from it—the number being recruited by central Government has fallen still further? A few moments ago, the Secretary of State said that it was important for the different arms of government to work together. Is it not clear that, when it comes to the new deal, they are not? The Government are snubbing their own policies, and other Departments are snubbing the policies of his Department.

Malcolm Wicks: The hon. Gentleman talks from a position of some principle. That principle is that he is against the new deal. The fact is that we have enabled young people to enter different forms of employment in the public sector and in the private sector, and also to take routes into training and education. What the House needs to understand—and what the Opposition do not wish to understand—is that the new deal has been a great success in enabling people in London and elsewhere to get into the world of work.

Pensioners (Hospital Patients)

4. Laura Moffatt (Crawley): What additional(a) financial and (b) practical help is offered to pensioners who are in hospital for more than six weeks. [28140]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): There is no additional financial help, although community care grants may be available to help with fares for other family members to visit a person in hospital. After six weeks in hospital, a person with a basic rate pension would receive £58 a week, or £44.20 if they had no dependants. Housing benefit would remain in payment for people on the minimum income guarantee. In terms of practical help, every patient should have a discharge plan, including an assessment of their future care needs, developed from the beginning of their hospital admission. All hospital in-patients have access to a social worker. From this April, patients in every NHS trust will have access to a patient advice and liaison service to help them with their dealings with the hospital.

Laura Moffatt: I completely understand the principle behind the clawback from pensioners, but I was a nurse for many years and spoke to many couples who had a loved one in hospital, and the extra burden—including, as she rightly said, transport—is often difficult over a sustained period. I hope that the Minister can consider other practical measures to ensure that our pensioners do not suffer if they have to spend an extended time in hospital.

Maria Eagle: I assure my hon. Friend that the Department keeps all matters relating to all our benefits under review—but I must also make the point that in written answers on 8 January to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser), recorded at columns 699-700W of Hansard, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions made it clear that at present we have no plans to make any changes in the hospital downrating provisions. The principle of avoiding double provision is a key cornerstone of the system of national insurance; it was introduced more

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than 50 years ago, and has been supported on both sides of the House. Indeed, as recently as Thursday, Lord Higgins, who speaks for the Conservative party in the upper House, supported it by suggesting that one way round the problem that arises on the resumption of benefits would be to continue them throughout a hospital stay, but to charge the individual for rent, accommodation and so forth. That is the Tory answer.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): Can the Minister give some reassurance to Age Concern in Tiverton? I met its representatives on Friday night, and they expressed concern about the increasing number of elderly people in hospital who are demanding to be sent home just before the six weeks are up. One of the factors behind that is the long delay in getting their benefit books back after they have to surrender them for the adjustment. Is there no minimum turn-round time that the Benefits Agency has to work to? If so, it is not working in my constituency. Will the Minister take a particular interest, and do something about that?

Maria Eagle: I would be happy for the hon. Lady to refer those cases to me so that I can look into them in detail. The Department does have a target for those who are claiming back a benefit. The target for dealing with a new claim for income support and the minimum income guarantee is 12 days, and the latest figures show that in fact we turn such claims round in 9.4 days. For claims concerning changes of circumstance the target is four days, and our performance shows that in fact we turn those claims round in an average of two and a half days. If the hon. Lady is running into problems in her constituency, I shall be more than happy to look into them if she refers them to me.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): Obviously I do not want to raise an individual case, because that sort of thing caused some controversy last week—but is my hon. Friend aware that there is concern, especially among elderly people, who are most vulnerable during a stay in hospital, and who may feel that they will lose all their benefits? Will she examine the situation and make sure that social workers give adequate information to the people who are most vulnerable?

Maria Eagle: I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes; it is important that when people are vulnerable in hospital they get proper advice. However, as I am sure everyone in the House would accept, giving people benefits advice when they are not feeling well could cause confusion and fear. There is no reason why the rules should not be well known—they have been operating for 54 years, since the beginning of the welfare state—and I hope that those dealing with vulnerable elderly people make the position clear to them. It has not changed recently.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): It seems risky being a pensioner in hospital these days. Will the Minister at least acknowledge that there is fresh and growing concern about the hospital downrating rules? They may have been around since 1948, and be based on the principleof avoiding double provision, but will she at least acknowledge that there is a problem in getting clear advice to patients while they are in hospital? Even when

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they are sick, they may still be worried about their benefit situation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said, there may be a particular problem in getting people back on to their benefits when they leave hospital. The process needs to be streamlined as much as possible, so will the Minister undertake to discuss the whole project in good faith with Age Concern and others who have direct experience of the human and practical implications?

Maria Eagle: Of course we have ongoing discussions with Age Concern and other organisations with an interest in these issues and we will certainly continue to do so. This rule has been in existence for 54 years; the Conservative party was in power for 35 of those years and did not do anything about it. However, I notice that the Leader of the Opposition's Parliamentary Private Secretary has signed early-day motion 542, so perhaps that signals a change in the Conservative party position.I remind my right hon. and hon. Friends about the Conservative party's views on bed and breakfast in hospital, which was reiterated as recently as Thursday in the other place.

Mr. Speaker: Order. Perhaps we will leave that.

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