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it is inherently difficult to give an accurate estimate of the numbers involved.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): May I draw the Ministers attention to illegal immigration in Kettering and the problem of legal migrants being subject to illegal terms and conditions of employment? Responsibility for those issues appears to fall somewhere between the IND, the Paymaster General and the Department. Is the Minister satisfied that there is effective Government co-ordination between all three Departments on those matters?
Mr. Plaskitt: There is some sharing of responsibility. However, the Conservative Governments legislationthe Asylum and Immigration Act 1996placed considerable responsibility on employers to establish whether people applying for a job had a right to work in the United Kingdom. We strengthened that legislation in 2004 and we also implemented the Grabiner reports recommendations. The system is therefore far more robust now than the one we inherited. We recently announced a further improvement.
The Minister for Pensions Reform (James Purnell): We propose that the new crediting arrangements for carers will apply from 2010. On its own, the new carers credit will mean that approximately 70,000 more carers could gain credit to the basic state pension. It will also help around 110,000 more women and 50,000 more men to gain credits to the state second pension.
Chris McCafferty: I thank the Minister for that reply. The White Paper is a bold move forward and will ensure that many carers get increased pension rights. However, does my hon. Friend know that a quarter of all women between the ages of 50 and 59 are in a caring role? Much of the time that they have spent caring has been before the introduction of home responsibilities protection and credits. Will he ensure that those women will not lose out when the excellent proposals are implemented?
James Purnell: That is the key group at which the reforms are aimed. They will be helped especially by the reduction in the number of qualifying years to 30. Approximately 30 per cent. of women currently reach retirement age with full entitlement to a basic state pension. In 2010, the figure will be 70 per cent. and it will be 90 per cent. in 2020. That will help exactly the group that my hon. Friend mentioned.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): I am grateful for that question. We have significantly reduced the level of overpayment of jobseekers allowance. The overpayment level that we inherited in 1997 represented 13.2 per cent. of JSA expenditure. I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that the latest estimate is that, thanks to our measures, the loss is down to 6 per cent. of JSA expenditure. We will not stop therewe shall continue to strive to reduce that even further.
Andrew Rosindell: I thank the Minister for his response, but is not the true story that, since the 1997 general election, 910 million overpayments have been made? Will he reassure hon. Members that, with rising unemployment44,000 jobs lost in the previous quarter ending in MarchJSA overpayments will be reduced further? The Department appears to be managed incompetently when so much money is being given away unjustifiably.
Mr. Plaskitt: I think that our record speaks for itself. When the Conservatives were in government, they did not accurately measure what was going onthat is how bothered they were about the issue. We have far more robust systems of measurement in place, however. The hon. Gentleman has asked me for more information and reassurance, so let me break down the figures for him. The level of loss in jobseekers allowance to fraud in 1997 was £300 million; last year, it was £50 million. In 1997, the level of loss in JSA to official error was £150 million; last year, it was £50 million. That illustrates the progress that we are making, and we shall continue to make it.
Lynda Waltho: I thank the Minister for his answer. On Saturday, at the start of carers week, I visited a massive display of all the carers associations and organisations within Dudley. Many of the carers that they represent are women, and I was lobbied quite specifically about pension entitlement. Those women will be happy to hear the answer that the Minister has just given me. Will he undertake to visit Dudley to meet some of them, to explain their entitlements and to listen to the significant issues that some of them have about the substantial care that they provide?
James Purnell: I would be delighted to visit Dudley to do exactly that. I am going to Kings Lynn later this week in the context of carers week to explain our proposals, which will be extremely good news for carers. We are modernising the contributory principle because we need to recognise the contributions that people make, not only through work but through child care and other forms of care. That is exactly what we are doing.
The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): There are regular discussions between departmental officials and officials in the Treasury on the operation of the tax credit scheme and its interaction with Department for Work and Pensions benefits.
Unfortunately the forms
are not available but will be sent to you as they become available.
So, people cannot even complain about this mess, which has been caused by the Treasurys power grab for this aspect of policy and by the Chancellors obsession with gaining control of every aspect of domestic policy. Will the Ministers Department now assert itself and get back under its control this aspect of policy that is vital for so many people on low incomes?
Mr. Murphy: The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that tax credits are benefiting 6 million families and about 10 million children throughout the United Kingdom. They have also played an important part in helping to lift 700,000 children out of poverty. Of course, I reiterate the apology that has been offered by other Ministers for the mistakes that have been made in the operation of the tax credit system and for the difficulties that they have caused. However, I do so, in the expectation that Conservative Members will offer an apology for voting against the creation of the system in the first place. Of course it is regrettable that the right hon. Gentlemans constituent has to wait for the forms, but if we were relying on him and his party, they would still be waiting for the creation of the tax credits themselves, and for the alleviation of poverty that they have brought about.
The Minister for Pensions Reform (James Purnell): As we announced in the White Paper on pensions reform, eligibility for the financial assistance scheme will be extended to all those who meet the other qualifying conditions and were within 15 years of their schemes pension age on 14 May 2004. This means that about 40,000 people will receive assistance totalling more than £2 billion over approximately 50 years.
Mr. Bellingham: Is the Minister aware that many of my constituents lost their company pensions when Albert Fisher went into receivership? At first, they welcomed the announcement to extend the Financial Services Authority scheme and assumed that they would be entitled to 80 per cent. of their original pensions. However, the company pension expert, Ross Altmann, has looked into various matters, including the non-indexation of capital sums, and it would appear that my constituents may only get 20 per cent. of their original entitlement. Is that the case?
James Purnell: No, that is rubbish, actually. We made our proposals, and the fact that there would be taper, absolutely clear. That will help us to reach more people and it amounts to a significant extension of the scheme from £400 million to £2.3 billion. Unless the Conservative party is going to provide more funds to extend it even further, it should accept what we have done and welcome it.
Nick Harvey (representing the House of Commons Commission): The Department of Finance and Administration carries out checks on the immigration status of all candidates at the interview stage of the recruitment process for prospective employees. Candidates must provide original evidence of their eligibility to work in the UK based on a limited list of acceptable documents, which follows Home Office guidelines.
Mr. Robathan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer, but there has been some regrettable publicity surrounding the Home Office and the way in which it has recruited illegal immigrants, often to work as civil servants. As I wander around the House early in the morning, I discover people from Francophone Africa, working for contractors [Interruption.] I come into work very early. They are working for contractors to clean the offices, which they do perfectly well, but I suggest that it would be very embarrassing if they were found to be illegal immigrants. I trust that such people will be investigated.
Nick Harvey: I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not jumping to any conclusions about peoples immigration status simply because he encounters them working in the House. The contractors and agencies that supply temporary staff are responsible for checking the immigration status of staff and guidance has been given about how to do so. They have to sign a declaration to confirm that they have carried out the necessary checks and they have to provide the relevant documentation. The hon. Gentleman should therefore rest easy, as the proper checks are in place.
The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Joint Committee on Conventions has now been set up and is receiving evidence. Tomorrow, my ministerial colleagues in the House of Lords and I will appear before it. I am also arranging to bring forward an order to extend its deadline from the end of July to the end of this Session. An order to that effect has already been laid in House of Lords and will come before this House, assuming that it is passed, as soon as possible. Meanwhile, I will hold informal consultations with the other parties, Cross Benchers and bishops. The hon. Gentleman knows that I am meeting him and other members of the cross-party group to discuss the way forward next week.
I am grateful for that answer, but I seek clarification of what now appears to be the timetable. The Joint Committee is likely to work until
the autumn and then report. Should there be a chance for the cross-party discussions to take that advice, information and recommendations into account? Should the House of Commons then be able to deliberate and then the Government formulate their views, hopefully before next year and on a consensus basis, before putting them to both Houses of Parliament?
Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we all hope and pray to find a consensus on this matter, but we never know. It is the failure to find such a consensus in the past that has left us with a less than satisfactory status quo. As to the time scale, we will have lost some months by extending the deadline for the Joint Committee. My intention is to run the all-party discussions, including within the group, in parallel with the Joint Committees sittings, but not in a way that pre-empts the conclusions. We should gain a fairly clear idea about the direction in which it is moving towards October and November, and I hope that we can try to bring all these issues together either this side of the turn of the year or just the other side of it.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): My friend will have read early-day motion 2307, on the reform of the Canadian Senate. Does he expect the Joint Committee to look at what is happening now in Ottawa to see whether that gives us any way to move forward in reforming the House of Lords?
Mr. Straw: The Wakeham commission took at lot of evidence about parallels with other second chambers, and I may tell my hon. Friend that the manner in which other second chambers operate, the balance of power between them and the first chamber and their systems of election and appointment are all the experiences that we need to look at very carefully before making our own decisions.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): In thanking the Leader of the House for his over-modest extension of the deadline, may I ask him to confirm that he will meet that very large informal all-party group from both Houses, which includes a former leader of the Liberal party and a former leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, and that he will listen very carefully to the unanimous view of that group, which does not believe in electing any Member of the upper House?
Mr. Straw: Arrangements are in hand to see the hon. Gentleman, who is a leading member of that group, but the passion with which he puts an otherwise prosaic point simply about holding a meeting illustrates the difficulty of trying to find a consensus on this issue.
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Nigel Griffiths): Like all hon. Members, the Leader of the House and I are keen to encourage greater public participation in our democracy. The Power report, Parliament First and the Modernisation Committee have made positive suggestions about making better use of public petitions. I am grateful to the Procedure Committee for devoting time and resources to the issue, and we look forward to being able to act on its findings.
John Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He obviously agrees with me that the Petitions Committee that has been set up in the Scottish Parliament has been shown to be in touch with the people, groups and professionals with petitions, which are vital to people. Will he continue to go down that road and ensure that he and the Leader of the House consider a petitions committee to try to engage the general public more in politics and the House?
Nigel Griffiths: I entirely agree with my hon. Friendthe Scottish Parliaments Public Petitions Committee has been widely praised by people from all parties and those of no party. We recently made a changesome saw it as a landmark changewhereby petitions no longer need to be hand written but will be accepted in hard copy. I think that we can go a lot further than that.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I rather hope that we might. Certainly, the Public Petitions Committee in Scotland has been judged a great successindeed, I believe that it is being emulated by the German Bundestagso it is something that we should seriously consider. However, is there not a disjunction between what people are thinking at a certain time and want to put before Parliament, what Members want to put before Parliament, and what gets on to the Order Paper? Is there not a case not only for a petitions committee, but for finding a proper way to consider early day-motions signed by a great number of Members? For instance, early-day motion 1531 on Post Office accounts has been signed, as he knows, by more than half the membership of the House. Is there not a good case for putting that before the House in the form of a debate?
Nigel Griffiths: I certainly have no doubt that there is a disjuncture between what Liberal Democrat MPs may be doing and what the public think, and we are keen to find a mechanism that takes account of the public filling in petitions. I am keen to look at solutions to the issues that have been raised by us and in some of the reports that I have mentioned, such as the increased volume of petitions, as compared with those in the devolved Parliament in Scotland, and so on. I am sure that those obstacles can be overcome and I believe that we are at least united in wanting to ensure that the public have a better mechanism for being able to participate in discussions in the House. That is a way forward, and I look forward to the Procedure Committee coming up with some very solid recommendations that have all-party support.
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