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Personal Accounts White Paper

4. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): If he will make a statement on the personal accounts White Paper. [126363]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. John Hutton): The proposal to establish personal accounts has been broadly welcomed in the House and by many others. The consultation on the detailed proposals set out in the White Paper ends on 20 March, and in the light of those responses, it is our intention to bring forward legislation in the next parliamentary Session.

Richard Ottaway: Given that the public have more faith in the judgment of Lord Turner than the Secretary of State, has the right hon. Gentleman reconsidered his somewhat naive decision to cap those accounts at £5,000 a year instead of £3,000, as proposed by Lord Turner?

Mr. Hutton: Yes.

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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): In the White Paper there is reference to personal accounts being delivered by a modern organisation, managed independently in the interests of its members, and within a framework set by Government. No one could dispute those criteria, but the fourth one—delivery by a private sector firm—would make many people nervous. Does the Secretary of State agree that, given the private sector’s track record in that area of pensions, it is not the natural area of society or of the economy to take on a responsibility as important in our pensions policy?

Mr. Hutton: We want a value-for-money solution to implementing the proposed national pension savings scheme, and it is my view that the private sector has the appropriate expertise and experience to do that and provide a good service for the public in the process. At some point, we will obviously need to tender that work, and we will make judgments in due course. However, it is not an area in which Government have the right expertise to take the policy forward.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that minimising costs and charges is crucial to the success of personal accounts? What steps is the Department taking to achieve that?

Mr. Hutton: My hon. Friend is right. Clearly, the lower the annual management charges and costs, the greater the return for those who are saving in the national pension saving scheme. That must be our principal objective in taking forward Lord Turner’s proposals. This, however, will be a matter for detailed consideration by the proposed personal accounts delivery authority, but I can assure my hon. Friend and the House that we will work closely with the delivery authority to make sure that this important aspect of the scheme is brought to fruition.

Construction Industry Training

5. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What programmes for increasing skills and opportunities for work for young people wishing to enter the construction and related industries are supported by his Department. [126365]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): The responsibility for skills falls within the remit of the Department for Education and Skills. However, my Department offers training and support for young people who take up work in a wide range of occupational areas, including the construction industry, through the new deal for young people. Since the new deal started, nearly 180,000 young people have been helped by the full-time education and training option, and over 85,000 through the employment option. There are already 19,000 young people employed in construction across London, and there is no shortage of further opportunities, given that there are currently around 11,000 vacancies.

Simon Hughes: The Minister is right. The Chartered Institute of Building confirms that seven out of 10
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firms are expecting more work this year, and three quarters have difficulty recruiting people with the right skills for the industry. Could he, with his colleagues in the DFES—I appreciate that it is a cross-departmental responsibility—ensure that all the young people who, in constituencies such as mine, are keen to get into the building industry, have not just the initial training, but the opportunity to go from the training into apprenticeship and the work that give them the security of employment that they need, London needs and Britain needs?

Mr. Plaskitt: Indeed, those opportunities exist. The hon. Gentleman may be aware of the on-site training and the job shop at Battersea power station, which I am sure is attractive to many of his young constituents hoping to get into the construction industry. We are working there with Lambeth college and South Thames college. There have been more than 10,000 inquiries to that job shop already, and I am pleased to tell him that as a result 640 young people have gone straight into construction work in London, 43 per cent. of them drawn from the ethnic minority communities.

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend speak to his colleagues to ensure that the young people who are enticed into training go on to get full-time apprenticeships—not short, modern apprenticeships—where they can learn all the skills necessary for them to be of use not only to the London area, but to the entire country?

Mr. Plaskitt: My hon. Friend is right. There are extensive opportunities for young people to find employment in the construction industry and to develop skills. He will be pleased to know that £63 million was available to support construction apprenticeships last year, as a result of which 24,000 young people came forward and began construction apprenticeships. We are grateful for the fact that there are 15,000 employers around the country offering construction partnerships.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): In the past 10 years, the number of young people aged 16 to 18 not in education, employment or training has risen by 27 per cent. What does the Minister intend to do about that?

Mr. Plaskitt: As the hon. Gentleman will know, a number of schemes have been extremely effective already in helping young people find work. I suggest that he looks at the results of the new deal for young people. Some 700,000 young people have gone through the new deal for young people programme, and as a result we now have a very low level of youth unemployment. The programme has helped us virtually eradicate long-term youth unemployment.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Has my hon. Friend given consideration to tapping into the skills and expertise of construction workers who have had to retire through ill health or personal injury? That would be a double whammy, in the sense that it would take them away from daytime television and pass on their skills to the young people
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who need them. Such a scheme would need the support of the appropriate trade unions, and should not affect their benefits.

Mr. Plaskitt: My hon. Friend is right: those who formerly worked in the construction sector have an enormous range of skills of which we can make use. In many parts of the country, learning and skills councils, when they are delivering locally, are engaged in that process, as are colleges. He will be aware that the Scottish Executive are looking at ways of developing those ties even further.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): David Freud has talked of a “poverty of skills” in the UK, yet only 11 per cent. of benefit claimants who lack everyday literacy and numeracy skills complete a basic skills qualification. Will the Government now assess all new claimants so that those with reading or maths needs, for example, can participate in training as soon as they make a claim, without having to wait six months for an assessment?

Mr. Plaskitt: David Freud also pointed out that the Government have a “genuinely impressive record” in helping young people to gain the skills to find work. If the hon. Gentleman cares to look at the skills base that exists for young people, the opportunities for acquiring skills, the expansion of the further education sector and the contribution made by the new deal for young people, he will accept that the opportunities now are far greater than they were 10 years ago.

Lone Parents (Employment)

6. Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): What recent assessment his Department has made of the employment rate among lone parents. [126366]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. John Hutton): The lone parent employment rate now stands at 56.5 per cent.—an increase of more than 11 percentage points since 1997—and is at the highest rate since records began.

Mr. Wilson: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. A survey of 1,000 lone parents undertaken by One Parent Families showed that a staggering 71 per cent. of non-working lone parents cited lack of child care or of flexible working as a reason for not being in paid employment. Does not that highlight the Government’s 10-year failure to offer lone parents a real choice between employment on the one hand and dependency on the other?

Mr. Hutton: No, I do not think that achieving the highest ever recorded rate of employment for lone parents can fairly or reasonably be described as a policy failure in the way that the hon. Gentleman tries to do. It is worth pointing out to him and his hon. Friends that we have made an historic investment in child care. We have introduced new legislation, for example, to allow people the right to request part-time working, which he and his hon. Friends opposed. Of all the people in the House who can lay down the law about what more needs to be done about lone parents, the hon. Gentleman is certainly not among them.

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Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Given that child care support is a key element of getting lone parents back into the workplace, what support is being given to teachers, classroom assistants and schools to provide breakfast clubs and out-of-school clubs, which already have a huge amount of work to do? Although I applaud the Government, schools need support if those proposals are to be brought forward.

Mr. Hutton: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills speaks for those matters in this place, but it is true that the Government have made a significant investment of additional funds into that sector as well. That has been broadly welcomed. In relation to the point to which I think the hon. Gentleman was alluding about conditionality as an entitlement to benefit, we have to match that to the availability of child care locally so that we are not asking lone parents to do something unreasonable in taking more active steps to get back into the labour market, but if we continue the investment, I think that we will get to that point. We should now have that debate in the country as a whole.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): In my constituency, the progress in the increase in employment among young people can almost be mapped against the development of the tax credit system. Is that a common feature across the country? Is there an absolute parallel? If so, is that because we have put so much into child care through that system?

Mr. Hutton: A number of factors explain the significant increase in the lone parent employment rate. Obviously, the strength of the economy generally has helped; so, too, has the new deal for lone parents. The hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) should know that it has helped more than 400 lone parents in his constituency to get back to work—a policy that his Front-Bench team opposes. The policy of making work pay through tax credits, the national minimum wage and now the in-work credit for lone parents who come off benefit and into work has made it possible for us to increase substantially the rate of employment for lone parents. However, we need to do more. That is obviously the case. It is what Freud highlighted and it is what we are now looking to do.

Inactive Benefits

7. Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): What his assessment is of progress in reducing the number of people on inactive benefits. [126367]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): There are more people in work in the UK than ever before. There are also 900,000 fewer people on out-of-work benefits compared with a decade ago. However, there is more we can do, which is the purpose of the Welfare Reform Bill and, of course, the Freud review.

Anne Snelgrove: What is my hon. Friend’s view on the proposals in the Freud report to do more for the existing group of people on long-term incapacity benefit by extending obligations for them to participate
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in work-related activities, as long as that is supported? The proposals currently cover new claimants only.

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. David Freud has suggested an innovative and imaginative way of supporting existing incapacity benefit customers. The core point is that no one should ever be written off, which has happened for so long in our welfare system. One in six current incapacity benefit customers have dependent children, so there is a real opportunity to lift those families out of poverty.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Will the Minister answer the question which the Secretary of State ducked when the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) posed it earlier? Why is it that when the Government claim such success on employment levels and the number of people who are actually in work, the number of people who are inactive but of working age has barely changed over the past decade?

Mr. Murphy: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has answered that question on three separate occasions. In case the hon. Lady missed the answer on every one of those occasions, there are 900,000 fewer people on out-of-work benefits than there were when her party was in power. To break it down, that equates to 250 people on every single day for the past decade leaving benefits and entering work to provide for their families, which is real success.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend ensure that the quality of the medicals that incapacity benefit claimants must undergo as part of the welfare to work process is very good, because yet another case was raised with me by a constituent over the weekend? My constituent has been unable to work because of a disease so serious that I cannot pronounce it. The doctor who undertook the medical for that young lady failed to recognise any of the well documented and serious symptoms, which means that my constituent must use the appeal process in order to pursue her claim for benefit. Can the medicals that are provided to claimants be improved?

Mr. Murphy: We can improve the medical procedures to support incapacity benefit customers, particularly when we review the personal capability assessment, which is part of the architecture that supports the Welfare Reform Bill. Incapacity benefit assessments have not kept pace with the changing nature of disability in this country—for example, there has been a big increase in those who report a fluctuating mental health condition, and attitudes in society have changed towards people with a learning disability and their role in the place of work. Supporting people with learning disabilities to have a chance to play a meaningful role in the workplace can be an important part of the revision to which my hon. Friend has referred.

Child Poverty

8. Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): What discussions he has had at the UN on the recent UNICEF report on child poverty. [126368]

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The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): I have not had any discussions at the UN since the recent UNICEF report on child poverty. If I had, I would have confirmed that in the space of a decade the UK has gone from the worst position in the EU to the greatest improvement in child poverty levels.

Mr. Dunne: The Minister has demonstrated breathtaking complacency in relation to the UNICEF report. We were placed 21st out of 21 for childhood well-being, which is bottom among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. After 10 years in power, to which the Minister has referred, surely that is the legacy of the Prime Minister. The Government have attempted to concentrate on education, but we are near the bottom of the tables for educational well-being, for childhood material well-being and for two-parent relationships for children.

Mr. Murphy: I am mildly sceptical about the UNICEF report. I think that it was actually unfair to the Government. [Hon. Members: “Aw!”] Those are not my comments; they are the comments of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who is a shadow Minister. Perhaps the hon. Member for Surrey Heath knows a little more about the subject than the hon. Gentleman, given that the report interviewed children who were born between 1985 and the early 1990s. While we still have many things to do to reduce and eradicate child poverty, we cannot be held accountable for the mistakes, misgivings, errors, poor policies and increases in child poverty that happened on his party’s watch.

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): In a recent submission to the Scottish Affairs Committee, the Rowntree Foundation said that while the tax credits system was lifting lone parents and children out of poverty, it was driving couples with children into poverty. Does the Minister recognise that as having some element of truth? If so, what steps will he take to review the tax credits system to ensure that couples are not being penalised in this way?

Mr. Murphy: It is important that we support everyone who gets the opportunity to go into work to lift themselves and their entire family out of poverty. However, the same report supported the expansion of Sure Start, the national minimum wage, the introduction of tax credits, flexible working, and maternity and paternity leave, all of which have helped to lift children out of poverty and all of which were opposed in policy terms or investment terms by the hon. Gentleman and his party.

9. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the level of child poverty in the UK; and if he will make a statement. [126369]

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