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The Minister for Work (Jane Kennedy): In 199798, around £2.4 billion was spent on programmes to help the unemployed move back into work. Now, as a result of a strong economy and our active labour market policies, there are more people in work than ever. However, we are not complacent and we are now focusing on people who experience the greatest barriers to work. That is why, last year, expenditure on unemployment programmes was £2.8 billion.
John Robertson: I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Government on their work in getting people back to work. What will she do about inner-city constituencies such as Glasgow, Anniesland, where unemployment remains well above the national average and people want to get into work?
Jane Kennedy: Clearly, as we focus on those who face the greatest difficulty in returning to the labour market, we are increasing the amount of help and support that is available to them. Towards the end of the year, we will roll out more pathways to work pilot areas, which will help precisely the people to whom my hon. Friend refers. However, it is not all doom and gloom. In his constituency, long-term youth unemployment has decreased by 69 per cent. since 1997 and the number of long-term unemployed of all ages has gone down by 52 per cent. When we came to office in 1997, we faced an enduring legacy of long-term unemployment. It is a measure of the success of our policies over that period that we have been able to reduce the number of long-term unemployed to such a great extent.
The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks):
We are keen that the pensions industry should support the financial assistance scheme, either by voluntary financial contributions or assistance in kind.
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We are most grateful for the expert help offered by the industry to date, of which we are making full use, and hope that it will further support the Government's leadership in assisting those who face the most serious losses. We believe that it has a strong interest in doing so.
Mr. Mackay: Does not the Minister realise that the funds available from the financial assistance scheme are woefully inadequate for those who have lost their pensions through wind-up? Should not something be done about it? The best thing to do is to claim banks' unclaimed assets. That would be an ideal way in which to assist.
Malcolm Wicks: I repeat the sad fact that the long-term answerthe pension protection fundwould not have been put in place if we had listened to the shadow Secretary of State and declined to give the Pensions Bill a Second Reading. The financial assistance scheme is an emergency package of £400 million of public money. We would like more money from the private sector and we are working hard to get a scheme up and running in April. [Interruption.] I hope that, instead of heckling from a sedentary position, Conservative Front Benchers will talk to the pensions industry about the size of its contribution.
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): In setting out the criteria for the FAS, will my hon. Friend consider whether to ban compromises whereby scheme members lose more than 30 per cent. of their pension benefits? Will he consider setting the eligibility criteria for the FAS so that trustees who have compromised the debt and members who have lost more than 50 per cent. of their promised benefits become eligible? Does he accept that, if he did those two things, there would not be a flood of new schemes into the FAS? Indeed, the problems of APW pensioners, about which we have heard this afternoon, could thereby be substantially assisted.
Malcolm Wicks: There are few things sadder than listening to a person who worked hard for their company, made their contributions and thought that they were in a decent pension scheme, only to find that the scheme and their dreams were shattered. I have every sympathy with that group of people, and I have met many such workers. This is why we have set up the pension protection fund. We keep these matters seriously under review, as will the new regulator, but I would be loth to say to trustees that they may no longer make compromise agreements. The trustees will be in the driving seat in future, and the right kind of compromise agreement can often strike a balance between keeping people in work in a company and the pension liability involved. That is a difficult balance to strike. My instinct is that neither the Government nor the regulator should make such decisions; they should be left to the trustees.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)
(Lab): May I take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend for his response to my representations on behalf of the workers at H. H. Robertson? I ask him not to forget, however, that the directors of some companies
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that have now gone out of business still have substantial assets and need to be chased. We are dealing not only with the directors of good schemes in good companies, and we must not forget that some people have got away with extraordinary scams that have left our constituents high and dry.
Malcolm Wicks: I understand that. The Pensions Act 2004 and the powers being given to the new regulator mean that we shall now be better equipped to be aware of that kind of corruption in the system. While it is right that we have legislated for a pension protection fund, we now need to be on our guard to ensure that no unscrupulous company, accountant or anyone else in the pensions industry world wide takes the opportunity to dump a pension liability on the PPF, which we shall have in April. We must be very vigilant about that.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): Benefit advice is available through a wide variety of outlets, including the voluntary sector. In addition, the disability and carers service, Jobcentre Plus and the Pension Service are proactive in ensuring that carers get the money to which they are entitled. Local authority social services departments can, and do, advise on services and other support available to carers.
Mr. Marsden: I thank the Minister for that reply. In my constituency, at least 11,000 people are looking after frail relatives, friends or partners. That number could be higher because seaside towns have a large number of such people. Historically, the people who have lost out the most on their pension entitlements have been women, through caring for others over a long period of time. Will my hon. Friend tell me what measures the Department is focusing on to ensure that people in those circumstances can get support; and, in particular, what progress has been made following the Prime Minister's assurance, given to a group of carers last year, that the Government would consider more flexible arrangements for working carers' rights?
On my hon. Friend's last point, the Department of Health and the Department of Trade
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and Industry are taking forward work in that regard. I compliment my hon. Friend on his work to support carers in his constituency, and his question illustrates the extent to which he is aware of what is going on there. He is right to say that many older carers who have cared for relatives for many years during what would otherwise have been their working lives have lost out in terms of their pension entitlement. The state second pension recognised the value of carers by crediting them into entitlement in a way that the state earnings-related pension scheme did not. Almost all the 2 million carers being helped are women, and about 70 per cent. of the 5 million low earners who will benefit from the state second pension are women. Needless to say, the Conservatives have promised to abolish it.
The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman heard the useful exchange on this matter earlier in the proceedings. Direct payments mean that people's pensions and benefits can now be paid into a bank account, a building society account, a new basic account or the new post office card account. Post Office card accounts are proving very successful; there will be 4 million by the changeover date, which will involve about half of all pensioners receiving their pension in this way.
Patrick Mercer: Will the Minister comment on the recent series of bureaucratic hiccups that have occurred in Newark and Retford, particularly in regard to people receiving pensions for the first time and those who have been unable to find sustained employment under the new deal and who are coming back on to benefit? Clearly, both categories involve desperately vulnerable people.
Malcolm Wicks: We are committed to giving the so-called older worker employment opportunities, and the trends are moving in the right direction. More people in their 50s and early 60s, and beyond state pension age, are now in work, and we should welcome that opportunity to give the so-called older worker more choice. If the hon. Gentleman has come across any particular problems, I would be grateful if he wrote to me. Direct payment is proving a success90 per cent. plus of people are satisfied with itbut we want to make sure that it works for 100 per cent.
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