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The Minister for Work (Mr. Desmond Browne): The Government's active labour market policies continue to ensure that people can take advantage of the many new job opportunities that are coming up all the time. That is especially true of the most disadvantaged, such as the long-term unemployed. Since 1997, employment has grown to record levels, and by well over a million in the private sector. Since 1997, long-term unemployment has fallen by about 75 per cent, to its lowest level since the 1970s. Indeed, in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, it has fallen by 79 per cent.
Mr. Prisk : I am grateful to the Minister for his response. However, the CBI has said that two out of three jobs created this year will be in the public sector, and that that trend is unsustainable. Does he agree?
Mr. Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will know of the longstanding convention under which the Department does not forecast levels of employment or unemployment. Indeed, that convention was observed by previous Governments too. Most outside forecasters, however, including the OECD, expect a pick-up in economic growth in 2004, with the labour market remaining strong in all sectors.
David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): While I recognise that the long-term unemployed should certainly be encouraged into jobs, will my hon. Friend give a firm pledge on an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and I raised two years ago with the Prime Minister, and assure us that the severely disabled will not be subject to frequent testing when it is clear that they are not in position to take jobs?
Mr. Browne: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I am sure that he knows, because he has long taken a keen interest in the development of Government policy on inactive benefits, that they are received by a wide range of people. He will know of the development of our pathways to work policy and that even in the pilots for that scheme engagement is voluntary. That policy clearly demonstrates that the Government's policy is entirely consistent with his expectations.
The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): Improving protection for members of final salary pension schemes is a Government priority. Through new legislation and, in particular, the pension protection fund, we are taking action to ensure that a pension promise made is a pension promise honoured. The pension protection fund will be introduced in the forthcoming pensions Bill.
Malcolm Wicks: Having met many workers in that kind of situation, I have a clear understanding of the heartbreak and impact on health and family life that can be occasioned by that kind of disaster for individuals. We had a full airing of this issue when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State took not dissimilar questions on the matter, and I cannot add to what he said on that occasion. While there is an issue about the present, at least we now have a Government who, by legislating for a protection fund, will ensure that that kind of scandal never occurs again in Great Britain.
Mr. Clappison: May I take the Minister on to another aspect of final salary insolvencies and the future in such cases? Does he agreeperhaps he will do so in the light of the experience that he has just describedthat one of the most distressing features of such insolvencies is that workers who have lost all their pension rights were in many cases very close to retirement age and had accumulated substantial pension rights? I know that the Government have been consulting on the question of the priority order in winding-ups. When will some action be taken on the matter?
Malcolm Wicks: We have been consulting on the important issue, which the hon. Gentleman brings to the House's attention, of the priority order. We think that the existing priority order is unfair, not least to that group of workers whom he mentioned, some of whom I have met, who are just about to approach retirement age and who lose out under the current scheme. That is why we will take action. When we have formulated proposals, we will bring them to the House.
Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South) (Lab): While I welcome the pension protection fund, my hon. Friend the Minister has indicated that the Government are currently considering proposals. Will he bring those proposals to the Floor of the House as soon as possible, because the pension protection fund will do nothing for the individuals in my constituency who have lost their occupational pension scheme? Will he also accept that the Conservative party has selective amnesia when it talks about the
Malcolm Wicks: Therefore, Mr. Speaker, I will try to forget the remarks that my hon. Friend has just made. As I said, our proposals on the priority order will come to the House. As we discussed earlier, however, in the questions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, we are listening to all suggestions about how we can tackle immediate problems. It must be repeated again, however, that it would be wrong to offer false hope in what is a complex situation at which we are looking carefully.
The Minister for Work (Mr. Desmond Browne): Jobcentre Plus and the Pension Service are modernising the services that we provide to our customers, including those in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. They are providing improved customer access through telephone centres, the internet and new, dedicated caller offices[Interruption.]
Mr. Browne: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Ministerial colleagues and I meet the Department's trade union representatives from time to time. Managers and union representatives at all levels meet routinely to discuss the development of the new services.
Mr. Bellingham: I thank the Minister for that reply, but it was a slightly complacent one. Is he aware that the roll-out of Jobcentre Plus in my constituency has led to many changes, with the co-location of the social security and jobcentre functions at Lovell House? Furthermore, many staff have been relocated to jobcentres elsewhere, which has led to a great deal of disruption and stress to individuals. Morale is proving difficult to manage, yet local management are doing their level best to keep up morale. What will he do to try to help with that process?
Mr. Browne: The development of Jobcentre Plus in the hon. Gentleman's constituency is, of course, part of a significant investment in that service. He is right that in King's Lynn the customer-facing services, as they are known, are being brought to one siteLovell Housewhich is just round the corner from the Priory House social security office, which will continue to employ a significant number of people processing benefit applications. Of course, there will be no redundancies in his constituency as a consequence of that.
The hon. Gentleman accuses me of complacency. To my knowledge the local management have offered him two opportunities to go and discuss these issues with them, and he has been unable to keep either appointment.
Chris Bryant: As my right hon. Friend will know, everyone is delighted that we have stopped languishing at the bottom of the league, but we are still only 11th: we are still falling behind the whole of Scandinavia, France, Germany and Greece. There is much on the agenda that will change that, but do we still need to learn lessons from our European Union colleagues?
Mr. Smith: As I have said, we had already made good progress by 2001, and I am confident that the other steps we have takennot least the increase of £3.50 a week in the child element of the tax credit, benefiting more than 7 million poor childrenwill enable us to make further progress.
Of course we can learn from other European countries, just as they have much to learn from us about labour market flexibility. Social solidarity and fellow feeling for all citizens in our countrythe feeling that poverty, particularly child poverty, is an evil that must be eliminatedshould mobilise public opinion not just among those who support our party, but among those who support all parties in the House.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond): As a result of our policies, there are now half a million fewer children living on relatively low incomes than in 1997. Had we done nothing, a million and a half more children would have been in poverty. We are on course to meet our target to reduce the number of children in low-income households by a quarter by 200405.
Mr. Pond: As my hon. Friend knows, our child support reforms have led to a considerable increase in the number of parents with care who receive the premium. The figures are available in the Library[Interruption]but no, not in my briefing.
Mr. Pond: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already mentioned the £3.50 increase in the child element of the tax credit, which will benefit more than 7 million children. That means that total spending on financial support for children will have increased by £10 billion in real terms since 1997, which we expect to help us achieve our public service agreement target of reducing the number of children in low-income households by a quarter by 200405.