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Fuel Poverty

15. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): What plans his Department has to provide further assistance to people experiencing fuel poverty. [186560]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Mike O'Brien): We expect to pay 12 million winter fuel payments this winter. In addition, the Pension Service is currently working with energy suppliers to target further help to 250,000 vulnerable pensioners in receipt of pension credit throughout England, Scotland, and Wales. We
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are also working closely with other Departments to develop a cross-governmental strategy to help further reduce fuel poverty.

Paul Flynn: Will the allowances for fuel increase in line with the cost of fuel this coming year?

Mr. O'Brien: That is a decision that the Chancellor will no doubt announce in due course. It is not for me.

Mr. Speaker: I call Anne Moffat; I call Anne Snelgrove. Is Sally Keeble here? No—what I can do is to move on to Topical questions.

Topical Questions

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con) rose—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is not the hon. Gentleman’s fault that others cannot be here.

T2. [186533] Mike Penning: If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): Last November the Government announced a strategy for reducing the number of young people who are not in education, employment or training. As part of those proposals, from next April all young people who have not been in employment, education or training for at least 26 weeks by the time of their 18th birthday will be fast-tracked to the intensive support and sanctions regime of the new deal. If they fail to find work after six months, they will be referred to a specialist provider from the voluntary or private sector.

I can announce today that we will look to contract with providers who will work with young people in this category to do substantial amounts of work-related activity, underpinned by a minimum of four weeks’ full-time work-related activity relevant to the individual. That is an important new initiative to connect young people to the world of work and ensure that they learn basic skills such as teamwork and work-related disciplines, including timekeeping.

Mike Penning: May I say that that was absolutely fascinating? However, two years on from the Buncefield, explosions the inquiry is still going on behind closed doors. Although I criticise its being done behind closed doors, I have no criticism of Lord Newton and his team. Could the Secretary of State assist the inquiry team in reaching a conclusion on whether a criminal prosecution should take place and whether compensation can be paid to my constituents who have suffered so much?

James Purnell: I hope that the hon. Gentleman is interested in my more general announcement, as many Conservative Members have raised the issue of people not in employment, education or training.

I know that the hon. Gentleman has been campaigning vigorously on the issue that he raises. I will ask the Health and Safety Executive for an update on progress
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and I would be happy to meet him to discuss his concerns. Clearly, everyone wants to bring the matter to a conclusion as rapidly as possible.

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): I congratulate the Secretary of State on his deserved promotion, but since he took office pronouncements on welfare reform have sent mixed messages: on the one hand, they have threatened to take people’s houses, and on the other, they have promoted the idea of financial incentives. When will he face up to the real barriers put up to benefit claimants by the huge complexity of the benefit system, which he has not so far addressed? Will he start by introducing plans for a single working-age benefit, which would do a lot to reduce barriers to work for many benefit claimants?

James Purnell: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am happy to consider the issue that he raises. It has been considered by many Secretaries of State and the question is always how one moves to such a system without creating a large number of losers, which would it make very difficult to introduce, and compensating all those losers, which would make it very expensive. A single working-age benefit system is desirable in theory, but whether it could be achieved cheaply in practice is a very different question.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): This week I am meeting the office bearers of the Livingston and Blackburn credit union, who are a formidable group. At present, only individuals can join credit unions, but the officers want to know whether groups, such as mother-toddler groups, can be allowed to join. Has my right hon. Friend given any thought to that idea?

James Purnell: I am happy to raise that point with colleagues in the Treasury and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. As my hon. Friend knows, we are increasing significantly the support that we give to credit unions to address financial exclusion. There is also a significant role for the social fund, and we will bring forward proposals shortly.

T3. [186534] Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): How much is being spent on benefits for migrant workers and their families, especially those from eastern Europe? Is he aware that there is growing concern about what many people believe to be an abuse? What is he going to do about it?

James Purnell: If the hon. Gentleman knows of a specific abuse, he should raise it and I would be happy to look at it. A key part of being in the European Union is that, just as when people from this country retire to Spain they have access to social services there, when people from other parts of the EU come here, they have access to the same support here. The European Union has been very good for our economy and those of other member states, and it will continue to be so. I believe that we disagree on that particular issue.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): In reference to the Secretary of State’s earlier announcement, does he agree that the Connexions
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organisation is doing a superb job in trying to tackle the category of young people who are not in education, employment or training—the NEETs? Connexions Leicester Shire, which has an office next door but one to mine, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Leicestershire county council and Leicester city council. This year, Connexions Leicester Shire is targeting especially white British young people who live in disadvantaged areas of west Leicester and west Leicestershire. Is it right that it should target specific subsets of hard-to-reach young people? NEET numbers do show some resistance to decline over the years.

James Purnell: My hon. Friend is right to say that the Connexions service plays a vital role in the agenda. My announcement included the need for Jobcentre Plus and Connexions to work closely together. They will work closely with young people before those young people reach the age of 18. A key part of that policy will be to raise the education leaving age to 18. We are saying that we believe that once people reach 18, if they have been out of education, employment or training for six months, they should be fast-tracked into a system whereby, if they do not find a job within six months, they will be required to do a substantial amount of work-related activity for at least four weeks. We will also be looking for providers who want to put that at the heart of their strategy to get young people back into work.

T4. [186535] Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss regeneration on the Alton estate in my constituency? Despite his deprived areas stats and all the money that is being targeted at communities to help tackle joblessness, the subject of opportunities is being missed. Only the cohort of people in such areas is considered, rather than the opportunities that are provided afterwards in those areas for people who live there already. Will he meet me to talk through the issues so that we can make the most of regeneration in Roehampton and not miss the important opportunities for those who live on the Alton estate?

James Purnell: I know that the hon. Lady has raised the issue before and is worried that the Roehampton area has not been included in the fund. The fund was allocated according to criteria of need, and that is the right way of doing it. I am happy to look at the evidence that she has raised but, clearly, basing the distribution on need is the fairest way of proceeding.

T5. [186536] Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Youth unemployment remains a problem. I do not want to bandy statistics about, but I would like an answer from the Minister. Macclesfield boasts one of the most advanced learning zones in the country: a virtually new secondary school; a virtually new college; and a sixth-form centre. What initiatives will the Government take to ensure that courses are available at the college, in particular, to attract young people who are economically inactive? I believe that the college and its joint facilities with the school and sixth-form centre provide a golden opportunity to encourage more young people to come into work and to stay in work.

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James Purnell: Given all those achievements, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents vote Labour at the next election to ensure that the investment continues.

T6. [186537] Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Over the past five years, some £22 million has been given to permanent expatriates who live elsewhere in the European Union in the form of the winter fuel payment. That figure includes more than £12 million to permanent expatriates in Spain, Malta and Cyprus. At a time when pensioners are struggling to pay rising winter fuel bills in this country, is it not ludicrous that a large amount of public money should leave the UK in the form of winter fuel payments to go to people who live in far warmer climates?

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Mike O'Brien): The people who are abroad and in receipt of winter fuel payments are, by and large, people who have worked and paid their taxes here, who have moved abroad and who were in receipt of winter fuel payments before they moved. It seems that the hon. Gentleman is advocating that we should now remove those payments from them. I have some concerns that people in warm climes are receiving payments, and we will look at that. However, it is their right to receive the payment because they received it when they were here. Is the hon. Gentleman proposing that thousands of people cease to receive payments to which they were previously entitled? We need to be clear about what he is proposing.

T7. [186538] Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Following the decision of the pensions regulator to apply a longevity factor of 89 years to private sector pension funds, what assumption is the Minister making about the longevity that is appropriate to public sector pensions? What difference will it make to public sector liabilities if the age of 89 years is chosen?

Mr. O'Brien: As the hon. Gentleman knows, there have been substantial changes in the way in which public sector pensions are dealt with. There have been extensions of the age at which people are entitled to receive things, and there have been changes to the way in which some of the funds have been structured. There are different ways in which public sector pension schemes are funded, and trying to apply something to the public sector that is directly related to issues to do with defined benefit systems in the private sector is misplaced. If the hon. Gentleman feels that the comparisons are direct, he needs to look at the issue with a great deal more care than he has until now.

T8. [186539] Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that in 1997 67,000 people had been on incapacity benefit for five years or more and that today 1.5 million people have been on incapacity benefit for five years or more? Can he explain how the Government have managed to preside over such a culture of long-term welfare dependency?

James Purnell: I am afraid that the Conservatives have just got their figures wrong on this. As has been pointed out, they have failed to reflect the fact that there was a change in the name of one of the benefits, so they have added two completely different categories. What actually happened was that, when the Conservative
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party came to power, 700,000 people were in that situation, and we inherited a situation where there were 2.6 million such people—more than treble the number. The figure has started to fall under this Government, but we want to do more.

That is why we are introducing the employment support allowance from October this year. Instead of judging people on the basis of what they cannot do, which is the system we inherited from the hon. Gentleman’s Government, we will judge people on the basis of what they can do. There will be an earlier medical assessment at 13 weeks. There will be greater support for people who will not be expected to work, but greater requirements to look for work for everyone else in that category. This is a major reform of the system—one that was not undertaken by his Government. The reason the numbers increased was that they were happy to see them increase. We are not happy to see them increase—they are falling under us—and we have now set ourselves the goal that 1 million more people will come off incapacity benefit by 2015. That is the most radical reform of the system that this country has ever seen.

T10. [186541] Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I have a number of engineering companies, particularly in the aerospace industry, in my constituency. One of the problems that they have is in attracting young people to engineering; it is not seen as the kind of work that they want to do these days, but it is extremely important to those companies. Given that more and more people are staying on at universities, but that they are sometimes failing to find jobs, what can the Government do to ensure that young people who go to university take the appropriate courses that will enable them to find work and that will also satisfy the engineering companies in my constituency that struggle to find the right employees?

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mr. Stephen Timms): The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue. Aerospace has been a very big success for the UK economy over the past few years, and a success that we want to continue. The Engineering Employers Federation said in its recent review of the state of manufacturing that there had been something of a renaissance in UK manufacturing more broadly. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we need to make the most of those new opportunities in engineering to increase employment among people and to give them access to the opportunities that are becoming available. That is why the new diploma in engineering, to which reference was made earlier, is an important step and why it is also so important that we are increasing the number of apprenticeships in aerospace and elsewhere.

I visited Nissan in Sunderland on Friday. The company is just about to add a third shift for the production of the Qashqai vehicle. It is having to recruit 800 extra people that factory alone for that, and it thinks that another 400 jobs will be involved in the supply chain
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nearby. In addition to all that, the hon. Gentleman is quite right that we need to encourage young people—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): For the specific 12-month period up to today, are child poverty levels rising or are they falling?

James Purnell: Figures will be published later on this year, and the hon. Gentleman will see them when they are.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Will the Minister join me in congratulating the Hammersmith and Fulham volunteer centre on the excellent work that it has been doing recently on outreach to homeless, long-term workless households and in trying to find jobs for those people in places such as the West Kensington estate? However, the H and F volunteer centre is about to have its funding reduced due to the impending end of the North Fulham new deal for communities project and the loss of £50,000 a year in funding. Will the Minister agree to meet me and representatives of the volunteer centre to discuss how the Government might be able to help them to continue their excellent work?

James Purnell: I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, we are moving towards a flexible new deal, rather than having individual programmes, which is widely recognised as the right approach to deal with people’s individual needs. I believe that that approach is supported by his party.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The Work and Pensions Committee was clear that one of the Child Support Agency’s biggest problems was the IT system—the computers were described as completely unworkable. How much of the old CSA computer system will be carried over to the new system? If the amount will be substantial, how can Ministers be certain that the new system will be any better than that before?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): We have always acknowledged that IT problems have bedevilled the agency for a long time. As I said earlier, major investment in IT is taking place as a result of the operational improvement plan. A major fix of the system is taking place over the Easter period to put in place a completely new method of operation. When the new commission takes over later this year, it will inherit the existing systems and contracts—much improved—but it will be for the commission to decide for the long term what IT system it wants to support the arrangements that it will introduce.

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