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The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling): The rapid response service works closely with Jobcentre Plus helping people who are affected by redundancy: 56 Jobcentre Plus pathfinder offices have already opened and are working well. Later this week, I will announce that a further 225 offices will open in the coming year, 2002-03. I shall arrange to place a list of the areas where the offices will be in the Library, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Work will write to all hon. Members with offices in their constituencies setting out the details.
Lawrie Quinn: I thank the many people from the rapid response service who assisted my constituents last year, when Plaxton's bus factory faced closure. Does my right hon. Friend envisage that the service will link up with agencies such as citizens advice bureaux to give debt counselling to those who face redundancy, and to help them manage associated domestic finance problems?
The whole object of the new Jobcentre Plus regime, which brings benefits and job searches together under one roof, is to ensure that we can turn round people who lose their jobs as quickly as possible. I was just asked about the difficulties of the over-50s. Jobcentre Plus is a new and better way to help back into work people who, in the past, were left out and in some cases simply written off when they lost their jobs. Jobcentre Plus and the rapid response service will continue to do everything that they can to help people such as my hon. Friend's constituents.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Given that the number of notified compulsory redundancies is increasing quite rapidly in some parts of the country, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the rapid response service is welcome and necessary? Does he also recognise the need to do something specific about the imbalance between manufacturing and the service sector, and what has he urged the Chancellor to do in the Budget to correct the exchange rate problems and to increase industrial regional aid budgets?
Mr. Darling: The exchange rate issue is probably beyond the scope of this question. As I said, redundancies were announced, particularly last autumn, but the number who went back into work was encouraging. Indeed, a record number of people are in employment. That is due primarily to a strong and robust economy and to the steps taken by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, but also to the supply-side measures that we have taken. We have improved people's skills and training, reformed the Employment Service, established the new Jobcentre Plus regime and the rapid response service, and implemented a raft of measures designed to ensure that we get people who lose their jobs back into work as quickly as possible.
Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): I know that my right hon. Friend understands the trauma that affects an individual who is made redundant, especially if he or sheI do not want to exclude women from this ball game by any meansis in his or her 40s. Can he reassure me that the job transition service, which is currently in project form, will be universally available by April 2002, and that it will build confidence in such people so that they can face new jobs and training for new skills? That confidence is invariably missing in families who face redundancy.
Mr. Darling: It is important to do everything that we can to help people in their 40s or 50s who face losing their jobs. At the moment, nearly a third of people aged over 50 are out of work, and most of them depend on benefits for the majority of their income. There is no doubt that that situation is far from satisfactory. It is a legacy of the events of the 1980s, when people who lost their jobs were written off.
My hon. Friend asked about the job transition service and the rapid response service. We want to ensure that that help is available where it is needed. Some services, such as the Jobcentre Plus regime, will be nation wide. Measures such as the rapid response service have been taken to deal with specific circumstances; they are not intended to deal with every situation because that would not be appropriate.
I can tell my hon. Friend, however, that the idea of bringing together benefits and job searches under one roof is to get rid once and for all of the artificial distinction between those who are looking for work and those who sign on for benefitsdisability benefits, lone parent benefits or any other benefits. This is a far better approach, which will build on our efforts to get more and more people into work.
My hon. Friend has the assurance that she seeks. We will do all that we can, particularly for older workers. We need to redouble our efforts in that regard, for obvious reasons given by Members on both sides of the House today and in the past.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): We consulted widely with organisations of and for disabled people, and with disabled people themselves, during the development of the new deal for disabled people. Some 88 organisations contributed to the consultation on the national extension of the new deal. We continue to meet organisations of and for disabled people to discuss its implementation, and to design improvements.
Mr. Marsden: I thank my hon. Friend for her reply, which will be of particular benefit to those of my constituents who are disabled. I have more than the national average, as do many other seaside towns where disabled people are now looking for work.
What additional support and assistance might be made available to encourage small and medium-sized businesses to take on people with disabilities? According to recent research on pilot new deal schemes, employers found awareness of the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to be one of the most helpful aspects of the process.
Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is right to say that we need to work with employers as well as with disabled people. Part of the job brokers' rolethis is one reason why the scheme is so innovativeis to liaise with local businesses and build up a relationship with them, as well as getting to know local disabled people who want to work and who participate in the scheme. That enables the brokers to convince local businesses of the advantages of employing certain disabled people.
One of the innovations in the new deal for disabled people is the attempt to broker between a disabled person who is looking for work and local employers who are looking for employees to find that person a suitable job.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): We all share the objective of helping disabled people into work, but should not the new deal take on board the lessons of last week's National Audit Office report on the new deal for young people? It showed that, far from reducing youth unemployment by 250,000 as Ministers have claimed, the new deal achieved a reduction of at best no more than 45,000, and possibly as little as 25,000. May we have a proper, objective evaluation of the new deal for disabled people and of the other new deal programmes to see what difference they are really making? And can Ministers remove the need for us to divide by 10 when we hear the claims that they make?
Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman is being churlish. Of course there are always proper evaluations of our schemes. That is particularly important in the case of schemes such as the new deal for disabled people, which is highly innovative. It is developing new ways of delivering services to a group that was completely ignored by the last Tory Government. People who were disabled were dumped on to benefits and given no help whatever to obtain work.
Of course it is important to have proper evaluation when we consider whether our scheme has worked and how well it has worked, and of course we will have that evaluation. We shall need to learn from our experience to design improvements, but we are determined to bring about effective services and help a group of people who have been ignored for too long.
I have visited many new deal job brokers, and the enthusiasm of participants in the schemeboth disabled people looking for work and staff looking for jobs for themis palpable. They welcome this help. It is about time that they received it; they certainly never did when the Conservative party was in power.
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): Does my hon. Friend recognise that although we have moved a long way towards helping people with a disability to get back into work, there needs to be a fast track to enable employers to carry out the adaptations and get into place the extra equipment that is needed so that people can begin a job as speedily as possible?
Maria Eagle: When employers consider taking on disabled staff, it is important that they do not feel that they will be disadvantaged by doing so. It is therefore important that the necessary help be provided as soon as possible. Disabled people face not only multiple disadvantages but often discrimination. Our agenda on civil rightsto get rid finally of disability discrimination in the work force and the work placeis going ahead. It is vital that we take forward those two strands so that we help disabled people into work, overcoming the disadvantage under which they find themselves, and overcome the discrimination that is sometimes directed at