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5. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Whether his Department plans to simplify the welfare system with a view to reducing child poverty as recommended by the Scottish Affairs Committee in its report, Child Poverty in Scotland. 
The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mr. Stephen Timms): The reduction in poverty has been greater in Scotland than elsewhere, but there is undoubtedly more to do. I welcome the Scottish Affairs Committee report and we will respond to it fully in due course. We need a simpler benefits system to make it easier for people to make claims and understand their responsibilities.
Mr. Carmichael: The Minister will be aware that one of the ideas canvassed by the Scottish Affairs Committee, for which some enthusiasm was expressed by those giving evidence, was the equalisation of child benefit rates. What consideration is the Department giving to that idea, and when can we expect it to share its thinking with us?
Mr. Timms: All I can say at this stage is that we will respond in full to the proposals in the report, which I welcome, as I welcome the hon. Gentlemans contribution to it. We are taking a number of steps to simplify the benefits system, including the introduction of the employment and support allowance, to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred earlier. We want a system that makes it clearer to people what they are entitled to and how they can access it. As I say, we will respond to the detailed proposals in the report in due course.
Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab):
As a member of the Committee, may I say that one of the most concerning aspects that we came across was that disabled children are four times as likely to be in poverty as non-disabled children? Does my right hon. Friend share my concern
that of the £34 million allocated by the Government and specifically targeted on that disadvantaged group, not one penny has reached a health board, a local authority or a social work department? Will he join me in condemning the Scottish Government for their behaviour?
Mr. Timms: I am very happy to condemn the Scottish Government. My hon. Friend raises an important point. He knows that the children and young peoples review, conducted as part of the comprehensive spending review, has a major focus on the needs of disabled children and improving their life chances. I welcome his contribution.
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Will the Minister answer the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) but ducked by the Secretary of State on what year the Government intend to reach their target of halving child poverty in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom?
Mr. Timms: I understand that the target has been reached in Scotland. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, we remain committed to making further progress and to the abolition of child poverty entirely by 2020. We have made good progress. The number of children growing up in poverty has fallen by 600,000 since 1997, it having doubled under the policies of the Conservatives.
The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mr. Stephen Timms): The level of 16 to 24-year-olds not in work or full-time education has fallen from 17.8 per cent. in 1997 to 16.9 per cent. today.
Mr. Gauke: I welcome the Minister to his new position. Given the high figure of people aged 16 to 24 who are out of work, and in particular given that the number of people in that age group who are economically inactive and not in full-time education has increased by 144,000 since 1997, does he still maintain the position that the current Prime Minister advocated in 2005, that youth unemployment has been virtually abolished?
Mr. Timms: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind welcome. Let me make two points. First, it is true that the population of young people has increased, but the percentagethe proportionnot in education, employment or training has fallen, as I said to him. Secondly, it is also the casethis is the important pointthat many fewer young people today are unemployed for long periods, and the periods in which they are out of education, employment or training tend to be short.
To pick up on the point about my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in May 1997, more than 85,000 18 to 24-year-olds had been claiming jobseekers allowance for more than 12 months. That fell last month and it is now fewer than 7,000. My right hon. Friend was absolutely right.
John Penrose: May I pick the Minister up on his point about the duration of employment of young people? Does he agree that it is scandalous that the proportion of people who have been through the Governments new deal for young people and still have a job within one year of leaving is less than one half of those people who get a job in the first place? In other words, one out of two lose their job within the first year. Does he agree that that figure urgently needs to be improved?
Mr. Timms: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that 750,000 young people have gone into work through the new deal; much of that has been sustained work. That is the reason for the dramatic improvement in unemployment across the economy. He may well have seen the employment figures published last week, which show that more people in the UK are in work than ever beforealmost 29.4 millionand that for the first time since June 1975 the number of people claiming unemployment benefits has fallen below 800,000. That is dramatic progress. The new deal for young people is an important part of the explanation for that. Of course we need to go further, and we will do, but employment opportunities today are unprecedented for young people and others. We are determined to make the most of them.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend look at the progress made in the Cheshire Oaks retail area in my constituency, where he will see a partnership between the FE college, local authorities, the DWP and employers, who together have set up a retail training centre, which has had a profound impact on the life chances of people from some of the most disadvantaged parts of the constituency? Will he discuss that with his opposite numbers in the Department with responsibility for employment and see whether the model can be applied elsewhere?
Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Very good progress is being made as a result of the partnership arrangements that he describes. He gave a good constituency example of local employment partnerships. Last Thursday I was at the Nissan plant in Sunderland, signing a local employment partnership with the company. We have said that through Jobcentre Plus and its partners we will ensure that people have the skills and abilities to secure the jobs that are available, the other side of the deal being that employers will give disadvantaged unemployed people a fair crack at those jobs. I am confident that we will continue to make substantial progress in reducing the number of people who have been out of work for some time.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab):
This September, the new 14-to-19 curriculum and the first of the new diplomas will begin. The number of apprenticeship places is expected to continue to rise, from the current 240,000 to the eventual target of 400,000 a year, and in
due course we will make it compulsory for 16 and 17-year-olds to remain in education and training. How will Jobcentre Plus be involved in those developments? May I suggest that it can play an important role in continuing to engage employers in providing for the necessary expansion in skills training opportunities?
Mr. Timms: Jobcentre Plus will continue to play a central role in brokering partnerships and the other arrangements that my hon. Friend has described. It is true that we must address skills increasingly in the welfare system.
My hon. Friend was also right to draw attention to the growing number of apprenticeships, which almost disappeared altogether under the last Government. Now, 100,000 apprenticeships are being completed each year, and we have the longer-term objective outlined by my hon. Friend. In future, people taking up the flexible new deal will go to Jobcentre Plus, where they will be helped by advisers; specialist tailored help will then be given by others who are contracted through Jobcentre Plus, which will thus have a central role, while working with a wide array of partners.
Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Is it not a fact that 1.25 million people between the ages of 16 and 24 are neither in work nor in full-time education, more than when the Government came to office? Is it not also true that half a million young people up to the age of 35I consider them still to be youngare not in employment at all? Have not the millions of pounds spent by the Government on various schemes missed their target?
Mr. Timms: Certainly not. Let me repeat what I told the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose). The proportion of young people not in education, employment or training is down, not up, and many fewer young people are unemployed for long periods. I also refer the hon. Lady to the employment figures published last week. They showed a rise in the employment rate and a fall in the unemployment rate, a fall in the claimant count in every English regionand in Wales and Scotlanda rise in the number of vacancies, and the fewest redundancies across the economy in the last quarter of last year since records began in 1995. Those are the results of the new stability achieved in the United Kingdoms economy over the past 10 years, and of our active labour market policies.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I join others in welcoming the Minister to his new post. May I gently suggest that he avoid some of the woes that his predecessors have experienced in trying to suggest that the huge increase in the number of foreign workers is some sort of answer to the deep-seated problem of youth unemployment? Should he not face the fact that the new deal has too often acted as a revolving door taking young people from one period on benefits to another, which is reflected in the statistic that youth unemployment is 13 per cent. higher than it was when the Government took office? Is there not also a connection between that and the 400,000 increase in the number of young people living in poverty since 1997, which means that nearly a third of them are in that position? Is it not time that the Government faced up to those problems, and we saw some fresh thinking?
Mr. Timms: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome, but he needs to look at the figures a little more closely. It is a shame that Opposition Members were not worrying about this group of young people when the Government they supported were doubling the rate of child poverty between 1979 and 1997. He appears in the figures he has cited to have included full-time students, who are certainly in no sense part of a lost generation; they are being prepared for the opportunities ahead. Unemployment is down, the claimant count is down, and the number of young people claiming jobseekers allowance for more than 12 months has fallen from 85,000 in May 1997 to fewer than 7,000 today. We will continue to make sure that the substantial number of opportunities being created in the economy are available, including to people who have been out of work for a long time.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): The Governments cancer reform strategy commits the Department of Health to review options for controlling health risks through regulation of the sunbed industry, in consultation with relevant stakeholders, including the HSE.
Mrs. James: I thank my hon. Friend for her answer, but I ask her to make representations to the HSE on the leaflet IND(G)209. I am particularly concerned about the leaflet, as it has not been updated since 1995 and it needs to include important information for young people on sunbed use. Please will she ensure that?
Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend for her question, which is important as malignant melanoma of the skin is among the five most common cancers in the 15 to 24 age range, and it is estimated that skin cancer rates will treble over the next 20 to 30 years. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that the HSE is shortly to put out for consultation a revision of its guidance on sunbeds, and that the guidance advises that all tanning salons should be staffed and calls up World Health Organisation guidelines that people under 18 years of age should avoid sunbed use.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): Access to affordable credit is vital to help tackle vulnerability and reduce poverty. Total Government investment in the growth fund has now reached £80 million, and that is helping to fund tens of thousands of affordable loans to people in receipt of benefit.
Mr. Brown: I thank my hon. Friend for that response, but many benefit recipients remain exposed to the activities of some loan companies that conduct their business along the lines of sub-prime lending. Does he agree that there is much to be gained by his Department co-operating with colleagues at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in the promotion of easy-to-access credit unions?
Mr. Plaskitt: Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend, and he is absolutely right to point out that many people are victims of the doorstep loan sharks, who sometimes apply interest rates in excess of 1,000 per cent. without, of course, declaring that. We want to protect people from having recourse to such unaffordable credit, and the investment we are making through the growth fund is leading to a substantial expansion of the credit union movement. My hon. Friend is right that we are working with colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which is funding hundreds of advisers who are working in local areas giving free, face-to-face advice to people on managing their debt.
Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend redouble his efforts and get in contact with credit unions, which up and down the country do tremendous work in ensuring that good credit is available to low-income families? My own union in Nuneaton is doing very well, but I have to say that if we put as much effort into this area as we have done into saving Northern Rock, we would help an awful lot more people at the poor end of the stick.
Mr. Plaskitt: The credit union in Nuneaton is one of the credit unions that is receiving additional support through the growth fund investment that we are making. That investment is helping to increase substantially the scope of this countrys credit union movement. I know that in some areas where growth fund money is being invested the number of people joining local credit unions has doubled, and we hope to see much more of that as we go forward with the next two or three years of growth fund investment. We are finally putting resources behind expanding an important sector that is working in all of our communities and assisting people on low incomes.
The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mr. Stephen Timms): There has been a welcome and large rise in lone-parent employment in the past 10 years. From October, lone parents with older children will be required to seek employment. From April, the in-work credit will be available nationally, and we will pilot a new credit to ensure that lone parents are at least £25 a week better off in work.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Recently, I visited the solve-it programme at Falkirk football club with my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne). It has an objective of getting 65 per cent. of single mothers who attend back into work, and it has recently
been hitting that objective successfully. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister join me in commending the solve-it programme and all those involved in it? Does he agree that it is a great example of how a football club can truly serve its local community?
Mr. Timms: I am pleased to share my hon. Friends commendation of that initiative. We are also ensuring that lone parents are better off financially in work, because work is good for peoples health, their children and the self-esteem of their children. Everybody benefits when lone parents can get back into work, and I welcome the work in my hon. Friends area.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Everybody would wish to support genuine lone mothers back into work when that is appropriate. However, does the Minister not appreciate that the current tax and benefits system discriminates against married couples? Will he look into that at the earliest possible opportunity?
Mr. Timms: The hon. Lady is absolutely right that everybody is better off when parents are in work. We have made the changes that I have referred to for lone parents, but the point also applies to couples. It is in everybodys interests for people to be in work. Where there is a question whether people are better off in work, Jobcentre Plus advisers can make a calculation to show the financial gains of work, and the better off in work credit will help further. I think that we can agree across the House that it is in everybodys interests for parents to be able to work.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): My understanding is that, under the new deal for lone parents, when lone parents attend jobcentres for interviews their child care and travel costs are met, whereas when they move to the new jobseekers allowance regime they have to meet those costs from their benefits, which could act as a bit of a disincentive and perhaps lead to sanctions. Will the Minister undertake to look into that, to ensure that lone parents who move from the new deal to the JSA regime are not disadvantaged in such a way?
Mr. Timms: I will certainly examine that point. We want to ensure that lone parents plan for a better future for themselves and their children, and that will require lone parents moving on to more appropriate benefits when their youngest child is 12 and over from October this year, as she knows, and 10 and over and seven and over later. I shall certainly examine her point and drop her a line in response.
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