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Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab):
There is no better way of improving the income of people at the bottom of the income ladder than helping them off benefit and into work. Will my right hon. Friend look at the pathways to work project figures for the Glossop Jobcentre Plus office in my constituency? At the beginning of the project, the office was set a target of ensuring that 12 people on incapacity benefit moved into employment over six months. It achieved that result in 40 cases, which is a real success, and I hope that my right hon.
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Friend will pay tribute to it. My only criticism of what he has announced today is that the roll-out of pathways to work is not fast or great enough.
Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the work that our people on the ground, including those in Glossop, do to achieve such remarkable results. I am not surprised by what has been achieved. When I visited Gateshead I met the staff involved, who have years of experience of dealing with people and trying to get them into work, and they said that the results exceeded all their expectations. As for my hon. Friend's disappointment, the scheme is still in its early days. It is barely six months old, and in the expansion not only in the other areas being covered but in existing pathways to work areas, where we will now move on to those who have been on IB for three years or longer, we will have to take things carefully, so that we are absolutely sure that we are learning all the lessons to keep this remarkable momentum going.
Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): The Liberal Democrats welcome a number of aspects of the statement, including the planned improvement in maternity provision. If I might briefly don my anorak, may I congratulate the Secretary of State on freezing non-dependent deductions for the fifth year running? When young people are increasingly being forced out of family homes, anything that reduces the pressure on low-income families and makes it easier for those young people to stay is a good thing. That is an obscure corner of the system, but I welcome the direction of Government policy.
I also welcome the courageous, visionary and pioneering way in which the Secretary of State is agreeing with the Liberal Democrats on the subject of the citizen's pension. I welcomed his weekend comments in the press about his approach to that issue. Will he give us a flavour of the response that he has received from ministerial colleagues in other Departments when he has broached with them the ideas that he is thinking about in this reform to pensions?
On the specific group of childless adults, will the Secretary of State tell us his thinking as reflected in today's statement? He will be familiar with the New Policy Institute's recent report highlighting poverty among childless adults, who have inevitably been a lower priority than children and the elderly, but are not irrelevant. Let me give two examples that arise from the statement. A woman of 59 on income support gets £56.20 a weekan increase of just 55p was announced todaybut the next year her income will go up to £109, and almost double. In one sense, it is good that women can receive a generous amount at 60, but the disparity is growing every year. Can it go on like that? Can there be any logic in doubling somebody's income when she moves from 59 to 60, although her needs may be no different from one year to the next?
The other example is the case of a young woman under 25 with a partner who becomes pregnant. If the partner is not interested and disappears from the scene, she will be living on £44.50 a weekthe increase will be just 45p. An expectant mother will be living on less than £45 a week. What does the Secretary of State think that it will mean for the well-being of the child if the woman receives only the single under-25 adult rate? Is it not
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about time that he considered discrimination in the system against under-25s? Can it really be justified any longer?
Alan Johnson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. He said that he was an anorak, but Labour Members think that he is well on the way to becoming a cagoul. I welcome his welcome of the freezing of non-dependent deductions and the increase in maternity provision.
Alan Johnson: Okay, then. They all support the drive to take pensioners out of poverty and to have a sustainable and equitable pensions system into the future. For every Labour Member, the argument about the citizen's pension is not about whether we are for or against doing something for women pensioners or recognising that they have particular difficulties. The hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) knows the arguments about the contributory principle and the other elements that are there to help. There is, however, absolute unanimity that we must tackle the problem of women's pensions. The citizen's pension, for which the Liberal Democrats are now claiming credit, has been advanced by many Labour Members for many years. The importance of the issue among Labour Members reflects the fact that more women, although not enough, have entered the House of Commons, and that shift is reflected in many areas of policy that have changed dramatically since 1997.
The Rowntree report raises some points about childless single adults, and we must examine that area, but I hope that everyone understands that when we formed the Government, our priority was to tackle the fact that one in three children and 2.8 million pensioners were in poverty. The employment market is benign, and reducing unemployment has had a beneficial effect on all strata of society. We have been working to our priorities, but the Rowntree report rightly points out other areas that we should examine, now that we are seven years into government.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Although the Secretary of State was right to draw attention to the good news that the Government have unfolded in their programme, does he accept that voters quickly acclimatise to Government success, and then look to what the Government might do next? Given that the Tory party and the Liberal Democrats have outlined their plans for long-term reform, does he think that it will be easier for us to fight an election if our election manifesto includes a hint about our long-term pension reforms? [Hon. Members: "Wait for Turner."]
We do not have to wait for Turner. My right hon. Friend is right to say that long-term pension reform will be an issue at the next election. We can point
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to the Pensions Act 2004, which is a crucial element in tackling that problem. It involves major reform on informed choice and security, in the form of the pension protection fund. Many of its other elements are linked with the Finance Act 2004, which merges eight different tax systems into one. Those measures are all progressive, and they will be crucial in this debate.
Many people would do well to wait for the Turner report, because Turner's analysis of the problem is exceptional. He says that even if the Government pushed him to produce his report more quickly he would not do so, because he believes that a comprehensive report that tackles the issues is much more important than a speedily produced report. [Interruption.] Perhaps that is Alan Simpson, asking what I am doing imitating him at the Dispatch Box.
In the foreword to his first report, Turner said that, looking ahead to 2030 or 2050, the issue is so important that knee-jerk reactions are not right, and that wenone more so than the Conservative partywere all living in a fool's paradise in the '80s and '90s. He also made the point that the problem requires a measured mature response from politicians. We should say something in the manifesto. Between now and the manifesto, however, we should not say that we have all the answers without waiting for the second report from Turner, and without having a debate, which the Turner report will instigate throughout the country.
Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I welcome much of what the Secretary of State has said. I welcome the Disability Discrimination Bill, which is better late than never. Given that it has been introduced so late in this Parliament, I hope that it will reach the statute book. I also welcome the extra £30 million for the new deal for disabled people, which has been so successful that some of the organisations involved, such as the Shaw Trust, have been told to stop placing disabled people in work.
I also welcome the extension of pathways to work. Liberal Democrat Members have long said that it is a travesty that the disabled, who face the most obstacles to getting back into work, get only 3 per cent. of the £750 million budget for the new deal. In extending pathways to work to a third of the country, is the Secretary of State rethinking the policy of using the constant threat of benefit sanctions to try to force people into work? Personal advisers at one of the early pilots in Chesterfield in north Derbyshire told meI have raised this before, in Committeethat they have to do a lot of work to undo the damage done when a disabled person claiming incapacity benefit receives a threatening letter saying, "You must turn up for a work-focused interview, on pain of losing your benefit, or part of it." The adviser has to try to ring the person before the letter arrives, to reassure them that the intention is to help them into work, not to threaten them or to take their benefits away.
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