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The Minister for Pensions Reform (James Purnell): In May, more than 2.7 million households3.3 million individualsin Great Britain were receiving pension credit. That is nearly 1 million more than received the minimum income guarantee that preceded it.
Mr. Blizzard: Because pension credit rises each year in line with average earnings, more and more people are becoming eligible for it. What I find locally is that people do not complain about being caught in a web of means-testing; they are just very pleased to be receiving extra pension. Some previously unsuccessful applicants, however, are not aware that they may now be eligible. What is my hon. Friend doing about that?
James Purnell: The Pension Service is undertaking a thorough exercise. We visit more than 1 million people a year to try to ensure that they are claiming the benefits to which they are entitled. I believe we have written to all pensioner households to ensure that they are aware of their entitlements, and there are significant examples of people receiving, in some cases, thousands of pounds as a result. It is definitely worth while for people to ring the Pension Service, or ask for a home visit, so that they can discuss their benefits and obtain that extra help.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): The problem with pension credit is that hundreds of thousands of pensioners are simply not claiming the benefit. To what extent is that hindering the Governments attempts to take 1.8 million pensioners out of poverty?
James Purnell: Far from hindering our attempts, it has helped us to lift 2 million people out of poverty. I remind the hon. Gentleman that whereas when we came to power pensioners were having to survive on £69 a week, they now have £114 a week. For the first time, pensioners are no more likely to be poor than any other section of the population, which is a remarkable achievement during a period of economic prosperity.
The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): There are more people in work than ever before. The United Kingdom has the highest employment rates and the best combination of employment and unemployment in the G7, according to the assessment of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Mr. Gauke: The Minister will be aware of a report in The Business in August which showed that 5.29 million people were receiving out-of-work benefits. The real unemployment rate stands at 16 per cent. Does the Minister not recognise that, despite the Governments promise in 1997 to tackle the spiral of escalating welfare costs, we have had nine and a half wasted years from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer?
It is one thing for the Conservatives, while in government, to have fiddled the figures when unemployment hit 3 million twice and incapacity benefit trebled, but it is quite another for them to fix and fiddle the figures while in opposition. What the Conservatives have sought to do today, in the Chamber and elsewhere, is say that everyoneevery single personon incapacity benefit is unemployed, regardless of disability or mental capacity. To lump all those folk together, regardless of their complicated needs and the support that they require, is nothing short of a disgrace, and the Conservatives should be embarrassed by themselves.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I welcome the stunningly successful figures that the Minister has given us, but may I voice my concern about the continued decline in jobs in the textile industry, particularly in the Leicester and east midlands area? While employment is falling everywhere else, in those sectors it continues to rise. What steps can the Minister and his Department takealong with the Department of Trade and Industryto reverse that decline?
Mr. Murphy: My right hon. Friend is right to observe that, despite the remarkable progress that has been made, there are continuing pockets of difficulty. He will know of the work being done by Sandy Leitch on the skills strategy. He will also know that in a global economy we cannot compete with China, India and others on the basis of low cost, but must compete on the basis of high skills. I will of course happily meet my right hon. Friend to discuss any specific further action that he thinks we could take in Leicester, or in Leicestershire generally.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Despite the Ministers worrying complacency, is not unemployment currently at a six-year high? In Shropshire, we have seen it rise by 36 per cent. over the past year. What would the Minister say to the 600 people who have lost their jobs at Celestica in the past week, and to the 600 defence workers who have been transferred to Bristol against their will? What message has he for my constituents?
Mr. Murphy: Since Labour came to power, unemployment has fallen in every nation and region of the UK. In terms of specifics, we are happy for Jobcentre Plus and other Government agencies to provide the sort of support that has been so effective in other examples of constituency redundancies. The hon. Gentleman would strengthen his case if he were accurate in his assessment. The truth is that, according to the OECD, there are now more people at work in this country than ever before. That contrasts enormously with the period when unemployment hit 3 millionnot once, but twice under the Conservatives.
Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): I join my hon. Friend in reminding Conservative Members of what it was like in my constituency under the Conservative Government when unemployment stood in excess of 20 per cent. High unemployment was not an accident of their policies, but the central plank of them. I worked in primary care psychiatry at that time and I saw doctors prescribing anti-depressants and Valium, but if they could have prescribed a job, people would not have been seen anywhere near the health centre. I am proud to be here today to say that unemployment at 2.5 per cent.
Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is right that there were indeed periods in that dark time when 1 million people went on to incapacity benefit in an individual year. He is also right to make the connection between unemployment, poverty and generational poverty. One in three kids were growing up in poverty; one in five kids were born into a house with no one in work. Yes, we still have further to go, but there has been a remarkable change and improvement as the cycle of disadvantage, previously passed from generation to generation, has been broken.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): The disability living allowance computer system is a modern, efficient and up-to-date system that ensures correct, timely and accurate payments to our customers. The Department continually assesses and makes improvements to its computer system and will continue to seek ways to enhance its systems to support changing business needs into the future.
Mr. Walker: What measures are the Government taking to improve the computer-based medical form, which is highly complex and has denied many deserving people access to the benefits to which they are entitled? The latest figures suggest that 80,000 people are waiting to have their forms assessed for disability living allowance.
Mrs. McGuire: The disability living allowance form is constantly reviewed and updated. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, we are looking into ways of further improving the form and seeking to find different ways to encourage customers to provide us with the information required at the point of decision making. It is vital to secure as much information as possible. Yes, we are reviewing the position; and yes, we are looking to find any wayevery way, in factto connect with those applying for DLA. As many hon. Members appreciate, it is a sensitive benefit, often applied for at a traumatic time in an individuals life.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The last constituent I saw at my advice session on Saturday was a mother of six children, one of whom is seriously disabled. The family depends heavily on disability living allowance. On three separate occasions since April the file has been lost and the application form to renew has been lost, so the family has lost much needed income that is crucial for a family teetering on the financial brink. Will the Minister reassure usshe tells us that the computer systems are fine, modern and workingthat the systems for handling paperwork and forms can be reviewed and improved as soon as possible?
Mrs. McGuire: I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised that constituency matter and I reassure him that, if he will provide me with further details, I will certainly investigate what happened. It is unacceptable that families under pressure, in the circumstances that my hon. Friend has highlighted, should find that our system is not responsive. If he gives me the details, I will ensure that he receives a suitable and appropriate reply. I continue to underline the fact that our disability living allowance systems are in place and effective. They turn round benefit claims very quicklynot just mainstream claims within a 35-day target. In the case of people with terminal conditions, claims are turned round within four to five days.
The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): Long-term youth unemployment has fallen by almost two thirds. Independent research has found that long-term youth unemployment would have been twice as high without the new deal for young people, which is another reason why we should continue to invest in it, rather than abolishing it.
Mr. Jackson: I have listened with interest to the mutual back-slapping club on the Labour Benches this afternoon. Would Ministers care to explain how it is that almost half of all young people aged between 18 and 24 who go on the new deal are, within 12 months, back on benefits? Is that an example of joined-up government?
Mr. Murphy: Independent research has shown the new deal for young people to be highly effective not only in the hon. Gentleman's constituency but throughout the country. In his constituency, unemployment is down by a third and long-term unemployment is down by two thirds. In Peterborough, the number of people who have been helped by the new deal is greater than his constituency majority.
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Nigel Griffiths): The quality of answers is generally of a high order and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House receives few complaints. He has raised those with ministerial colleagues and emphasised the need for proper answers to be given at all times
Norman Baker: I agree with the second part of that answer, if not the first. Will the Minister recognise honestly that the quality of answers has diminished significantly in the past three or four years? Obfuscations and withholding of information are now regular occurrences. Spurious reasons for exemptions are now far more common. I hope that the Leader of the House, who has a fine record of answering questions straight, deplores that and will look at what can be done about it. When a Member is given a clearly useless and inappropriate answer where information is withheld inappropriately, should not that Member be allowed to ask Mr. Speaker to have the Minister brought here to answer the question orally?
The first half of the hon. Member's question contained a terminological inexactitude. As for the second part, we are always prepared to look at mechanisms for reviewing the position. I see and speak to colleagues from all sides of the House who may from time to time have a complaint about the way a question has been answered. I think that people will acknowledge that I am very willing to listen and to
intervene, but very few of them have raised points with me or with the Leader of the House. If they put points now, I think that I would be able to tell whether they are Johnny-come-latelies or have raised that matter in the past.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Does my friend have any idea how many Members are putting in requests under the freedom of information legislation because they are so dissatisfied with the quality of information from Government Departments?
Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): In the light of the Minister's first answer, I would like him to look at the answers from the Deputy Prime Minister. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is very important, at least in his own mind, but trying to scrutinise his Department is well nigh impossible. Does not the Deputy Leader of the House agree that a Select Committee should be able to scrutinise the Deputy Prime Minister's Department and any reports from it?
Nigel Griffiths: I do not recall the hon. Gentlemans contacting us about the failure to answer questions. He knows that there is a Select Committee that is able to look at issues regarding answers to questions, and of course departmental Committees can take up the matter as well if they feel that they are not getting information from Ministers, but so far that has not been the case.
Nick Harvey (North Devon): Since the launch of Voting Times in July, 95,756 copies have been distributed across the UK to new voters, including those in Stoke-on-Trent, North, as they have reached their 18th birthday. Figures are not yet kept on a constituency basis, but if the hon. Lady mails constituents on their 18th birthday she will get some feel for the numbers.
Joan Walley: I thank you, Mr. Speaker, and the Commission for looking at ways of engaging with young people. Perhaps we will be looking forward next to your blog. Parliament is now trying to engage with young people, given the fact that it is estimated that, at the general election in 2005, only 37 per cent. of 18 to 24-year-olds who were eligible to vote did so. We have to pay great regard to what we do to ensure that people understand our parliamentary system. I ask each and every hon. Member to engage with the Commission to see how we can flag up this matter even further.
Nick Harvey: I thank the hon. Lady for her positive remarks, and I agree entirely about the importance of Parliament connecting with young voters. However, the packs are only part of the work that the House is doing. Our parliamentary education unit is expanding its programme of visits to Parliament, which will more than double in the coming year and double again in the year after that. In addition, we have an outreach strategy across the UK involving local education authorities, teachers and schools, and work is under way to build material into the national curriculum. I agree with the hon. Lady that the subject is important, but we are doing a great deal as well providing the packs.
The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): Sir Hayden Phillips is undertaking an independent review of the funding of political parties. He has been asked to produce recommendations that, as far as possible, are agreed between the parties. Sir Hayden will publish an interim assessment on Thursday this week. He has been asked to report to the Prime Minister with his final conclusions before the end of December this year. Once we receive those conclusions we will consult, and we will make decisions in due course.
Mark Pritchard: I thank the Leader of the House for that reply. Does he agree that, if any of the recommendations suggest that funding should be capped, such capping should apply equally to all who donate to political parties, including trade unions, private individuals and businesses, and that there should not be discrimination against individuals or the private sector? The trade unions have to play their full, open and transparent part.
Mr. Straw: May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that, as the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life said in 1998, the trade unions are the most regulated of all donors? During the 18 years of the Conservative Government, the trade unions suffered one adverse change after another in their financing regimes, while nothing whatever was done in respect of companies. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is leading with his chin on the issue, because there is one unquestionable improvement that we must make in regulation, which is to ensure that the unregulated funding of local parties by unincorporated associations such as the midlands industrial council is brought to an end. I note that although he spent just £11,000 during the four-week election period in 2005, he received a total of £55,000 in the eight months before the election was called from Lord Leonard Steinberg and the midlands industrial council, and I assume that he spent that, too. That shows that there is a glaring loophole continuously exploited by the Conservative party, enabling them to spend large sums of money and not account for them before the election period kicks in.
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