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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): The Government view individuals studying full-time in further or higher education as students and, therefore, the responsibility of the education system. However, support may be available for some students through income support and tax credits, depending on their individual family circumstances.
Dr. Blackman-Woods: I thank my hon. Friend for that response. She may be aware of the situation of Beth Porteous, one of my constituents, who is a postgraduate student at Durham university and is expecting a baby. She gets paid quarterly by the university for research work that she undertakes, but she has been told that she does not qualify for statutory maternity pay or maternity allowance and that she must take unpaid leave and return to work eight weeks after the baby is born. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would undertake to look at cases such as Beths to see what additional support can be given to women who find themselves in that unfortunate situation.
Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend for that question on behalf of her constituent. I think that the complication in this particular case is that her constituent is designated as being on a research grant as opposed to receiving a wage from the university. However, I will of course give her a commitment to look into the precise situation and come back to her with a written response.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Peter Hain):
One of the key responsibilities of my Department is to ensure that all those who have a health condition
or a disability but who could work are given the right type of help and support to enable them to find and keep a job. Many of the 2.64 million people of working age are currently on incapacity benefit because the personal capability assessment has focused more on peoples incapability than their capability for work. In October 2008, I am therefore introducing a new medical testthe work capability assessmentthat will assess peoples physical and mental ability and what they can do rather than what they cannot do. I placed a report evaluating the new test in the Library this morning.
Jeremy Corbyn: May I invite the Secretary of State to indulge in a bit of interdepartmental thinking and action to overcome a problem that is becoming very apparent in inner-city areas such as mine? Single parents have great difficulty in accessing council or housing association properties because of the shortages and are therefore placed in private accommodation by the local authority, often on a very high rentsometimes as much as £300 or £400 a week. That rent is then paid for by housing benefit. I have no problem with people getting housing benefit; this is not an attack on housing benefit, but the problem that then emerges is that, if and when they are offered a job or encouraged into a job by the agency, they have to reject it because they need to get one that pays more than £15,000 to start with just to pay the rent. That means that they are in danger of losing benefits and we are in danger of losing somebody who wants to work and contribute to society. This is a twin problem of benefits and housing. I realise that it is not entirely the Secretary of States responsibility, but does he recognise that it is a serious issue, and is he prepared to do something about it?
Mr. Hain: I recognise that this is a real problem, especially in London, with high housing costs as well as, in the case of lone parents, high child care costs. That is why the Prime Minister recently announced that for London there will be an in-work credit of £60 a week for an individual coming off income support, in the case of a lone parent, to enable them to take a job and to deal with precisely the problem that my hon. Friend describes. We will continue to look into the problems of housing costs and how we can resolve them, because we do not want them to be an impediment to work in the way that he describes.
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): This morning, the Secretary of State provided the media with a briefing about his new announcement on incapacity benefit assessments. According to the BBC website, he said that he would tackle sick-note Britain and that the new system will place greater emphasis on what the sick and disabled can do rather than on what they cannot do. Funnily enough, two weeks ago, on 5 November, he made exactly the same announcement to the media, saying that he had plans to rip up sicknote Britain and that there would be an assessment that would look at
what people can do rather than what they cant.
I placed a copy of the report that makes an analysis of the new medical assessment in the Library this morning. The House was the first to see it,
as far as I know. We sought to draw attention to a radical change from what has gone on in the past, in the 1980s and 1990s, when people were smuggled off the unemployment statistics on to incapacity benefit. The numbers tripled, which led to the benefit mountain we received as a legacy from the previous Conservative Government. We are reducing it. For the first time in a generation, the figure has come downby 120,000 during the past few yearshaving risen year on year as a result of that legacy. The new, stringent, personal capability assessment, of which I have informed the House, will enable us to bring that number down even more.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that todays announcement involves 20,000 fewer people claiming incapacity benefit? Will he confirm that that represents less than 1 per cent. of the total of 2.6 million currently claiming the benefit? Unless he manages to increase his current rate of progress, he is set to be 25 years late in hitting his target of getting 1 million people off incapacity benefit.
Mr. Hain: On the contrary, compared with the record of the Tory Government, where incapacity benefit tripled, we have already brought the numbers down by 120,000 and this additional test will enable us to accelerate that process. In addition, the rolling out of pathways to work throughout the country by April next year will bear down even more sharply on those figures. At last we will begin to get rid of the awful legacy bequeathed to us by the previous Tory Government, where people were written off on incapacity benefit, instead of being helped into a job, or being given new opportunities, skills and support to get a job, which enable them to transform their lives as a result.
T2.  Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): Would the Minister comment on the study by Aon Consulting, published last week, which says that British pensioners receive a pension equivalent to 17 per cent. of average earnings? That is the lowest level in Europe. Are the Government still committed to restoring the link to earnings by 2012?
The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Mike O'Brien): The comments in the Aon Consulting review were directed at the basic state pension, and then it worked out that figure. Of course, we know that there is a second state pensionan important part of the UK state pension systemthat brings people up to a third of average earnings. In the UK, private pensions are more important, and 86 per cent. of UK pensioners have income other than state pensions. Private pensions are also eligible for tax relief so, including a private pension, a pensioner on a medium income gets an income of two thirds of average earnings. The Aon report got a headline, and added a lot of heat but little light. We remain committed to our policy of re-establishing the link to earnings.
T3.  Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con):
The Secretary of State just said that he wants to focus on getting those on incapacity benefit into work. We
learnt on Friday that the latest figures show that 510,000 people came from the new Commonwealth countries of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, presumably looking for work. He must surely accept that there are not that many vacancies available. How will he achieve what he hopes to do when able-bodied people are coming from central and eastern Europe, as well as new Commonwealth countries, and competing with people on incapacity benefit?
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Peter Hain): First, we are changing the basis on which people will be entitled to come and work and introducing a points-based system. In respect of the wider situation, there are 660,000 vacancies in Britain today. It is not like the 1980s and 1990s when people were stuck on incapacity benefit and could not get a job because there were no jobs in constituencies such as mineformer mining constituencies in south Wales. Now there are jobs. There are vacancies everywhere, in every constituency in this country, which is why we want people on incapacity benefit, lone parents on income support, older workers and the long-term unemployed to join the jobs programmes we are undertaking with local employers to get them into work, and we can do that.
T5.  Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): Scores of grandparents in my constituency, and many thousands throughout the country, do a terrific job of supporting their grandchildren in a parental role. They are not always given support by residence orders from their local authorities. What more can we do to encourage local authorities to provide such allowances, and what more can be done to support grandparents through the tax and benefit system?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): I appreciate the points that my hon. Friend makes about the important role that grandparents often play in the bringing up of the children, but those are matters for other Departments. However, I shall happily refer what he said to them, and I am sure that they will contact him.
T4.  Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Last week the Under-Secretary said in a written statement that overpayments of £26 million had been made in relation to duplicate disability living allowance and attendance allowance payments. Will he confirm whether that will mean trying to recover, on average, £6,500 from pensioners up to the age of 76? Will he also say what percentage of the 4,000 pensioners affected he would expect to write off those overpayments for?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): I can clarify the situation for the hon. Gentleman. We shall not be recovering the overpayments from anybody who was overpaid in those circumstances, as was set out clearly in the written statement. In case he has not understood the point, let me clarify it for him: there will be no recovery of the overpayments. Indeed, in some instances we shall continue with the current paymentsto those who are terminally ill, for examplewhile ex gratia payments will be made to those disadvantaged by the error.
T6.  Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): May we return to the matter of pensions? I am increasingly concerned that those with occupational pensions who have lost heavilythere are many cases in my constituencyare currently experiencing dire financial hardship. Are the Government in a position to indicate when some action will be taken to assist the 125,000 people who have lost out so much?
The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I share the hon. Gentlemans concern for the 125,000 people whose pension schemes have failed. We are awaiting the outcome of the review by the Government Actuary, Andrew Young, which is due in the next few weeks. We have indicated that we are looking to maximise the returns from the amounts that remain in those failed pension schemes. We shall then see whether we can match that, to move towards 90 per cent. of the core pension.
T7.  Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Is the Minister aware that benefit claims for Gloucestershire are now dealt with in St. Austell and that claims in Cornwall are dealt with in Gloucester? Is that not rather an odd situation and are there any proposals in the document published this morning to correct it? Since jobcentres were instructed not to give advice or to deal with claims, the whole process has become inefficient.
The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Caroline Flint): I do not agree that the process has become less efficient. The fact that benefits and employment advice are now dealt with in one place has been welcome. The transformation of our jobcentres from places where furniture was chained to the floor and people looked over large counters to the rather more friendly and welcoming environments that we have today is a plus. Again, however, we constantly seek to improve the delivery of our benefits and to keep on target for waiting times, to ensure that those who are entitled to benefits receive them and that those who are not do not, but get into work.
T8.  Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): The staff in Stafford jobcentre do fantastic work in helping people get back into work. I am particularly impressed with their dedication and hard work, and with the way the personal advisers give personal support to new deal clients. As the programme expands, I am sure that staff will be delighted to help get other British benefit claimants into British jobs, but they will also want to know whether they will be supported with the appropriate number of workers to do the work in their office. Against the background of a falling work force in the Department, will local jobcentre offices be given the kind of support that will be needed under the new scheme?
The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Caroline Flint):
It is very much our intention to have the staff to do the jobs that we want them to do. However, the issue is not just about numbers of staff, but about how they work. We have a number of different advisers for different types of programmes, and a certain amount of rationalisation would help in that regard. The issue is also about how our Jobcentre
Plus staff work with other organisations, such as the housing benefit office, and with the voluntary sector and, importantly, about the changes that we are going to make to the contracting of provider services, to ensure that we get better outcomes for the taxpayers investment, rather than just paying for processes. That is the direction for the future, with jobcentre staff, others in partnership and contract providers playing an even more effective role.
Mr. Bellingham: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State could tell the House how many people are not in work, education or training, and what the Government are doing about that?
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Peter Hain): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his belated question; it was a very good one. We are taking action to ensure that we reduce those numbers, including by extending the age until which people will need to remain either in training, in an apprenticeship or in full-time education at school. That policy will help us to bear down on the number of 16 and 17-year-olds who are not in education or training.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Alistair Darling): With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement to update the House on the current position with regard to Northern Rock. The House will recall that last week I said during the Queens Speech debate that I would keep the House informed of developments. I also said that I expected to publish a statement of principles underpinning the Governments approach to proposals received by Northern Rock with regard to its future. I published that statement this morning, prior to the markets opening, in the usual way. Copies are available in the Vote Office and the Library of the House.
It is important to be clear about the respective responsibilities of the Northern Rock board and the Government. The board is legally responsible to its shareholders for the future of the company. However, the Government have a wider public interest in maintaining financial stability, which is why we agreed to lender-of-last-resort support in September and subsequent lending by the Bank of England. The Government also have an interest in protecting the interest of the taxpayer. Because of this, the Government have, as a major creditor, a direct interest in the future of Northern Rock. The Government therefore have to agree to any proposals for the future of Northern Rock.
Before turning to our approach, let me deal first with the position on the guarantee arrangements to Northern Rock depositors provided by the Government and, secondly, with the loan facilities provided by the Bank of England to support Northern Rock and to maintain financial stability in general. First, we have made it clear that the guarantee arrangements already announced for depositors in order to safeguard their position will remain in place during the current instability in the financial markets. These guarantee arrangements were absolutely necessary. They have not had any cost to the taxpayer because these deposits covered by the guarantee arrangements remain in the bank. As I have said before, savers are free to take their money out if that is what they want to do, but they have no need to do so. The guarantee arrangements ensure that savers deposits are safe. The guarantee will not be removed without proper notice being given to depositors.
Looking ahead, I have made it clear that the Government will legislate for a new regime for protecting bank depositors. As the House knows, we have published a discussion paper on this legislation, and I very much welcome the offer of cross-party support for it. But it is important that we get it right. There are many examples, both here and in other countries, of legislation having been rushed through only to be regretted later. The current consultation finishes on 5 December. I will bring forward proposals in the new year when I have also had time to consider the outcome of the Treasury Committees work, as it has requested.
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