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28 Nov 2007 : Column 92WH—continued

11.18 am

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Caroline Flint): I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) and for West Ham (Lyn Brown) on attending the debate.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North outlined, the Government’s programmes to support people going into work have had some success. A system that asked little of people, whether lone parents or others, has been tightened up in the past 10 years. We expect people to keep to a combination of obligations—I like to use that term more than the concept of conditionality. Those who, for one reason or another and often through no fault of their own, find themselves reliant on the benefits system, have obligations. Alongside that, as well as expecting people to help themselves and their families, we have recognised in the past 10 years that people come with a range of baggage, and different needs and histories. That makes it difficult to have a national system and framework and to come up with a system that deals with everybody, because people are unique, as are families. That problem applies to the systems for income support, jobseeker’s allowance and incapacity benefit. That is why I have been looking closely at issues such as the jobseeker’s system.

I have been reassured by and, in some ways, surprised at, how much flexibility there is within the jobseeker’s allowance regime. At the moment, lone parents whose youngest child is 16 automatically move on to jobseeker’s allowance, but we expect to lower that to age 12 and, as is proposed in the Green Paper, to consider lowering the age to seven in years to come. Clearly, we have only recently finished our consultation on the Green Paper, so we have yet to respond formally. It is valid to ask: why, if we have been so successful, do we need to make some changes? There are a number of reasons for that and it is difficult to deal with them in the time that we have left, because we could spend a lot more time discussing this matter.

In the past 10 years, with our new deal programmes for different groups of people, whether young people or older workers, the work that we have done for lone parents, and even the expansion of pathways to work for people with health conditions and disabilities, we have been on a journey. We had a starting point where, as we know only too well, there was little support. Also, in the 20 years before 1997, we were dealing with high levels of unemployment. Not only has the economic environment changed in terms of the number of jobs that are available today, but we have high employment rates. With the right support and, as I have said, the right obligations, more people have been able to go into work.

We have to ask ourselves some questions about the difference between 1997 and 2007 and about the different provision that is available, particularly for families—whether
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in lone-parent or couple households—through in-work benefits, as well as through the development of child care support. As a founder member of the all-party group on child care, which my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North took the reins of in later years, I know only too well that it is and always will be difficult for any Government to come up with the perfect system of child care and work balance to meet the needs of all families. We can help and do whatever we can, but it is never easy to combine work and family life and we can just try to make it as easy as possible.

Lyn Brown: Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree with the basic thesis in the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, which is that the capital has specific needs that the Government need to address differently?

Caroline Flint: I think that that is right. I look specifically, in a regular session, at the quarterly performance of London in terms of Department for Work and Pensions services. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Olympics and London has a special responsibility for London. I accept that there are particular issues in respect of London and about how to make our dealings with various agencies in London work as well as possible, whether we are working with the Mayor, the London Development Agency or other bodies. An employment and skills board is being established in London, bringing those two aspects together. I will touch on that and on the announcements that were made on Monday.

On finance, I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North would accept that some in-work credits have been changed: nationwide, the figure is £40, and in London it is £60.

There are some issues about the cost of housing, too. On housing and council tax benefits, I am not totally optimistic, because a number of people in work do not realise that they can continue to get access to housing and council tax benefit discounts. Clearly, we have to raise awareness of that.

At the moment, the DWP is leading on some important pilots on benefits, tax credits and the housing benefit triangle, so that when someone makes the journey into work, we can get things fixed at one point, rather than someone having to deal with lots of agencies. We are working with the Treasury on that. If that proves as successful as the first pilot in the north-east, I hope that we can consider how to deliver a better service on that front.

On housing, we will engage with colleagues in the Department of Communities and Local Government and the Minister for Housing, because there are some issues directly linking social housing and worklessness. We should consider how we grapple with those matters in different neighbourhoods and communities.

In the time that is left, I should like to deal with some of the other questions that were raised. I hope that I have dealt with, as much as I can today, and acknowledged some of the issues to do with housing benefit and housing.

The jobseeker’s allowance conditions, which I considered in great detail over the summer, are flexible enough to take account of the circumstances of lone parents. Of course, the responses that we are receiving on the
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consultation have given us some thoughts about how we look at that matter and about the guidance. I do not want there to be two separate regimes operating with JSA, because there are all sorts of implications with such an arrangement, and I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North is suggesting that. We are considering how to ensure that the existing guidance and flexibilities are used appropriately when dealing with a lone parent or someone on jobseeker’s allowance who has a family and child care responsibilities.

The current regime allows carers, including lone parents, scope to tailor their availability for work to suit their circumstances, linked to an underpinning minimum of 16 hours per week, so long as they still have reasonable prospects of finding work. At the start of a JSA claim, a jobseeker’s agreement is put together, setting out the hours that the claimant can reasonably be expected to work, as well as the types of work, location and wage that they are looking for. In our discussions, we are also looking at child care availability. There are already 9,000 lone parents on JSA with children under 16. Clearly, some lone parents are working with the current regime.

The issue of sanctions is important. We hope that the sanctions, and the obligations that come before them, are a way of deterring people from not engaging. I am looking at why lone parents are not attending a work-focused interview. Some 40,000 lone parents did not attend in one particular year. Considering that all we are doing is asking people to turn up for an appointment at a time of their choosing, why would a lone parent be prepared to take a cut in their family’s money by not turning up for such an interview? We will be evaluating that.

First, I want to know whether the lone parent was aware of what the interview was meant to provide. Secondly, I should like to know whether, if someone has missed an appointment, they have the opportunity to flag up why they could not make it on a particular day. I have yet to hear arguments about why it is so onerous for an individual to attend an interview to engage with them about what is available and what support there is, particularly when we are talking about their doing so when their children are at school.

We hear a lot about people not getting access to the benefits to which they are entitled, not sorting out their housing benefit and not knowing about child care. One way for them to resolve such matters is to attend a work-focused interview and ask those questions, so that we can ensure that the provision is understood and we know what the problems are.

It is valid to ask the question, because people are making a big judgment to take a cut in money for themselves and their children by not attending an interview. I am not saying that interviews work perfectly all the time, but many people, many of them women, have found them to be a springboard to helping them to focus on their future goals. Over the summer, many women have said to me, “I am so glad I was called in, because, to be honest, I would not have gone if I had not been asked.”

Ms Buck: Briefly, on that point, will the Minister write to me after this debate and let me know how many people were sanctioned for failing to attend repeat
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interviews. The Government’s own research confirms that it is not initial interviews that are the problem, but people’s feeling that there is little point in follow-up interviews that do not add anything to the initial assessment. Does the Minister really, honestly believe, following the logic of her argument, that people should be losing all their benefit? There may be a case for that, but what will happen to the children?

Caroline Flint: I will write to my hon. Friend with some more detail on that matter. I understand that people do not necessarily lose all their benefits straight away: there is a graduated process and we have various hardship funds operating. However, that is a fair point. People are being asked in for an interview to get a plan of action and goals, including things to sort out—they may not be getting things that they are entitled to, they may not understand the tax credits or they may be unsure how they might be better off in work. One would hope that such things would be drawn out from one of these interviews, along with other things, such as skills and education needs, to enable them to move forward. I accept that inviting people for one interview after another without moving anything forward is not something that I want to spend DWP money on.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

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Economic Partnership Agreements

2.30 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I should like to commence the debate with three preliminary points. First, I think that everyone generally supports free trade. However, if free trade alone could bring prosperity to the world, we would have no difficulties. The reason why the international community described the present World Trade Organisation negotiation round as the Doha development round was that there was a clear recognition among that community that a free market mercantilist approach—the sort of Gladstonian, laissez-faire, liberal approach to which the Liberal party used to subscribe—simply does not work. The international community has to intervene in trade policy to protect the weak. In considering trade policy, therefore, it is not good enough to say that the marketplace should determine everything.

Secondly, I want to make two apologies to the House. It is impossible in a debate of this kind to do justice to the many millions of people in developing countries whose livelihoods depend on the various trade arrangements that now exist, and I acknowledge that in the time available I cannot give pen portrait descriptions of all the flower growers in Kenya or small farmers in other parts of the world whose livelihoods are at serious risk, although I am sure that examples of the threats to such people will be mentioned during the debate. Nevertheless, I do not want the somewhat dry and technical nature of the debate to allow us in any way to lose track of the fact that the livelihoods of millions upon millions of the poorest people in the world are at stake.

My second apology to the House and to anyone who reads my speech in Hansard concerns the fact that this area of policy consists of almost impenetrable collections of initials, names, acronyms and other terms. I shall try to explain them as I proceed, but I am afraid that there is no way of making this debate an exciting read, because there are some quite technical interactions of various bits of trade policy.

It is to the great credit of the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, that, when he convened the G8 leaders at Gleneagles in 2005 under his leadership, the world made a series of commitments that has the potential, by 2015, to “make poverty history”. Obviously, the leaders of the G8 could not on their own agree a pro-trade package; that required the international community as a whole. However, the G8 signalled the importance to sustainable development of a genuinely pro-poor trade deal. To ensure that pro-poor trade deal, there was going to be a huge frontloading of aid—about $50 billion by 2010—of which half was earmarked for sub-Saharan Africa, so as to have a lasting effect. The chairman of the G8 summit concluded that the G8 must

and the communiqué to help Africa was signed by several EU leaders, including leaders from France and Germany as well as Britain. However, the Governments of those other member states have been noticeably almost silent during the EU trade negotiations.

In anticipation of the debate, the Minister asked me whether I was going to have a crack at the UK Government. In light of what I have said it is not particularly my purpose to do that. However, we are in this together. The Minister will know from past campaigns such as
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the millennium debt campaign and others that trade is of great concern to hundreds of thousands of people in the country, including many of our constituents. They rightly put pressure on us; we put pressure on the Minister; and the Minister has to put pressure on Peter Mandelson. Unless we shout at the Minister, when he shouts at Peter Mandelson his protests do not carry the same conviction. I hope that the debate will therefore enable him to say in discussions with Peter Mandelson at the EU Commission that trade is a matter of real concern to colleagues in the House of Commons.

The Gleneagles communiqué was supported by an extensive and detailed report from the Commission for Africa. It was an impressive document and I hope that people do not forget about it. It made clear that trade is the key to long-term prosperity in Africa. Sadly, after the G8 summit, at the last WTO ministerial meeting in Hong Kong at the end of 2005, there was a comprehensive failure to agree on the Doha round, and there has been no WTO ministerial meeting since then, despite the obligation to hold one every two years, which means that there should be one by the end of this year. An attempt was made to resurrect Doha at Potsdam earlier this year but I suggest that, in reality, Doha is dead. If it is not, perhaps the Minister will tell us which bits of it are still stirring.

Where does that all leave us? In the United States, there is the temporary African Growth and Opportunity Act, and in the EU there is the failing attempt to agree economic partnership agreements for the group of African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. Mostly, those countries are in areas of former French, British or other European colonies.

Africa is where the negotiations are failing most. In 2005, the EU Commission was barely talking about the EPA agreements; it had reached an agreement with South Africa, but there did not seem to be any sense of urgency. Now, however, the clock is at five to midnight, because the WTO deadline for agreeing EPAs expires on 31 December this year—in just over a month.

It is highly unlikely that the deadline will be met for all regions. At best, the agreement on east Africa might proceed now that Kenya has signalled willingness to sign up to it, although the elections in that country mean that even that deal is uncertain. Moreover, last week, the Financial Times reported that east African countries will be forced rapidly to open their markets under the terms of a draft agreement that it had seen. That agreement will require east African countries to cut import tariffs on two-thirds of goods within two years. The agreement is reported to have a 25-year transition period for goods liberalisation, but the period will apply to just 5 per cent. of trade, which I suggest is unacceptable.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Before my hon. Friend moves on, does he agree that it is only pressure on Kenya’s horticultural industries, which could be put out of business overnight if they have to move to a system of generalised tariffs, that is forcing the conclusion of the east African agreement? East Africa contains some of the poorest and least-developed countries on the planet, such as Ethiopia and Somalia, and they, too, will have to open up their markets.

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Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I am sure that we shall hear similar points many times in the debate. The developing countries have been put in an impossible position. Either they sign up to something that they do not want, or they end up in the even worse scenario of having nothing at all. They really are between a rock and a hard place. My hon. Friend’s description of what is happening in Kenya, including in the flower industry, is absolutely correct.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is raising an entirely reasonable concern about the negotiations on east Africa. By way of early reassurance to him, might I read the quote from Dr. Richard Sindiga, who is the Kenyan Ministry of Trade and Industry’s deputy chief economist and one of Kenya’s trade negotiators? He said:

I hope that that offers the hon. Gentleman some reassurance that what people were worried about—at the end of last week in particular, I received representations from a number of civil society organisations—has not turned out to be the reality.

Tony Baldry: I have two points. First, in a previous incarnation I was the UK fisheries Minister, and it was always incumbent on Ministers to go back and explain that they had done as good a deal as they possibly could, so one sometimes has to accept that there may be a degree of special pleading from Ministers overseas when they have negotiated and concluded a deal. Obviously, they will put the best gloss on it.

Secondly and as I said, the aim of the debate is not to have a crack at the Government but to enable us to share information with one another. If the Minister feels that my information, which is drawn from people working closely on this issue, including policy advisers, many non-governmental organisations and my own team, is in some way not entirely up to date, I am sure that the House will be extremely interested to hear in due course what he has to say. However, listening to the EU Commissioner himself, Peter Mandelson, on “The World This Weekend” on Sunday, one got the distinct impression that the position was that the Commission had been negotiating for seven years and that it was now up to the ACP countries to take it or leave it. For reasons that I shall explain, that is unacceptable.

My understanding—again, the Minister may be able to help us on this—is that negotiations have broken down completely in west Africa and are stalling in the Caribbean, so what will we get? I think that we will get a fudge, which raises several questions that I hope we can address during this debate. First, does the failure to agree a package by consent and agreement reflect the fact that the package is inappropriate for the ACP countries and sub-Saharan Africa in particular, or does it reflect the way in which the negotiations have been conducted? I suspect that the answer is both, and that a number of countries will allege that the European Commission on occasion has substituted bullying for negotiation.

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