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Mr. Hain: I share with my hon. Friend and the TUC the objective that this should not be artificial job substitution. It must lead to a full-time job, and I am grateful to the TUC for the representations it made during the consultation on the Green Paper. Employers offer work trials genuinely to try to fill available vacancies, and the trials often open up full-time jobs for disadvantaged peoples, especially those on benefits. They often last only a few weeks, and we have put in place protections,
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including not allowing employers to use them to fill short-term vacancies, for which the trade union movement quite properly asked.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The test of success or otherwise of local employment partnerships is not the number of employers the Government sign up but the number of people whom those partnerships get back into work. How many people have got back into work so far as a result of local employment partnerships?

Mr. Hain: We have only just started, but only last Wednesday I met a company with the Prime Minister in Marylebone jobcentre that recruited 147 people when it opened a retail business. Those people came straight off benefit as a result of the local employment partnership. I have talked to Tesco, which is opening new stores around the country, and is doing exactly the same thing. It sees a win-win situation: employers can get people straight off benefit, and British benefit claimants take up British jobs to become British workers. It is win-win for society, and it is win-win for employers as well, as partnerships have proved to be extremely popular in filling job vacancies. There are about 660,000 job vacancies in Britain, and we want people to come off benefit to fill them. Local employment partnerships will help us to achieve that.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): The Secretary of State has just talked about filling job vacancies with British workers. At the same time, the Government propose to reduce the coverage of the resident labour market test, which, as the Secretary of State will know, requires employers to look to UK workers before they can recruit from outside the EU. How does abolishing part of the resident labour market test help British workers to find British jobs?

Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman should support what we are seeking to do; just about every employer in the land does—the Confederation of British Industry does, as do most employers’ organisations. We are seeking to make sure that local employers try to get people off benefits and into work. The issue that the hon. Gentleman raised has nothing to do with that objective. It also contrasts strongly with a policy announced by his party in the past few days—one of “three strikes and you’re out”. That would reduce the claimant count by less than 0.5 per cent.; it is a typical bit of newspaper spin by a political party that has no real credible policies to offer.

Affordable Credit

4. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What measures his Department has considered to improve access to affordable credit for those in receipt of benefits. [175869]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): To date, more than 150 credit union and community development finance institution outlets delivering the growth fund have made more than 53,000 loans, with a total value exceeding £23 million. The recent allocation of a
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further £38 million for the period 2008 to 2011 will mean that many tens of thousands more people will gain access to affordable credit.

John Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He will be aware that there are more than 20,000 members of the Glasgow credit union in Glasgow; it is one of our successes. However, there are still 2 million people in the country without a bank account. The Association of British Credit Unions is asking for more calling points throughout the country. Given the planned closures of post offices throughout the country, particularly in Glasgow at this time, access to credit union facilities will be reduced. Will my hon. Friend tell me how we will provide those new points where people can get their money?

Mr. Plaskitt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He will understand that the Post Office network needs to be viable; that is why it is undergoing further changes. He will also know that there have been post office branch closures in the past four years; however, during that period, 800,000 more people have gained access to basic banking services. We are well on the way to achieving our target of halving the number of people without access to bank accounts.

Currently, 11 credit unions offer full banking services and we expect another 20 to do so in the coming year—that will partly be due to the extra support that we are giving them as a result of the growth fund. The additional investment that we have secured for 2008 onwards will achieve a further expansion of the credit union movement, making available more opportunities and access points for affordable loans.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Is the Minister not concerned about the implications of the Church of England’s recent report “A Matter of Life and Debt”? Some 8 million people in this country have unsecured debts of £10,000 or more, an increase of 30 per cent. in a year. Will not that increased pressure due to debt cause more difficulties for those seeking access to affordable credit and impact most severely on the poorest?

Mr. Plaskitt: No, I do not agree; the problem is the affordability of the credit. If affordable credit is not available to those on very low incomes or benefit—who may, for perfectly good reasons, need credit at some point to deal with expenditure pressures—their alternative is to go to an unaffordable source of credit such as a doorstep lender. Is it better for them to pay interest of 1,000 per cent. on their loan or to take out a much more affordable form of credit from their local credit union? The investment that we are making through the growth fund, in expanding the credit union movement and affordable credit, will help people avoid the kind of debt problem that the hon. Gentleman is talking about.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the difficulties with local credit unions has been that only some of them have been accessible through post offices? We need a much more organised and strategic approach to the provision of credit via credit unions in local post offices. That would
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increase footfall in post offices and mean that more people attended them. It would also widen access to credit unions.

Mr. Plaskitt: I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s point. He will therefore welcome the fact that part of the investment that we are making through the growth fund is in the physical resources and capacities of credit unions as well as just capitalising their loan books. He will see that the extra investment that we are putting in, in addition to the increased support that we expect to come from the banking sector, will help to create many more points of access at different areas in all the communities across the country, thereby helping again to increase access to affordable credit for many thousands of people.

Jobcentre Plus

5. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): How many complaints were made against Jobcentre Plus in each of the past three years. [175870]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Caroline Flint): There were 32,919 complaints in 2005-06, 43,214 in 2006-07, and 26,767 in the year to October 2007. Annually, Jobcentre Plus takes more than 15 million telephone calls, processes more than 3 million new claims and carries out more than 10 million interviews. In that context, complaints represent a small percentage, but we are not complacent and continually seek to improve services and, I hope, to learn from mistakes.

Mr. Bone: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Over the past few months, I have seen a significant increase in the number of people in my surgery complaining about Jobcentre Plus. Does she agree that the ever-increasing complexity of the benefits system, failures in technology and cuts in front-line service from Jobcentre Plus staff have led to a situation whereby the most vulnerable in our society are receiving a reduced service?

Caroline Flint: The number of complaints in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency in 2005-06 was 117, and in 2006-07 it was 24. I will certainly look at any up-to-date information, but I think that that indicates what I said: we take every complaint seriously and there does not seem to have been an explosion in numbers. In his constituency, as elsewhere, whether in Wales, Scotland, England or Northern Ireland, people are being paid benefits more quickly than at any time in recent years. The number of outstanding claims has reduced significantly over the past year. I am pleased to say that today we have a record number of people going into work, and the numbers of people on all the main out-of-work benefits, whether income support, jobseeker’s allowance or incapacity benefit, are falling, as are the numbers of new claimants of those benefits. Clearly, in a period of change—certainly over the past 10 years—we have tightened procedures. We expect more people who can work to work; that sometimes creates complaints as well. We take this matter seriously and keep it under a watchful eye.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): May I congratulate staff in Jobcentre Plus in Ellesmere Port and in Neston, particularly the regional manager,
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Mr. Mark Wilson, who has done a magnificent job in dealing with the process of change and getting more people back to work in my constituency, with great success? Now that we have a much smaller number of unemployed people, with a core group, some of whom are very difficult to place, will my hon. Friend ensure that the regional structures have sufficient flexibility to allow regional managers to plan to meet the needs of local communities, rather than a one-size-fits-all solution?

Caroline Flint: I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution and for his warm remarks about the services in his local area. We are seeing huge improvements across the Jobcentre Plus service. Anybody who compared walking into a Jobcentre Plus establishment today with doing so 10 or 15 years ago could only comment on how professional, modern and user-friendly it is. Yes, we have looked to centralise benefit delivery services, because we want to make best use of technology and to have better standards of best practice across the piece. That also allows us to consider how face-to-face interactions can better be served, whether in Jobcentre Plus, a children’s centre or a community centre. I encourage our regional managers to engage with their local authority partners, employers, the voluntary sector and local communities to see how best that service can be provided, and I hope that we can give them greater flexibility to do just that.

Health and Safety Executive

6. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent representations he has received on the staffing levels at the Health and Safety Executive; and if he will make a statement. [175871]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): My colleagues and I have received representations from a range of stakeholders. We have asked the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive to maintain front-line inspector numbers for the next spending period at the March 2008 level.

David Taylor: In the UK last year, 30 million days were lost owing to work-related ill health and 6 million owing to workplace injury. The HSE has a vital economic and social role in driving down those figures. How confident is the Minister that the agency, which has seen staffing levels go down by 25 per cent. since 2002 and is subject to a continual review of procedures and structures, can effectively and efficiently service more remote and rural areas, especially in terms of inspection, enforcement and, where necessary, prosecution of health and safety breaches?

Mrs. McGuire: I think my hon. Friend’s statistics are slightly skew-whiff, if I may put it that way. He has included the 93 railway inspectors who were transferred from the HSE to the railway regulator. He has highlighted an important issue about the number of days lost because of work-related ill health and workplace injury, but I hope he will also accept that in the years from 2000 to 2002, 40 million days were lost in those categories. The figure now sits at 36 million in 2006-07. In 1974, there were 651 fatal injuries to employees. That number was reduced in 2006-07 to 241. We have one of the most sensible and robust health and safety regimes in Europe,
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partly owing to the efforts of the HSC, the HSE and their colleagues in local authorities. Of course, we should not underestimate the importance of trade unions.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Is the Minister aware that the new provisions of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 will come into effect on 6 April? They will implement the provisions on stray dogs and ensure that local authorities will have to find places for kennels. Is the Minister aware that each private kennel will have to be inspected for health and safety before the new provisions can come into effect? Will she assure me that the staffing cuts in the HSE will not have a negative impact on that process of assessment, bearing in mind the tragic incident before Christmas when a lady dog handler was so brutally attacked by a dangerous dog?

Mrs. McGuire: I think that I would prefer to deliver a far more detailed answer to the hon. Lady in writing, if she will forgive me for that. She has raised some specific issues under this heading.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend commend the Health and Safety Laboratory, which is part of the HSE, on its increasingly proactive work in preventing the risk of injury and poor health caused by industrial consequences? Will she ensure that nothing is done to jeopardise the effectiveness of that ever more impressive organisation, which is based in my constituency?

Mrs. McGuire: I am sure that the laboratory will have cognisance of my hon. Friend’s comments and commitments. I wish to reinforce the fact that health and safety is an important issue for us all. Not only the HSE but employers and employees create safe workplaces. Those of us who are in such situations need to ensure that we each assume responsibility as our own health and safety officer.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Deaths in the construction industry have been running at a comparable level to those suffered by UK armed forces personnel in recent years. Why are front-line construction inspectors being reduced to the March 2008 number that was mentioned by the Minister, and why has there been a 40 per cent. drop in inspections when the death and injury rate is so bad?

Mrs. McGuire: As I said in my earlier answer, there has been a steady reduction in the number of deaths over the past 15 years, including in the construction industry, although there are some issues about the current set of statistics and we are looking carefully at them. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions held a construction forum to address that rise and to seek a commitment to improvement in those sectors. That work is ongoing with the employers, the trade unions and the HSE. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the health and safety inspectors, working alongside those in the industry, will ensure a safer environment for our construction workers.

Allied Steel and Wire

10. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): What progress has been made in providing long-term security for Allied Steel and Wire pensioners. [175875]

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The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Peter Hain): On 17 December, I announced a package to make payments to 140,000 individuals so cruelly deprived of their pensions, and I am pleased that unions and campaigners welcome this.

Alun Michael: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on achieving the 90 per cent. figure as the guarantee for pensioners. I thank him and previous Ministers for the many meetings that we have had on the long journey towards a settlement, which seemed impossible at the outset. Will he join me in congratulating the Community trade union on its persistence in fighting for its members’ interests? I remind hon. Members that the problem arose as a result of a commercial failure. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that in future people will not experience the pain that ASW workers and others in the same position suffered for some time?

Mr. Hain: I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments and pay tribute to the way in which he campaigned so diligently on behalf of ASW workers, as did many other Cardiff Members and Members throughout the country—140,000 people were affected. Community, formerly the steelworkers’ union, played a leading role and deserves tremendous credit for ensuring that the pressure was kept up. As a result, the Government have not only brought justice to the affected workers, but established the Pension Protection Fund, which will stop that sort of thing happening again and ensure that pensioners can feel secure, when they have contributed and saved, as we are all urging them to do, that they will realise in retirement the fruits of those investments.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the reasons that the compensation has been paid, after five years, to the 140,000 pensioners who had their pensions stolen was the work of Ros Altmann, who campaigned for five years with, in my constituency, the teams of former Dexion workers led by Peter and Jackie Humphrey? Without five years of action, the compensation that the pensioners deserve would not have happened. Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating Ros Altmann and others?

Mr. Hain: I happily do so. Ros Altmann played an important part, as did the hon. Gentleman’s two constituents, whom I have met. The Dexion workers, like the others, deserve justice. I know that they would have liked it earlier, but we had Andrew Young’s report, which identified £1.7 billion of residual assets. We needed to ensure that we acted on that and maximised the best return to protect the pensioners and provide good value for taxpayers’ money. We have now achieved the settlement for which the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, joined by so many others, rightly campaigned.

Lone Parents

11. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): What recent steps the Department has taken to support lone parents in finding work; and what plans he has for further assistance. [175876]

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The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Caroline Flint): The new deal for lone parents has supported more than 500,000 people into work.

Our recent document “Ready for Work” sets out how we will expect more lone parents with school age children actively to find work, along with a package of measures to provide lone parents with the skills, confidence and financial support to find and stay in work.

Julie Morgan: I thank the Minister for that reply. The new deal plus pilot project for lone parents in Cardiff and the Vale has been successful in not only getting lone parents into work but sustaining them there. One of the key elements has been benefits such as the £300 in-work benefit, which can help lone parents to stay in a job and assist with, for example, child care, which is many working parents’ nightmare. What does my hon. Friend propose to do to extend that sort of benefit more universally?

Caroline Flint: I thank my hon. Friend for her question. The number of lone parents who claim in her constituency has fallen by 39 per cent. since 1997 compared with a national drop of 25 per cent. I therefore give due credit to those who work on the matter locally for her constituents.

Our plans for our next steps are to roll out nationally the in-work credit from April. We are considering the way in which we extend the right to flexible working for parents of older children. The human resource director of Sainsbury’s, Imelda Walsh, has undertaken that review. We are also considering much more closely earlier skills assessment of lone parents—when they come on to income support—regardless of whether they receive jobseeker’s allowance or income support. The vacuum in their skills and basic education often inhibits lone parents. Again, we are providing support on several different fronts, but, as I said earlier, from next autumn parents whose youngest child is 12 will be expected to move on to jobseeker’s allowance. That is right because it is a something-for-something approach to our welfare system and the right mixture of rights and responsibilities.

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