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Jobseeker's Allowance

10. Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): What representations he has received in the past month on the arrangements under which jobseeker's allowance payments can be suspended. [123530]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Desmond Browne): The Department receives regular representations from members of the public and Members of the House on individual cases where jobseeker's allowance has been suspended or, more often, sanctioned. Those cases are dealt with on an individual basis, having regard to the circumstances of each case.

Mr. Barnes : I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position. He did a fine job in the Northern Ireland Office and I sure that that work will continue in his present post. Is he aware that the labour market statistics on adjudication officers' decisions on jobseeker's allowance for 2002 show that there were 670,000 cases, in 49 per cent. of which benefits were reduced for different ranges and varying periods? Is that not an excessive number of cases, extremely time-consuming and of concern to everybody involved in the procedures? Would it not be better to tackle unemployment by creating fresh job opportunities, rather than pressurising those in vulnerable circumstances to ensure that they take every last opportunity available?

Mr. Browne: I am aware of particular statistics, as my hon. Friend knows, having brought them to my attention a short time after I became a Minister in the Department. I thank him for his kind remarks. May I reciprocate by reminding the House of his enviable reputation, particularly on campaigning for the

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unemployed and those who live in poverty? Consequently, I am sure that he is pleased about another statistic—a 46 per cent. reduction in the unemployment claimant count in his constituency since this Government came to power. The fact is that that did not happen on its own. It happened partly because of the target regime of jobcentres and Jobcentre Plus. There are no staff targets about increasing the number of people who are sanctioned or suspended. The only targets that those who work in Jobcentre Plus have in this area are those based on success in finding work. I am sure that he shares that aim.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on reaching his new position. He and his Department are aware of the fact that Brandon's turkey factory in Dalton industrial estate in Vale of York has closed, with the loss of some 300 jobs. A large proportion of those jobs were held by agency workers. In what circumstances are those people eligible for jobseeker's allowance? Can he try to ensure that Jobcentre Plus is engaged at an earlier stage, before receivership is announced in a factory?

Mr. Browne: As I pointed out, Jobcentre Plus and jobcentres deal with individuals as individuals. Of course, there are benefits and support that all workers who are made redundant and lose their jobs, whether they were held with agencies or directly with the employer, can, do and have received from Jobcentre Plus. Indeed, a fine example is what happened at MG Rover, which I recently visited with Jobcentre Plus staff from Birmingham. There are no more experienced people for helping just the sort of constituents to whom the hon. Lady refers. If I can be of any direct assistance to those constituents, I shall be happy to oblige.

Deferred Pensions (Compensation)

12. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): If he will take steps to compensate deferred pensioners in final salary occupational pension schemes that are in the process of being wound up where the fund will not meet its obligations. [123532]

The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explained to my hon. Friend when they met last week, we are very sympathetic to the plight of his constituents and others in a similar position. Indeed, it is because of such cases that we are strengthening member protection and introducing a pensions protection fund. However, as we have made clear, while we will listen to constructive proposals, we do not want to give false hope.

Kevin Brennan : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. I welcome him to his post and pay tribute to his predecessor, who also listened carefully to concerns about the issue that I have raised. Does he understand how ex-workers of Allied Steel and Wire feel, especially those who entered the steel industry when it was a nationalised industry and, as part of their conditions of employment, joined an occupational final salary pension scheme, paid into it for 40 years and found,

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months short of retirement, that it would be worth a fraction of what they had reasonably anticipated? Does he understand that those pensioners look to a Labour Government and the Minister for Pensions in that Government to turn the slogan of fairness and security in retirement into a reality?

Malcolm Wicks: I can understand that situation. These are groups of workers who have done absolutely the right and responsible thing in being part of the schemes, but who have suddenly been affected by a catastrophe. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and others in the House who are campaigning on the issue. I am afraid that I must repeat, however, that it would be wrong for Ministers to raise false hopes about a solution. We are clear that, for the future, we can legislate with the protection fund to insure against the occurrence of such a serious social accident. We are listening to ideas, but that is all I can say. It would be very wrong if Ministers made comments in the House that raised hopes that may not be realised.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): The Minister will have realised from the question asked by the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) that the pensions crisis is biting deep for many hundreds of thousands of people. There is particular disappointment about the ministerial announcement on the crisis last month, about which the victims of funded pensions were very concerned. While I perfectly understand that it is right not to hold out false hope, surely the question of compensation must be seriously addressed in respect of this very serious matter.

Malcolm Wicks: I share that concern, which I suspect is widespread in this House, but who would pay for that compensation; and if it is retrospective, how far back does one go? Those are difficult issues. The main task of Government is to ensure that such situations do not occur in future. I mentioned the pension protection fund. We are also going to require solvent employers who choose to wind up their pension schemes to meet their pension promise in full through a full buy-out. That is important. I can only repeat that whenever the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members raise the issue, we will listen to any constructive proposals.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): I, too, welcome the Minister to his new brief and look forward to seeing how he develops it. He rightly said that the Government are much concerned about the hundreds of thousands of our constituents who have lost all or part of their pensions. As part of that urgency to find the right solution, will the Government back the Pensions (Winding Up) Bill on Friday, or will they block it again?

Malcolm Wicks: It is important that we legislate where we can. I have referred to two major items among our own future pension legislation. Most of the key ideas in my right hon. Friend's Bill will be covered in the Government strategy; that is the best way to take the matter forward.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I find myself in alarming agreement with the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) in underlining the simple fact

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that there is a great difference between an inability to meet a commitment and a patent unwillingness to do so. Can I implore the Minister, in a cross-party spirit, to underline at every turn the Government's intention to compel those who can pay to do so? It is unacceptable that large companies should deprive people of legitimate entitlements that were built up over a long period, and on the strength of which their expectations for their retirement are based.

Malcolm Wicks: Where there are existing laws and regulations, that is absolutely right, and our officials in the Department give that kind of advice in such circumstances. However, existing law does not cover every circumstance. That is why it is important that we legislate for the future.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): Returning to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), I have in my constituency ASW Sheerness, from which people were made redundant a year ago. What investigations is the Department undertaking as to whether orphan funds are an appropriate way to satisfy the current deficits? Has the Minister considered an insurance that is retrospective? What would be the costs of an insurance that was taken forward, while the backward part was in deficit? I hope that I made that clear.

Malcolm Wicks: I repeat that we will seriously consider any proposals and are talking to hon. Members and other representatives. As regards orphan funds, that suggestion has been made, not least by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)—

Mr. Frank Field: Unclaimed assets.

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Malcolm Wicks: Another issue is that of unclaimed assets. However, there is no automatic connection between some of those funds and the pension crisis that we face. Many others who are facing past injustice could make legitimate claims. I have to repeat—we mean it seriously—that we will look at constructive proposals. It would be very wrong, however, if we made commitments in this House that we could not fulfil.

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