16 Oct 2006 : Column 565

House of Commons

Monday 16 October 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Jobcentre Plus

1. Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): What assessment he has made of the performance of Jobcentre Plus in dealing with claimants; and if he will make a statement. [93396]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. John Hutton): Since 1997, welfare dependency has fallen by 20 per cent. Claimant unemployment is close to its lowest level for 30 years. There are 2.5 million more people in jobs and 800,000 children have escaped the poverty trap. Jobcentre Plus has made a major contribution in achieving that progress and I would like to place on record my appreciation of the dedication and hard work of its staff.

Anne Main: I thank the Minister for that reply —[ Interruption. ] Please excuse my breathlessness. [ Interruption. ] It is not that exciting. [ Laughter. ]

I thank the Minister for his reply to my constituent Mr. Vialva, who was asked to pay back money from 1998 in 2006. It turns out that his was part of a stockpile of unanswered correspondence on this matter. That speaks to me of a Department that is absolutely chaotic. It turns out that papers were lost and few facts were available. We are talking about the massive sum of £175. Will the Minister tell me whether there are other constituents who are also caught up in the system and who are in a similar position to Mr. Vialva, and does the Minister have a figure on the matter?

Mr. Hutton: I have that effect on people.

I am generally not aware of the constituency case that the hon. Lady has drawn to my attention, but I will happily look into it. I hope that she will accept my assurance that cases such as that are very much the exception and not the norm. In her constituency, for example, because of the hard work of Jobcentre Plus staff in her area, unemployment has fallen by 30 per cent.

16 Oct 2006 : Column 566

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): Does the Minister think that the performance of Jobcentre Plus might be improved if the call centre numbers were changed from 0845 numbers to freephone 0800 numbers?

Mr. Hutton: We are looking carefully at that important point and we have established a number of pilots on establishing 0800 freephone numbers. I would be happy to share the details with my hon. Friend.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): Is not one of the problems for Jobcentre Plus staff that they are not able to advise all claimants that they would be significantly better off in work, because of the effects of means-testing? Was the Minister concerned, over the summer, to read the report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which said that some of Labour’s recent reforms

Over the next few months, as he prepares his personal manifesto for the Labour leadership, will he focus on policies that will improve work incentives?

Mr. Hutton: We have always made that an important issue for us. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the effect of tax credits—for example, on the minimum wage—he will see that they have undoubtedly provided a clear incentive for the poorest to get off welfare and into employment. That has been a positive thing to do. We have made sure that work pays. The results of that are clear. There are 2.5 million more people exercising the right to work than in 1997.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I thank the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, who, at a point when our local Jobcentre Plus was failing to deal with urgent cases efficiently, intervened and made sure that it did. May I be assured that, when there is a local problem—in our case, I think that it was to do with recruitment of Jobcentre Plus staff—and when Members are made aware of it by their constituents, we can continue to have that kind of service? In our case, constituents had to wait an unacceptably long time, but as soon as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) and I intervened, they were able to get action straight away.

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The chief executive of Jobcentre Plus acts to deal with these types of concern when they are brought to our attention. In relation to the question asked by the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), we have recruited something like an extra 70 staff to deal with some of the backlog of cases. It is important that, when someone applies for benefit, that case is processed in a timely and efficient way. We are committed to improving the service to our customers in all parts of the country.

Economically Inactive Teenagers

2. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): How many economically inactive teenagers aged 16 and 17 not in full-time education there were at the end of (a) 1998 and (b) 2005; and if he will make a statement. [93397]

16 Oct 2006 : Column 567

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): At the end of 1998, the figure was 46,000. At the end of 2005, there were 122,000 economically inactive people aged 16 and 17 not in full-time education.

Dr. Cable: Will the Minister explain why the group of teenagers who are not in work, full-time education or training has, according to his figures, tripled to roughly 30 per cent. of the total, despite the enormous number of Government programmes and despite the fact that that group features a high prevalence of crime, drug use and other forms of antisocial activity?

Mr. Murphy: This is an important point. We introduced the education maintenance allowance to encourage young folk to stay on at school because the priority is for them to remain in education. I am pleased to confirm to the House that both the proportion and number of such people who remain in education is up, although there is much more work to do. I think that the hon. Gentleman would accept that the long-term youth claimant count is down by 60 per cent. nationally and by 50 per cent. in his constituency.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Minister joined me at a Save the Children fringe meeting at the Labour party conference in which we met a group of young people from an estate in a rural part of Wales. They flagged up the fact that one of the key issues affecting their ability to get into work was the lack of and the cost of transport. Will he join me in welcoming the End Child Poverty month of action that intends to highlight those problems and tell me a little more about what he plans to do following our meeting with Save the Children?

Mr. Murphy: I was pleased to have the opportunity to meet my hon. Friend and young folk from rural Wales. She is correct that the single biggest problem that they all identified was the availability of transport in rural locations. That showed me that the way of overcoming the multi-dimensional way in which poverty arises is through collective action across all Government Departments. I confirm to my hon. Friend that we remain absolutely committed to halving child poverty by 2010 and abolishing it entirely by 2020, which is remarkably different from the situation a short time ago when we had the highest levels of child poverty of any industrialised nation on the planet.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): I am confused. A moment ago, I heard the Minister say that the long-term youth claimant count was down by 60 per cent., but on 5 September, the Prime Minister said:

Additionally, just the other day I read published Office for National Statistics data showing that long-term youth unemployment stands at 181,000, which is its highest level since October 1997. Will the Minister tell us who has got it right—him, the Prime Minister or the ONS—and which two have got it wrong?

Mr. Murphy: I cannot do much about the hon. Gentleman’s state of confusion, but I can confirm that long-term youth unemployment in his constituency stands at 15. Of course, that is 15 too many, and we will
16 Oct 2006 : Column 568
do all that we can, working with everyone else, to ensure that we further reduce long-term youth unemployment in his constituency and elsewhere. However, I am sure that he would be the first to acknowledge that remarkable progress has been made on eradicating long-term youth unemployment, partly through the new deal, which, of course, he described only recently as an “expensive flop”.

One Nottingham

3. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Whether he has received an expression of interest for a city strategy on welfare to work from One Nottingham; and if he will make a statement. [93398]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. John Hutton): I am pleased to say that One Nottingham was successful in its recent bid to become one of the early pathfinders for our new cities strategy, which will help to play a significant role in improving local employment rates. I would like to thank my hon. Friend for the valuable work that he is doing to support this initiative in Nottingham.

Mr. Allen: Does the Secretary of State accept that in a place such as Nottingham there is a massive disparity in unemployment rates and attempts to get people back to work that requires incredible flexibility? He and the Prime Minister are already committed to that flexibility. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether it will extend to things such as the 16-hour rule and the earnings rule? Will he consider whether the pathways to work project might in some instances cut across what city strategies are trying to do? Has he thought about ensuring that there is no confusion, not only among Conservative Front Benchers, which occurs a lot, but in a city strategy about the responsibilities between it and pathways?

Mr. Hutton: My hon. Friend, who knows Nottingham much better than I do, will be aware that although Nottingham is one of the richest cities in the United Kingdom, it has some of the greatest pockets of deprivation. The whole purpose of the cities strategy is to unite the public, private and voluntary sectors in a new war on tackling economic inactivity and to mobilise resources across the public sector and into the private sector. As part of that, we will certainly consider any request for flexibility when we think that that can make a difference. Whether it is on the 16-hour rule or elsewhere, we are prepared to work with local city strategies to develop a good response. There has to be proper ownership of pathways in city strategy areas, and I am sure that the local consortium in Nottingham is well placed to take charge of that.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman’s constituency is too far away from Nottingham for me to call him.

Child Support Agency

4. Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): If he will make a statement on progress with reforms to the Child Support Agency. [93399]

16 Oct 2006 : Column 569

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. John Hutton): In July, and in response to Sir David Henshaw’s report, I set out the broad direction of reform to the child support system. We intend to publish a White Paper with final, detailed proposals later this autumn.

Mr. Baron: The Secretary of State will be well aware that many of my constituents have been badly let down by the CSA through its sheer delay, incompetence and constant change of caseworkers, and that many constituents are still caught in the system, trying to seek justice. Given that the Government’s reforms plan to exclude the families at present in the old system, what assurance can the right hon. Gentleman give that those excluded families will not be abandoned or forgotten by the Government?

Mr. Hutton: The hon. Gentleman might need to look at the White Paper again and refresh his memory. We will not exclude old scheme cases from the reforms. We will set out the detailed transitional arrangements in the White Paper, but I have already told the chief executive of the agency that he must prioritise enforcement and debt collection. We are making an additional investment in the CSA to make sure that we improve performance in all these areas, and it is an important part of our plans. I agree—this is why we have set out our plans to replace the Child Support Agency—that it is impossible to make the current system work in the way that we want it to, and to provide the hon. Gentleman’s constituents with the level of service that they are entitled to expect. When we publish our detailed proposals, I hope that he will be the first to support them.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend look into the unfairness caused by a non-resident parent in receipt of child tax credit having that taken into account as income when calculating the maintenance requirement, thus returning that parent to low income, whereas the recipient may also be on child tax credit and therefore may effectively benefit twice?

Mr. Hutton: I am happy to look into that.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): One aspect of the reform of the agency was the introduction of a means whereby parents could agree maintenance between themselves. Under the pre-CSA arrangements, as the Minister may know, at least in Scotland, such an agreement, if registered, could be enforceable in the same way as a formal court decree. Can he say whether it is envisaged that the new arrangements will act in the same way, and if so, will he consider measures to enforce them in an overseas jurisdiction where there are reciprocal arrangements relating to court orders?

Mr. Hutton: On the latter point, that is an important issue that we need to explore in relation to how we recover debt from people who are outside the jurisdiction, whether that is in Scotland or in England. That can often be a way round the legislation that the House has enacted, and we cannot tolerate such a situation. On the jurisdiction of a court, the hon. Gentleman will have to wait until the detailed proposals are set out in the White Paper. Sir David Henshaw highlighted that as an issue and we are giving careful consideration to it.

16 Oct 2006 : Column 570

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that many of us on the Labour Benches are pleased that he is taking steps to get rid of the Child Support Agency as it currently exists? Is he also aware that I am astonished that a Conservative Member of Parliament can voice opposition in the manner that he does, taking into account that in 1992 when the agency was introduced by John Major—the man responsible for the cones on the highways and all the rest of it—some of us voted to scrap it within 12 months of it being passed by the House? If only the Tories had joined us, we would never have had such a calamity.

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): May I ask the Secretary of State about information technology? He will be aware that many of my constituents, and no doubt many of his, who are parents with care wish to apply for a variation on absent parents who are in receipt of working tax credit. The Government believe that they should be able to do that, but I am told by one of his ministerial colleagues that they cannot do so at present because the computer system cannot be adapted to allow them to do so. That has now been the case for three years. How much longer will they have to wait?

Mr. Hutton: It is not an ideal situation, as I would be the first to acknowledge. The Child Support Agency has a number of routes—not satisfactory in all cases, I agree—to try and find manual overrides and work-arounds for such problems. The difficulties with the IT system have been pretty well documented and I do not want to add to that. In relation to the new agency, the problem will have to be examined carefully because we do not want such problems to continue in the new agency. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is usually right on all these matters.

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North) (Lab): We frequently have discussions here about failings of the CSA. However, first, is it not right to emphasise that the starting point in child maintenance is personal responsibility, usually that of absent fathers; and secondly, that in any such discussion the focus must be towards the elimination of child poverty, as it is children who suffer when maintenance is not paid?

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making those two points, both of which have to be centre stage in the architecture of the new system. We have to promote personal responsibility, which we will be able to do by encouraging more parents to reach voluntary agreements. We also have to be able to say convincingly to the public that in cases where the absent parent does not discharge their financial responsibilities to the child, there will be a better—a more efficient and effective—system for recovering that maintenance. I am afraid that that has been sadly missing from the current arrangements, but Sir David Henshaw, the chief executive of the CSA, and the Department for Work and Pensions are determined to get it right.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Is the Secretary of State in a position to confirm that Sir David Henshaw has reported on the implications of his
16 Oct 2006 : Column 571
first report? Is he able to give us a date when he expects to publish his White Paper and when he expects to publish on the internet the responses to his consultation?

As regards applications under the new system by those already claiming child support, has the Secretary of State estimated what the cost to the state will be, as experts have told us that it will be considerable?

Mr. Hutton: On the hon. Lady’s latter point, that would very much depend on the decisions that we make about the length of time over which that process will take place. We will set out all the details in the near future when we publish our White Paper. I am afraid that I do not have a date for its publication because, as she will know, that is not entirely in my hands—it is to do with the business managers and others—but it will certainly be before Christmas.

Next Section Index Home Page