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Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC):
One of the early and most obvious indicators of a slowdown is the state of the building industry. My
constituency lost 50 jobs recently at Rehau Ltd, which makes unplasticised polyvinyl chloride goods for the building industry. We have also lost a firm called Action Makers, who are steel erectors. May I urge the Secretary of State to liaise closely with his Cabinet colleagues, and introduce measures to kick-start the building industry in both the public and the private sector?
James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman is welcome to do thatand, indeed, we are taking such action already. The authorities have introduced a programme very similar to ours to help those who will be made redundant. It is a very good programme, helping people to retrain and return to work quickly. Hon. Members can also play a part in ensuring that if there are redundancies and Jobcentre Plus does not offer help immediately, they can do so. We have organised a very good system involving a rapid reaction force which helps people even before they fall out of work, and which provides a role for all hon. Members.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): If the labour market does become still more competitive, will my right hon. Friend look closely at the needs of people with disabilities who want to enter it? We must maintain our core principles of equality in the labour market, and never use people with disabilities as a statistical convenience to reduce the employment figures.
James Purnell: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are 600,000 vacancies in the economy. It is important for us to help people who have just lost their jobs to get back into work, but also to help people who have been out of work for longer than that, and people with disabilities. My hon. Friend will be pleased to learn that for that reason we are doubling the budget for Access to Work, which pays the extra costs of employing someone who is disabled.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): First, may I make it clear that we share the concern that has been expressed in all parts of the House about the rise in unemployment, and that we want appropriate help to be brought as quickly as possible to the newly unemployed? To return, however, to the contribution of the Minister for immigration on this subject just last week, and the connection he chose to make, in his own way, between unemployment and immigration, will the Secretary of State simply tell us whether there is any change in Government policy in this regard? A yes or no answer would be helpful.
James Purnell: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have been developing the points system since the last election. It will help to make sure that vacancies that can be filled from the UK labour market are filled from it. It is important that we help people to get back into work. That is why the Train to Gain budget and the flexible new deal matter, and that is what we are focusing on.
The Minister for the South East (Jonathan Shaw): The figures my hon. Friend asks for are not available in that form. However, he may know that we have been conducting a review of disability living allowance cases where the recipient has been in receipt of the benefit for three years or more and was qualified as being terminally ill. That includes some cases where the recipient has HIV/AIDS. As a result of that exercise, I can tell the House that up to the end of September, 1,040 people have had their benefit maintained or increased, 730 people saw their benefit reduced and 510 had it stopped, although these figures are likely to change as a result of any appeal or dispute.
Dr. Gibson: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his meteoric rise from having expertise on the Norfolk broads to his work and pensions brief; it is truly awesome. HIV infection leads to a fluctuating health condition for many people in that they can be assessed one week as healthy or otherwise, and the next week as quite the opposite. Will my hon. Friends new disability living allowance assessment procedures allow for such flexibility, so that we can have an assurance that the fear many people feel can be dismissed?
Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this matter to the attention of the House. He will know that in special rules cases where someone is terminally ill, we ensure that decisions on disability living allowance are given within days rather than weeks. That is for the obvious reason that when someone receives disability living allowance in such circumstances, they are terminally ill. We are reviewing the situation for when people have been in receipt of it for longer than three years, however. The point my hon. Friend makes about fluctuating conditions and diseases such as HIV and AIDS is right. That is why we have consulted with HIV specialists and we are working in partnership with organisations such as the Terrence Higgins Trust, ensuring that our decision makers are fully aware of all the points my hon. Friend has made.
Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Given the depth of stigma that is still associated with HIV, and in particular the effect it has on an individuals ability to work, will personal advisers under the new employment support scheme undergo any HIV-specific training for the job?
Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Under the new employment support allowance, it is essential that staff have training in a wide range of conditions so that they can assist people back into work. We are certainly aware of that issue. On the wider point about disability living allowance, I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that it is right for us to look at those in receipt of the special award that is implemented at the point when someone is diagnosed as terminally ill. We want to assist people when they have been diagnosed with that conditionwe want to assist people with that condition so that they can work and get into work. My hon. Friend is also right to raise the issue of stigma; we need to continue to tackle that as well.
Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab):
On the question of stigma and people with HIV, surveys show that 44 per cent. of the population would expect to be
told if they were working with a colleague who was HIV-positive. Does my hon. Friend recognise that, in finding jobs for people who are HIV-positive, there is a stigma in the work place and it is not just a matter of them wanting a job, but it is also a matter of the employer being prepared to take them on? Under this new scheme, the Minister and his departmental colleagues need to be aware of that.
Jonathan Shaw: Many people in society are affected by prejudice and by preconceived ideas about what they are rather than what they can dodisabled people, those with HIV/AIDS or those with a whole range of other conditions. We as a House, as Members of Parliament and as a Government need to ensure that we tackle those preconceived ideas and prejudices to ensure that employers up and down the land appreciate people for what they can do, not what condition they have.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Kitty Ussher): We are determined to eradicate child poverty in this country. The Prime Minister announced in September that we will enshrine in legislation our commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020. Of course, 600,000 children have already been lifted out of relative poverty compared with 1997, and a further 500,000 will be lifted out of relative poverty as a result of policies already agreed and in the process of being implemented. We will continue to do everything we can to support low-income families with children.
Mr. Hollobone: On 4 October, thousands of people filled Trafalgar square to urge the Government to keep their promises on child poverty. Given that more than half the children in poverty are in working families, does the Minister agree that the sanctioning regime needs to be properly monitored to ensure that it does not just move families from out-of-work poverty to in-work poverty?
Kitty Ussher: The hon. Gentleman is right to mention the end child poverty campaign. I think that about 10,000 people attended the rally at the beginning of this month, and a further 50 attended the parliamentary reception only last week. I wish to pay tribute to that coalition for the effective campaign it is mounting.
The hon. Gentleman is, of course, right that part of the solution in our commitment to eradicate child poverty is to encourage parents who are able to work to enter the work market, and then to ensure that they can progress to the good jobs that are the only sustainable way of lifting children out of poverty permanently. To that end, I am sure that he will be delighted that the three childrens centres in Kettering are already reaching more than 3,000 children. The new centres that are
planned at Meadowside infants school and Rothwell Victoria will respectively reach a further 714 and 917 children in his constituency.
Mr. Goodwill: The Government measure relative poverty, which effectively means that the only way to reduce child poverty is to increase pensioner poverty. Would it not make sense to recalibrate the system to measure actual povertythe ability to buy food, housing, clothing and so onrather than relative figures that are somewhat difficult to understand?
Kitty Ussher: We have set ourselves the most challenging target, recognising the importance of our work in this area. I do not agree in the slightest with the hon. Gentleman that the only way to meet our child poverty target is to increase pensioner poverty. Rather, we intend that someone will be no more likely to be in poverty simply because they are a child. It is completely unfair that people in this country should be disadvantaged due to factors entirely outside their control, and that applies to no one more than it does to children.
Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I welcome my hon. Friend to what I believe is her first Question Time on her new brief. I appreciate the fact that she is continuing the work on child poverty. On that subject, are the Government still on track with the changes in housing benefit and council tax benefit that will come in next year and lift many more children out of poverty?
Kitty Ussher: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her kind remarks and pay tribute to her for the long-standing reputation that she has established for herself in this field. The answer to her question is simply yes.
Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Does the Minister consider one of the weaknesses in the Governments approach to be the division between three Departmentsthe Treasury, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Work and Pensions? Given her recent Treasury experience of problems in the tripartite regime, will she consider reforming the way in which the Government deal with child poverty?
Kitty Ussher: I will put to one side the hon. Gentlemans cheeky remarks on the tripartite regime, with which I do not agree. I simply say that it was precisely the cross-governmental importance of this issue that led to the Prime Minister establishing the child poverty unit, which reports equally to all three Departments.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I, too, welcome the hon. Lady to her post. I would like to draw her back to the question, because she was asked what assessment the Government had made on whether they would hit the 2010 child poverty target and she was careful not to answer. Given that that date is only two years away, could she give us a clear answer from the Dispatch Box as to whether the Government will or will not hit that 2010 targetyes or no?
As I said, we will do everything in our power to meet our targets that have been laid out. We have made significant progress by lifting 600,000 children out of relative poverty, and a further 500,000 are due to be lifted out of it as a result of policies that have already been announced and are in the process of being
implemented. We will continue to do everything that we can to eradicate child poverty. I would be interested to know whether the hon. Gentleman shares the target, because that has not been entirely clear from what we have heard so far.
Tim Farron: Given that 60 per cent. of rural communities have a post office but only 4 per cent. of them have a bank, what assurances can the Secretary of State give the 6,500 Post Office card account holders in Westmorland and Lonsdale that they will be able to have easy access to their money and benefits under the card system replacing POCA?
James Purnell: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the tendering process involves access criteria, which bidders must meet. He will understand that I am limited in what I can say on that procurement process, because it is ongoing. I am sure that he welcomes the £1.7 billion that the Government are investing and the access criteria that have been put in place for post offices for the first time.
Mark Hunter: In May 2007, the then Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), announced to the House that a decision on the Post Office card account successor contract would be taken in early 2008, yet that decision has still to be taken. The continuing doubt and uncertainty is damaging what remains of the post office network and is causing great concern to the 4.3 million POCA users. Recent press speculation says that the decision is being deliberately delayed again because of the Glenrothes by-election. Will the Secretary of State tell the House precisely when this long-awaited and crucial decision will be announced?
James Purnell: I assure the hon. Gentleman that the press speculation is not accurate. We will announce the decision when it has been taken, but I am sure that he understands that it is important to take it on the basis of proper procurement practicesthat is the right thing to do.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I hear what my right hon. Friend says, but psychological damage is being done to the network, and postmasters and postmistresses wish to have clarity. Does he accept that Labour Members, too, feel that the earlier this decision can be taken, the better? As far as we are concerned, only one decision can be taken.
James Purnell: I am going to start to sound like a broken record. I am sure that my hon. Friend would like me to obey procurement processes in the right way. I totally understand the importance of the post office network for our communities, and that is why we are taking this decision in a careful and planned way.
Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Before the House sat again, I took a petition and a large number of campaign cards urging that the Post Office retained the Post Office card account. I did so largely because people in Brackla, in my constituency, were very concerned that they would not be able easily to access their benefits. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that peoples ability to access their benefits will be taken into consideration when viability is examined and the POCA contract is awarded?
Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): This Department needs to play its role, as do all Departments, in sustaining, rather than undermining, the post office network. To that end, will the Secretary of State assure the House that the Post Office card account will not be the last option offered to new pensioners, but that it will be offered on an equal basis? Will he consider paying housing benefit and local housing allowance on the POCA? Will he also ensure that our constituents can pay their utility bills by direct debit on the POCA to save them money?
James Purnell: Of course they can do that already from the post office through the 27 accounts that are available. It is important that people have access to direct debits to reduce the cost of their bills. I can assure him that we understand the importance of the post office network. Ensuring that people can access their benefits and their money has been one of the key criteria during the whole tendering process.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Four million people access pensions and benefits through the Post Office card account. It is not surprising that 3 million postcards have flooded in to protest about the problems that exist. Some 3,000 post offices are apparently at risk. When the Secretary of State reviewed the file on taking up his present post, did he look at the rationale for the original decision to see whether proper account had been taken of the social and political impact of the re-letting of the contract which would seem to outweigh any other reason in the decision that successive Ministers have refused to taketo declare that POCA should go to the Post Office?
James Purnell: I shall not give a running commentary on what was done at various stages. I am sure that my hon. Friend would want me to act legally. As I have now said many times, we will make the announcement when the decision has been properly taken.
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): Several of the small islands in my constituency have a post office, but no bank. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that pensioners on those islands will be able to collect their pension at the post office without having to open a bank account?
James Purnell: That is why, in response to the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter), I said that access criteria had been built into the tendering process. Once we have made the decision, we will announce it.
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