Previous Section Index Home Page

James Purnell: That is absolutely right. I look forward to visiting Glasgow and seeing the innovative work of the Labour council. It is shocking to hear that the SNP is not committed to lifting children out of poverty. If it genuinely believes that this issue needs to be addressed, it must not cut child care but ensure that it matches our policy of having a contract out of
31 Mar 2008 : Column 412
poverty whereby the Government put in place the right support through the tax and benefits system but parents do their bit as well, as regards their responsibilities.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): It was estimated 18 months ago that the Government would need to put in an extra £4.5 billion per annum if they were to have a 50:50 chance of meeting the 2010 target. The £950 million figure is welcome, but does it not mean that there is no chance of meeting the 2010 target?

James Purnell: No, the Government are committed to meeting the target, and the announcement in question was widely welcomed by the child poverty lobby. It means that we will be able to lift a further 1 million children out of poverty. That is an extraordinary achievement in itself, but we will continue to do everything we can to meet the 2010 target, and to eradicate poverty by 2020.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Children and young people with special educational needs are among those most obviously at risk of poverty. Of course, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin) said a few moments ago from the Government Benches, early intervention is of the essence, but some people need help later on.

Given that the Department for Children, Schools and Families is committed to raising the education leaving age, what discussions has the right hon. Gentleman had with his colleagues in that Department about the importance of ensuring that continuing support is made available, not least through the Connexions service, so that those people have a good chance of escaping from poverty and ensuring that their children do not go on to suffer it?

James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and his work on the issue is widely recognised throughout the House. He will be glad to know that there is a joint unit working between my Department and the Department for Children, Schools and Families because we recognise that this is a two-way bargain: the Government put in place the right support through the tax and benefit system, and the education and nursery systems help people to lift themselves out of poverty and get the skills that they need to succeed in life.

We need to ensure that disabled children are helped, which is why we try to ensure that people claim disability living allowance. We also need to look at the needs of teenage mothers. We have announced a pilot to look at how we can provide them with more support, in combination with the Foyer system, to ensure that they can be lifted out of poverty as well.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that although the Government have done much to eradicate child poverty, there is much to be done? It is a difficult proposition. However, he now has the talents of David Freud in his Department, and I wonder whether he could carefully apply David Freud’s talents to consider a more joined-up approach to child poverty over many more years.

31 Mar 2008 : Column 413

James Purnell: We are, of course, implementing David Freud’s recommendations, and my hon. Friend is right to say that he is advising the Department on exactly how to do that. We welcome anyone’s thoughts on how to abolish child poverty and we shall look to work with the child poverty lobby and anybody else on refreshing our strategy to meet the goal of taking children out of poverty by 2020.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): We in my party also want to see child poverty ended by 2020, but believe this vital objective is being undermined by the Government failing fully to recognise and tackle some of the deep-seated causes of child poverty. So, do the Government agree that while poverty contributes to parental separation, single parenthood is also a major cause of poverty? A reduction in the couple penalty would be socially just, so that marriage was no longer increasingly the preserve of the middle classes, which last week’s figures from the Office for National Statistics show to be the case.

James Purnell: I have real respect for the hon. Gentleman, but, frankly, I find that question hypocritical enough to be almost unbearable. The Conservative party is not even—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Please withdraw the term “hypocritical”. The right hon. Gentleman is referring to a Member of the House.

James Purnell: I withdraw it, but the hon. Gentleman—

Mr. Speaker: Order. “I withdraw”—no buts.

James Purnell: I withdraw. The party of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) will not even sign up to the goal of abolishing child poverty. It has no policy to deliver on that, and it voted against the measures in the Budget. As he knows, those in his party are not committed to that goal, and that difference between what they try to say and their policies will be exposed between now and election day.


5. Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): What progress has been made on reviewing support for working carers; and if he will make a statement. [197194]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): The carer’s allowance earnings limit was increased to £95 a week in October 2007. The current review of the national carers strategy is looking in depth at the full range of support that is provided to carers, including working carers. This is being done in consultation with carers and the organisations that represent them.

Helen Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and for her personal commitment to solving the problem. It is widely agreed that carers who can and want to should be able to combine their caring responsibilities with paid employment, which is beneficial for them and society, so will she ensure that
31 Mar 2008 : Column 414
the review looks not only at the earnings limit, which remains low, despite the increase, but at making it easier for working carers who qualify for carer’s allowance to claim it without having to make trips back and forth to the benefit office every week, as many of them have to do?

Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend not only for the question, but for the way she has championed carers’ rights over her years in the Commons. I am sure that she will be delighted to know that one of the taskforces will consider wider issues of employment—not only income and benefits, but how carers can be encouraged and supported to balance their caring responsibilities and employment. Of course, we are always looking at ways to make the application process for our benefits far more straightforward.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Carers do a wonderful job and save the state hundreds of millions of pounds every year. Does the Minister recognise that demographic change, especially in counties such as Northamptonshire, means that many more very elderly people in our local populations will require greater support?

Mrs. McGuire: We are all aware that there is a demographic issue about caring responsibilities. That is why I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman welcomed the Prime Minister’s establishing the review of our national carers strategy, which will obviously take into account some of the demographic issues that the hon. Gentleman highlighted—in relation to not only his constituency, but the whole country.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways to support carers to get into work is to provide good quality respite or day care? She will not be surprised to find out that Aberdeen city council, as part of the £27 million of cuts in its budget, is closing day centres and taking away day care, thus probably making it much more difficult for many carers in Aberdeen to carry on with their work. It has done all that without undertaking any disability impact study on the consequences of its decision.

Mrs. McGuire: It is astonishing, given the statutory requirement under the disability equality duty, that a local authority has not conducted an impact assessment of the change in its services. My hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) are working hard to ensure that Aberdeen council faces up to its responsibilities. If there is anything I can do to assist, I would be only too delighted to help. This is an interesting decision by an alliance of the SNP and Liberal Democrats in Aberdeen.

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): Does the Minister accept that many carers can and wish to work only part time, and that those for whom they care would often prefer to be cared for in-house when their permanent carer is out at work? During the review, will she look carefully at enabling long-term carers to afford such provision?

31 Mar 2008 : Column 415

Mrs. McGuire: All those issues have been raised as part of the review of the national carers strategy. Of course, the strategy is a cross-governmental development. As well as the issues for which the Department for Work and Pensions is responsible, including employment and income, we are working closely with the Department of Health, which is examining some of the social care issues. Carers’ organisations and carers have raised the very issues that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Lone Parents

6. Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): What safeguards his Department plans to put in place to ensure that lone parents who cannot find suitable child care will not be required to take up jobs under the jobseeker’s allowance regulatory framework. [197195]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Stephen Timms): We will be amending regulations to increase the discretion of Jobcentre Plus advisers, so that a lone parent claiming jobseeker’s allowance will not be penalised for leaving or failing to take up a job on the ground that appropriate, affordable child care is not available.

Willie Rennie: I thank the Minister for that response, but what assurance can he give lone parents that additional costs, such as free or half-price transport in London and the free school meals entitlement under income support, will be taken into account in those calculations, too?

Mr. Timms: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met lone parent support groups last week and we discussed how the amendment to the regulations to which I have referred might work. Jobcentre Plus will support parents looking for child care and will recognise that other costs might be incurred as well. We want to maximise the opportunity for work and the contribution of work to reducing child poverty. The hon. Gentleman will acknowledge how big that contribution potentially is and how much children’s well-being is improved when their parent is in work. That is the aim of the change that we are making.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): The Minister will know that for many lone parents the problem is not so much finding work as the issue of churn—of entering jobs, but finding themselves unable to cope and having to give them up. I welcome what he said about ensuring that child care is taken into account when the conditionality of JSA is considered. Many lone parents will have had bad experiences of struggling with child care, so what steps will be taken to ensure they know that they will not be penalised if they have child care problems, so that they do not act as a disincentive to entering work?

Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend has taken a lot of interest in the matter, and I welcome the points that she and the lone parent support organisations have made. We are considering the precise form that the regulations will take. She will know that all local authorities in England and Wales will be required from
31 Mar 2008 : Column 416
next month to ensure that there is sufficient child care to meet the needs of working parents, particularly those on lower incomes. By 2010 we want all schools to be extended schools. Advisers will be given the discretion to ensure that lone parents will not lose out if no appropriate affordable child care is available for them.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): But could the Minister tell the House whether he considers there to be any forms of work that might be inappropriate under the regulations? For example, would it be appropriate to ask a lone parent to do a considerable amount of evening and night work, bearing in mind that their children would be at school all day and not see their parent in the evening, but be left to the child care that the Minister thinks appropriate?

Mr. Timms: These are matters that advisers will be able to take into account. Lone parents should be able to be good parents as well as enjoy the benefits of employment. There is clear evidence not only that families are better off when a parent is in work, but that their children’s well-being is improved.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My right hon. Friend realises that it is not just lone parents, but all parents who sometimes experience difficulties in finding suitable child care. Will he make it a duty for local authorities or even jobcentres to keep a directory of available child care? Will he also publicise that directory and make it available to the people out there seeking the best child care for their children?

Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. It is likely that local authorities will want to do that, because all local authorities in England and Wales will from next month be required to

Local authorities will certainly want to ensure that information about that provision is widely available in their areas.

Jobcentre Plus

7. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): What proportion of telephone calls to Jobcentre Plus were answered in the most recent period for which figures are available. [197196]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): In February 2008, Jobcentre Plus contact centres answered 95.4 per cent. of the more than 1.4 million calls offered, therefore comfortably exceeding the 90 per cent. target.

Ben Chapman: Although I commend Jobcentre Plus for the progress that it has made and for the targets that it has met, 5 per cent. of unanswered calls cut off with a message saying “Ring back later” is still a lot of people. Given that they are people desperately seeking work, when can we eliminate the 5 per cent. unanswered rate?

31 Mar 2008 : Column 417

Mr. Plaskitt: The 95.4 per cent. rate is very high. In the case of first contact, which involves people calling to arrange a benefit for the first time, which is perhaps the most urgent task that the centres have to perform, the answer rate is 98.1 per cent. Call managing and queue-busting systems have been introduced in the system and work effectively, but Jobcentre Plus is implementing further improvements to those schemes in June. I can also tell my hon. Friend that the whole system has been externally validated and has proven comparable to the best available anywhere in the private sector.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): I am not quite sure of the Minister’s definition of an answer. For my constituents, who have to rely on the regional office in Canterbury, the problems are still great. They would just laugh if they heard the answer to that question.

Mr. Plaskitt: Well, the local offices that are part of the benefit delivery centre do not at the moment have the exact same call management system that the call centres use. [Hon. Members: “Ah.”] I was referring earlier to the call centres. The benefit delivery centres do not have the same system but they are planning to introduce it, and it will be in place by this summer, so they will be able to implement the system of call management and queue-busting that I referred to in the answer I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman). In any event, notwithstanding the absence of the precise measurement system, we believe that most benefit delivery centres are also hitting the 90 per cent. rate.

Incapacity Benefit

9. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): How many people had been on incapacity benefit for more than five years at the most recent date for which a figure is available. [197198]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Stephen Timms): Last May, the number of people who had been claiming incapacity benefit for over five years was 1.23 million, and it had fallen in the previous quarter.

Mr. Evennett: I noted the Minister’s reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper). However, of the 2.6 million people claiming incapacity benefit, 1.8 million began claiming during the past 10 years, since 1997. Does the Minister agree that the past 10 years have been a missed opportunity, in which not enough people of working age have been helped back to work? Surely we need real welfare reform now.

Next Section Index Home Page