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17 Mar 2003 : Column 617—continued

Lone Parents (Workless Households)

7. Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): If he will make a statement on the number of lone parent workless households. [102951]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown): In autumn 2002, there were 707,000 workless lone parent households in the UK. Since 1997, the lone parent employment rate has increased by almost one fifth. For the first time, it is over 50 per cent. Recent independent evaluation by the National Centre for Social Research has shown that the new deal for lone parents more than doubles lone parents' chances of finding a job.

Mr. Mitchell : Why does the Minister not come clean with the House and admit that, over the past year, there has been an increase of 55,000 in the number of children in workless households? Is that not a savage indictment of the Government's failure to tackle poverty in the way that they promised—quite apart from being a breach of the solemn undertakings that were given by his party at the general election?

Mr. Brown: No, it is not. I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's interest in these matters and I know that he serves on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. However, he has a pretty grudging way of looking at the issues. By far and away the best way in which to help the poorest households is to ensure that a member of such households gets into work that pays and that the jobs are available. That is the direction in which we are moving and, frankly, the results speak for themselves.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to confirm that 250,000 fewer children are in workless households than in 1997? Indeed, will he confirm that up to 1 million children stand to benefit from the changes to child maintenance premium to the tune of up to £10 per week as a result of the Government's recent initiative?

Mr. Brown: Of course, my hon. Friend is right. One would pay more attention to the representations of the Opposition if they could set out their alternative policies clearly. Do they want to go back to 3 million unemployed, and the 15 per cent. interest rates and 10 per cent. inflation rates that they visited on the country? People very quickly forget what happened.

Long-term Unemployment

8. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): What further steps he will take to help people into work in communities with high levels of long-term unemployment. [102952]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown): In areas with high levels of long-term unemployment, we have introduced initiatives such as action teams for jobs and employment zones. The north-west Wales action team and employment zone, which works in my hon. Friend's constituency, has helped more than 1,100 people into work. In addition, we are building on the new deal by providing transitional jobs, through the StepUp pilots, to act as a stepping-stone for long-term unemployed people moving from benefits into work. Further action

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in areas with the highest concentrations of worklessness was announced in the pre-Budget report. The Government's active labour market policies have played an important part in reducing long-term unemployment by more than three quarters and youth unemployment by 88 per cent. since 1997 in my hon. Friend's constituency.

Chris Ruane : I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The unemployment rate in my constituency is 3.1 per cent., so unemployment has virtually disappeared. However, 44 per cent. of the unemployment is concentrated in only two wards. More than 2,500 jobs are being created six miles away on the St. Asaph business park, and excellent initiatives such as the working links car loans scheme are having an impact on transport. What additional transport initiatives can the Government take to connect the jobless with the jobs?

Mr. Brown: There are two great advantages of the action team approach. First, it is proactive and can go out and help unemployed people, rather than requiring those people to seek help. The second great advantage is flexibility, which includes underpinning transport schemes such as the one that my hon. Friend mentioned, with which he is familiar from his constituency, and more generally. I understand that the car leasing scheme is to be expanded and that, in his constituency, it will be extended to a scooter leasing scheme in April.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): When can my right hon. Friend announce the areas chosen to pilot the Government's new pathways into work programmes? If one of those areas turns out to be in Scotland, will he assure me that he will liaise closely with the Minister for Health and Community Care in the Scottish Executive so that if unemployed people required a rehabilitation course, for example, they would be able to access one as easily in my constituency as in his?

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend makes his representations very well, as ever. We shall make the announcement as soon as we can. I had the opportunity to visit Scotland recently and saw at first hand the good rehabilitation work that is being undertaken locally.

Pension Payments (Hospital Patients)

9. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): If he will pay full pensions to people who are in hospital for longer than six weeks; and if he will make a statement. [102953]

The Minister for Pensions (Mr. Ian McCartney): We have already announced that we are increasing the period to 13 weeks from this October. We estimate that at any point in time some 26,000 people will benefit from the change, of whom some 18,000 will be people receiving state pension and 2,000 will be people receiving pension credit. By contrast, when the Conservative Government reviewed the rules, they introduced a standard six-week period for all benefits,

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including some that had previously had an eight-week rule, which meant that many people suffered detriment under that Government.

Mr. Robertson : I am grateful to the Minister for that response, but does he recognise that the problem is bigger when people have to stay in hospital much longer because of bed blocking? Is it not also a problem that other benefits, such as the disability living allowance and the carer's allowance, make it increasingly difficult for people to leave hospital? I welcome the change of the six-week rule to 13 weeks, but will the Minister review other benefits and ensure that people are not kept in hospital when they should not be there?

Mr. McCartney: Some 95 per cent. of hospital admissions for older people last less than six weeks, thank goodness, while the figure for the general population is 97 per cent. The Government are investing hugely in carers and people in the community through intermediate care, as well as funding the biggest ever investment in primary and acute care in the NHS. The hon. Gentleman's party opposes such investment and wants to make a 20 per cent. cut., so I will take no lessons from him on downrating or on investment in public services.

Claire Ward (Watford): I welcome the extension by my right hon. Friend of the number of weeks during which pensioners are still entitled to payment while in hospital. However, the payment of council tax is an important issue, particularly for pensioners in my area, who face higher payments as a result of the decision by Liberal Democrats in borough and district councils significantly to increase council tax. In addition, Conservative-controlled Hertfordshire county council is significantly increasing council tax, despite the fact that the Government have given it an above-inflation funding increase. What assistance can my right hon. Friend provide for all pensioners, as it is clear that neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats care about them?

Mr. McCartney: When I announced those changes in the State Pension Credit Bill, I made it clear that they not only applied to those who receive the basic state pension but extended to people who receive housing benefit and invalidity benefit.

As my hon. Friend says, Liberal Democrat councillors throughout the country are penalising pensioners and others by making draconian increases in council tax despite the record amount of money that they are receiving from the Government to improve and modernise services.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Is not one of the problems when Ministers make concessions—as all parties are pleased that they have in this case—that it tends to leave unfinished business? Will the Minister consider seriously those benefits that have not been improved as a result of his alleged generosity? I think particularly of attendance allowance and associated carers' benefits. The rules are still very tight, with a limit of four weeks, I think. Does the Minister appreciate that, when an elderly person is taken into hospital, the last thing that they or their family are thinking about is

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whether their benefits may be clawed back? Will he reconsider whether that nasty shock may be avoided, and administrative feasibility improved?

Mr. McCartney: The change was not a concession. One of the first things I did when I was appointed Minister for Pensions was to make it clear to the organisations representing older people that I wanted to make changes in this area. I made a promise, and I kept that promise. The issues that the hon. Gentleman raises are separate. He asks about the rules on benefits that are related to people's disability and intended to contribute to their everyday living costs when they are in the community. Those costs are transferred when they have long-term illness as a result of their disability and are in hospital.

I am aware of the need to review these matters, but I make it clear that the change that has been made benefits 97 per cent. of individuals who go into hospital. Other changes, such as the increases to benefits that we made in the uprating statement, assist the different beneficiaries mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

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