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Employment Opportunities

4. Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) (Lab): What progress has been made in providing employment opportunities for (a) young people and (b) disabled people since 1997. [224412]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Alan   Johnson): Our new deal programme is playing a   significant role in achieving record levels of employment. It has helped virtually to eradicate long-term youth unemployment and has reduced long-term adult unemployment to its lowest level for 30 years. Through the new deal, more than 550,000 young people and nearly 200,000 disabled people have been helped into work. For the first time, more than half of all disabled people of working age are in work.

Mr. Griffiths: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I pay tribute to all the work done by successive Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions. I   pay tribute, too, to the staff of Jobcentre Plus in Bridgend for all the work that they are doing. Does my right hon. Friend have any information about the success of schemes in my constituency or Bridgend county borough to cheer me on in my retirement?

Alan Johnson: We will all miss my hon. Friend; he has been a terrific Member of Parliament and a great advocate for his constituency. I can send him into retirement blissfully happy with the following statistics about his constituency: youth claimant unemployment is down by 27 per cent.; long-term youth unemployment is down by 81 per cent.; unemployment is down by 41 per cent.; and long-term unemployment is down by   82 per cent. The number of people coming into work from pathways to work is already 10 per cent. higher than it was before the scheme was introduced. That is good news from my hon. Friend's constituency and a great valediction of all that he has been doing over the years.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I ask a very difficult question of the Secretary of State, but it is to solicit information. Does he accept that colitis is a disability, and would it not make it a lot easier for somebody with colitis to lead a meaningful life, undertake work and be able to take advantage of job opportunities if they were eligible for the blue badge
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scheme? If he cannot give me an answer today, will he write to me, because this is critical for one of my constituents?

Alan Johnson: I shall try to be helpful. First, are people who have colitis disabled? Yes. Secondly, are   they able to get the blue badge? I am advised by the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), who knows much more about these things than I do, that some of them are. I will write to the hon. Gentleman to give him chapter and verse and perhaps to enter a dialogue about how we can resolve any problems that his constituents are experiencing.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that most organisations of and for disabled people recognise the tremendous progress that the Government have made in encouraging employment for disabled people? Will he now focus on how people with learning disabilities—I   speak as the co-chairman of the all-party group—can achieve their full potential by continuing to work to give them the same opportunities?

Alan Johnson: I accept that my right hon. Friend has accurately expressed the views of the disability lobby. I   accept also that there is more work that we can do for people with learning disabilities. Coincidentally, I have a meeting in my Department at 5 pm tonight to begin a cross-ministerial and cross-Government project to see what we can do about that and other issues.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Further to that answer, is the Secretary of State aware of the cruel anomaly affecting people with learning disabilities? If they take advantage of non-means-tested benefits such as incapacity benefit and disability living allowance, they find themselves obliged to pay prohibitive fees to do basic skills courses under the supported learning programme. Will he talk to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills about resolving that failure of joined-up government?

Alan Johnson: I might not describe it as a failure of joined-up government, but I do accept that there is a problem and that there is more that we can do about the particular problems faced by people in the situation that the hon. Gentleman describes. Yes, it is an issue that   needs to be resolved. With continuing investment in the new deal, and as we build on the new deal and some other projects that the Chancellor announced in the Budget report, we can move matters on. The hon. Gentleman has a valid point, which we will take into consideration, and which we are, indeed, working on at the moment.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Is there such a thing as the sick-note culture, and to what extent are doctors complicit in encouraging people to think that they cannot work when they can?

Alan Johnson: I do think that there is such a thing as the sick-note culture. It stems, perhaps, from a cultural issue, as my colleagues at the Department of Health recognised in the White Paper that they published quite
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recently on public health. Too often, the medical profession has seen itself as needing to protect people from work, whereas, given some of the illnesses that doctors are dealing with, the people who have them would benefit far more from being at work. How do we resolve that problem? We certainly do not do so by Government diktat. We need to work with the profession, as we are, to find ways to solve the problem. We perhaps need to begin by auditing sick notes; prescriptions are audited, but no one has any information on how many sick notes are issued, when or what for. A sea change is happening, however, that unites the Department of Health, health professionals, the disability lobby, the Department for Work and Pensions and, I hope, people on both sides of the House. The way people used to be treated, particularly those with mental illnesses such as depression, really was not in their best interests.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Does the Secretary of State recognise that if he really wants to promote more job opportunities for young people and to do something about the 1 million young people who have simply disappeared off the register and who are not on the new deal, in work, in training or in education, he must talk to his fellow Ministers about stemming the tide of bureaucracy, paperwork and regulations that actively discourage many employers—[Interruption.] If Labour Members ever talked to employers, they would already know all this. All of that stops employers offering meaningful job opportunities to young people.

Alan Johnson: I do not agree that that problem is created by bureaucracy being forced on employers. What we have tried to do with the new deal and, in particular, with pathways to work is to work with employers to find ways to ensure that they can take advantage of them. There is an economic case for employers as well a social case: they need to find areas of recruitment, and recruiting people who are on incapacity benefit, for instance, is a good way to do that. Some problems about bureaucracy may be raised with us, and we will seek to tackle them, but it has never been put to me by employers as the major reason why they will not employ disabled people. Incidentally, I do not agree with the hon. Lady's figure for those who are   not   in education, employment or training, but we may have another opportunity to raise that before half-past 3.

Pathways to Work

5. Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): How many people have been helped into work by the pathways to work pilot projects. [224413]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): By the end of January, about 12,000 people had found work through the pathways to work pilots. Since pathways to work started, we have helped nearly double the number of people swap a sick note for a pay slip, and six times as many people are taking up back-to-work support through Jobcentre Plus, the new deal or the national health service condition management programmes. The way in which people on incapacity benefit have reacted
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to the opportunities that pathways offers has been extremely encouraging. Our July Green Paper will set out how we will build further on what we have learned, helping people previously written off as incapable of work and delivering real employment opportunity for all.

Chris Bryant: My constituency has remarkably low unemployment, only a smidgeon above the national level, which is a record for a constituency such as the Rhondda. However, we still have one in five people of working age on incapacity benefit. The kind of project that the Minister has been advancing through pathways to work is therefore particularly important in areas such as mine. We seem to have learned that more employers are saying that it is possible to employ people and that they have jobs suitable for people with mild disabilities and those who would like to work. How can we extend that further across the country so that people even in areas in which a pathways to work project is not yet available can find employment?

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend has been a consistent supporter of the Bridgend-Rhonda Cynon Taff pilot. He might be pleased to know that there have been 2,200 job entries in that area during the existing length of the pilot. He is right in that these pilots provide an education for other stakeholders as well as a job for the people who are leaving incapacity benefit. The pilots bring together both the NHS in condition management programmes and local employers, who often, in tight labour markets, can find excellent new staff whom they might not have thought about employing before this type of help was available in their area.

As my hon. Friend will know, we are extending the pilots from the current seven areas to a third of the   country, and thereafter, we hope, to the rest of the country. This can only benefit people throughout our country in getting them back to work, when previously they have been completely written off.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that whether one has a disability or not, be it mild or severe, the secret of success is driving up the skills level so that the possibility of employment becomes ever greater? Is not the great success of this Government the joined-upness between the Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Work and Pensions, which have successfully worked together in harness to drive up skills that provide employment? Will my hon. Friend carry on with that good work? Indeed, I would like one of the pathways projects in my constituency.

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is right in that it is important to bring together improved assistance to help restore the confidence of those who may have been out of work for many years and been told by their doctors that they are incapable of work. One of the interesting statistics about the 12,000 job entries that the pilots have already achieved is that 3,000 of them are for people who have volunteered to join pathways, even though they would not have been obliged or forced to go to work-focused interviews. That is very encouraging.

In addition to the condition management programme, which can assist people in learning to live with the conditions that have kept them inactive for
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many years, and which is being taken up with great enthusiasm, there are also programmes like the new deal for disabled people and other specialist disability employment programmes, as well as extra skills training, all of which can do nothing other than help these people get back closer to the labour market. We need to see more of this, certainly not less of it.

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