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House of Commons

Tuesday 11 January 2005

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Welfare to Work Forum

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, Maryhill) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the operation of the welfare to work forum in Glasgow. [207428]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Alistair Darling): The Government's measures, such as the new deal, have been very successful in moving people from welfare into work. However, more needs to be done and we will continue to work with the Glasgow welfare to work forum, as well as with others.

Ann McKechin: My right hon. Friend will be aware of the ambitious plans of the welfare to work forum to create 30,000 jobs in the city by the end of 2010. Given the current favourable economic conditions and, as reported in this month's Insider magazine, the massive growth in profits of the top 500 companies in Scotland, I believe those plans are achievable, but it will require the closest co-operation between all public agencies—here at Westminster, the local authorities and the Scottish Executive. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that his Department will be actively involved in working with the forum to achieve success for Glasgow?

Mr. Darling: Yes, I can. My hon. Friend is right: what is striking about the forum in Glasgow is the common interest between not only public bodies and others with a long history of trying to help people get into work, but also private sector companies, because they realise that it is in their interest that we expand the work force so that we have more people available for work. It is worth bearing in mind what has happened over the past few years with the new deal: in Glasgow, nearly 5,500 lone parents, 1,400 adults, more than 25,000 people with disability and 1,600 people aged over 50 have moved from welfare into work thanks to the new deal. Many other measures can be taken, but there is a big difference between 10 or 15 years ago, when the then Government either ignored unemployment or thought it an inevitable fact of life, and the situation today where there is universal determination to get as many people into work as possible.
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Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (LD): The Secretary of State is right to acknowledge the valuable work that has been done both through the active labour market policies promoted by the Government and through the forum, as was rightly raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin), but does he not think it slightly strange that training providers are not part of the forum? He is right to say that the commercial sector has a part to play, but there are no training providers on the forum itself. Furthermore, there is no flexibility about some of the funding streams. Up to £90 million may be available to the forum but there is little flexibility in how it can use much of that money. Would not access to training providers and more flexibility in the use of funding make the Glasgow welfare to work forum even more effective than it is now?

Mr. Darling: I am sure that is something the forum would like to consider. I know that the hon. Gentleman, through his experience of chairing the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, will be well aware of the fact that the Department has shown itself open to looking at new ideas in relation to funding. Let me give him an example: the pathways to work programme, which has been very successful in pilot form in getting people into work, is being extended across the whole country and it will include Glasgow.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will continue to keep flexibility under review. The main thing, however, is to concentrate on getting as many people as possible into work, and, especially in Glasgow, the comparatively high number of people on incapacity benefit who really do need to be helped into work as quickly as possible.

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the foundation for the welfare to work forum is the tried and tested new deal? Is not it the case that the Liberals opposed the funding of the new deal and that the Tories will abolish it? In contrast to those shameful policies, will the Secretary of State ensure that the necessary resources continue to be made available to tackle the scourge of long-term unemployment and to provide education and training to the youngsters who so desperately need it?

Mr. Darling: I agree with my hon. Friend. The new deal will remain the foundation of everything we do to help people into work. It is worth bearing in mind that employment in Scotland has risen by 174,000 people since 1997. Many of us in Scotland remember what happened in the 1980s and the early 1990s when hundreds and thousands of people were condemned to unemployment, we had a second generation of people growing up who had no experience of work and there was precious little help from the then Government. As for the Liberals, my hon. Friend is right—they are in favour of the new deal, but they were actually against the means of funding it, which is a typical Liberal attitude towards such matters.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): Getting people off incapacity benefit and back to work is an important part of welfare to work. Is the Secretary of State aware of the Citizens Advice Scotland
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report entitled "Riding the Benefits Roller-coaster", which raised serious concerns about the rigidity of the existing system for incapacity benefit and concluded that claimants fall between gaps in the system when their conditions change? What are the Government doing to help people on incapacity benefit get back to work rather than penalising them?

Mr. Darling: As I said just a few moments ago, the Department for Work and Pensions has piloted a programme known as pathways to work, which is specifically designed to help people who are on incapacity benefit to get into work. The pilot scheme has shown that it is much more successful than conventional programmes, precisely because it offers help that is tailored to individuals. I visited a scheme in Renfrewshire a few months ago, with the First Minister, and we met a number of people who had taken part in the pilot scheme and had been got back into work. They had been given help and assistance that they would not receive under conventional schemes. That all shows that, when a Government are determined to work with others to help people into work who, historically, have simply been dumped by the system, we can make a very real difference. The fact that there are now record numbers of people in work, including people coming off incapacity benefit, shows why it is so important to stick with the new deal and not to do away with it, as the Tories would do, so returning us to the days of very high unemployment, when a whole generation of people were simply written off by the then Government.

Identity Cards

2. Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): If he will make a statement on the introduction of identity cards in Scotland. [207429]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Alistair Darling): So far as reserved issues are concerned, the introduction of identity cards across the United Kingdom is, of course, a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. Decisions on the use of identity cards to access devolved services in Scotland are the responsibility of the Scottish Executive.

Mr. Reid: This most appalling Bill will give the Secretary of State dictatorial powers to order people to attend at a specified place and time to have their fingerprints and other biometric information recorded. Given the cost and time of travelling to the passport office in Glasgow from many parts of Scotland, will the Secretary of State assure the House that facilities will be available locally to allow people to attend to have fingerprints and biometric information taken—for example, at local post offices?

Mr. Darling: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of the question that he intended to ask, which I saw on page 6 of The Press & Journal today.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): Have you got an answer?
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Mr. Darling: It just about gave me sufficient time to find out the answer. I am glad to say that, as the House may be aware, the Home Office is piloting what will be necessary to implement the ID card scheme in Glasgow. One of the things that it is considering is a mobile facility to enable people to record their details without having to travel, in this case to Glasgow. In any event, when biometric passports are introduced, which, I think, will be in about 2008, it will be necessary for people to attend to have those details recorded. As far as I am aware, the Liberals are not actually against biometric passports, but—who knows?—we could be wrong about that as well.

I remind the House that the Bill provides for a database to be established to make it possible to have identity cards in the future. For my part, I cannot see anything wrong in principle with people being asked to identify themselves for various transactions. After all, most of us are asked to identify ourselves in respect of various transactions several times a week. It would be a tragedy if, at this stage, we were not to take those steps because they might be absolutely necessary in 10 or 12 years' time. If the Liberals had their way, the country would be ill-prepared to guard against security problems, fraud and so on. So what is proposed is entirely reasonable.

Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) (Lab): May I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. Friend? [Hon. Members: "Yes!"] None of us can have access to this building unless we are wearing an ID card, and I do not see that there is any problem with that. Most hon. Members take them off when they enter the Chamber, but I do not have a problem with wearing it whenever. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Scotland deserves to live in security, with protection from fraud and petty crime, just as much as the citizens of the rest of the UK, and that ID cards must therefore be introduced UK-wide?

Mr. Darling: Of course, the provision of identity cards is reserved to the United Kingdom Parliament—that is why the Bill applies across the whole country—but my hon. Friend is right: increasingly it will not be unreasonable to ask people to identify themselves if they wish to use public services. After all, as I said just a few moments ago, every one of us probably has to identify ourselves when we go to the bank and when we buy things in the shops, and that is not a great imposition.

In relation to security, increasingly, whether we like it or not, not just in this place but elsewhere as well, it will be necessary for people to be satisfied about the identity of individuals, and I do not think that there is anything wrong with that in principle. The problem that the Liberal Democrats have is that they are in favour of security in principle, but rather like their policy on the new deal, they are against the practical means of achieving it.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): May I wholeheartedly disagree with the Secretary of State? Does he accept that if identity cards are compulsory for Westminster-provided services, they are then compulsory in Scotland, regardless of what Mr. McConnell and the Scottish Executive say? Can he confirm that the cost of introducing identity cards over the next 10 years in
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Scotland is more than £500 million, enough to pay for 2,000 extra police officers in the communities of Scotland? What would make people in Scotland feel safer: a plastic identity card or extra thousands of police officers?

Mr. Darling: Of course, thanks to the money that we have made available to Scotland, because of the economic prosperity that has been built up over the past seven years there are more policemen in Scotland. There are also more teachers, nurses and doctors. So as far as public services are concerned, we can provide that.

In relation to identity cards, the fact that the hon. Gentleman disagrees with me comes as no surprise. It is hardly news that it may be necessary to have an ID card to access benefits, for example, in Scotland in future. Does he say that there is anything wrong with asking someone on benefits to identify themselves? The Scottish Executive have made it clear, however, that they do not propose to require the use of ID cards for accessing the NHS in Scotland. That is an entirely proper decision for them to take. However, I repeat the point: what is wrong in principle with people identifying themselves so that others are satisfied they are entitled to use services? I defy him to answer that. I see nothing wrong with that in principle and cannot for the life of me understand why he takes such a ridiculous attitude.

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