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Financial Assistance Scheme

15. Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the level of funding for the financial assistance scheme. [22520]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Stephen Timms): As with any new policy, we discuss developments with the relevant Government Departments. The Chancellor confirmed last month that the level of funding for the financial assistance scheme would be reviewed in the next spending round.

Danny Alexander: In discussions on the next spending round, will the Minister bear in mind the plight of people such as constituents of mine who have missed the cut-off date for assistance under the scheme, in some cases by only a few days? Some people aged 58 are entitled to assistance while others aged 62 are not. Can funding be made available to deal with some of the anomalies in the system?

Mr. Timms: Our approach is to prioritise individuals who need help most urgently, namely those who are closest to their scheme pension age. Such people have been helped by the scheme thus far, but we will know more about the potential costs and liabilities when all the data from schemes have been collected at the end of   the current notification period, which ends on 28 February. We are assembling all that data, and they will give us a good basis for looking at the question of whether we can extend the scheme when the review is carried out.

Returning to Work

18. Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): How many people have returned to work since 1997. [22523]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Margaret Hodge): I am delighted to answer my hon.   Friend's question. Employment has increased by 2.332 million since 1997. Our employment rate, at 74.8 per cent., is the highest of the G7 countries, and one of the highest in the world. Since 1997, employment has risen strongly, unemployment is down and the number of economically inactive people has started to fall.

Siobhain McDonagh: In constituencies such as mine in suburban south London, the new deal has been a terrific success, but there is still a hard core of young people whose educational and family background makes it challenging for them to find work. Does my right hon. Friend have any proposals to introduce schemes that would deepen and intensify the new deal for that particularly difficult group?

Margaret Hodge: My hon. Friend is right to point to the small group of young people who are neither in education nor in training and employment. We have introduced a number of financial measures, including education maintenance allowances, and training measures such as a scheme that we want to run in conjunction with our colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills. We
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hope that our collective approach to tackling the problem will bring that small number of people who are locked into inactivity and are outside society closer to the labour market. It is a difficult last nut to crack, but we are determined to try to do so.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): In the Kettering constituency, there is a large and growing shortage of key workers in the local health service, not   least among midwives. What measures is the   Department taking to encourage highly trained personnel to return to our vital public services?

Margaret Hodge: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is anxious that we should increase the number of people working in the health service, because all too often Opposition Members attack us for the expenditure on it and the growth in employment in it. I   recognise the issue that he raises, and we need to introduce more flexible working and other attractive measures to bring back into the health service some of   the people who may have left to care for their children or others in the home. We have introduced many measures already and a Bill will be introduced this Session to provide greater flexibility for people working throughout the economy, including the right to ask for flexible working when their children are older and if they are carers. I hope that that will assist with the problem the hon. Gentleman mentions.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): Aberdeen is booming at present, thanks to high oil prices. I   appreciate that not all hon. Members think that that is a good thing, but it certainly is in the north-east of Scotland. As a result, unemployment is low and there are real labour shortages, especially in the construction industry. One of the local charities, Aberdeen Foyer, has been successfully delivering the build and train new deal, but the Government will withdraw the funding for that next year. I know that my right hon. Friend has already agreed to meet people from the Foyer to discuss the matter, but I hope that the Government will consider the   importance of some of those new deals that deal with the most marginal young people and get those whom the previous Government had written off successfully back to work, as well as plugging some of   the gaps in the labour shortage.

Margaret Hodge: My hon. Friend has spoken to me about the ambitions project in her constituency, of which the Foyer is part. Some areas of the country have had successful pilots on which we want to build and from which we want to learn lessons. The trick that we pulled, which we must spread more widely, was linking the skills needs of employers to the state in its various guises, whether it be the Department for Education and Skills or my Department, to get individuals with the relevant competencies but who are outside the labour market or unemployed to fill the jobs. If those three parts work together—the individual, the state and the employer—we have a route to filling some of the skills
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gaps and tackling the inactivity in the labour market that is the challenge for this term of the Labour Government.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): How many "older" workers have returned to work since 1997? As the Minister will be aware—I am very much   aware of it—older workers often have very good skills—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] They also have experience, and I back experience.

Margaret Hodge: The hon. Gentleman and I both have an interest to declare in this issue. In 1997, the employment rate for those over 50 was 64.7 per cent.; in spring this year, it had risen by 6 percentage points to 70.7 per cent. There is still a gap with the national employment rate of just under 4 per cent., but we are narrowing it. Our very successful new deal for 50-plus has brought back into work more than 150,000 older workers. We want to go further and build on that successful strategy.

Child Tax Credit

19. Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): If he will make a statement on the transfer to child tax credit of the remaining families with children in receipt of income support and income-based jobseeker's allowance. [22524]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): All new claimants for income support and jobseeker's allowance receive child tax credits rather than an increase in their benefits. As I made clear in an answer in June, the timing of the transfer of cases to tax credits will be subject to a final review and an announcement will be made in due course. I again reassure the hon. Gentleman that no one is losing out: the increases in the benefits associated with children are set at the same level as child tax credit.

Greg Mulholland: I thank the Minister for that answer to a question that I did not actually expect to get to ask. Having started at 25, I seem to be rising up the ranks nearly as fast as the hon. Member for Witney (Mr.   Cameron).

Less than two weeks ago, the parliamentary ombudsman used the phrase "systematic maladministration" about the automatic recovery of overpayment of tax credits. Will the Minister give us an assurance that, until the ombudsman is satisfied that there is no longer systematic maladministration, the group of families so hard hit by it will not be transferred across?

Mr. Plaskitt: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman finally got to his question. Probably the best thing I can do is to tell him what the ombudsman actually said. Referring to her report on the matter, she said:

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