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House of Commons

Monday 20 October 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—

Labour Statistics

2. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): What assessment he has made of trends in the proportion of the labour force comprised of UK nationals. [227673]

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mr. Tony McNulty): The proportion of non-UK nationals in the labour force has increased as our economy has become more integrated into the European and world economies, but it is still low. Over nine out of 10 people in employment in the UK are UK nationals.

Bob Spink: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. This is a sensitive area, and I have consistently raised the need to train and employ more of the 5 million British people who are currently of working age but who are being paid not to work, while many foreign nationals hold jobs in the UK. May I congratulate the Government on planning to take much-needed action to help more British people to get jobs in our economy, and may I gently urge the Minister to get on with the job quickly?

Mr. McNulty: With respect, we have been getting on with that job for some time now. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is referring more directly to the other half of the equation—the introduction of the points-based system for immigration. That system was announced in 2005, before the last election, and it has been introduced in the speediest and most efficient manner possible.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend welcome the presence of the great many Irish and American citizens who are non-British nationals? Will he also join me in deploring a leaflet that has been circulated in south Yorkshire that attacks as non-British a Danish lady who has been here for 24 years and is a Labour councillor? The leaflet was circulated not by the British National party or the United Kingdom Independence party, but by the Liberal Democrats. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Mr. McNulty: Given my name and background, I of course welcome Irish non-nationals to economic activity and productivity in the United Kingdom’s labour market, as I do Americans and all others who contribute fairly. On my right hon. Friend’s second point, Liberal Democrats do not change, wherever they come from and wherever they are in the country.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that there is a good deal still to be done in respect of training the United Kingdom work force? Does he agree that what we really need to do is cap the number of people who come here as immigrants in each year?

Mr. McNulty: I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman’s first point about training more UK nationals. That is perfectly fair. Central to the points-based system is a sector by sector assessment of exactly what the United Kingdom’s economy needs at any given time from those outside the European Union. We might approach this issue from different ways, but we achieve the same end.

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Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Has the Minister had a chance to look at the figures that his own Department has just published on new national insurance numbers? Is he as concerned as I am that, in Newham—the centre for our great new Olympic village, with huge public funds that are supposed to lead to local jobs and training—more than 20,000 new national insurance numbers were issued to non-British workers? For London as a whole, the number of new numbers issued was three times the number of young people under 25 who are not working. When are the Government going to try to deliver on the Prime Minister’s promise of British jobs for British people?

Mr. McNulty: My right hon. Friend’s point about Newham and, more broadly, about the London labour market belies his northern traditions, in the sense that the London labour market is absolutely distinct, compared with elsewhere in this country—quite rightly, given that it is the finest world city. On his broader point about the Olympic legacy for all people in London in relation to employment and to getting the right mix between the skills available and those requiring them, he is absolutely right. For a long time in the London market, there has been a mis-match between skills required and skills presented, particularly in an east-west dimension. Wearing my other hat, as Minister for London, I should be very happy to talk to my right hon. Friend about that.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): I welcome the Minister to his first Work and Pensions questions in his new role. We hope that he enjoys it and that he manages to secure a promotion to full Cabinet rank in the not too distant future.

On 7 October, the Secretary of State said that the employment rate of 74.3 per. cent under this Government was

He also said that 800,000 more British-born people were in work then than there were in 1997. Does the Minister still stand by those statements?

Mr. McNulty: First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind, but typically churlish, words. I look forward to working with him and hope that he retains his shadow Cabinet rank for a long time to come.

We stand by the figures, which are the highest ever. As I said in my earlier response, there has, of course, been a slight drop in the overall percentage of employment levels of UK nationals, reflecting the enlargement issues that we know plenty about. The figures are, however, still at record levels. As I have also said, more than nine out of 10 people employed in the UK labour market are UK nationals.

Chris Grayling: Ministers need to take a long, hard look at the figures they present to the House. According to the Library, the rate of employment under this Government has been lower than it was in the late ‘80s and lower than in the ‘70s. According to the Office for National Statistics, only 300,000 more British-born people are in work today than in 1997—not very impressive. Let me ask the Minister a different point. Why does he think that employment among British people has fallen by more 350,000 in the past two years, while employment among migrant workers has risen by nearly a million?

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Mr. McNulty: More recently, the rate of participation in the labour market by UK nationals has gone up. The figures were quoted by the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) in the weekend newspapers. I am looking to see precisely how the 365 and 865 figures were reached—the answer, from what I have seen this morning, is, not in the most direct route. It appears that the definition of working activity is being played around with, as is the definition of a UK national and a foreign national. That is how those figures are reached. When I am clear about the provenance of the figures, however, I will get back to the hon. Gentleman.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): There is an ongoing issue in Milton Keynes about the ready availability of low-skilled jobs, which have attracted young people to leave school at the earliest opportunity to take them up. It is exactly those jobs that are first hit by the downturn in the economy. In that context, is not the route to success programme run by Milton Keynes college and aimed at this age group the right response to a recession—particularly the upskilling of young people so that they can take the jobs that are still available for which they were previously not qualified?

Mr. McNulty: My hon. Friend is exactly right, and I will happily visit Milton Keynes to look in more detail at what the college is trying to do. It must be right for the 16 to 19 cohort to be provided with as much opportunity as possible to get the upskilling—a dreadful word, but it will do—necessary to face whatever challenges the labour market poses in the future.

Benefit Payments

3. Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): If he will commission research on the effect on benefit payments of provision to patients with rheumatoid arthritis of treatment that enables them to continue in or return to work. [227674]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): Although we have no plans for specific research on people with arthritis, the Department of Health and the Medical Research Council carry out a range of research projects concerned with arthritis and other rheumatic disease, and I will work closely with my ministerial colleagues on the work and health agenda.

Mrs. Riordan: Is the Minister aware of a recent report finding that diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis are responsible for the loss of 9.5 million working days a year, at a cost to society of more than £7 billion? Has the Minister or his Department had a conversation with the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to help ensure that the broad costs to society are looked at and that those suffering from this terrible disease are given the necessary drugs and treatment at an early stage so they can carry on working and living normal lives?

Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I am sure that she will be aware that Arthritis Care presented a report to MPs in Westminster just a few weeks ago, which expressed concern about people with arthritis—both those in work and those
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looking for employment. We have, of course, doubled Access to Work, which could be of assistance to that group of people and we have also invested £1.1 billion in pathways to work to assist disabled people to find work. I am certainly happy to discuss this issue and the report I mentioned from Arthritis Care to find other ways to assist these people either to stay in work or to find work.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): Rheumatoid arthritis particularly affects people in the workplace. Many people with RA wish to continue normal work, but barriers often prevent them from working as normal. Can the Minister commit to using private and voluntary sector back-to-work programmes in addition to Government ones?

Jonathan Shaw: I can certainly commit to ensuring that a range of providers, in the public, private or voluntary sector, operate in the pathways to work programme. It is important to have systems in place to allow entrepreneurs, particularly those in the smaller niche charities, to deal with individuals’ specific concerns and conditions so that we can meet our target of taking 1 million people off incapacity benefit.


4. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What assessment he has made of recent trends in levels of unemployment in the UK. [227675]

5. Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): What assessment he has made of the future trends in the level of unemployment in the UK. [227676]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): The jobseeker’s allowance count rose last month to 939,900. There are 608,000 vacancies in the economy and 80 per cent. of claimants leave jobseeker’s allowance within six months. We do not predict future levels of unemployment, but we have been planning for the impact of higher levels of jobseeker’s allowance claims in the coming months.

Mr. Robathan: As I understand it, the rise in unemployment announced last month was the biggest in a decade, or two decades. To link my question with Question 2, there is some confusion about what the immigration Minister last week on reducing the number of immigrants because of employment problems. To return to that question, which the Secretary of State’s colleague failed to answer, could the right hon. Gentleman give an update on the Prime Minister’s policy of British jobs for British workers?

James Purnell: We absolutely want to train workers so that they can get jobs, improve their skills and get more money through employment. About half of the increase in employment has gone to UK nationals. We have a flexible labour market, which is important for the UK. I did not realise that the Opposition were against the idea of a flexible labour market.

Mr. Wilson: This morning I was informed by Network Rail that trying to rush forward the £500 million upgrade of Reading station in my constituency would be
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problematic. It could lead to poor planning and mistakes, and it would make little short-term difference to unemployment. Does the Secretary of State agree that trying to bring forward big capital projects such as the one at Reading station is not the answer to unemployment, and that continuing a policy of reckless spending will do damage to unemployment?

James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman is welcome to campaign against investment in his constituency if he wants to. All I can say is that it is a very odd approach.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the worst experiences our constituents can suffer is to be denied employment? Is it not essential that every help and assistance is given to them, unlike what occurred in the ’80s and much of the ’90s? A public work programme, which the Government are encouraging, is essential to help people to avoid the poverty and destitution that so often come with unemployment.

James Purnell: My hon. Friend is right. We need to help people to find work if they do lose their job. We are not talking about a statistic, but someone’s life, which is why there are more than 1 million visits to our website every day, and why we take more than 70,000 calls and have more than 45,000 interviews to help people to get back into work. There is excellent support for people who need child care, and help for people who need a suit for an interview and advice on interview techniques. We will continue to do those things. The Opposition abandoned people during a downturn; we will protect them, and prepare them for the upturn.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): The Secretary of State will know that the parliamentary group on the Public and Commercial Services Union, which I chair, has expressed its concern about job cuts in the Department for Work and Pensions. There have been 30,000 already and another 12,000 planned, with 2,000 jobcentres potentially at risk. May I ask the Secretary of State to consider a moratorium on those job cuts, and to review the future job strategy in the Department? Many of us fear that the rise in unemployment will overwhelm the service if he does not address the issue.

James Purnell: I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that we will do better than that. We are taking on an extra 2,000 people to introduce the employment and support allowance, and we will keep them on to help with job claims, so we are responding to that. We have been planning for a while to ensure that we can cope with the higher inflow level, and it is also important that we have an efficient system. We have moved people from dealing with paper-based systems in back rooms to helping people with claimants in front rooms, making sure that we have more investment in the front line. That is why we process claims much quicker than we used to—people get an appointment within three days.

We need to continue to improve the efficiency of the system, which is why, for example, we announced last week that people throughout the country can claim their benefits, tax credits and housing benefits at Jobcentre
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Plus in one visit, instead of having 28 previous contacts, as before. That is a more efficient system, and one that is better for claimants.

Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): As the Minister will know, the media recently reported that as we head into a recession welfare-to-work contracts are becoming less attractive to potential bidders and therefore potentially more expensive to the Department. Meanwhile, the flexible new deal will become increasingly important as more people are out of work for longer. What is being done to ensure that bidders for the flexible new deal have accurate information about the number of people whom the Department considers can be helped back into work during a recession, and that funding structures deliver support where it is really needed, helping those who are furthest from the job market to return to work—which they will find particularly tough at a time when unemployment is rising?

James Purnell: The hon. Lady will be glad to learn that we met the potential bidders recently and discussed precisely that issue. It is important to note that they are bidding for five-year contracts, which will extend over an economic cycle. It is up to them to decide what proposals to submit and the levels at which they bid. However, the fundamental point is that we are spending £500 million more on this than we were in 1997, when the JSA count was 1.6 million compared to the present figure of just over 900,000. That means that more help is being invested per person than in 1997.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): I thank God that this party is in government, rather than our opponents. Many of us will remember what the position was like in the 1970s, when whole communities were decimated and there was no help for the unemployed.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the incentives he is providing to ensure that when people are made unemployed, there is a route for them to take. Will he now confirm his commitment to the Train to Gain programme, and to the other programmes that are desperately needed by people who lose their jobs? Unlike the past—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

James Purnell: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are increasing the protection that we are providing. We are giving people more and earlier help with their mortgage costs, and, if other parties in the House are happy to co-operate, we shall want to make the changes in January. That would mean shortening the consultation procedure by a certain amount, but if people consider such action right at a time of financial turbulence, we propose to take it.

We want to give people more help in redundancy by providing better training for them. That is why we announced another £100 million to help people to return to work. We will not repeat the mistake of the 1980s by abandoning people, fiddling the figures and leaving them on benefits and without support.

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