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Mr. Timms: No, I certainly do not agree with that. The real scandal is that the number of incapacity benefit claimants more than tripled under the Tory Government, when the hon. Gentleman was a Government Member; incapacity benefit was used, for a long period, to disguise rising unemployment. We have reversed the position; the number of people claiming incapacity benefit is coming down for the first time in decades, thanks to the success of the reforms that we have introduced, including the pathways to work programme. Our aim is to reduce by a million the
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number of people receiving incapacity benefit by 2015. I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the progress made.

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that one of the key tools for helping incapacity benefit claimants back to work is the permitted work rules, but there are four separate permitted work regimes, which is very confusing for people. Will he today promise to look at that, and will he try to come up with a simple, single system that is easy for people to take advantage of, and to understand?

Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend has raised the issue before, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be writing to him about it shortly. I can confirm that we are looking into the very point that my hon. Friend raises.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): My registered blind constituent, Mr. McCarthy-Fox, is concerned to ensure that work capability assessments are carried out by people who understand disabilities such as his. How will serious physical disabilities such as blindness and learning disabilities such as Down’s syndrome be taken into account in those assessments, and when will my right hon. Friend publish the criteria for conducting the interviews?

Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend will know that the regulations for the employment and support allowance were published last week, and the work capability assessment is an important part of the process. We developed the procedures in close discussion with disability organisations. I think that it is widely recognised that the arrangements that will be put in place, including the work capability assessment, will be a considerable improvement on the current personal capability assessments. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, of course, that we need to make a proper and accurate assessment of all the conditions that people applying for the employment and support allowance may have, and I hope that when he looks at the details he will see that the new arrangements are a considerable improvement on the old ones.

Older People

10. Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to encourage employers to recognise the contribution of older people in the workplace. [197199]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Mike O'Brien): On Thursday I visited Heritage Glass in Shrewsbury, where the youngest salesman is 60 and the oldest is 73. The company has found that its business has been boosted by employing older people. The Government are encouraging employers to employ older people as part of a mixed work force, and to challenge some of the ageist myths that some still believe. The Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006 prohibit unjustified age discrimination in employment and training.

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Jim Sheridan: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that response. He will be aware that Glasgow city council recently announced that any school leaver wishing to take up an apprenticeship will be guaranteed that option, but that will work only if local employers and the elderly work force play their part. Some elderly skilled members of the work force currently on disablement benefit are more than capable of passing on their skills and talents to future generations. Will my hon. and learned Friend agree to meet like-minded Labour colleagues to talk through the issues, so that we make sure that people who have skills pass them on but do not lose their benefits?

Mr. O'Brien: It is important for us to ensure that skills can be passed on, and I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that. I can also tell him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will visit Glasgow shortly and meet members of the city council, and that he will have an opportunity to discuss the project and some of the issues that my hon. Friend has raised.

Welfare to Work

11. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What recent progress has been made in implementing city strategies on welfare to work. [197200]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): The city strategy pathfinders are committed to increasing employment in their area, and have agreed targets for the client groups on which they concentrate. The pathfinders have now moved into the delivery phase, and are rolling out their business plans.

Mr. Allen: Does the Secretary of State agree that local strategic partnerships have an important role in bringing together health, skills, children’s services, and communities and neighbourhoods? Does he agree that such linking and joined-up work is necessary at national level too, involving Departments other than his own and relating to housing in particular? The new proposals to enable single parents in socially registered housing who are using the Foyer scheme to return to work is one of the most important initiatives that I hope the Secretary of State will be able to encourage—and will he also ensure that he makes the time to visit Nottingham?

James Purnell: As my hon. Friend knows, I am looking forward to visiting Nottingham on 22 April. He is right in saying that local strategic partnerships have a key role to play. I congratulate him on his own role as chair of his local strategic partnership, which is one of the leading partnerships in implementing our employment city strategy. He is also right in saying that we need to work closely with other Departments at national level. That is why we introduced the working neighbourhood fund, which brings together funding from my Department and from the Department for Communities and Local Government so that with a single fund we can target the problem together.

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Topical Questions

T1. [197214] Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): As a result of our announced extension of the financial assistance scheme, some people will receive FAS payments for a past period. Concern has been expressed that those people might be in a higher tax band. I am pleased to say that, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions Reform confirmed earlier, that will not happen. My officials are currently working with their colleagues in HM Revenue and Customs to establish how the work will be carried out.

Mr. Burns: I thank the Secretary of State for his explanation. Can he tell us whether his target for eliminating child poverty is actually a target, or more of an aspiration?

James Purnell: The Conservatives should stop digging themselves into a hole. It is a target, and, as we have reaffirmed, we are committed to it. In the Budget we announced just under £1 billion of spending to take another 250,000 children out of poverty. The outrage is that the Conservative party voted against those measures.

T3. [197216] Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): It is estimated that 1.5 million people’s lives have been destroyed by involuntary tranquilliser addiction leading to long periods of mental ill health. A man whom I met recently had been on tranquillisers for 45 years. Those people want to work, but cannot do so. As far as I am aware, the only primary care trust that has introduced a withdrawal programme is Oldham. Will the Secretary of State encourage his Department and the Department of Health to study the Oldham model with the aim of getting some of those people off prescription drugs and back to work? That would improve their quality of life, and would reduce the benefits bill as well.

James Purnell: My hon. Friend has identified a serious problem, on which I know he has campaigned for some time. He will be glad to know that Dame Carol Black’s review commits my Department and the Department of Health to working together closely on the issue, and that Dame Carol will use that work to ensure that we can help people with mental health problems. We are also working on our drug strategy to ensure that we can provide better support for people who wish to return to work.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): Why is the Secretary of State providing free job advertising for sex clubs?

James Purnell: As the hon. Gentleman knows and as has been explained on many occasions, we advertise any jobs that are legal. I am sure that he would do exactly the same.

Chris Grayling: I have a selection here of adverts currently appearing on Jobcentre Plus websites. Many of them advertise jobs for the national minimum wage and they are quite clear—this one, in particular, says:

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I regard asking women to work, naked or semi-naked, on the national minimum wage as exploitation. Why does not the Secretary of State share that view and why does he continue to condone Jobcentre Plus supporting vacancies like that?

James Purnell: In that case, if the hon. Gentleman believes that and he wants to have the means to live up to those ends, he will introduce proposals to ban those adverts. At the moment, it is legal and Jobcentre Plus obviously has a duty to comply with anything that is legal. The hon. Gentleman, however, has no proposals to do anything any differently.

T7. [197221] Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I know that on quite a few occasions some parts of the Government have difficulty talking to other parts, but will the Minister explain why staff working on the MPs’ hotline for the Child Support Agency cannot speak by telephone to the Bolton office, but have to put any matters in writing, which is leading to many delays? I have raised the matter previously in a written question, so may I urge the Minister, when he looks further into the issue, not simply to accept what his civil servants tell him? Clearly, even a year later, the problem is still going on.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that problem. As he knows, there were a series of problems with the Bolton office for a while, but in many cases, we have seen improvements. I have myself spoken to officials who are working on the MPs’ hotline. I will take my hon. Friend’s point seriously and I promise to look into it further for him in the light of what he has said.

T6. [197219] Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): If the Home Office has its way, migrant domestic workers will have a non-renewable six-month visa and will be unable to change employers. Is that not a recipe for increasing domestic abuse and trafficking? If the women come forward, they will be sent back home; and they cannot get another job because they will have only a non-transferable six-month visa. For a Government who are supposedly committed to stamping out trafficking, is that not an extraordinary proposal from the Home Office? Will the Minister do something about it?

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Stephen Timms): I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s work as chair of the all-party group on the trafficking of women and children. As he knows, we are committed to implementing the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking before the end of this year. My Department is working very closely with the Home Office and others on exactly how those arrangements will work. The convention envisages a two-step process and we are looking at granting a resident’s permit in the second stage. We will discuss the details with the Home Office, so I would be interested to receive any representations from the hon. Gentleman about the detailed form that any such regulations should take.

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T8. [197222] Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): Given that £133 million has been spent on developing systems within the CSA, can those of my constituents who are currently on the old formula expect to be transferred to the new formula at a relatively early date?

Mr. Plaskitt: As my hon. Friend knows, because of the IT problems that have tended to plague the agency ever since its inception, transfer from one funding regime to another has not been possible to achieve. As we move towards the introduction of the new commission to replace the existing agency, we have set out that movement towards an integrated maintenance calculation will begin in 2010.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): The Secretary of State knows that the Conservative party is committed to the eradication of child poverty by 2020, yet he claims that it is not. The Secretary of State knows that the Government will not meet their child poverty target in 2010, yet he maintained in the House today that it will be met. I put it to him that, as an internal document from the Department for Work and Pensions, published in February this year, says:

Will the Secretary of State come clean today and tell the House the truth—that the targets will not be met on current policies?

James Purnell: If the hon. Gentleman read his documents more carefully, he would know that that was before the Budget, which announced an extra £1 billion, which Conservative Members voted against. If he also read his own party’s documents, he would know that the Conservatives are not committed to ending child poverty; they talk vaguely about an aspiration, but have no policy to deliver it. They have tried to say that they will find more money from the working tax credit, but that was going to come from £3 billion of welfare savings, which are no longer there. The Conservatives now need to come clean and admit that they have no policy on child policy and that they would make no difference to it.

T9. [197223] Christine Russell (City of Chester) (Lab): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be aware that family support workers who work out of children’s centres, alongside community midwives, health visitors, nursery staff and so on, do an excellent job in reaching out to those families who have often been beyond the reach of traditional services. They also do an excellent job in helping lone parents to get back into training and work. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that his Department will support the retention of family support workers in children’s centres, unlike the Conservative party, which wants to get rid of them?

James Purnell: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance, and I can go further: she will be glad to know that we will ensure that we pilot the use of Jobcentre Plus advisers working in children’s centres, so that when parents take their children to get support there, they also discover how they can find
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opportunities to work. So we are making sure that we have both health and children’s services working hand in glove with the services from the Department for Work and Pensions and from Jobcentre Plus.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The Minister was talking earlier about getting people on the blind and partially sighted register back to work. Does he accept that it is actually far better and more cost-effective to keep people, particularly those with degenerative eye diseases, in work while they are still capable of working, rather than their losing their jobs? That needs support and the provision of adaptations. Is that a priority for the Department?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): I have discussed the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises with the organisations that represent blind and visually impaired people. He is quite right to suggest that one of the issues that we need to consider is how we maintain people in employment when their vision is deteriorating, as it does for many working people. He can be assured that we are working to ensure that people are maintained in employment for as long as possible, because one of the major issues that we face is that, if people drop out of employment, it is far more difficult for them to move back into it.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): When the Minister tries to get people back to work, which he is undoubtedly trying to do, will he take it a little bit easy on the older members of our society, such as miners and shipyard workers who are about the age of 60 who have most probably worked all their life in hard industry and are crippled with arthritis? One of my constituents is being chased to go back to work, and he is 61. I think that it is a bit much.

James Purnell: Of course we want to provide more support for those who are in greatest need. My hon. Friend may have seen that we announced last week that we will provide extra support for people who are the poorest and most disabled. People who are in the support group of the employment and support allowance will be an extra £16 a week better off. That shows that our reforms are about two things: helping people who can work back into work and providing more support for those who need more help.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): Can the Secretary of State say why the number of people in severe poverty—5.2 million—is the highest that it has been in 27 years?

James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman keeps banging on about those figures, but he knows perfectly well that the Office for National Statistics has said that they are not reliable because the sample is too small. It is interesting to hear him talking in today’s questions, because I believe that, last week, he told The Guardian—his favourite paper—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must stop the Secretary of State. It is for him to give an account of his stewardship, not to talk about an hon. Member speaking to The Guardian.

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