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2.57 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): It is a pleasure to be able to take part in this short but high-quality debate on the uprating orders. We have heard some interesting contributions—not least, the one from the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley). I always think of his constituency as including part of Hammersmith, having been chairman of the Hammersmith Conservatives many years ago and failing miserably to unseat him, to his no doubt considerable relief.

We started the debate with an orgy of self-congratulation from the Secretary of State about the benefits situation. As the debate has worn on, however, some of the gilt has come off the gingerbread. The Government now spend £125 billion a year on benefits and tax credits. Are they spending all that wisely, sensibly and effectively? Certainly not.

I turn first to the issue of means-tested benefits, especially council tax benefits, as that subject arises naturally from the previous speech. We know that

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council tax benefits have the lowest take-up rate and we know the reasons. I shall not repeat the good points that have already been made about that aspect of the debate. We also know the problems that have been caused by the recent shift in grant allocation from the south of the country to the north and midlands. We have also had endless debate about the case of the elderly lady, and I shall not dwell on it at any greater length. The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush has made his points.

As the Secretary of State recognised, however, there is a major problem in getting to claim that particular means-tested benefit. Within that problem is the even bigger problem of owner-occupiers; the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) touched on that important point. All too often in recent times, retired owner-occupiers, with major difficulties in making ends meet, have been faced with gigantic increases in their council tax and are either unable or unwilling to claim council tax benefit—in many cases, simply from ignorance that it even exists or that it would apply to them if they asked for it. I welcome the Government's publicity campaign, but that very campaign underlines the immutable problem with all means-tested benefits: there will always be a lack of take-up of those benefits, no matter how much any Government spend on advertising, television or writing to people.

In my constituency last year, there was a 38 per cent. increase in the council tax element generated by Eastbourne borough council—the fourth highest in the country. The hon. Member for Northavon would be disappointed if I did not remind the House that Eastbourne is a Liberal Democrat-controlled authority. Locally, the Liberal Democrats are running their "Ax the tax" campaign, which is rather like a serial killer pleading, "Please stop me before I do it again". However, in reality, the fact remains that many vulnerable elderly people, who have limited resources and have great problems in making ends meet, do not claim their full entitlement.

I shall return to means-tested benefits in a moment, but first I want to touch on the issue of economic inactivity on which there was some dispute between the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts). There is a growing and worrying problem, which David Smith set out well in an article in The Sunday Times only a couple of days ago. He said that, yes, the headline figures for employment look pretty good, on the face of it. Indeed, only the other day, the Minister for Work, who will be winding up the debate, was quick to issue a press release taking credit for what seemed to be relatively rosy figures, but as the article in The Sunday Times says—

Mr. Browne: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Waterson: Yes, although I should have liked to finish my point.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way in mid sentence, but it is important that he inform the House of two things. First, the press release was issued in response to the monthly labour market figures published not by my Department but by the

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Office for National Statistics. Every month from time immemorial, every Minister who has had my responsibilities has issued a press release on those figures, although they have not always been able to welcome the good news that I have been able to welcome so consistently. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman should have informed the House of the fact that I drew attention in that very press release to inactivity. Indeed, I have done so in almost every public statement that I have made as Minister for Work.

Mr. Waterson: That is a helpful intervention. I was certainly not criticising the Minister for putting out a press release; that is one of the things that Ministers do. On the Minister's second point, I am delighted that the penny has begun to drop for Ministers and the Department and that they realise that there is a massive hidden problem—

Mr. Browne rose—

Mr. Waterson: May I get to the end of this sentence? [Interruption.] Very well, I give way.

Mr. Browne: I do not know where the hon. Gentleman has been over the life of the Labour Government, but, if he does not already have them, I shall send him the documents we have published on the development of our policies to tackle inactivity. He must surely know about the "Pathways to Work" Green Paper, published about two years ago, and about the pilots which have already taken place, and which will be taking place shortly across 10 per cent. of the country.

Mr. Waterson: In a sense, this argument is the wrong way round. The Minister was obviously so incensed by some of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant and endorsed by The Sunday Times that he took the trouble of writing to my hon. Friend on 9 February to complain about the figures on which my hon. Friend has been relying, which I shall cite in a moment. The Minister cannot have it both ways. He cannot agree with what I have yet to say on the subject on the one hand while on the other violently disagreeing—albeit with his usual courtesy—with my hon. Friend in writing earlier this month. Or are there two Ministers of the same name prowling the corridors of the Department for Work and Pensions? [Interruption.] The Minister says that he can have it both ways. Perhaps he can—at least for the next 15 months.

May I now make the point with which the Minister so violently disagreed before I could make it? The Sunday Times article states:

David Smith draws particular attention to men aged between 25 and 35—a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Havant has made more than once. One would expect that in any given scenario that would be the age group of young men who were most likely to reach full employment, yet the article notes:

There are various possible explanations for that. My hon. Friend has talked about the "lost generation" of more than 1 million young people without jobs or

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proper education and training. That throws into stark contrast the headline figures comparing our rates of youth unemployment with those in countries such as Germany—[Interruption.] I can see that the Minister is gearing himself up for another intervention.

The youth unemployment rate in Britain is actually 12.3 per cent. compared with 10 per cent. in Germany. Is this a convenient moment for me to give way to the Minister?

Mr. Browne: No, carry on.

Mr. Waterson: The Minister is rustling his papers furiously.

My hon. Friend the Member for Havant has also drawn attention—in a pamphlet—to a further issue: jobs in public administration, education and health—that is, public sector employment—rose by 153,000 last year and that self-employment has risen by 294,000. There are two ways of looking at those figures. Self-employment is a good thing, because people are being entrepreneurial and running their own business; but there is also the problem of involuntary self-employment—people who have been made redundant or have lost their job and been forced to set up on their own to make ends meet.

It is, however, abundantly clear that there has been a significant drop in mainstream private sector employment. No less a person than John Humphrys put that point to the Chancellor on the "Today" programme recently, although the Chancellor flatly denied it.

At the end of David Smith's article he makes a fair judgment of the Government. He states:

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way again. I read with interest the article to which he refers. If he quoted it all, he would be able to tell the House that the author gave the Government considerable credit for their achievements in reducing unemployment.

The issue is serious and important and we need to debate it, but the hon. Gentleman ought not to distort or misrepresent the figures. That was why I wrote to the hon. Member for Havant on 9 February. In fact, more than 1 million of the 1.7 million extra jobs in the United Kingdom today compared with 1997 are shown to be in the private sector.

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