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Child Care

5. Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the effect on the uptake of child care of methods of paying for it. [208022]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): Annual expenditure on child care under the child care element of tax credits was just under £1.2 billion in 2006-07. Jobcentre Plus is actively involved in improving the take-up of formal child care by its customers, and Jobcentre Plus advisers routinely discuss formal child care with all parents.

Ms Buck: Good quality child care is not only enriching for children, but essential for parents who want to combine parenting with work. The Government have had real success in recent years through investing in child care, particularly for three and four-year-olds, as has been evident in my constituency and across the country. Does my hon. Friend accept that there are problems in the system of paying for child care, particularly when it comes to older children? That was borne out in the recent study by the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Is it time that the DCSF, the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions got together to work on a new package to replace the child care tax credit for older children and their families, so that holiday schemes and out-of-school provision can be—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must stop the hon. Lady.

Mrs. McGuire: My hon. Friend must be congratulated on constantly raising child care issues and on advising the Government as to how to improve uptake. She has alerted us to some issues, as have other organisations, in particular the higher level of up-front costs, which can act as a real barrier to some parents. She will know that from April 2008, we have been examining, in London, how we can pay those up-front costs. Of course, we want to examine every avenue to improve the system and to ensure that parents who want to move into work can get the wrap-around child care that they need. Our
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Department will work closely with the other Departments she mentioned to ensure that that happens.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Is the Minister disappointed that the figures show that take-up has gone down dramatically and that the much vaunted free nursery place system has done nothing except shroud nursery schools in red tape and additional bureaucracy? More people seeking such child care use family members such as grandparents.

Mrs. McGuire: I am astonished that the hon. Lady uses the words “shrouded in red tape”. I would have thought that she would welcome the fact that we have set safety standards and that we ensure that young children put into the care of nurseries and pre-school groups are properly cared for. It would embarrass me to have to defend the record that her Government left us in 1997, as we now have 10 times more child care places than we had then. That is a record that the hon. Lady should be ashamed of.

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware of the disproportionate costs of child care for disabled children. In the Treasury review of child care tax credit, will she, as Minister for disabled people, make representations on that important issue?

Mrs. McGuire: My hon. Friend knows that Aiming High for Disabled Children has included an additional resource of £35 million up to 2011 to improve access to child care. We also have the new supporting access to child care project. In many local authorities, disabled children are supported successfully in mainstream child care, and I am sure that my hon. Friend, as Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, has seen many examples of that. We need to break down the barriers that parents with disabled children face in accessing good quality child care.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What encouragement is given, and financial incentives offered, to parents who wish to stay at home to bring up their pre-school children?

Mrs. McGuire: We have expanded maternity leave and introduced paternity leave. We are looking at ways in which we can support parents through access to child care, with—currently—12 and a half hours free child care a week, which will increase to 15 hours. The hon. Gentleman has to realise that we can support parents in a mixture of ways, whether they choose to go out to work or to stay at home. The record of this Government stands up to scrutiny, especially compared with the record of the Administration whom he supported.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the form of support that single parents most appreciate is provided not by her Department but by extended schools? Such support reduces single parents’ anxiety because it means that they can go to work and earn money while their children are at school, and need not depend on public support.

Mrs. McGuire: My hon. Friend is right. It is often the periods before and after school that are crucial to giving parents the confidence that their children are
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being looked after, and that is why extended school programmes, with wrap-around care from 8 am to 6 pm—which will be rolled out across England and Wales over the next couple of years—are crucial.

Child Poverty

10. Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effect of family breakdown on child poverty. [208027]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): In many cases, the break-up of families can lead to lower incomes and a greater risk of children living in poverty. So, we have a strong focus on supporting lone parents into work. The number of children in poverty in lone parent families has reduced by around 200,000 children. The risk of a child in such a household being in poverty has fallen from 46 per cent. to 35 per cent.

Improvements to the Child Support Agency mean that a record £1 billion of maintenance is now flowing to children. Our new reforms of the child maintenance system will lift a further 100,000 children out of poverty.

Alistair Burt: The Department’s website continues to suggest that it sees family breakdown more as a symptom of child poverty than as a cause. If the Minister is changing that impression, that would be welcomed. Does he agree that the Department is somewhat hamstrung by playing down the impact of family breakdown? If so, can he find a way out of that trap so as to respond positively to the comments of people such as Mr. Justice Coleridge who has 37 years of experience in the family court and who said last month:

Mr. Plaskitt: The hon. Gentleman will know that there are many reasons why families end up in breakdown. The obligation on us is to ensure that when families encounter that, support is available. That is why, for example, one of the most important things that we can ensure when a family splits up is that the parent who continues to care for the children gets a decent income coming into the household. That is why programmes that support lone parents as they go back to work are so important. As the hon. Gentleman will know from his history of involvement with the subject, when couples separate it is crucial that maintenance flows to support the children. That is why we are making a big investment in the CSA, which is now collecting a record £1 billion of maintenance, as I have said.

Another thing that is coming in, which I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome, is the child maintenance options service whereby for the first time couples moving towards separation will have information and support provided objectively and independently, for free, to help them to deal with that. Independent support and advice, on subjects from across the range of areas for which this Department is responsible, are available to assist couples.

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Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most insidious causes of family breakdown is mass unemployment? Will he therefore pay little regard to any Government who ever consider mass unemployment a price worth paying?

Mr. Plaskitt: Certainly, the experience of mass unemployment and the break-up of communities led to the break-up of families. I do not think that there is any doubt about that. My hon. Friend is quite right to point out that a pro-employment policy is a pro-family policy and helps couples to stay together. He is right to point out that the policies that have seen unemployment fall dramatically, that have virtually eliminated long-term unemployment and that have restored employment in broken communities have contributed to supporting families. That is the result of policies that this Government have implemented.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Minister agree that, with the odd rare exception, such as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), to hear people on the Conservative Benches talk about the alleviation of poverty and their ideas in that regard is similar to hearing that King Herod has been appointed to a post in charge of child protection?

Mr. Plaskitt: My hon. Friend always has his own way of putting such things. The important point, I think, is to ensure that we continue to pursue policies that support families as they face the variety of strains of modern life and try to achieve the right balance between work and family life. Through a range of policies pursued by this Department and others, we have put in place measures that back families, that support them and that help them to deal with the tensions of modern life.

Child Poverty

11. Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): What progress he has made towards his target to halve child poverty by 2010. [208028]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Stephen Timms): Child poverty more than doubled under the previous Government to the worst rate in Europe. We have arrested and reversed the rising trend, with 600,000 children lifted out of poverty in the past decade. We reaffirmed on Budget day our commitment to halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020, and measures announced in last year’s Budget, and since, are expected to lift 500,000 children above the poverty line.

Mr. Gauke: Like the figures for pensioner poverty referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), publication of the figures for child poverty has been delayed. Given that the reason for the delay cited by the pensions Minister concerned a technical problem that, according to the DWP’s technical note, relates to a relatively small number of people around pension age, can the Minister confirm that the yet to be released headline figures on child poverty have been known to the Government for some months?

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Mr. Timms: No, I cannot confirm that. I do not know what the figures are. They are being reviewed in the way that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Pensions Reform described earlier, on the basis of a decision by the departmental statistician in consultation with the Government statistician and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. As my hon. and learned Friend said, the figures for households below the average income will be published on 10 June.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Can the Minister explain why the number of children in poverty in two-parent households went up from 21 to 23 per cent. last year?

Mr. Timms: We have made a decisive break with the disastrous policy of the Conservative party in government, for which even now addressing child poverty remains a vague aspiration. We have reduced the number of children in poverty from 3.4 million to 2.8 million. If we had left the policies as they were in 1997, the figure would be above 5 million by now. Measures in the last two Budgets and in the pre-Budget report will help further. They are expected to reduce child poverty by 500,000. We remain committed to the target. There was a very small increase last year. The overall impact has been very positive.

Occupation-related Illnesses

12. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Health and Safety Executive on its programmes on occupation-related illnesses. [208029]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): Ministers hold regular discussions with the chair of the Health and Safety Executive and its senior officials regarding the executive’s programmes on occupation-related illnesses.

Tony Lloyd: Does my hon. Friend agree that, although everyone regrets the tragic deaths of 241 people in industrial accidents last year, the perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 people who die every year from occupational diseases—cancers and so on—nevertheless represent a problem on a much bigger scale? Can I have an assurance that the Health and Safety Executive will crack down on that and have the resources to ensure that we both educate and encourage prevention—for example, where diesel fumes are allowed to permeate the working space—to make sure that another generation in 10, 15 or 20 years’ time will not die in that horrible way?

Mrs. McGuire: My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of deaths that sometimes occur a long time after people have ceased to work in a particular occupation. Of course, asbestosis accounts for about 4,000 deaths a year, which is the highest rate of any occupational health killer. I hope he recognises the importance of the hidden killer pilot that we rolled out in the north-west. It was not specifically aimed at diesel fumes, but it worked with tradesmen, particularly plumbers and electricians, to look at how they work in at-risk occupations. He is right to highlight the fact that the Health and Safety Executive, along with employers, employees and trade unions, needs to look
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at how we manage risk for the current work force and to ensure that those risks are reduced as much as possible.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that payments for certain industrial diseases, such as pneumoconiosis, changed on the demise of British Coal on 27 March 2004. Since then, there have been 3,300 new claims. I understand that only 300 of those new claimants have claimed benefit under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979. I understand that her Department did not put down the line the information that miners could now claim under the 1979 Act. Will she therefore look into the matter and ensure that, if it is shown that anyone has been disadvantaged by not being able to claim under the 1979 Act, they will allowed to make a new claim?

Mrs. McGuire: Of course, I will look at the points made by my hon. Friend, who has consistently and persistently promoted the cause of those miners who suffered as a result of working down the pits, and I will get back to him on that issue.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): No Government have done more than this one to compensate those people who have suffered industrial health problems, such as coal miners, who were referred to by hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). However, will my hon. Friend the Minister look again at the 1979 Act, as my hon. Friend has asked, and look beyond the coal mining population, because a constituent of mine from the building industry, along with a handful of other people, has been told that his only way forward is to seek judicial review of the Government? That does not seem to be a humane way to deal with someone who manifestly suffers from pneumoconiosis.

Mrs. McGuire: Obviously, if my hon. Friend gives me the details of his constituency case, I will look into it for him.

Benefits System

13. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): What plans he has for simplifying the benefits system; and if he will make a statement. [208031]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Stephen Timms): Benefit simplification is important to our welfare reform programme, for example in the roll-out of the local housing allowance since April, in the introduction of the employment and support allowance in October, and in pensions reform from 2010. In the longer term, we are looking into the possibility of a single benefit for people of working age.

Kelvin Hopkins: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I think that Britain is the only country in Europe where benefits are delivered through the agencies of three Departments. That makes the system complicated, expensive to administer, and difficult for claimants. Is it not time that we seriously considered giving responsibility for all benefits to one Department, namely his?

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Mr. Timms: There is good co-operation between my Department and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on tax credits, and between the Department and local authorities on housing benefit. A very good pilot in north Tyneside has shown excellent results, and we have now extended it to another half a dozen local authorities. My hon. Friend is right that there is good scope for co-operation, particularly with local authorities, in order to deliver benefits more quickly, and to deliver a better service.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): Occasionally, complications in the system to do with benefits and allowances can impact on people doing voluntary work or holding particular offices in their community. I would very much like to discuss a constituent’s case with the Secretary of State or one of his colleagues, and I should be grateful if he agreed to a meeting in which we could do that.

Mr. Timms: There certainly are a number of issues to do with volunteering and the benefit system. We have been considering them, and we have made good progress in recent months. If the hon. Gentleman would like to drop me a line, I will be happy to look at the case that he has in mind.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): I welcome the progress that my right hon. Friend the Minister has made in extending the 16-hour rule to Stoke-on-Trent, but further flexibility is needed. In particular, will he look at the situation faced by those on incapacity benefit who are anxious to gain skills and move into education and training, but who do not want to have to go on to jobseeker’s allowance to do so, and will he get back to me on that, please?

Mr. Timms: I thank my hon. Friend for what she says. As she will know, under the employment and support allowance, which is being introduced from October, the arrangements for therapeutic work will be significantly different from those in place under incapacity benefit. If she looks at the new arrangements, she will find that there has been some welcome progress. If there are other points that she would like me to consider, I should be happy to have a conversation with her about them.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Does the Minister accept that one of the reasons for the low take-up of some benefits is the complexity of the application forms? Is that not another powerful reason for seeking to simplify the benefits system?

Mr. Timms: Of course the right hon. Gentleman is right. I am sure that he will therefore warmly welcome, as others have done, the introduction of the three-page application form for housing benefit and council tax benefit for people already receiving pension credit. That has been a big step forward, and we will be looking for others.

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