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Lone Parents

8. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): What steps he is taking to encourage lone parents to move into employment. [218089]

The Minister for Work (Jane Kennedy): We are giving lone parents more choice and more help than ever to move off welfare and into work. We have introduced compulsory work-focused interviews to ensure that lone parents are aware of the help that they can get to move into work.
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Since its launch in October 1998, the new deal for lone parents has helped almost 300,000 people into work and contributed to the increase in the lone parent employment rate to a record high of 55.8 per cent.

Iain Wright: I thank the Minister for her reply. May I suggest that the proposed increases in the minimum wage from £4.90 to £5.35 next year will have a huge impact on lone parents? On Saturday, I was talking to a single mother who works 16 hours a week. She claimed that, taking child care costs into account, the net effect on her weekly income is 53p. Notwithstanding the increases in the national minimum wage, what additional steps will the Minister take to ensure that lone parents are not penalised for wanting to work?

Jane Kennedy: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said about the minimum wage. We are keen to ensure that work pays for lone parents and others and to encourage people to move from welfare into work. The level of the minimum wage is an important calculation in that.

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, through the tax credit system we are enabling many more families who are in work to access the real benefits of that system. Almost 6 million families were benefiting from child tax credit and/or working tax credit in December 2004. We intend to do more. We will be piloting the payment of an extra £20 a week on top of normal income support, but there will be a condition. We want to engage with lone parents to encourage them to move into work and we must ensure that, in doing so, they see real benefits from that move.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge the contribution made by the hard-working staff in job centres in getting lone parents back into work? With the new deal, unemployment in my constituency has been cut by 61 per cent. and youth unemployment has been slashed by 93 per cent.

Will my right hon. Friend also acknowledge the vigorous campaign that is being fought in Deal by constituents, Dover district council, Deal town council and the citizens advice bureau to stop the proposed closure of its excellent job centre by the management in Kent? Will she acknowledge that the essence of job centres' duties is to remove barriers, and will she note that my constituency faces more than 1,000 job losses as we speak?

Jane Kennedy: I am aware that my hon. Friend raised the matter during business questions last Thursday. He knows that we are due to meet to discuss it on 7 March, when we can explore the exact circumstances in his constituency and the reason behind the decision to change the distribution of offices and the way in which staff are employed. He knows that, ultimately, those are matters for the chief executive of Jobcentre Plus.

The House will know that given the major investment in Jobcentre Plus, in the new systems and in the whole revolutionary process, the active engagement in encouraging people into jobs will make a massive difference to my hon. Friend's constituents. We should not be confined to delivering services through buildings alone, and they are now delivered in a wider variety of ways.
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Civil Servants

9. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): If he will make a statement on proposed work force changes in his Department and the expected effect on civil service employment in Fylde. [218090]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): As part of its efficiency and modernisation programme, the Department plans to reduce staff numbers by 30,000, redeploy an additional 10,000 posts to front-line services and relocate 4,000 posts from London and the south-east by 2008. There are some 8,589 full-time equivalents in the Lancashire West area, which includes Fylde. Staffing levels in the Fylde area will be affected by the changes, but until further detailed work force planning is completed it is not possible to say what the precise effect will be.

Mr. Jack: I thank the Minister for that answer. I have had discussions with the PCS union about one of the items that is clearly being considered by her Department, namely the movement of some 500 people from the programme service division to locations such as Manchester, Salford and Warrington. The union expressed concern about the costs involved in that movement, as no office facilities are currently available outside Fylde for those jobs. The union also believes that some of the skills issues that may be informing the proposed change can be addressed locally through good links with local universities and colleges. Can the Minister look again at the proposal to ensure that it is justified, and will she write to me with details of it?

Maria Eagle: I am happy to do so. It is not in our interests to make changes that end up costing more. These are efficiency savings, not attempts to spend more money on employing fewer people. I am happy to give the right hon. Gentleman that undertaking.

Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (LD): Will the Minister acknowledge that the issue is one of the biggest facing the Department between now and 2008? Does she accept that the uncertainty about people's jobs in the long term is affecting morale? I understand that the Department still needs to do a little more work before it knows the final number of staff reductions, but when does the Minister anticipate being able to end some of the uncertainty by saying where the job cuts will be made?

Maria Eagle: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made regular statements to the House, and we expect to be able to give more details soon. It is important to do the work in conjunction with our staff and trade union representatives. I fully acknowledge that any such change affects people's well-being and leads to concern for their jobs. We want to ensure that we minimise that uncertainty by making staff and the House aware of what will happen as soon as possible.

Benefit Decisions

11. Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): When his Department's decision-making and appeals action plans will be implemented; and how progress in making
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the improvements to benefit decision-making arrangements set out in the plans will be measured and reported. [218092]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work   and Pensions (Maria Eagle): We are already implementing the plans across the Department. Progress will be measured in several ways, such as local and national monitoring, customer surveys and the work of the independent standards committee, which will report on progress in its annual report. We will also inform the National Audit Office of our progress.

Mr. Leigh: In its 12th report of 2003–04, the Public Accounts Committee found that half of the decisions on disability living allowance and attendance allowance contained errors. What progress has been made since then and will the Department be able to achieve the target of reducing the error rate to a quarter of decisions?

Maria Eagle: I acknowledge the difficulties in decision making on the DLA. That is partly because qualification for the benefit is subjective. We are taking steps to improve training and to ensure that we get more consistent decisions, and we hope to make substantial progress over time. The disability and carers service makes more than 1 million decisions every year, only 8 per cent. of which are appealed; therefore, many of the decisions are correct and satisfy the claimants.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): In relation to the 8 per cent. of decisions that are appealed, can the Minister tell the House what plans she has to speed up the appeal process and to review the location of appeals? In some parts of the United Kingdom, such as the east midlands, it can be quite difficult for appellants actually to get to the appeal.

Maria Eagle: I acknowledge that sometimes there are issues when our customers have to go to specific locations. We are piloting enhanced reconsideration processes, which aim to prevent cases that may be appealed from getting as far as the appeal process. We think that it can make a difference if we head off the appeal by checking again, in conjunction with the customer, that we got the decision right. One of the main reasons for a change in decision at appeal is that new evidence is presented that was not available to our original decision makers. A better and more informed reconsideration process could stop many of those appeals from going ahead, and that could be an effective way forward.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I am very concerned about the Minister's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). He stated that the National Audit Office found mistakes in 50 per cent. of cases. The Minister's response was that only 8 per cent. of decisions are appealed, which suggests that more than 40 per cent. of people, some of the most vulnerable, who are on the DLA or attendance allowance, are receiving the wrong amount of money. Surely she should be taking a rather more urgent approach than she seems to be taking today.
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Maria Eagle: I deny that there is no urgency in the Department's response. The subjectivity of the DLA and attendance allowance—where our decision makers are trying to discover the impact of a condition or disability on the capacity of the individual either to look after themselves or to move around—means that the situation is inherently difficult to pin down. There is no doubt about that; I think that it would be acknowledged by everybody. It is a difficult process in which to make significant improvements, but that does not mean that we are not trying to do so. We are, and I hope that in future we will be able to make much more progress.

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