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House of Commons

Monday 2 June 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Social Care Services

1. Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): What progress has been made in developing the pilot projects for individual budgets for people receiving social care services, with particular reference to disabled people; and if he will make a statement. [208017]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): Individual budgets, which have been piloted in 13 local authority areas, have given social care customers, including disabled people, greater choice and control over the services they receive. The pilots were comprehensively evaluated, and we expect to publish the results later in the year.

Barbara Keeley: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Next week is carers week, when we will be thinking about those issues a great deal more than usual, and I believe that disabled people and their carers in my constituency could really benefit from the extra flexibility of individual budgets. What extra steps can his Department take to try to ensure that disabled people use individual budgets much more widely once the pilots are completed?

James Purnell: I quite agree with my hon. Friend, and we believe firmly that disabled people get greater dignity and control from the use of individual budgets, which also enable them to get better solutions to the problems that we are trying to help them with.

To give an example from the pilots, a woman with breathing problems used her individual budget to buy some air conditioning and instead of having to spend the summer in hospital, as she used to do, she was able to stay at home and look after her children. That is a great example of the kind of work that we want to encourage and will be looking to take forward in the Green Paper, which we will publish shortly.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): While entirely endorsing the principle of individual budgets and in no sense wishing to suggest that people are not well
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empowered to make up their own mind, will the Secretary of State please bear in mind the importance of giving access to adequate and responsible advice, so that people are not, as it were, suborned into the misuse of their budget, but can use it in accordance with their needs and to best effect?

James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and he has a very long record of campaigning on those issues, which I acknowledge. The key point is that the default should be that people can continue to get the service, but if they are not satisfied with it and want to be able to do things differently they should be able to do so. Of course, they should then have the advice to enable them to do that. That is one of the key things to come up in the pilots and he is right to raise it.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): My own local authority, Aberdeen city council, is looking at introducing individualised budgets, particularly through a system called In Control. That is all very laudable, but Aberdeen city council’s Scottish National party-Liberal administration has just slashed £27 million out of its budget and is closing a lot of facilities that were accessible to people who would qualify for individualised budgets. In fact, the whole thing is being introduced on a cuts agenda. What does my right hon. Friend make of that?

James Purnell: I condemn strongly the action of the council, which I know my hon. Friend has raised before. These issues should never be used as cover for a cuts agenda; they should be about empowering people to get better care for themselves and to get back into work.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): One of the critical things for those getting the benefit of individual budgets is the means of enabling them to get back into work and making it more possible for them to do so. They are, therefore, concerned about the support that they will get through the employment and support allowance. Can the Secretary of State confirm how much extra the Government are planning to spend on employment and support allowance benefit over the next five years, compared with what they spend on incapacity benefit?

James Purnell: I can give the hon. Gentleman the figure for the next three years, which is £400 million.


2. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): How many people he expects to move into employment from out-of-work benefits by 2015. [208018]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): The Government do not produce forecasts of the numbers moving from out-of-work benefits into employment. However, we aim to reduce the number on incapacity benefit by 1 million by 2015.

Bill Wiggin: I am grateful for that answer from the Secretary of State, but if that is the case, why do his Department’s financial projections allow for only 350,000? What does he really expect the figure to end up as?

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James Purnell: As the hon. Gentleman very well knows, our goal is to get 1 million off incapacity benefit, and we are bringing forward proposals in the Green Paper to do exactly that. It is established financial practice that one does not assume the effect of policies that have not yet been brought into effect—one would be spending money that one did not have already—and that is exactly what should be done under cautious financial management.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend will know, many hundreds of thousands of miners were condemned to incapacity benefit by the Conservative party, receiving no assistance whatever to get back to work, and he would probably join me in condemning that. Many of those people have been on incapacity benefit since the strike, or since the closure of the pits, and they are approaching retirement age. Can we have an assurance from him that those people will be handled with great care in any effort to get them back to work, given that they were condemned by the Conservative Administration to long-term receipt of incapacity benefit and received no help whatever from society?

James Purnell: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The number on incapacity benefit tripled under the Conservative party but has been falling for the past few years, rather than rising inexorably, which is what it used to do. The Conservative party provided no help at all for people on incapacity benefit.

Since April, everyone has had access to pathways to work, and my hon. Friend will have constituency examples of people who have been out of work for many years who are messianic about the effect of pathways and the transformation in their lives that it has brought about.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Is the Secretary of State not embarrassed that the Government have presided over circumstances in which so many people who are capable of work are not working—particularly young people sitting on their backsides and doing nothing—while relying on cheap labour from eastern Europe to hide the fact that a large number of those on benefits should be working, and could be working if the Government had more will power?

James Purnell: I think the hon. Gentleman should consider carefully the tone of his remarks and the way in which he has stigmatised young people. The truth is that each year only just over 6,000 young people are unemployed for more than a year, 90 per cent. fewer than in 1997. That constitutes a transformation of the system. Moreover, out-of-work benefits are down by £1 million overall. We have transformed the system: we have fewer people unemployed than at any time since the 1970s, and more people in work than ever before. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that rather than dog-whistling on immigration.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): The question from the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) covers the gamut of out-of-work benefits. In my constituency, more than 6,000 people were unemployed in the mid-1980s; now the figure is less than a quarter of that, below 1,500. Does my right hon. Friend agree
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that it was the welfare-to-work schemes introduced by the Labour Government that brought the figure down, and that that is most likely to continue if we retain a Labour Government?

James Purnell: I certainly agree with the last part of my hon. Friend’s question. He is absolutely right: the number of people on jobseeker’s allowance has more than halved. That is because we have an active welfare state which requires more from people after three months, after six months and after a year, and which I am glad to see that the Opposition are now trying to copy.

Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): Both the Government and the Conservatives recently announced proposals to enforce tough new measures on working-age benefit claimants, including boot camps and compulsory work programmes. Those proposals have been widely criticised by child poverty campaigners who argue that they represent a revival of workhouse rules, and that they show little regard for the consequences for child poverty.

Does it concern the Government that they now appear to be uniting with the Conservatives in their disregard for the effect of their policies on child poverty, and can the Secretary of State assure me that the welfare reform Bill that we expect to be introduced in the next parliamentary Session will focus on reducing poverty?

James Purnell: I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position. I can certainly give her that assurance. The whole point of the welfare reforms that we are introducing is to reduce poverty. We have had no truck with talk of boot camps, although, as she will see when she examines the details of what the Conservatives announced last week, they were actually only reannouncing what we are already doing through the new deal.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): The Secretary of State was all at sea when he replied to the original question from my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin). He said that it was not possible to assume a figure, but his answer did assume a figure in his financial forecast, and it is less than the figure that my hon. Friend cited as the Secretary of State’s target. Meanwhile, according to the Government’s own answers and in contradistinction to what the Secretary of State has said, unemployment among 16 to 24-year-olds has risen since the Government came to power, and some 5 million people are languishing on out-of-work benefits. On the subject of dog whistles, it was the Secretary of State’s right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) who brought to light the fact that more than half the increase in employment in this country was due to jobs being given to migrant workers.

Against that dismal background, is it not time for some fresh thinking and fresh policy, which this clapped-out Government are manifestly incapable of providing?

James Purnell: Let us take the 5 million figure that the hon. Gentleman gave. It includes carers—whom he says his party will not force back into work—severely disabled people, lone parents with very young children, and those who retire early. The Tories are using figures
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that are completely inconsistent. They themselves acknowledge that they would not want to return those people to work. What they should be considering are the JSA count, which is down by more than half, and the fact that, as I have said, only 6,000-odd young people are unemployed for more than a year.

Rather than citing inconsistent figures, the Tories should start to cost their policies. The proposals that they announced last week would require at least hundreds of millions of pounds of extra spending, and would mean the cost of welfare going up, not down.

Pensioner Poverty

4. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): What recent estimate he has made of the proportion of pensioners in poverty. [208021]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Mike O'Brien): In 1996-97, 2.9 million pensioners were living in relative poverty, after housing costs. Measures such as pension credit have helped reduce that number by over a million to 1.8 million in 2005-06. I have today placed in the Library a fact sheet containing projections of entitlement to pension credit and other income-related benefits, up to 2050.

Mr. Amess: The Government have said that a small but important inaccuracy in the 2006-07 data is the reason for the delay in publishing the statistics for the percentage of pensioners who are living in poverty. Will the Minister enlarge upon that small inaccuracy and take the opportunity to refute firmly and absolutely the scurrilous suggestions that the figures could have been delayed because of the local elections, the mayoral elections and the Crewe and Nantwich by-election?

Mr. O'Brien: It is a matter for the hon. Gentleman whether he wishes to describe as scurrilous the views of those on his own Front Bench. The DWP statisticians identified an inaccuracy in the statistical framework that led to some of the headline statistics being somewhat inaccurate. That was verified by the independent quality assessment of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and was looked at by Karen Dunnell, the national statistician. The view was taken that the inaccuracy had to be corrected. The new figures will be released on 10 June.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): It is always essential constantly and regularly to improve the situation of pensioners, but will my hon. and learned Friend compare the situation now with that before the introduction of the winter fuel payment, which the Conservatives derided, of the free television licences and of pension credit? Will he remember the words of Aneurin Bevan, whose National Health Service Act the Conservatives voted against, “Why look into the crystal when you can read the book”?

Mr. O'Brien: My right hon. Friend is entirely right. When we came into office, tens of thousands of pensioners were trying to scrape by on £69 a week. Not only that, the then Government had sought to double the VAT on fuel, which would have hit pensioners even harder. That is the record that we inherited and we have turned it around, taking more than 1 million pensioners out of poverty. The percentage of pensioners in absolute
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poverty has fallen by three quarters, from 32 per cent. in 1997 to 8 per cent. in 2005-06. I suspect that most people would regard that as a very good record compared with that of the previous Conservative Government.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): If the situation is as marvellous as the Minister says, why has the number of pensioners going bankrupt gone up from 900 five years ago to 7,900 this year? Is not one of the reasons why those most in need of help are not getting it through the pension credit—as we warned at the time of its introduction—the fact that it is an over-complex system introduced by a Chancellor who is now the Prime Minister and is still getting it wrong?

Mr. O'Brien: Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people in this country, and many in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, are in receipt of pension credit and are very grateful for the fact that rather than having to live on the £69 a week that he voted to support they are now able to get a minimum of £124 to ensure that they are not in dire poverty. We are the Government who have looked after pensioners while the Government supported by the hon. Gentleman not only wanted to double VAT on fuel, but kept large numbers of pensioners in poverty.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): The Minister is right to take no lessons on pensioner poverty from the Conservatives but given that fuel prices have a disproportionate impact on pensioners, could he say a little more about weekend newspaper reports that measures are to be brought in to give extra help, through winter fuel payments, to the poorest pensioners?

Mr. O'Brien: It is certainly the case that the Government need to take steps to get energy companies to help the vulnerable with rising fuel bills this winter. Energy companies offered to increase funding on their social tariffs to £225 million over three years. We want to move quickly to help people with their fuel bills—that is a priority for us. The Government have made an offer to the fuel companies: to send out a mailshot or voucher for the energy suppliers to all people who are on pension credit, letting them know how they can get on to the lower social tariff and, thus, lower their fuel bills. We also want to ensure that pensioners get access to better insulation grants, and that, in the long-term, they can help to lower their fuel bills by fitting proper insulation. We are offering that facility, but we are also offering fuel companies the option to share our data on who is in deprivation—that would be done through a trusted intermediary, so that those data are secure—and, in that way, fuel companies can ensure that their social tariff is directed to those most in need.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): Can the Minister confirm that he has quietly dropped the target originally set by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor for maximising the take-up of pension credit? What estimate has the Minister made of the additional number of pensioners who will be thrown into poverty as a result of that decision? Is it not adding insult to injury
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for hard-pressed UK pensioners, who live in one of the EU countries where pensioners are most likely to fall into poverty?

Mr. O'Brien: As a result of the steps that we have taken, particularly on pension credit, this country’s pensioners are, on balance, less likely to be in poverty either than they were under the hon. Gentleman’s Government or in respect of any other proportion of the population at the moment.

News of the removal of this target bizarrely appeared in today’s The Daily Telegraph, but the measure was announced in 2006 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) and it has been raised several times in Select Committee—this is so old that it is not even old news, as the targets changed some time ago. Four out of five of those entitled to guaranteed credit are now receiving it, and this Government are committed to getting more people on to pension credit. Our new target on pension credit, which has been recently increased, focuses on successful applications, instead of case load.

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