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Health and Safety Executive

4. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): What criteria he uses to assess the effectiveness of the Health and Safety Executive. [177314]

The Minister for Work (Jane Kennedy): Notwithstanding the fact that the United Kingdom has one of the best health and safety records in Europe, in 2000 the Government set targets further to reduce accidents and ill health caused by work. The Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive have developed a new strategy to help to deliver these targets, and I hold quarterly performance reviews with the HSE, at which key indicators on performance are discussed, among other matters.

Tony Lloyd: My right hon. Friend will agree that for any Labour Government, health and safety are at the highest point on the political agenda, but does she accept that the strategy agreed by this Government and the Health and Safety Commission is not being adhered to and that we are not seeing the reductions in deaths, serious injuries and workplace-related illness that we anticipated? Will the Government therefore give a clear commitment to that strategy and will they ensure that the Health and Safety Executive has the necessary funding to enforce and prosecute, which it is currently failing to do? Will they also introduce the promised legislation, in order to provide real power to crack down on rogue employers who kill and injure our fellow countrymen and women in the workplace?

Jane Kennedy: I do acknowledge the importance that many Members in all parts of the House attach to health and safety, but I do not accept my hon. Friend's observation that the Health and Safety Executive has failed to progress towards achieving these targets. Delivering on the targets is not just about more cash or more inspectors. All organisations such as the HSE can always use more funding, but effective regulation of health and safety at work is about more than that: it is about providing the right information and advice; training; working with and through others; and changing workplace culture. The threat of enforcement is an important element in that regard, and in the light of my increasingly close work with the HSE, I am satisfied that, although there are areas in which we need to make more progress, on the whole the HSE and the Health and Safety Commission are keeping these targets in focus and are working towards achieving them.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): A fortnight ago, as the Minister will be aware, the Health and Safety Executive's Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 came into force. In those regulations, the agency makes no distinction between the deadly blue and brown forms of asbestos, which have caused such suffering, and the far less risky white asbestos. Is the Minister aware of reports that unscrupulous contractors are using that confusion to rip off home owners, small businesses, farmers and others? What is she doing to ensure that a well meant attempt to protect public health does not become a regulatory nightmare?

Jane Kennedy: I will look closely into those allegations and if there is any truth in what the
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hon. Gentleman is saying, I shall certainly look into the matter further. I am grateful to him for bringing it to my attention.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is about time the Health and Safety Executive ceased to be a sort of back office of a Government Department? Is it not time we gave it some real independence? I understand that the HSE would dearly like to campaign and to push the Government into doing something about protecting workers from passive smoking at work, but that the Government are leaning on it to be quiet. If that is true, it is a disgrace. Is it not about time the Government grasped the nettle and protected workers?

Jane Kennedy: The Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive are independent organisations and they are not coming under pressure from the Government not to pursue a campaign on smoking at work, so I am afraid that I cannot accept the basis of my hon. Friend's question.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The Health and Safety Executive is an excellent and important organisation that does good work. Will the Minister congratulate it on its targeting of major causes of accidents, particularly falls from height on building sites? Does she agree that it is important to provide safer methods of forming barriers across openings at height on building sites—for instance, where lift shafts are being provided for—and is she aware that the Fullgate system, which does just that, is manufactured on Canvey Island?

Jane Kennedy: I was not aware of that last fact, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing the House's attention to it. He is right to congratulate the Health and Safety Executive on its good and effective work on the incidence of injuries caused by workers falling from height. Indeed, the rate of reported major injury to employees is now about 3 per cent. lower than it was in 2000, the base year for the targets that I spoke about earlier. However, the balance of evidence suggests that the overall incidence of work-related ill health is likely to have risen, so we are not complacent. We accept that there is a lot more to do and we keep all such matters under constant review.

New Deal

5. Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): How many women in Warrington, North have benefited from the new deal for lone parents since its introduction. [177315]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith): In my hon. Friend's constituency, 390 women have taken part in the new deal for lone parents and 220 have so far been helped into work. That is part of the progress across the country that has resulted, for the first time, in more than half of lone parents being in jobs, that has lifted children out of poverty and saved the taxpayer £40 million a year.
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Helen Jones : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. Many of the women whom I have met who have taken part in the new deal for lone parents are grateful for the work that they have obtained as a result, but I ask my right hon. Friend now to examine the needs of women after they have got jobs under the scheme, because they may need help to develop their careers. They may need information about their rights at work, about courses that they could take and so on, so that not only are they in jobs but they have careers. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to look into what can be done to assist lone parents once they have gone back to work?

Mr. Smith: I thank my hon. Friend for her welcome for the progress that the new deal is making in her constituency and for her advocacy of it. The new deal for lone parents is already making a difference on the issues connected with progress at work that she is concerned about: those who get jobs through the new deal are 15 per cent. more likely to stay in work than those who get jobs in similar circumstances in other ways. The preparation, the training and support and the personal advice are already making a difference. The further expansion of child care, with places for an additional 2 million children by 2006, and the work of the new child care partnerships, coupled with skills and training advice and workplace rights, are, I believe, the building blocks of the sort of flexible and responsive system that my hon. Friend and I both want to see, and towards which we are making progress.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): The Secretary of State will know that one of the main causes for concern about the new deal is that so many people, tens of thousands, have been through it twice, three times or more. How many of the women in Warrington, North who have been helped by the new deal for lone parents have been through the scheme more than once?

Mr. Smith: I would have to check that statistic, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) said, the 220 women who have gained jobs—a significant proportion of those who took part in the programme—welcome those jobs and are more likely to stay in them because they have had the help given by the new deal. Their biggest anxiety would be the Conservative party's plans to scrap it.

Pension Protection Fund

6. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): If he will make a statement on the decision to offer compensation to those members of occupational pension schemes who will not be covered by the proposed pension protection fund. [177316]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith): I dare say that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the Government have amended the Pensions Bill to introduce a financial assistance scheme for those workers who lost out on their defined-benefit occupational pensions prior to the introduction of the pension protection fund. Further details of the scheme, including who will be eligible and the level of assistance
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to be provided, will be developed through consultation with stakeholders such as pension scheme trustees, trades unions and business representatives.

Mr. Amess: Is not the Secretary of State disappointed by the reaction to his announcement in Southend, West and throughout the country? Does he recognise that his announcement does not address the serious scale of the problem? Will he use the unclaimed assets in banks and building societies so that the general public, who have been so badly affected, can receive a decent amount of money?

Mr. Smith: In terms of reaction, Derek Simpson of Amicus said:

Digby Jones of the Confederation of British Industry said:

That is as positive as reaction can get.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): May I welcome the Government's announcement of a lifeboat operation? May I press the Secretary of State further, however, on the distinction that some Ministers are making between those who have lost their pensions because of an involuntary wind-up through bankruptcy and those who have lost all or part of their pensions because their firm has voluntarily wound up a pension scheme? For those involved, the loss of a pension, for whatever cause, has exactly the same effect. What is the Secretary of State's thinking on whether those who have lost all or part of their pensions because a scheme has been voluntarily wound up will be treated equally to the others?

Mr. Smith: I accept the force of my right hon. Friend's concern, but he will be aware, as others are, that as we have considered these important issues in recent months, I have been careful on each and every occasion to say that where a boundary is drawn around those eligible for assistance, that boundary is bound to be difficult and some people are bound to fall on the wrong side of it. The thrust of the campaign expressing concerns was about insolvent wind-ups, as has been reflected in the statements made by me and my ministerial colleagues. We have made it clear that as we bring the scheme forward and engage with stakeholders and expert groups in defining eligibility conditions, we shall listen to everyone who has representations to make.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): I welcome the Government's movement on this issue, but does the Secretary of State accept that a hardship fund is not enough? Many workers were not warned that their pensions would be at risk if their employer became insolvent. Indeed, it is worse than that: Government literature from the Financial Services Authority and from the Minister's Department said that pensions from companies were guaranteed. If workers had known that their pensions would be at risk if their employer became
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insolvent, they could, close to retirement, have got the money out to save their pensions, especially if their employer looked risky. But no one told them so.

Does the Minister accept that if a personal pension salesman did not tell people about the risks, he would be done for mis-selling? Are not the Government guilty of mis-selling occupational pensions?

Mr. Smith: Again, I accept the strong feelings of injustice and anger that members of these schemes will have expressed, and which the hon. Gentleman's remarks partly reflect. However, I have to say that there is not a legal liability here, so talk of compensation in the terms expressed by the hon. Gentleman is not appropriate. I felt—as did hon. Members on both sides of the House—that, because of these workers' plight, it was right to do something about it. That is why we announced the scheme and why we pledged £400 million, plus such help as could be obtained from the industry. It is not an insignificant sum and it will make a real difference to those affected. The hon. Gentleman should be warmer in his welcome for it.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab): My right hon. Friend should be congratulated on the work that he did with the PPF and on supplying the £400 million. However, the criteria governing who does and who does not receive the money have to be simple and clear. Does he agree with that?

Mr. Smith: I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome and kind remarks. Yes, I agree that we must make it as simple and clear as possible, though bitter experience teaches us that little in the field of occupational pensions is quite as simple or straightforward as we would like. In terms of the way forward, we have clearly set out how we intend to proceed. We are already engaging key partners—both stakeholders and expert groups—in consultation on the scheme's development. By the end of this month we will lay a report on the scope of the problem before the House. By the end of November, we will start consulting on regulations. We are working towards the legislation being in place for spring next year, so we are moving as quickly as we can.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): Can the Secretary of State assure the House that any payments that victims of pension wind-ups receive from the Government's compensation scheme will not lead to a reduction in means-tested benefits?

Mr. Smith: I am not going to give a blanket assurance on that, but our aim is certainly to try to ensure that people will not be worse off as a consequence of having received this help than they would otherwise have been.

Mr. Willetts: May I press the Secretary of State a little more on that? As we know from a figure that he gave to the House when answering one of my questions in a debate, 60,000 people are affected. We have heard about a scheme that provides £20 million a year—about £400 million in total. That amounts to about £7,000 per person affected, which might be worth £350 a year—a very small sum compared with the size of the losses that many constituents of Members on both sides of the House are facing. It would add insult to injury if those
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people were then told that they would have reductions in their means-tested benefits because of the Government's assistance. I very much hope that the Secretary of State will consider the matter further and give the House an assurance that there will not be a loss of means-tested benefits.

Mr. Smith: Of course we will be looking very carefully into all those aspects and their impact on individuals. I would not want to accept—and I would not want the record to show that I had implicitly accepted—the basis of the hon. Gentleman's calculations, by which I mean neither the average amount nor the means by which he arrived at it. The precise means by which help will be provided—and, indeed, any additional contributions—will depend on the definition of eligibility for the scheme.

If the hon. Gentleman thought for a moment about the interaction with the pension credit system, he would realise that if people had the occupational pension that they had previously expected, it might well have taken them out of eligibility for assistance from the pension credit. In those circumstances, and to the extent that that credit is replaced, it would be illogical—and, indeed, unfair to those who were not in the scheme—if no account were taken of it.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op): Is my right hon. Friend aware that I am astonished at the churlishness of the Tories, and especially the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) in his attack on my right hon. Friend? My constituents believe that he and the Minister of State did an excellent job arguing for the scheme, obtaining the £400 million and getting the Prime Minister to intervene. Can my right hon. Friend give us the further assurance that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) was seeking—that in implementing the scheme, he will be as flexible as possible and will ensure that no one is excluded on a technicality?

Mr. Smith: As I said, we will certainly be looking very carefully at the views that have been expressed. There is no point in misleading people on that. However a scheme is defined, and whatever the eligibility conditions, there are bound to be some people who will be disappointed. That has been in the nature of things since the beginning. It is important, as I have said all along, that we can look people straight in the eye and that they know that we have been straight with them. As to the churlishness of the Conservatives, I am never surprised at how churlish they are, any more than I am surprised by the loyalty and enthusiasm of my right hon. Friend, which is greatly appreciated.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Will the Secretary of State now answer the excellent question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) about the unclaimed assets fund? The right hon. Gentleman is aware that people will receive only between £350 and £500 a year. Why cannot a claim be made on the unclaimed assets fund to help those 60,000 people?
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Mr. Smith: There is no unclaimed assets fund on which to make a claim. If there were, and if funds were available to help with the scheme, it would be very welcome.

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