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Alan Johnson: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. Pathways to work has been a huge success, and will be extended to his area. It is a voluntary system: that is why it works and why the disability lobby supports it completely. The House can call me "Anne of Green Gables" if it likes, but my feeling is that people offered an opportunity to reconnect with society grab it with both hands. After all, they do not live in the lap of luxury on £4,000 per year.

As for our proposals for future incapacity benefit recipients, more money will be available as long as those people attend the required interview and agree a work plan. That is not the same as throwing them back on to jobseeker's allowance, as the process does not depend on them finding a job. The extra payments require only that people actively work towards acquiring the
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necessary skills, and so on. Some people advocate a time-limiting approach, but I think that that is regressive and doomed to fail.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr) (PC): Currently, about half the total number of incapacity benefit claimants deemed by the Department to be fit for work win their appeals against the decision. Does not that suggest that Government policy has in part been about pressurising sick people back into work against their will? What confidence can the sick and disabled have that the new proposals are anything more than another cost-cutting measure?

Alan Johnson: No, I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman suggests. The fact that 50 per cent. of people who appeal win their cases is a matter of some concern to me, and the point was raised by someone on my own side yesterday evening. That needs to be looked at.

As to whether the Government are trying to force people back to work, I remind the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price) that the PCA is a medical test. It is one of the most stringent in the world, but I do not apologise for that. In its current form, the PCA is meant to determine only whether a person should be looking for work or should receive benefit. That is what needs to change. The hon. Gentleman's claim might look good in a constituency leaflet, but there is no basis for saying that this Government have done anything but try and help disabled people. The disability lobby accepts that a combination of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the assistance provided by the pathways to work measures mean that this is a different era for disabled people compared with what happened between 1979 and 1997.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I warmly welcome the comprehensive package presented by my right hon. Friend this afternoon, but will he say more about how people with mental health problems will fit into the support system that he has outlined? All too often, the medical assessment procedure does not take account of people's specific mental health problems, or the fluctuating nature of the illness. How can he assure me that people with such problems will benefit from the support that he has outlined?

Alan Johnson: I accept that fluctuating conditions are a problem. The PCA system acknowledges that, and my hon. Friend's question is therefore extremely valid. It is a problem more for the medical profession than for politicians, but it is something that we need to pursue. A fair chunk of the total number of people claiming incapacity benefit suffer from some form of mental illness, but they are probably the people who would be worst served by being told to sit alone in a dark room.

As I have said before, the suicide rate among people who have been unemployed for a long time is 30 times higher than that faced by people in employment. Being written off is not good for people with any sort of condition, but it would be very strange to tell people
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with depressive illnesses to go and divorce themselves from society. Our condition management approach is focused on helping people with mental illnesses, but we acknowledge the problem arising from the fluctuating nature of such illnesses. We need to resolve that.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): The subject of mental illness is one of the most important that we have dealt with today. The problems are different from day to day, as people have good days and bad days. The Minister has talked about the stick approach of legislation designed to prevent discrimination, but has he thought of adopting a carrot approach too? Such an approach would mean that employers were not disadvantaged by employing people who they knew in advance would probably have bad days on which they could not work. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we need to give people in that position a chance?

Alan Johnson: The hon. Lady is right, and employers and our national employment panel are already looking at this issue. The fair cities initiative deals mainly with ethnic minorities, but it is intended that it will also move on to other matters. Ensuring that people who go through the pathways to work process—and similar processes—find employment means that employers must recognise the points that she raises.

In my statement, I said that it was crucial to have employers working alongside the Government in this matter. At their worst, these are discrimination issues: at their best, they arise from employers' lack of understanding of the problems arising from mental illness.

Finally, I remind the House that today's labour market is very tight, with 74.8 per cent. employment. Social issues notwithstanding, it is economically important that employers are able to use the best talent in the country. That means taking on people who receive incapacity benefit and people from the ethnic minorities, where the unemployment rate is higher. The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) raises a valid point, and we need to pursue it.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, which was balanced and badly needed. Bearing in mind how important personal advisers will be to the operation of the system, what assessment has he made of the number of personal advisers who are likely to be required and,
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in particular, will they be protected from the Gershon review requirements to ensure that we are able to employ the people we need to help people back to work?

Alan Johnson: They will be protected while this party is in government. That is absolutely clear. In terms of spreading out—

Mr. Willetts: You are the party of Gershon.

Alan Johnson: Well, the Tories are the party of the James review, which would take 100,000 jobs from the Department for Work and Pensions. That was the last figure I heard, but I do not know what figures have since been invented.

The roll-out of the pathways to work programme to one third of the country was announced, thankfully, in the pre-Budget report and the money came with it. That requires another 1,000 personal advisers. I cannot comment about 2008 because that will involve a different spending review, but the programme now requires more front-line staff and we do not need to change our plans—they are already stringent enough—under the Gershon review.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East) (Lab): I welcome the balanced approach of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. He said that it is part of a framework to try to drive forward efficiency and reconstruction in the Department. The yellow brick road of pathways to work has not yet reached my constituency and the Jobcentre Plus I was promised in Bo'ness seems to be fading into the distance. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he understands the need to have a footprint in the community? We need a sense of the Department in the community, not a service delivered from a distance, particularly to a community that is under stress because it has lost its mining and industrial base. It has a number of people on incapacity benefit who need the help that he is offering, but from a base within the community.

Alan Johnson: As my hon. Friend knows, I have met him to discuss Bo'ness. I accept his comment about a presence in the community and we are offering that in Bo'ness. My hon. Friend, for understandable reasons, believes that that presence should be a more widely advertised presence in the high street, whereas we are suggesting two outreach programmes in more deprived areas. We need to get the balance right and I promise my hon. Friend that I will continue to reflect on his representations.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am afraid that we must move on.
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Public Service Bank Holiday

1.43 pm

Claire Ward (Watford) (Lab): I beg to move,

I have two reasons for wishing to introduce this Bill today. The first is to provide a much needed additional day of rest for the British worker. This Government have done much to encourage a sustainable work and family life balance. The extension of maternity rights, better financial support for working parents and more child care have certainly helped many parents to juggle their lives more successfully, as has the right to a minimum of four weeks paid holidays a year.

Families need more quality time, however, because the British work some of the longest hours in Europe and many families do not have as much time together as they would like. That has an impact on relationships between couples and on the influence that parents have over their children. An additional public holiday might not hold the key to all the ills of family life, but it would certainly be a further step towards giving British workers a little more time away from their workplace.

We have eight days of public holiday in England, Scotland and Wales at present. Our Northern Ireland citizens are rather better off, benefiting from an additional two days. With the exception of the one-off public holidays granted by Her Majesty in 1999 for the millennium and in 2002 for the golden jubilee, we have little to celebrate regarding public holidays. Sadly, as the law stands, some workers cannot even be guaranteed public holidays free from work, and I hope that the Government will address that at some time in the future.

The meanness of our current public holiday provision is highlighted by comparison with our European counterparts. France has 11 days a year, Belgium has 10, Germany and Greece have up to 12, while Portugal and Spain have up to 14. Before the enlargement of the European Union in May last year, the average for EU members was 10.8 days. Since welcoming the new members to the European Union, the average has increased to 11.35 days, boosted by the fact that Slovakia has 18 days, Cyprus has 16 and Hungary has 13. Meanwhile, Britain languishes at the bottom of the table, with eight days.

Not only do our citizens work the longest hours in the European Union, they have the fewest public holidays. A survey conducted by the TUC last year polled more than 20,000 people, with 99 per cent. wanting an additional holiday—hardly surprising, one might argue. The poll asked people to vote for the most popular time to take an additional holiday: 40 per cent. wanted it to be in the third week of October, which was the most popular of any of the suggested dates.

Suggestions have been made in this House that we should have an additional holiday to mark the various patron saints representing the nations. Other suggestions have been for a holiday to commemorate international women's day, Trafalgar day or Armistice day. The third Monday in October might fall on Trafalgar day—21 October—in some years, but I am not convinced that a chance to create a new public holiday should be linked to a battle that took place
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almost 200 years ago. The commemoration of those who died in service to their country in all wars, which is marked by Armistice day, is a commendable objective, but I believe that we have a chance to make our new public holiday mark the contribution of all who work in public service.

Many families would benefit from an additional public holiday during the week of half-term in October. The date of half-term varies throughout the country, but the most popular time seems to be the third week in October. This Bill would encourage all local authorities to select the same week for half-term to be in line with the public holiday—for example, the third Monday would fall on 17 October this year. A further reason why this would be a good time of the year for a public holiday is that there is a 16-week gap between the public holiday in August and Christmas. That is far too long to have to wait during the darkest, most miserable and depressing months of the year. I know that that does not directly affect Members of this House, but it affects millions of their constituents. How good it would be to leave the summer behind knowing that there would be one more chance of a rest before the Christmas frenzy.

Of course, it might be argued that those who wish to have an additional day's holiday should be able to negotiate that with their employers, but the reality is that many employees are unable to take additional time from work without pressure from employers. A public holiday is an opportunity for all employees to feel entitled to that day without any fear that employers are losing competitive advantage by granting time off.

I said at the beginning that I was introducing this Bill for two reasons. The second major reason is to pay tribute to the work that is done by all those who work in public service. I mean the broadest definition of public service, not just those who toil in our hospitals, schools, military, postal services, emergency services, central Government and local government. It would also pay tribute to those who give their time and effort to serve the public good. Every Member of this House will know of the impressive network of community and voluntary activists without whom many of our essential services would grind to a halt. In my constituency, residents organise neighbourhood watch schemes and residents associations, volunteers work with charities and good causes, parents run parent-teacher associations in schools and members of the league of friends assist in our hospital. Those are just some of the people who help to make our lives and our communities work, usually without pay and often without thanks. They are our local heroes and it is to them, as well as our paid public servants, that I would dedicate this public holiday.

Some would argue and even vote against the Bill. Business, it will be claimed, would have to foot the bill at an estimated cost of £2 billion and suffer reduced productivity. I would argue that giving employees an additional day for leisure, time with their families and rest would be better for business in the long term. British workers already top the poll for productivity, with the least amount of holiday compared with other European countries. Another day away from work will not damage their competitiveness, but may make them more refreshed in the final weeks of the year.
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I urge the House, and particularly the Government, to support this Bill. The British people deserve to have more public holidays. At the very least, the citizens of England, Wales and Scotland should be treated equally with those of Northern Ireland. I am aware that the provision of public holidays is now a devolved issue for the Scottish Parliament. It took little time in recognising that there could be great benefit in an additional public holiday for the Scots, especially where it may result in increased tourism. The Parliament is already consulting on the possibility of introducing a public holiday to mark Scotland's patron, St. Andrew. We should not delay any further; nor should we allow the possibility that the people of England and Wales will become even further disadvantaged by other nations introducing new holidays. I look forward to the progress of the Bill and, with the will of the House, to being able to celebrate public service day.

1.50 pm

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