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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): The arrangements are set out in the Jobseekers Act 1995. Entitlement to jobseeker's allowance depends on the nature of the employment arrangements and whether it is reasonable to assume that there is a continuing pattern of re-employment. For seasonal workers, where the average hours worked over the cycle is 16 or more, the claimant is not entitled to JSA.
Mark Simmonds: The Minister will be aware of the immense problems caused, particularly in Skegness, by the unannounced recent implementation of regulation 91, which relates to the jobseeker's allowance. That is causing significant hardship to seasonal workers, all of whom anticipated being able to claim benefit in the winter months, as they have done in previous years. That change in Government policy has led to people being evicted from their homes, people having to pawn their possessions, and people fainting through hunger in the Skegness benefits office. This matter requires the Minister's urgent attention. Will he assure me and my suffering constituents that he and his civil servants will look into it with the utmost urgency?
Mr. Plaskitt: I have looked into the particular circumstances. In Lincolnshire, the remunerative work rules for seasonal workers were incorrectly applied prior to June 2005. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there has been no policy change. The problem has been in deciding a condition of entitlementnamely, whether the customers in question are in remunerative work. Decision makers are now applying the legislation correctly. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that no action has been taken against customers who received JSA when the rules for seasonal workers were applied incorrectly and that no one has been asked to repay any benefit paid.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Is the Minister aware that seasonal workers in my constituency who work at the sugar beet factory at Wissington, in the fishing industry, or in food processing, and who have tried to find jobs out of season but have been unable to do so, have in the past always been able to claim benefit? They are most concerned about the fact that they have had no warning whatsoever and have therefore been unable to plan their lives and make other arrangements. What does the Minister say to those constituents of mine, who are in a real dilemma?
There has been no change. The rules were set down in clause 1(2)(e) of the 1995 Act, if the hon. Gentleman would like to take a look. The rules laid down for seasonal work are clear. The Act states that where there is a cycle of work consisting of one year or more that qualifies as seasonal work, and if the weekly average of hours worked over the cycle is 16 or more, there is no entitlement to JSA. Those have been the rules since 1995, and those are the rules still enacted.
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It is worth pointing out that the benefits system is not intended to subsidise employers, who expect their seasonal workers to return but are not offering any retainer in the meantime. Seasonal workers need to accept that they might need to look for other work at other times of the year.
The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Margaret Hodge): I commend my hon. Friend on the close interest that she has taken in this issue. Under our reorganisation in north Staffordshire, there will be four local service outlets providing the full range of face-to-face Jobcentre Plus services. The Jobcentre Plus offices in Kidsgrove, Longton and Newcastle are due to open later this year, and the new purpose-built Jobcentre Plus building in Hanley is due to open in July 2007.
Joan Walley: I thank my right hon. Friend for all that the Government are doing to help those who can work to find work, to stay in work, and to retrain for work. She will be aware, however, that I have had Adjournment debates in this House about the closure of the Burslem jobcentre. Will she meet me to see what she can do to ensure that people in Burslem are not left out under the new arrangements? Does she agree that we need to tackle this in a joined-up way, and that we have a particular problem with the removal of funding from the learner support fund, which comes from the Department for Education and Skills? Will she meet me to ensure that we can provide the adequate services that we need in Burslem?
Margaret Hodge: I am aware of the many questions and debates that my hon. Friend has pursued in this House in the interests of her constituents and of her concern about the Burslem Jobcentre Plus office. On our calculations, the longest journey time for anybody to get to an alternative office is 20 minutes, and the cost is £2. My hon. Friend is shaking her head. It would therefore be wise if we were both to meet to discuss the matter further. I share her concern about our joined-up working with the Department for Education and Skills to ensure that we provide opportunities for individuals.
Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Waltham Cross, in my constituency, has an excellent jobcentre. What measures is the Minister taking to ensure that my local jobcentre works closely not only with local employers but local recruitment companies, so that a wide range and diversity of jobs are available to the local work force?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman appreciates the very good service given by Jobcentre Plus in providing, through the new deal,
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opportunities for work for many of his constituents. I agree that bringing employers into our arrangements is utterly crucial. The way to maintain the very high employment rates we enjoy in this country is for employers' needs to be matched to individuals and their skills, with the state providing the support necessary to prepare the individual for the job.
The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Margaret Hodge): Although recent figures on claimant unemployment have been erratic and there have been increases, the level still remains close to historically low levels. Furthermore, rises in the claimant count have, over the past year, been partially offset by a reduction in those claiming inactivity benefits.
Jobcentre Plus will continue to ensure that all jobseekers fulfil their responsibilities to seek and be available for work, are offered the assistance they need to find work, and receive the benefits to which they are entitled.
Andrew Selous: The Minister will know that January's labour market statistics show an increase in the claimant count for the 11th month in a row. Growth in earnings is also fallingthat is something that I have noted in my constituency, as well. Will she tell the House how she plans to tackle that rise in the claimant count?
Margaret Hodge: It is indeed right that the last set of employment figures was disappointing. However, I say to the hon. Gentleman that over the year we have still seen an increase of more than 200,000 in available employment opportunities. I shall continue to keep a very close eye on the figures to see whether what have been erratic figures turn into a trend. Through Jobcentre Plus, we shall redouble our efforts to ensure that all those who find themselves on the claimant count are given the appropriate support to bring them swiftly back into work.
The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Margaret Hodge): We intend to publish a cost-benefit analysis of pathways next year. That analysis will be based on both new and repeat customers in the first seven pathways areas. Early results show off-flows from incapacity benefit at six months of about 48 per cent. in the pilot areas, compared with about 40 per cent. nationally, demonstrating an improvement of eight percentage points. That means that the reduction in the incapacity benefit case load more than pays for the additional costs of the pilots.
Of course, we welcome any good news from the pathways to work pilot. However, it strikes me
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that a pilot project is exactly that: one is testing whether the project will work. Given that the full results have not been published, it could well be that jobs created through the voluntary and independent sectors are created more quickly and cheaply than through pathways to work. How is it that the Secretary of State has announced another £360 million for pathways to work when the results are not in?
Margaret Hodge: If I may say so, I am slightly puzzled by that question. Conservative Front Benchers welcome the fact that we intend to extend the pathways pilots to a national programme by 2008. The hon. Gentleman also knows that most of the services in the existing pilots are provided through the voluntary and private sectors. If the hon. Gentleman has read our Green Paper, he will know of our intent to roll out further pathways projects across the country, with the private and voluntary sectors being in the lead in the majority of those services.
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