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27 Nov 2006 : Column 817

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Surely the best way to help unemployed people aged over 50 is to help them back into work. Does the Minister have any plans to visit Poland and the Czech Republic to see what lessons can be learned from their education and training systems, which have been so successful in equipping people with the skills necessary to take up jobs available in the UK economy?

Mr. Murphy: I have no plans to visit Poland or any other part of the European Union in connection with the issue of over-50s in the workplace. Of course, one important part of our over-50s agenda is the new deal 50-plus, which is supporting such people and giving them the chance to get back into work. It has enabled some 160,000 job entries and job starts, but it was opposed by the Conservatives. I wonder whether they continue to oppose the new deal 50-plus, which, as I say, is an important part of our agenda and is supporting such people in getting back into work.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Although we have made some progress, my hon. Friend will realise how difficult it is to change the culture among employers. Surely we as a Government should do what we can to emphasise the benefits and qualities of the over-50s and the experience that they bring to the work force. How would he feel if he heard an organisation used the term “bed blocker” for experienced employees? Will he give an assurance that the Labour party, our organisation, will never use the term to describe our experienced Members of Parliament?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is right. Some two thirds of the growth in the labour market in the past decade has been among the over-50s. That reinforces the need to support more people, especially those who are inactive and perhaps locked into a culture of benefit dependency through incapacity benefit, half of whom are over the age of 50, and emphasises why we need to continue the roll-out of pathways and seek support across the House—which we have had so far—for the Welfare Reform Bill, so that we can support those people to get back into work.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I have a simple question and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give me a simple and positive answer to it. I have been approached by many people over 50 whose skills have become redundant, but they have to languish in unemployment for six months or take a cheap, badly paid job that does not use their potential skills. Will the Government consider introducing a scheme that would reskill people more quickly, so that they are not out of the labour market for such a long time or forced to take low paid, unskilled work?

Mr. Murphy: The reason that there is a qualifying period for the new deal 50-plus is that the vast majority of those aged over 50 find work in the first six months. The new deal is aimed at tackling and eradicating long-term unemployment in the 50-plus group and among young folk. However, we continue of course to listen to representations and will pay close attention to the report by Sandy Leitch on the future skills agenda.


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Disabled People (Heating Costs)

9. Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): What provision is made for the extra cost on fuel and heating incurred by seriously disabled people under the age of 60 years during winter. [102904]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): Disability living allowance, together with the disability premiums in the income-related benefits and the disability-related additions in tax credits, already contribute towards the extra costs faced by seriously disabled people. Recipients are free to spend those payments according to their own priorities.

Greg Mulholland: I wish to raise the case of Matthew Pinder, who is 21, seriously disabled and lives in my constituency. His mother often has to keep the heating on for 20 hours a day, which is very costly. Indeed, to pay for that, she has been forced to borrow from relatives. May I ask the Minister why, when it is recognised that those over 60 are especially vulnerable to the cold, it is not recognised that those under 60 with serious disabilities face the same daily struggle and, therefore, should receive the same benefits?

Mrs. McGuire: I do not want to go into specific details, because it is difficult to assess cases across the Floor of the House at Question Time. However, disability living allowance and the disability premiums that I mentioned do take into account the additional costs and impact of disability on an individual. They take close cognisance of an individual’s circumstances. The most severely disabled people receive an additional £7,000 a year in recognition of the extra costs they face. Some 60 per cent. of those who receive the DLA and/or attendance allowance are aged over 60 and automatically receive a winter fuel payment. The DLA is regulated out over a 52-week period to take account of those costs that occur regularly for disabled people, whereas the winter fuel allowance is an annual payment at a particular time of year to assist with the pressure of fuel costs in the winter. The two examples are not parallel.

Pensions

10. Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): If he will make a statement on the plans announced in the Queen’s Speech to reform the pension system. [102905]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. John Hutton): A Bill will be introduced providing for long-term reform of pensions, making the state pension fairer and more generous and beginning the process of establishing a new scheme of personal accounts.

Mr. Holloway: While reform of the pension system is badly needed, is it not the case that millions of women remain disadvantaged in terms of pension provision?

Mr. Hutton: They do, and that is why we are bringing forward our reforms.


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Age Discrimination Regulations (State Pensions)

11. Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): What assessment he has made of the impact of the age discrimination regulations on state pensions. [102906]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (James Purnell): There will be no impact, as the regulations do not affect state pensions.

Mr. Newmark: I would like to thank the Minister for that answer, but I will not. The CBI’s deputy director-general, John Cridland, has said:

The regulations have already been postponed once because of a lack of timely consultation by the Department for Work and Pensions. Given that the regulations must be in force by 2 December to satisfy EU law, can the Minister tell us why the Government left it so late to put their house in order?

James Purnell: Of course, that is nothing to do with state pensions, which is what the hon. Gentleman’s question was about. The CBI also said that it was relieved that the Government had responded to its concerns about the previous set of regulations, which would have been an administrative nightmare. The CBI welcomed the changes that we made, and we worked closely with the CBI in making them.

Child Support Agency

16. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What estimate he has made of the level of outstanding payments of child support; and if he will make a statement. [102911]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): Maintenance payments outstanding have accumulated in the 13-year period since the beginning of the agency in 1993. The total maintenance payments outstanding at 31 March 2006 were £3.495 billion. The current operational improvement plan places increased emphasis on collecting debt by, for example, using private agencies and quadrupling the number of staff involved in enforcement activity.

Miss McIntosh: Can the Minister say when the Secretary of State will follow up on all the actions that he promised in his statement in July, such as a further White Paper and a further consultation, and when does the Minister expect the Bill to be published? He accepts that £3 billion is outstanding; does he find that acceptable?

Mr. Plaskitt: A debt has, of course, been accumulating since the very beginning of the agency. The level of debt is not acceptable, and that is precisely why, under the operational improvement plan, we are increasing the resources spent on chasing down that debt, and why we are quadrupling the number of staff engaged in that activity. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), the White Paper will appear shortly.


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Disabled People (Benefit Services)

17. Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): What Government support is available through the benefits system to people with disabilities; and if he will make a statement. [102912]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): Depending on their personal circumstances, disabled people have access to the full range of social security benefits, including disability living allowance and attendance allowance. In 2005-06, disability living allowance and attendance allowance provided more than £12.5 billion towards the extra disability-related costs of almost 4.2 million disabled people.

Dr. Kumar: May I raise an issue affecting many of my constituents who are in part-time education? They have been told that they are ineligible for carer’s allowance because, when their coursework is taken into account, the number of hours that they spend studying is greater than 21. Will the Minister clarify whether the amount of homework done should be taken into account?

Mrs. McGuire: It is always difficult, when we lay down criteria for the payment of a benefit, to take into account issues such as those highlighted by my hon. Friend. I have not been asked to consider whether homework hours should be taken into account, but obviously I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to look into the issues that his constituents have raised with him.

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): On the way in which the benefits system works for people with disabilities, does the Minister agree that one of the biggest problems is the complexity of the system? Does she have any plans to simplify the process by which disabled people claim benefits?

Mrs. McGuire: The hon. Gentleman is right to stress that we need to make our benefit application process as friendly as possible to the individual, particularly to those claiming disability living allowance and some other disability-related benefits. We constantly review how we present our application forms and we continue to engage with stakeholders and individuals to ensure that, as well as having the right information at the right point in the process, we act in a way that is sensitive to and properly reflects the individual needs of applicants. I appreciate that there is an issue because the hon. Gentleman and I have discussed it before, so I hope that he and the House accept my reassurance that we are looking into how to simplify the benefits system. The main aim is to get the right benefit to the right person at the right time in a comprehensive and comprehensible way.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a vital role to be played by the voluntary sector, as well as the benefits system, in getting disabled people back to work? Will she join me in congratulating the second chance head injury support unit at Pinderfields hospital? I visited the unit recently and heard the story of a disabled man with a catastrophic
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head injury who had gone back to work through the permitted work scheme as a chef at the unit. He has progressed to a national vocational qualification in catering at level 2, and is now acting as a learning support mentor for other students with learning disabilities in Leeds. Does my hon. Friend agree that such schemes play a vital part in getting people off benefits and into work?

Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the work of that voluntary organisation in her constituency, which reflects the experience of many people across the country, where voluntary organisations work in partnership with Jobcentre Plus and other agencies to deliver tremendously positive outcomes for disabled people. That is why, in our roll-out to pathways, we see a crucial role for the involvement of the voluntary sector.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Back-Bench Legislative Proposals

21. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What consideration has been given to improving the chances of proposals for legislation from Back-Bench Members getting time for debate. [102888]

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): Following the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee, the House recently approved major changes to the legislative process. Some of those changes came into effect from the beginning of the Session and others will come into effect in January, but they did not cover private Members’ Bills. The Modernisation Committee looked at aspects of private Members’ Bill procedure in a report in 2005 and recommended no changes. It considered but rejected the idea of moving private Members’ Bill time to Wednesday evenings, concluding that

Simon Hughes: I thank the Leader of the House for his detailed answer on the practicalities and the practice, but may I ask him about the principle? I was surprised to learn that, in each of the nine years since the Government came to power, fewer than five private Members’ Bills have gone on to the statute book each year, whereas in the previous nine years the average was 14 a year. Given that the public are keen that MPs can be themselves in this place and put forward their own ideas and not merely pass Government legislation, will he look again at whether we can go back to that system, when Members had much more chance of success in getting their proposals on to the statute book?

Mr. Straw: I shall certainly do that, because I want to see as many proposals reaching the statute book as
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have consensus. Bills should not be delayed or blocked for procedural and non-substantive reasons. I do not know exactly why there is such a disparity; I have certainly been encouraging ministerial colleagues to give a fair wind rather than a difficult wind to proposals for private Members’ Bills. I must add that there are a number of private Members’ Bills that hit the buffers initially, but whose ideas later find their way into substantive Government legislation.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The Leader of the House knows that one way in which Back-Bench Members can trigger legislation is by way of motions that propose particular courses of action. Will he consider ways of reinstating the process whereby Back Benchers could table substantive motions for debate on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Straw: A twin inquiry by the Modernisation Committee is about to be announced into strengthening the role of the Back Bencher and the use of non-legislative time in the House, which includes such motions. I could never quite understand why the House agreed to abandon the old process. That was a Jopling recommendation under the previous Administration. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will recognise, it is much more difficult to reinstate such measures than to prevent them from going in the first place, but I am certainly happy to look at the matter.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): As with Government legislation, not all private Members’ Bills are meritorious. Some do not command widespread support, but some do and an example is the Sustainable Communities Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), which I understand is to be taken forward by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd). Is there any scope for using the new Public Bill Committee structure to provide an initial assessment of a Bill and to make a requisition on the Government for time for its completion, thus making it mainstream business rather than putting it into the ghetto of the Friday morning private Members’ slot?

Mr. Straw: I accept that that is certainly an idea that needs to be considered, but we could not introduce such a change without very serious study. As I have already explained, when the Modernisation Committee last considered the matter, it pointed to the disadvantages of what the hon. Gentleman describes—I would not—as a Friday morning ghetto, but also noted many advantages. One of those is that, by definition, it is not whipped, whereas if we brought private Members’ Bills to an earlier part of the week and made them subject to programme motions, they would then be whipped.

Sitting Hours

22. Barbara Follett (Stevenage) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with colleagues about the sitting hours of the House. [102889]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Nigel Griffiths): My right hon. Friend has not had any formal discussions with colleagues on that issue, but he is, as ever, open to representations.


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Barbara Follett: Given that the vote to reverse one of the Cook reforms and revert to late sittings on a Tuesday night was made by previous Members of a previous Parliament, would my right hon. Friend please consider giving current Members a vote on the issue?

Nigel Griffiths: My hon. Friend was a member of the Modernisation Committee, which reported before the last election. Its report was voted on at that time and since then, as I have just said, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has received no representations on the matter, but will consider any that are made.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): In endorsing the plea from the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), I put it to the Minister that, although the Leader of the House is Chairman of the Modernisation Committee and, in his own way, is without question a very great man indeed, he is in one sense at least something of a reactionary troglodyte in respect of his continuing support for very late hours. I therefore endorse the hon. Lady’s plea and ask for a vote sooner rather than later.

Nigel Griffiths: Obviously, if the Modernisation Committee revisited the issue in this Parliament, it would be open to the House to consider its recommendations and vote on them if that were thought desirable. As I say, there has been no indication of any overwhelming support to change things in this Parliament, but the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) will doubtless ensure in his own way that the Government take account of his and others’ views.


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