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13 Jan 2003 : Column 392continued
The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown) Our active labour market policies are helping people to move from welfare to work in all parts of the country, and tax credits are making sure that that work pays. The new deals have already helped three quarters of a million
Mr. David : I know the Minister will agree that this is a huge issue. In some parts of the south Wales valleys, as many as one in four of the working-age population are categorised as economically inactive. Does my right hon. Friend also agree that it is necessary to improve the health and well-being of many in our poorest communities, and that healthy living programmes must be a vital part of our ongoing strategy?
Mr. Brown: I do agree; I represent a constituency with similar problems. We must consider people on Xinactive" benefits who might be able to do some work if the opportunities and the encouragement were there, and work with the national health service to establish rehabilitation programmes. That, indeed, is the thrust of the Green Paper on which we are now consulting.
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): The Minister will know that there are now 4 million income support claimants, more than there were when the Government came to power. He will also know that the number of incapacity benefit claimants is back to the 1997 level. Of the lone parents who were promisedif that is the right wordmandatory interviews enabling them to seek employment, only 14 per cent. have been given such interviews. What has gone wrong?
Mr. Brown: The problem arose, of course, under the Conservative Government, when the number of people receiving incapacity benefit and its predecessor trebled. It was, indeed, the unstated policy of the Conservative party to move people from unemployment benefit on to the inactive benefits, because unemployment was at its peak: some 3 million people a year were becoming unemployed.
We must see what we can do to return to work people receiving inactive benefits who would like to work and who could do something. That means working with the NHS and others to find pathways back into work. We are consulting on precisely those matters by way of the Green Paper.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): My right hon. Friend will know from his several visits to Plymouth of the spectacularly successful work done by the employment action zone and the Employment Service in tackling unemployment there. How will the partnerships be helped through the operation of employment action zones after October this year to help the Xhardest to help" back to work?
Mr. Brown: Those matters are under review. The Government's core policy is, of course, the roll-out of Jobcentre Plus. I have just written to Members describing the programme, and there is a copy of that letter in the Library. The future of the employment zone model is under consideration, but the Government will want to continue the partnership work that underpins it.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith): None in that form. Our target is to increase the employment rate of disabled people, and to reduce the gap between their rate of employment and the overall employment rate. The proposals in our Green Paper XPathways to Work" aim to help more people in receipt of incapacity benefit move into jobs.
Mr. Gray : The Government may have no targets now, but when they launched the new deal for disabled people their target was to return 90,000 disabled people to jobs within three years. However, Disability Now magazinewhich I am sure the Minister respects as much as I dotells me that the current figure is not 90,000 but 1,400. Why is that?
Mr. Smith: If I recall correctly, 8,000 people have moved into jobs through the new deal for disabled people. We need to do more in terms of our overall policy, but we are making good progress on the employment rates of disabled people.
The employment rate for disabled people rose by 4.5 per cent. between 1998 and 2002, and the difference between the disabled and the overall employment rate has fallen by 3 per cent., so the gap is being narrowed. Of course we want to do morefor example, by acting against discrimination against disabled people through building on the experience of the new deal and through the new pilots that we are launching later this year.
Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): I recently visited the social security office that provides services for my constituency. The staff there embraced and welcomed the new Jobcentre Plus approach. They are on the third phase, but there was a concern that those on the final stages of the roll-out of the new programme will not necessarily get the benefits that those involved in the pilot programme will receive. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that those at the end of the programme will be as well furbished and established in our constituencies as those who are at the beginning?
Mr. Smith: Yes, indeed. The whole object, as we develop new programmes and pilot new initiatives, is to learn from experience so that we can ensure that the service improvesfor example, through the programme support and personal advisory support that is available, and which, reports tell me, is greatly appreciated by clients of our services.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I am sure that the Secretary of State and, in this respect at least, the whole House may wish to agree with the Prime Minister, who said in a speech last year that it was Xa scandal" that 2.7 million people on incapacity or other disability benefits are
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): The inclusion of an antisocial behaviour Bill in our legislative programme underlines the Government's determination to tackle this problem, which blights the lives of so many of our constituents. We shall include in that Bill whatever measures will act as a real deterrent. We are considering a range of options, including housing benefit sanctions.
Mr. Plaskitt :I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that nuisance neighbour problems can be some of the hardest that we have to deal with in our constituencies. Constituents can become really frustrated at the inability of housing authorities or the police to take the action necessary to fix the problem. Does my hon. Friend agree that their frustration can be further aggravated by the knowledge that, in some cases, the law-abiding innocent neighbour may be subsidising the rent of the nuisance neighbour through their taxes?
Malcolm Wicks: I certainly understand that frustration. There was widespread support in the House for the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), and it was our job in the Government to try to make that a workable and legal Bill. It would have been on the statute book now but for the successful filibuster by the Liberal Democrats, who will have to account to their electorates for their behaviour.
Bob Spink (Castle Point): Does the Minister consider it to be antisocial behaviour for a council not properly to deal with housing benefit claims from constituents who are vulnerable and need help? What action would
Malcolm Wicks: We are taking a wide range of measures and action to improve housing benefit administration. We have a performance framework and extra funding for local authorities, and housing benefit performance is increasing, but I recognise that there are problems in some local authorities. We are tackling them as fast as we can.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): As the Government kindly took over the Housing Benefit (Withholding of Payment) Billand rewrote every clause and every word in it, including the long titlewhat would be the Minister's response if, after the support that No. 10 has provided, its provisions do not appear in the antisocial behaviour legislation that the Government are to introduce later this year?
Malcolm Wicks: To use my right hon. Friend's phrase, we took over the Bill simply to make it legal and workable, and he must forgive us for that. The serious point is that there is a range of ways to tackle antisocial behaviour. The Police Reform Act 2002 introduced changes that will strengthen antisocial behaviour orders, because we know that too few have been enacted. Also, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's consultation paper, XTackling Anti-Social Tenants", includes a range of ideas about tenancy agreements and the rest. Those and my right hon. Friend's ideas are ones that we are considering actively in terms of the antisocial behaviour Bill that will be brought before the House.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Concern about such disgusting behaviour extends to all parts of the House, and I am sure that all Members present have had brought to their surgeries, as I have, harrowing cases involving frightened or terrified peoplepensioners, young families and otherssome of whom have even been driven from their homes. The Minister has rightly drawn attention to the shameful role of the Liberal Democrats in talking out the measure. When will he be able to tell his hon. Friends whether the proposal is to be enacted this year?
Malcolm Wicks: We all recognised during the deliberations on the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead that, at best, it would be a minor weapon in the armoury and that antisocial behaviour ordersthis we stated at the timeand tenancy agreements were the stronger. I can only repeat that we are considering all those ideas, and our proposals will come forward with the Bill in due course.