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18. Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): What his targets are for the reduction of household poverty. [81287]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): We recently published our fourth annual report on poverty, XOpportunity for All", which provides a detailed account of our strategy, measurement indicators and what more we need to do. The report shows that we have achieved a great deal and that our approach is working, and we will continue to deliver on this challenge over the years to come.

Mr. Foulkes : But has it yet dawned on the Government that if they continue to measure relative poverty and use a percentage of median wage as the poverty level, we will never be able to eliminate poverty? Yet as wages increase at a much greater rate than inflation, everyone is getting wealthier. Surely, there must be some more sensible way of measuring genuine poverty, so we will achieve our aims and not hear the sort of nonsense that was spouted earlier by the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing).

Malcolm Wicks: We want to consult on this matter, because the Government have a bold target of eradicating child poverty. Even on the difficult relative measure—it is difficult because we are trying to hit a moving target as a result of economic prosperity—500,000 fewer children are now in relative low-income households than in 1997. [Interruption.] Opposition Members would do well to listen. They increased child poverty, while this Government have reduced it.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): There are record numbers of homeless people in this country today. Would Ministers care to comment on the fact that homeless families with children have increased by 11 per cent. in the past four years? What are the Government doing about that shocking situation?

Malcolm Wicks: I do not accept that there are record numbers of homeless people, but I acknowledge that there is a housing problem, not least in the south-east. We are enabling more of those parents to get into jobs. That means that 250,000 fewer children are in workless households than when we took over from the Conservative Government. That is a double victory:

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an attack on child poverty and more of our children growing up with experience of an adult in work in their families.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Is my hon. Friend in consultation with the Chancellor to ensure that continuing reform of the benefits and taxation system means that people in employment gain significantly from their efforts?

Malcolm Wicks: It is absolutely vital when people take the difficult step from welfare dependency into work that we demonstrate that work pays financially. That is why the national minimum wage and the working families tax credit are so important. They have made work pay and meant an average weekly gain of £35. Our strategy is to make skilled work possible and to make it pay.

Unemployment Figures

19. Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): What assessment he has made of the most recent unemploymentfigures. [81288]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown): Economic stability and active labour market programmes have helped people move from welfare to work in all parts of the country. Consequently, unemployment has fallen to levels not experienced since the 1970s and has remained at those low levels for more than a year.

Of course we want to do more. That is why we are introducing even more support to ensure that no area is bypassed and no one is excluded from mainstream economic prosperity.

Mr. Bryant : I am sure that my right hon. Friend knows about the dramatic fall in unemployment in constituencies such as the Rhondda since 1997. However, has he had an opportunity to consider the new survey that MORI conducted on behalf of the Coalfields Regeneration Trust into the attitudes of young people in former mining constituencies to employment? Has he noted that fewer than 1 per cent. of young people in such constituencies believed it likely that they would become company directors? What are the Government doing to ensure that young people in former mining constituencies increase their aspirations?

Mr. Brown: We need to increase and broaden people's aspirations. Proactive management of the labour market is therefore important. A first job is a stepping stone to a whole career. There is no reason why people from constituencies that traditionally relied on a single employment base such as mining and shipbuilding should not share in the rest of the country's aspirations.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): The Minister will agree that unemployment, especially youth unemployment, was already falling before the Labour party came to power. Does he also agree that skills

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shortages are the problem in areas such as Vale of York? Who will conduct a skills audit to marry the skills that employers require to places that currently lack them?

Mr. Brown: The regional development agencies are considering skills needs region by region. I take the opportunity to praise Yorkshire Forward, which covers the hon. Lady's constituency. The RDAs have recently produced studies that cover the ground that she rightly mentioned.

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr): What progress has the Jobcentre Plus initiative made?

Maria Eagle: How long have we got?

Mr. Brown: Exactly. The reply could keep us here until 3.30 pm. Jobcentre Plus is a flagship programme for the Department which has been established throughout the country. Its purpose is to bring together benefits advice and proactive labour market advice, and to help people to achieve the most that they can by getting them into work.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): Does the Minister agree that it would be better for the Government to spend more time and resources in encouraging more young people to become apprentices in some of the trades that are suffering skills shortages instead of staying on at school to study inappropriate A-levels or even going on to university? Where are we going to get our future carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers and welders?

Mr. Brown: It is right to look at modern apprenticeships, and to make sure that we are addressing skills shortages in the economy. That is a matter that should be discussed on a regular basis between my Department and the Department for Education and Skills.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington): Over the last five years, unemployment in my constituency has fallen to below 2 per cent., but individual wards still have high levels of unemployment. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is still a need for programmes to promote employment and enterprise in such wards, even though they are within constituencies with low overall levels of unemployment?

Mr. Brown: Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government have programmes in place to target specific pockets of high unemployment. There is a range of reasons for that high unemployment, which is why the schemes to tackle it are varied.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): My right hon. Friend will be pleased, as I was, to know that the Whitby Gazette recently reported that unemployment in that fishing port is at an all-time low. Given the debate that we had last week on fisheries, what work will his Department do in the event of fisheries employment

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opportunities failing—we hope that that will not happen—because of the forthcoming threat being brought in by Europe?

Mr. Brown: Where there have been large numbers of redundancies in the fishing sector—and in other sectors—local jobcentres and Jobcentre Plus, where it is rolled out, stand ready to help. If a rapid response is required, it will be there.

Selby Coalfield Taskforce

20. Mr. John Grogan (Selby): If he will make a statement concerning the work of his Department in assisting the Selby coalfield taskforce. [81289]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown): Jobcentre Plus is a member of the Selby coalfield taskforce, and it is involved both on the ground and in the development of the taskforce action plan. An application for rapid response service help has been approved, and resources have been deployed at each of the four sites affected. Jobcentre Plus is working alongside other partners to provide information, advice and guidance to workers. Because of the special circumstances, workers in the Selby coalfield can benefit from early access to training and other support from the rapid response service.

Mr. Grogan : I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Given the anticipated scale of the redundancies in the Selby coalfield in late 2003 and early 2004—2,000 jobs lost from the mines directly, and 3,000 indirectly—will he confirm that he is prepared to waive the so-called 90-day rule, which limits the assistance given by the rapid response unit to those applying within 90 days of being made redundant?

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend has always been a staunch advocate of his constituents' interests. I can confirm that, given the very special circumstances in the area, I have acceded to Lord Haskins's request for the 90-day rule to be waived in respect of access to Government schemes.

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