Previous Section Index Home Page

Caroline Flint: We have been successful in reducing both child poverty and pensioner poverty, so we must be doing something right. There is a lot of debate about the different factors that affect poverty. We use relative
8 Oct 2007 : Column 8
poverty because globally it is widely regarded as one of the best ways to assess poverty, but we consider other aspects, too. It is important that we do not look at the issue solely in terms of income. Our decent housing programme is contributing to supporting people, so that they live in better homes with lower fuel costs; and our education and skills programmes equip people to take on work that is much more skilled today than it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago—people have to face up to that fact. Of course, the issue is also about making sure that parents understand how important it is to support their children in having aspirations, and we support parents in doing just that.

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): I thank the Minister for taking the time to visit my constituency this summer; it was a worthwhile visit. She learned that almost 3,600 children in my constituency live in workless households. That means that about four in 10 young children going to school do not have the experience of a parent in work. Now that she has come up and seen that, may I ask what conclusions she has drawn, and how she plans to tackle the issue?

Caroline Flint: I very much enjoyed my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency. I visited the Sure Start children’s centre, where I met women who had been helped by Sure Start and by people who work in jobcentres and who come to the Sure Start centre to provide the information that women need in order to make choices about going into work. One area where we have to work harder is in making the convincing case that people are better off in work. That is one of the issues that I am looking at closely, because I think that people still do not understand what is available to them when they are in work, and what they do not lose by being in work. We have to make that case more strongly and clearly, and I welcome any suggestions on helping us to achieve that.

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): The fact is that child poverty rose in the past year. What is more, according to Save the Children’s devastating assessment published last week, child poverty will not be abolished on current trends until 2049—30 years after the Government’s deadline. As the Government search for a new vision, will the Minister support policies to increase child benefit and investment in educational opportunities for the poorest children, so that they can escape the circumstances of their parents? I suggest that that could be paid for by scaling back the tax credits paid to middle and high-income families.

Caroline Flint: I think that I have already said that I accept that there was a rise in part of our figures on child poverty this year, but it is important to look at the overall trend rather than just at one year. This involves a challenge, but we are the first Government in this country to set a child poverty target and to challenge the assumptions that have gone before. The child benefit rate will go up to £20 from April 2010, and from April 2009 women will get child benefit from the 29th week of their pregnancy.

Those are examples of what we have announced this year as part of the 2007 Budget, but there is more that we can do. We have also announced a roll-out of
8 Oct 2007 : Column 9
in-work credit for lone parents of £40 across the country and of £60 in London in recognition of the particular costs there. We can be proud of what we have achieved, but we cannot be complacent about the evidence of unemployment in families and in communities that has gone on for too long.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): Six hundred thousand children are living in households whose incomes are too low to pay income tax, but which are still required to pay the full amount of council tax. I know that the Department has said that it will review the thresholds for council tax benefit and income tax. May I ask when?

Caroline Flint: My hon. Friend raised this issue in her Select Committee report, and I understand that we are considering it and will get back to her on it. We have just extended a pilot that was started in the north-east, in which we looked for greater collaboration between our Jobcentre Plus staff, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the local authorities, to try to achieve simplification of the way in which people juggle different benefits and in-work and out-of-work credits. I hope that, if that works in the further extension of the pilots, we can seek to develop it elsewhere. In the first pilot, the time taken to sort out the benefits for people was reduced by two thirds. That has a psychological impact on people who are choosing whether to stay on benefit or to work. Making a difference in that kind of process could make the situation a lot better.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Will the Minister promise joint action between her Department, the Treasury and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to tackle the high water bills for South West Water customers? Does she accept that, without measures to make water more affordable, her Department will not meet its child poverty targets in that region?

Caroline Flint: I am happy to look into that question on the hon. Lady’s behalf. Of course, it is important not only to consider the bills but to conserve water and ensure that we use only what we need and do not overuse it. I will write to the hon. Lady on the issue, if she will bear with me.

Jobcentre Plus (Telecoms Charges)

5. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent discussion he has had with Ofcom on the charging policies of telecommunication companies toward the 0845 numbers used by Jobcentre Plus; and if he will make a statement. [156107]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): Jobcentre Plus conducted a review, which was completed in July, which investigated the inbound telephone numbering plan that supports the contact centre and benefit delivery centre operations. During the review, Ofcom’s call numbering team was approached on an informal basis for advice on developing the Jobcentre Plus internal numbering strategy, particularly regarding the future tariff structures of the 0845 range.

8 Oct 2007 : Column 10

David Taylor: Some telecoms providers charge higher than normal rates for all 08 numbers, even so-called freephone numbers, which means that some unemployed Jobcentre Plus clients are paying charges that they cannot afford for the advice, information and assistance that they need. Will the Minister tell the House why those people cannot ring a local centre, at lower, local rates? Will she expand the review to which she has referred to include this issue, and reassure us that the Department is not receiving a rake-off from the excess charges generated at the moment?

Mrs. McGuire: I am aware that some mobile phone companies charge significantly over the basic rate. We have had discussions with them, but their pricing policies are very much a matter for them. I want to give my hon. Friend some comfort, however. Since 1 August, the cost of an 0845 number on BT lines has fallen from 3p to 2p a minute. When someone calls our helpline, we are careful to make them aware how long the call will take, and to ensure that they are aware of the mobile phone charges that can accrue to the call. We then advise them that they can phone back on a land-line if they want to do so. If they cannot do that, our advisers will call them back. That ensures that nobody is disadvantaged because they cannot afford the price of a telephone call.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Is the Minister aware that many people trying to claim benefits over the phone either cannot get through or are told that they will be called back even though they do not have a phone? The social fund commissioner’s office found that fewer than one in five calls were answered, so will the Minister end the Government’s complacency about the effect of the faceless state on people in real difficulties and ensure that those in particular need can either see a Jobcentre Plus official or have an official make the call on their behalf?

Mrs. McGuire: I appreciate the enthusiasm that the hon. Gentleman brings to his post, but we do of course offer face-to-face interviews with Jobcentre Plus advisers in appropriate circumstances. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I can assure him that that is the case. It is very clear in some application processes that a third person can speak on behalf of the applicant. More than 90 per cent. of calls are answered, but we are aware that we have to continue to review matters in order to ensure that the system is made even better. I take great exception to the hon. Gentleman’s comment that this amounts to a “faceless state”. We have a whole range of committed and dedicated benefit advisers across the country whose main job and principal occupation and commitment is to ensure that people get the help that they need at the time that they need it.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): The benefit advisers do a very good job, but is it not fairly tacky to use such a system for people to apply for the assistance and help to which they are entitled? Would it not be better simply to ask that no Government Department anywhere in Whitehall continue the growing practice of using 0845 numbers? If people have already paid through their taxes to receive services from Her Majesty’s Government that are of a high standard, no impediment should be placed in their way.

8 Oct 2007 : Column 11

Mrs. McGuire: With the utmost respect, may I say to my hon. Friend that we have discovered that contact centres are generally more convenient for customers to access, because they remove the need personally to go to a local jobcentre. On cost comparisons, I have already said that the cost of a land-line telephone call is 2p a minute. Again, with the greatest respect, I have to say that, in comparison with the cost of a bus or train journey to a local office, contact centres are appropriate for most people. Harking back to my response to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), we will ensure that where people want an interview and in some instances a face-to-face application process we will deliver that.

Local Employer Partnerships

6. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What mechanisms are in place to assess and audit the adequacy of skills training provided by employers involved in local employer partnerships. [156108]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Caroline Flint): Through local employment partnerships, we will be working with employers to enable individuals to get the preparation and training that they need to support their movement into work. In England and Wales, Ofsted and its Welsh equivalent, Estyn, have the responsibility to assess the effectiveness of training contracted and funded by the Government. In Scotland, all Scottish Enterprise national training programmes must conform to Scottish quality management system standards.

John Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. I am sure that she will agree with me that the importance of skills and training is utmost in everybody’s minds, particularly with the Olympic games and the biggest build programme in Glasgow’s history, as well as—hopefully—build for the Commonwealth games and Glasgow’s bid. Will she ensure that apprenticeship training is valid and relevant to the jobs that are needed, and that the skills shortage and gap will be taken care of in future?

Caroline Flint: My hon. Friend raises a very important point. It is absolutely key that the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills work together to ensure that the connection between employer and training is strengthened. I was very pleased to visit Portsmouth this summer, where VT Shipbuilding is working with the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions and Jobcentre Plus to produce a fantastic programme. Pre-employment training is provided in the shipyard, ending with an offer of adult traineeships up to a very high standard. Four men who had been out of work for a considerable time got those jobs. I am meeting some of the companies working to build the infrastructure around the Olympic games. I take on board my hon. Friend’s point, and I would be happy to talk to him further about what we can achieve in this area.

Child Maintenance

7. Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): What representations he has received on his proposals for changing child maintenance arrangements over the past three months. [156109]

8 Oct 2007 : Column 12

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): Following the formal consultation on the child maintenance White Paper, published in December last year, we published our response document in May. We have continued to meet stakeholders to discuss the reforms to child maintenance. In the past three months, for example, we have met the Child Poverty Action Group, Families Need Fathers and One Parent Families. We continue to work closely with all stakeholders.

Mr. Carswell: What reassurances can the Minister give to the many thousands of families struggling with the current system that the IT used by the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission will work this time around?

Mr. Plaskitt: Those people will not have to wait until CMEC is in operation because we are already engaged in a programme of improving the CSA’s IT system. A number of important releases are out already and the system is operating a lot better, which is why, since the operational improvement programme commenced in April 2006, we are getting child maintenance payments to 63,000 more children, and why we can report that the applications backlog is down by 36 per cent. We are clearing new applications faster, partly because of existing IT improvements.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): As well as receiving representations from the various charities involved in this area, has my hon. Friend received representations from the Public and Commercial Services Union, on behalf of the staff who will administer the new system? When I talked to them in Blackpool, they said that they were becoming increasingly anxious about how they will manage the old calculation, the new calculation and the new-new calculation when CMEC is introduced.

Mr. Plaskitt: I can reassure my hon. Friend on that point. We are closely engaged with our staff. I have had a number of meetings with staff representatives over the last year, and I know that other colleagues in the Department have done the same. The staff tell us, overwhelmingly, that they are right behind the Government’s reforms, and they welcome the improvements that the operational improvement plan is already achieving. They also welcome some new powers that we have given staff—for example, to collect child maintenance debts.

Although we are discussing with staff particular issues about transitional arrangements such as those that my hon. Friend mentioned, our staff want to work for an efficient system that delivers more child maintenance to more children; they recognise that the changes we are introducing are set to achieve just that.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Will the Minister please ask Sir Leigh Lewis to pass on to his staff Members’ thanks for the detailed work that they have put into the inquiries that we make on behalf of our constituents and our hope that the new systems will work better? Will the Minister also ask the Prime Minister to instruct permanent secretaries to say to Secretaries of State that they do not want to introduce systems that will not work first time around? We should not have to have a running experiment for two years, causing disaster to so many families.

8 Oct 2007 : Column 13

Mr. Plaskitt: I will certainly pass those comments on, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is not an area for experimentation. The CSA has been troubled almost since the day of its inception. We all accept that this is a difficult policy area, and we have taken through reforms that have achieved some improvement, but we all recognised—right across the House, I think—that there was a really tough problem with the agency.

We decided that, because of their problems, the agency and the system as they currently exist cannot go on. That is why we decided to introduce the new arrangement under the commission, why we are taking time to ensure that we get that right, why we are deliberately taking time over the transitional arrangements to ensure that they are right as well, and why, in the meantime, we are investing additional people and resources to improve the agency’s performance. On all counts, it is improving.

Pension Protection

8. Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): If his Department will review the compensation rate for those who lost out when their occupational pension schemes were wound up. [156110]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Mike O’Brien): Yes.

Willie Rennie: As the Minister will be aware, more than 120,000 people work for companies that have gone out of business leaving insufficient money in their pension funds. When will he agree that the Government’s compensation scheme should be bolstered to ensure that those workers receive the same compensation as is available under the Pension Protection Fund?

Mr. O’Brien: The financial assistance scheme assets review is being led by the Government Actuary, Andrew Young, and is considering the better use of the assets currently in failed pension schemes. The Government have indicated that we are prepared at least to match any extra funding that might arise out of the assets review. Further funding is therefore available. The Government have the goal of moving towards a 90 per cent. top-up rate, and we are determined to seek justice for pensioners.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I welcome my hon. and learned Friend’s comments, especially on behalf of the HH Robertson’s pensioners in my constituency, whose scheme, which is covered by the rules, failed in 1996. Many people have now received payments from the scheme, and there have been many letters of thanks. I pay credit to the staff who have dealt with the complicated casework. Will he ensure that complex cases such as bridging pensions are dealt with as a priority before moving on to the kind of detail suggested by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), because such pensioners deserve support now?

Next Section Index Home Page