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Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Should not the Government be warmly congratulated on the measures taken in the past 10 years, which the previous Administration refused to take and from which many of my constituents and others, especially poorer pensioners, have benefited? When the Government are acting in the right direction, as they do on most occasions, no one is a greater admirer than I.

Mr. O'Brien: As always, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. This Government are tackling the problems of pensioner poverty left to us by the previous Government.

Foreign Workers

6. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What estimate he has made of the change in the proportion of foreign workers in the UK labour force since 1997. [164996]

7. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): What estimate he has made of the change in the proportion of foreign workers in the UK labour force since 1997. [164997]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Peter Hain): According to the latest estimates available, about 7 to 8 per cent. of those in employment are foreign nationals; in 1997, the figure was 3 to 4 per cent. The employment rate of both UK and foreign nationals has increased since 1997, from 73.2 per cent. in 1997 to 74.8 per cent. in 2007 for UK nationals, and from 60.6 per cent. to 67.6 per cent. for foreign nationals in the same period.

Mr. Bone: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for such a comprehensive answer. When the Prime Minister said,

he knew that that policy was illegal under European Union law. Given the facts that the Secretary of State has just stated, would the Prime Minister have been straight with the British people had he said, “British jobs for European workers”?

Mr. Hain: The Prime Minister set out very clearly his objective, my objective and the Government’s objective of getting British benefit claimants to become British workers by getting into British jobs. That is our strategy; it is perfectly in line with EU law, and it marks a strong contrast with the record of the Conservative Government, under whom the benefits mountain mushroomed. We have now taken 1 million people off benefits, and many more people are coming into jobs every week as a result of our Government’s employment programmes.

Mr. Amess: Following on from the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), is the Secretary of State telling the House that he agrees with the Prime Minister’s statement that there should be British jobs for British people, when most hon. Members believe that such a slogan is one that we would find the British National party using, and is neither enforceable nor legal?

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Mr. Hain: I have just explained to the House, and I remind the hon. Gentleman of what I said. Does he not support the Government in getting people off benefit and into work—getting British people off benefits and into British jobs? Of course he should support us. That is our objective and that is what the Prime Minister was talking about. The vehicle for doing that is the signing up of more than 200 local employment partnerships, with employers joining them, to get people directly off incapacity benefit and into work, and to get older people and lone parents into work. Our aim is precisely to achieve genuine full employment—an objective whose achievement was completely impossible under the Tory Government, but is now in sight as a result of our policies.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Sections of the British economy, not least the national health service, the caring professions, the construction industry and food processing, have benefited enormously from the efforts of foreign-born workers, but if we are to continue to benefit, the general public must have greater confidence in the figures that the Government produce. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a risk that “official Government statistics” will become a term of abuse and dispute?

Mr. Hain: If my hon. Friend is saying that the statistics produced for Ministers and used publicly in good faith should be the best possible estimates, I completely agree with him. That is why, at the earliest opportunity, when the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), and I discovered that we had been wrongly advised about those estimates, we immediately corrected them to the House. In addition, at my first opportunity I phoned the shadow Secretary of State to tell him, so that he could go out and attack the Government’s record in the media. He had plenty of warning.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): There are two ways of dealing with the problem of immigration. One is to welcome the economically active and very intelligent workers whom we have taken into my constituency, largely from Poland. The other is deliberately to foment trouble by attacking such workers in the local paper and having pictures taken outside Polish shops, as though they were not only a wave of invaders who are damaging the economy, but totally unacceptable. Will my right hon. Friend condemn those who, for narrow political purposes, seek to foment trouble between a stable section of society and one that will benefit from the incomers?

Mr. Hain: I could not have put it better myself; my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The truth is that foreign nationals have made a significant contribution to Britain’s economy over the years, including as regards our recent record of growth and rises in wealth. They have made a positive contribution in her constituency and, I am sure, every other constituency in the country.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) was absolutely right in what she said, and many of us realise the problems that she faces in her constituency, but are not the Government aware that unless foreign
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workers are regulated and restricted in coming to this country, it is likely that a lot of them coming here will depress the wages of the lower-income groups in this country? That is surely a disadvantage and, in times of rising unemployment—maybe we will get that—there could be a problem; social tension might be created. Is it not responsible to take a really sensible line on the number of immigrant workers who come to this country?

Mr. Hain: I am very much in favour of sensible lines. In respect of the problem, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a danger that foreign nationals could depress wage levels. That is why the minimum wage that we brought in must be enforced rigorously throughout the economy. In some cases, that is not happening, and foreign nationals themselves are being exploited, so we are bringing in tougher measures to ensure that it does happen—and to enforce employment rights, which are not always enforced. I hope that he will join me in insisting that the legal rights for which we have legislated as a Government, including the minimum wage, are properly respected, in Macclesfield and elsewhere.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): The Secretary of State was right in his statistic when he told the House that the proportion of non-UK workers in the work force has almost doubled since 1997. He could have added that the proportion of UK workers has fallen in the same period. Furthermore, is he aware that since 1995, the number of British jobs occupied by British workers has decreased? At the same time, there has been a continued increase in the number of non-UK nationals in employment, including both EU nationals, to whom the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) referred, and non-EU nationals. The Government continue to issue an ever-increasing number of work permits, at a time when there is an influx of nationals from the A8 states. Is it not time for proper co-ordination between Departments on the issuing of work permits, rather than country-cramming and idle boasts about British jobs for British workers?

Mr. Hain: If the hon. Gentleman supported the policy of identity cards, it might be easier to resolve the question that he has put. Let us look at the facts. The facts are that we have seen a million more British nationals in jobs under our Government. Unemployment and the claimant count rate are at an historically low level. There are 660,000 job vacancies in the British economy today and every day. Also—this is crucial to a sensible analysis of the debate—the number of working-age British people has fallen significantly, because it is an ageing society. Therefore, one might also ask the question: what if those foreign nationals, including those from Europe, had not been here to fill the jobs in the gap that an ageing population left behind? That is why we want to get more people off benefits and into work, and why the Prime Minister’s policy of getting British benefit claimants into British jobs, so that they become British workers, is the right policy.

Financial Exclusion

8. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to encourage third sector organisations to help tackle financial exclusion. [164998]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): The £42 million growth fund is investing in more than 120 credit unions in all areas of the country, including Glasgow. In addition, the “Now let’s talk money” campaign is raising awareness of the need for financial inclusion. As a result, more than 2,000 intermediary organisations are helping people to take advantage of free face-to-face advice and affordable credit.

John Robertson: Credit unions and the Citizens Advice money-lending advice centre face the threat of cuts in their funding. Is it not time that we took stock of that and made sure that people receive the services that they so richly deserve and need, instead of cutting money for people who need it most?

Mr. Plaskitt: I agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. As he knows, three schemes in Glasgow are already directly benefiting from the additional investment from the growth fund. The “Now let’s talk money campaign” is rolling out across the entire United Kingdom. Local organisations in Glasgow are benefiting from that help, and in turn they can do more in the local community to assist people who need help managing their finances or who need debt advice.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Due to the complexity of the benefit system and the fact that many Departments are simply not doing their jobs properly, organisations such as Kettering welfare rights advisory service are doing sterling work to make sure that people are not financially excluded. In the past financial year, Kettering welfare rights advisory service secured more than £3 million for people who would otherwise not have qualified for it, including £1.3 million in attendance allowance, more than £1 million in disability living allowance and £173,000 in pension credits. If Departments were doing their jobs properly, organisations such as Kettering welfare rights advisory service would not have to do that good work.

Mr. Plaskitt: All constituencies contain welfare rights organisations that provide the assistance to our constituents to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. Those organisations do a fantastic job, and I am happy to congratulate the organisation in Kettering that he has mentioned on its work. It is important that we continue to make progress on the simplification and reform of the benefits system, which is why we are putting additional investment, through the means to which I have already referred, into a variety of local organisations, which exist in the hon. Gentleman’s area as well as in others, that work on financial inclusion in communities by giving individuals welfare advice as well as debt advice.

Child Support Agency

9. Jessica Morden (Newport, East) (Lab): If he will make a statement on progress of the Child Support Agency’s operational improvement plan. [164999]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): The agency is halfway through its three-year operational improvement plan and is showing significant improvements in client services.
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For example, uncleared applications have more than halved, and more than half of all new applications are now routinely cleared in less than six weeks. As a result of those recent improvements, additional maintenance worth more than £130 million is now flowing to an extra 130,000 children.

Jessica Morden: The emphasis on collecting historic debt is warmly welcomed by many of my constituents who have long-standing CSA cases. Will the Minister outline what progress is being made under the improvement plan and state how long it will take to recoup outstanding arrears?

Mr. Plaskitt: The debts within the organisation built up from day one of its operation, and they have accumulated over no fewer than 14 years. Within the operational improvement plan, we aim to collect £200 million of arrears by March 2009. Halfway through the plan, the latest figures show that we have collected £148 million of additional arrears. We have also given staff in the agency new powers to collect those arrears by, for example, using credit card collections over the phone. That has only recently come into effect, and it is proving to be very effective and has already raised an additional £12 million of arrears.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I know how hard CSA staff are working to try to improve the service that they offer to people such as my constituents in Basingstoke. Does the Minister share my concern that the operational improvement plan is falling somewhat short when it comes to more complex cases handled through the Bolton office? What reassurance can he give my constituents in Basingstoke, who are still experiencing waits of up to six months before they hear anything about how their case will be handled through Bolton? Why is it—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is enough for the Minister.

Mr. Plaskitt: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Complex and clerically handled cases were transferred to Bolton; as we have said before, there were difficulties with that. That situation is now improving. The fact that we transferred some of the more complex clerical cases to Bolton released a significant number of staff at the agency to pursue other objectives.

I do not agree that the operational improvement plan is falling short of its goals. For example, the number of uncleared cases, which stood at 226,000 in March 2005, is now down to 128,000—that is a 43 per cent. drop. Some 130,000 more children are benefiting and £130 million more is being collected. Furthermore, the number of cases in receipt of maintenance is up by 29 per cent. Just halfway through its phase, the operational improvement plan is delivering the improvements that we expected of it.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): What steps is the CSA taking to clean up its act on the length of time that its staff—who are probably very overworked—take to reply to letters from MPs about CSA cases? In my recent experience, the service to MPs, who act on behalf of constituents who are often in considerable financial difficulties, has worsened.

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Mr. Plaskitt: I am disappointed to hear that, because I have visited the CSA section that handles MPs’ correspondence—it has received from us additional staffing support and additional investment—and my understanding was that the processing times for MPs’ correspondence had improved. If my hon. Friend gives me the details of the particular case on which he is trying to make progress, I shall be happy to pursue it for him.

Credit Unions

10. Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): What recent steps his Department has taken to support the work of credit unions; and what plans he has for further assistance. [165000]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): Further to the answer that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark), we are awaiting the outcome of deliberations on how the £130 million financial inclusion fund, announced in the recent Budget, will be utilised. Given appropriate funding, our intention is to support growth in the third financial sector, to encourage high-performing credit unions to extend their reach, to offer banking services, to promote safe saving and to offer basic insurance products.

Nia Griffith: Will the Minister have urgent talks with Treasury colleagues about why they have been encouraging credit unions to offer easy credit rather than follow the well-tried policy of insisting that customers prove their ability to save? My local credit union in Llanelli, which provides an excellent service, is concerned that easy credit could lead to unserviceable debts and put the security of the credit union itself at risk.

Mr. Plaskitt: Under the rules that apply to investments in respect of the growth fund, it is clear that credit unions should do a full assessment of individuals applying for credit. It is certainly not the case that credit should be extended to individuals who cannot meet the repayments. The important advantage that the growth fund investment gives is that its loans are running rates that are probably at least half those for loans secured from doorstep lenders and vastly less than rates secured from loan sharks. Provided that credit unions carry out the necessary checks on individual applicants, the loans should be affordable.

Disability Living Allowance

11. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): What estimate he has made of the average time taken for a medical re-examination in connection with a disability living allowance application to be carried out in the most recent period for which figures are available. [165001]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Caroline Flint): Following receipt of a request to examine a disability living allowance customer, ATOS Healthcare took an average of 11.4 days to complete any medical examination process in the three months to September 2007. There is no distinction between initial examinations and re-examinations.

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Mr. Robertson: I am sure that the Minister will appreciate that in some cases the process takes quite a bit longer. A constituent of mine, who struggles to walk, cannot lift heavy things and cannot even raise her arms above her chest, was receiving the disability living allowance; on further examination, however, it was removed. Four weeks ago, she reapplied for a medical assessment, but she does not even have a date for it yet. If I supply the Minister with the details, perhaps she will kindly look into the matter. In general, is the picture not rather a poor one?

Caroline Flint: The target is an average of 12 days, so, on average, the company is within target. I accept, however, that when there are averages some people fall outside them. If the hon. Gentleman writes to me, I would be happy to follow up the details of his constituent’s case.

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