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House of Commons

Monday 7 July 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—

Financial Inclusion

1. Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on providing financial inclusion programmes in local communities. [216449]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): My Department works very closely with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in delivering the Government’s programmes to promote financial inclusion. For example, we are currently establishing a network of regional and national champions, including for the west midlands, who will help to lead local partnerships to increase financial inclusion.

My hon. Friend might also be interested to know that already 12 west midlands credit unions and community development finance institutions are benefiting from growth fund investment from my Department.

Mr. Bailey: I welcome the Minister’s response. I represent a constituency that still has a high proportion of low-income earners. What can my Department do to help those in my constituency who may be vulnerable to the activities of loan sharks?

Mr. Plaskitt: My hon. Friend represents a constituency in that situation, as do many others. The Department has done some mapping across the country to help to establish which areas are in the greatest need of additional resources. Several things are being done to address his specific concerns. First, as I have said, we co-operate with colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and they are running crackdowns on illegal lenders in areas where they are at work. My Department is also doing some work through the growth fund, which is investing in credit unions and helping them to grow. Where we have invested, credit unions are growing rapidly, providing a source of affordable credit in the community so that people do not have to turn to, or rely on, doorstep lending or loan sharks.

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Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): The single most important thing that the Government can do to ensure financial inclusion in remote rural and deprived urban communities is to ensure access to cash. In that context, will the Minister assure me that the Department will do all that it can to ensure that it and all its agencies give equal prominence in, for example, every letter sent to benefit claimants to the opportunity to obtain cash at the post office through the Post Office card account? Will he join me in deploring the Pension, Disability and Carers Service in particular, which has been actively misleading clients about the future of the POCA and, in many letters, failing even to say that it is available?

Mr. Plaskitt: I believe that one letter was sent out locally that was incorrect, and we have retracted that statement and checked that the letters being sent out are correct. It is always our policy to ensure that benefit claimants or pensioners who wish to receive their benefits or pension in cash at a post office can continue to do so.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Minister refer to credit unions, because, as a long-term member in my area, I know how much they can promote financial inclusion. Does he agree that local post offices often best provide credit union facilities? Would it not therefore be a good idea if the Post Office card account contract were given to the Post Office itself? Any other decision would be deeply regrettable.

Mr. Plaskitt: My hon. Friend knows that the contracting arrangements for the successor to the existing Post Office card account are determined legally. The tendering process is under way, so it would be inappropriate for me to go any further. The Post Office has said publicly that it has put in a tender for the contract, which it describes as “strong”, but I cannot go any further, as I am sure my hon. Friend will understand. Ministers are not involved in determining the tendering process, which is run by officials.

I strongly sympathise with my hon. Friend’s point about possible stronger links between credit unions and the Post Office. He will be interested to note HMRC’s announcement last week about reforms to the regulatory climate that applies to credit unions. It implies greater flexibility in the future and the long-term possibility of establishing closer links with the Post Office.

Child Poverty

2. Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): What steps he plans to take to achieve the target of halving child poverty by 2010. [216450]

3. Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): What steps he plans to take to meet the Government’s 2020 child poverty reduction target; and if he will make a statement. [216451]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): “Ending Child Poverty: Everybody’s business” announced an additional £950 million for tackling child poverty. Along with the commitments in last year’s Budget and pre-Budget report, about 500,000 more children will be lifted out of relative poverty than otherwise would be.

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Mr. Gauke: The Prime Minister told the House on 23 and 30 April that the Government were “on the road” to taking 1 million children out of poverty. Will the Secretary of State confirm that not only is the up-to-date figure closer to half the 1 million figure, but in each of the past two years the number of children in poverty, on the Government’s own measure, has increased by 100,000?

James Purnell: No, we have lifted 600,000 children out of poverty and, as I said in my answer, another 500,000 are in the pipeline, so to speak. Interestingly, the hon. Gentleman refers to the Prime Minister, but his leader just made a speech about social breakdown in which he did not even mention child poverty. We are committed to the target; the Opposition are not. We care about child poverty; they do not. That speech shows that the Tories have not learned the lessons of the 1980s and would be exactly the same if they were to return to power. The hon. Gentleman should tell his leader to withdraw his speech.

Andrew Gwynne: Will my right hon. Friend ignore the doom-merchants opposite and commit the Government not only to meeting the 2020 target but to keeping the current definition of poverty? Will he reject the calls from some in this Chamber to redefine poverty rather than to tackle and abolish it, which is what the Government are committed to doing?

James Purnell: That is absolutely right. We are the only party that is committed to the target. We will keep the definitions that we have set out and the three targets. It is quite clear that the Opposition want not to reduce child poverty but to redefine it.

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I tell the Secretary of State that the point has been made about the Opposition, and from now on his answers should be about ministerial responsibilities?

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): May I say that, on reflection, the Secretary of State might regret comments suggesting that caring about child poverty is purely a party issue? He might want to reshape those remarks when he gets a chance. Is he not concerned that the figures show that the percentage of children risking poverty in two-parent families is hardly different from 1997? In fact, percentage-wise, the figure has gone up slightly. In caring for children in poverty, will the Secretary of State see whether he could do something more about how welfare policies act on two-parent families, because we all care about the issue?

James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to support two-parent families as well as lone-parent families. The risk of child poverty is higher in a lone-parent family than it is in a two-parent family, but we need to support both. We need to get partners in two-parent families into work to reduce child poverty, and we need to do the same for lone parents, but caring about child poverty means doing something about it. That means spending money and having a target.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I again congratulate the Government on setting such an audacious target to abolish child poverty, given that no other Government
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have ever set themselves that task. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, despite all the Government’s efforts, progress has stalled somewhat? Given that huge sums will not be available to increase tax credit payments still further, does he believe that the Government should reschedule the priority that they give to moving claimants from benefit into work so that we achieve the target?

James Purnell: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the figures for the past two years have been disappointing. We said that. That is exactly why we redoubled our efforts and put in the extra £1 billion. He is right, too, that reducing child poverty is not just about tax credits and benefits, but about getting people back into work. Our goal is to do both. Talking about only the causes of poverty ignores the fact that one of its causes is not having enough money. That is why we also believe in increasing the money that goes to tax credits and child benefit, which we did at the previous Budget.

Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): One group who can experience particularly severe poverty is disabled children. The Secretary of State will know that receipt of disability living allowance grants access to a range of other benefits that go alongside it, including disabled premiums on tax credits, and that, without it, families can miss out on upwards of £10,000 a year. Given that the Government are unable to provide figures on DLA take-up rates, what action will his Department take to increase take-up of DLA and reduce the dire poverty faced by those particularly vulnerable children?

James Purnell: We are working to increase the take-up of DLA among families with disabled children. I recently met the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign, and we are working with it and others to increase take-up. We are spending money on a take-up campaign to ensure that everybody who is entitled to DLA claims it. Hon. Members can play their part, too, by ensuring that their constituents know that they should be claiming DLA if their children face those issues.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): The Secretary of State talks about getting people back to work, and he is right to do so. He will be aware that half of children in poverty have a parent in work and that more than a fifth of poor children have a parent who works full time. What will the Government do to address the needs of that group of parents who earn enough to keep their children out of poverty but are then taxed to below the poverty line, even after receipt of tax credits?

James Purnell: The issue is about helping partners into work and making sure that we provide more money through tax credits, which is exactly what we did in the previous Budget. We want to consider how we can help partners to work, because very few families in which one partner works and the other works part time, or in which both work, are in poverty; I think that about 2 per cent. of children, a very low percentage, in such families are in poverty. We want to help people to work, and we want to give them more money, too. We want to tackle the causes of poverty and to give people more money through tax credits.

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Disabled People (Budgets)

4. Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of independent budgets and direct payments for disabled people. [216452]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): We know from research that people in receipt of direct payments value the freedom and flexibility that they give, but take-up has not been as widespread as had been hoped. Individual budgets were piloted so that we could see whether the benefits of greater choice and control could be provided for people who did not want a direct payment. Researchers are analysing the findings from the pilot and a report will be published later this year.

Mr. Flello: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. People with disabilities face enough difficulties and barriers in society without their care package being one of them. Will he commit to accelerating the roll-out of individual budgets, while ensuring that people with disabilities and their carers have full support, so that we can be sure that they can use the packages?

James Purnell: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that individual budgets can give disabled people, as well as other groups, control over the support that we give them. The vast majority of disabled people are very happy with the support that they get, but that where they are not, or where they feel that they could do better themselves, we must consider how we ensure they have control. We will actively look into that issue in the next few weeks.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I recently saw for myself how successful the In Control project, which has cross-party support, has been in Oldham, and what a difference it has made to the lives of disabled people. The Government want 1.7 million people to be able to have independent budgets over the next three years. How many of those people does the Secretary of State expect to be able to have independent budgets by the end of next March?

James Purnell: As I said, we will consider that issue in the Green Paper, and the hon. Gentleman will have to wait until it is published.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know of the small problem with recipients seeking and finding the information they need to make the right choice about individual budgets. Is he aware that no one seems to have responsibility for compiling and maintaining a directory of services that those people could buy into?

James Purnell: My hon. Friend is right to say that one of the early findings from the pilots is the importance of advocacy and support. That is not a reason to think that the principle is not right; it is just a lesson that we need to learn to make sure that the system works effectively in practice. I will look into the point that he makes about a directory, and I will write to him.

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Jobshop (York)

5. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): When Remploy plans to open a jobshop in York city centre to assist people with disabilities who were not previously Remploy employees in finding jobs. [216453]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): Remploy continues to search for suitable premises in York city centre. In the meantime, Remploy opened a facility on 9 April at York university, which is available to help all disabled jobseekers in York. Remploy is also working in partnership with Future Prospects, a local specialist provider, which means that any disabled jobseeker in York will be able to access Remploy services through Future Prospects’ city-centre facilities.

Hugh Bayley: When the Minister made the case for closing the Remploy factory in York, she said that, if it closed, a city-centre jobshop would be established and that it would get 50 disabled people who were out of work—not former Remploy employees—into work each year. The facility on York university campus helps former workers from the York Remploy factory, but it is essential that a new facility is provided in the city centre as soon as possible; otherwise, the Government will not meet their target of getting 50 disabled people into work each year.

Mrs. McGuire: My hon. Friend has taken a keen interest in the situation in York, and I congratulate him on his advocacy for his local facility. There have been difficulties in trying to get premises in York city centre, not least due to access issues, but I assure my hon. Friend that Remploy is actively and positively looking for facilities in York city centre.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): The Minister will be aware that the closure of the Remploy facility in York caused disabled people particular problems in getting back into work, but will she accept that the number of people in work in York has gone down hugely, particularly in the past three years? The latest closure was of an HMRC office. What plans does she have to find another facility, perhaps locally, so that those currently working there can continue to work in York?

Mrs. McGuire: With Remploy, we looked specifically at how we support disabled workers into employment. If we are talking about the generality of people who can access jobcentre facilities, that is a slightly different issue. I hope that the hon. Lady accepts that Remploy in York has been working very actively to support its disabled employees, who wanted to maintain themselves in employment. Outside this forum, I will be delighted to share with her some of the real success stories that have come out of York about former Remploy employees.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): As my hon. Friend knows, I was very pleased that Remploy in my constituency was removed from the list of closures, but its continuing existence depends on it securing contracts. It supplies health care products to England and to Scotland but has no contracts in Wales. I made every effort to secure those contracts, but what else can the Government do
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to ensure that the factory, which is very important to our area given the high percentage of disabled people, continues in existence?

Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend for championing her local Remploy factory and for supporting the modernisation programme. She is right—there was extreme disappointment that the Welsh health service did not renew its contract with her local Remploy factory. I can assure her, however, that Remploy’s management are still optimistic about getting more work not only into her Remploy factory but into Remploy factories across the country as part of its modernisation programme.

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