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Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I very much support the flexible approach to the new deal. Given the current economic climate, however, and today’s news that the Engineering Employers Federation in Birmingham is receiving 40 calls a day from employers seeking advice on making workers redundant or reducing their hours, would it not be a good idea to accept the advice of the Social Security Advisory Committee that
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we should not implement the regulations that will make it compulsory for more lone parents to sign on for work, at least until the recommendations on comprehensive, wrap-around child care have been implemented?

Kitty Ussher: I understand the difficulties that my hon. Friend’s constituents are facing; she makes a valid point. However, I do not agree with her conclusion. The lone parents regulations were approved by the House last week, and they are currently being considered in another place. We would be making a terrible mistake—a mistake that was made by the Conservative Government in the previous downturn—if we did not keep as many people as possible as close as possible to the jobs market at a time when there is a net effect of people leaving work, so that, when things turn around, they are ready to take the opportunities that are available to them. The longer that people are away from the jobs market, the harder it is for them to return to sustainable employment, if that is appropriate to their needs.

We have changed the regulations on lone parents and child care. Once they have been fully implemented, if a lone parent with a child of seven years of age or older cannot find appropriate child care that would allow them to take up a job offer, that will be considered all right and they will not face sanctions as a result. There is a kind of feedback loop between the Jobcentre Plus and the local authority, in the form of a child care partnership manager, to ensure that the legal obligation that local authorities now have to provide appropriate child care for everyone seeking work is adhered to in practice, and that there is an understanding of where more child care places could be made available. We believe that we have met the concerns of the Social Security Advisory Committee in that regard, which is why we are pressing on with those measures.

Lynne Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for that response, but will she assure me that Jobcentre Plus will have the capacity to deal with these increased work loads and that it will be flexible in how it operates? I encountered a case recently of a man who was working 14 hours a week and who hoped that his employer would increase the number of hours that he worked. However, it was demanded that he sign on during the very hours that he was at work, which caused all sorts of difficulties with his employer. We must ensure that there is flexibility in such situations.

Kitty Ussher: Our staff have been trained to deal with the new regulations, which are being rolled out in a phased way precisely so that there will not be a capacity constraint on our side. Obviously, I do not know the specific details of my hon. Friend’s constituent’s case, but if she would like to write to me, I will certainly look into it for her.

In addition to introducing the flexible JSA, we are also building on the success of the pathways to work pilots for those on incapacity benefits with the new employment and support allowance that was introduced last week. The ESA is just for new customers at the moment, but over the next few years, everyone who is currently on incapacity benefits will be moved on to the ESA. Each will receive a work capability assessment, focused on what they can do rather than what they
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cannot, as was the case in the past. Some people will presumably no longer qualify for incapacity benefits, and they will move on to JSA, getting all the support that that entails.

The rest will qualify for the ESA, and will be placed either in what we call the work-related activity group or in the support group. In the work-related activity group, individuals will receive personalised support, which crucially includes the highly successful condition management programmes delivered by condition management practitioners, to move them closer to the job market. The support given will build on learning from the positive experience of the pathways pilots, which I have seen at first hand in my own constituency. In one example, a constituent of mine told me that, as a result of the pilots, he had been given his life back. We want far more people to be given their lives back. The pilots have been shown to increase the chances of a new customer being in work 18 months after the claim was made from 28 per cent. to 35 per cent.

As we have just discussed, the House has recently approved regulations to give lone parents with children aged seven and over full support to prepare for and move into work in return for signing up to a jobseeker’s agreement. As I said, nobody will be forced to take up work if no child care is available, but I see no reason why, as a point of principle, lone parents should not be available for work while their children are at school. A quick glance at the child poverty statistics should put the issue beyond doubt. More than a third of children in lone parent households live in poverty; 58 per cent. of children living in workless lone parent households live in poverty. That figure decreases from 58 per cent. to 19 per cent. if the lone parent works part time, and to 7 per cent. if the lone parent works full time. That is why we are doing what we are doing.

In recognition of the particular logistical challenges faced by lone parents when they consider entering the labour market, however, we have adapted the existing JSA provisions to ensure that they support people effectively. Lone parents can restrict their availability to 16 hours a week, and they have more time to attend interviews and take up a job offer. Furthermore, they can cite without sanction unavailability of child care as a reason not to take up employment.

Child care has doubled since 1997—the number of places is approaching 1.3 million—and local authorities have the legal responsibility to secure, when practicable, sufficient child care to meet the requirements of parents in their areas. Furthermore, 14,230 extended schools in England offer affordable school-based child care on weekdays between 8 am and 6 pm all year round, and child care partnership managers at Jobcentre Plus provide a feedback loop to local authorities on whether sufficient places are available, so the issue is far less of a problem under this Government. We will take legislative powers to apply similar provisions, with appropriate support, to non-working parents who are partners of people who are working.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): I hear the Minister’s figures on child care, but is she aware that child care places fell by 2,000 in England last year? There is the most tremendous churn, which is worrying to parents, particularly those with young children. Parents need stability.

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Kitty Ussher: It is extremely important for people to have certainty, but the most important thing is that there should be enough places for the need to be met in each individual area. I have not mapped the extent to which the supply of child care places is related to the demand in individual areas, but we will continue to make sure that the policy is rolled out and effective. Our child poverty targets require us to do so, and in many circumstances it is the best thing for the entire family unit.

John Penrose: I urge the Minister to carry out urgently that mapping of supply and demand. She will be aware that although there are more child care places today than five years ago, there is a large number of vacancies. That illustrates a problem—an awful lot of child care is provided at the wrong time of day, on the wrong day of the week and at the wrong price and quality for parents to be able to access what they need when they need it. The state often provides something that is not suitable for what a great many parents who need access to the correct type of child care really require.

Kitty Ussher: The hon. Gentleman has referred to a number of broad so-called facts. We have decided to put the onus and legal requirement on to local authorities to ensure that sufficient child care is available in their areas. The process will be iterative. If he can see particular lack of supply in a particular area, he should raise that with the local authority. We are ensuring, with Jobcentre Plus, that there is a continuous feedback loop so that if a lone parent or any parent says, “I cannot take that job because no child care is available”, they will be challenged by the Jobcentre Plus adviser. If what the parent says is accepted, the local authority will be challenged by national Government. We are doing what the hon. Gentleman suggests on an ongoing basis. There is no doubt that far more child care places are available now than 10 years ago, because we have grasped the issue and are doing everything we can to ensure real choices for parents as they decide how they wish to organise their lives.

Finally, I want to say a few words on what the current economic situation means for the direction of our welfare reform. To those who say that we should surrender to the tides of the current economic situation and relax our direction of travel I say that we will not give up on the people of this country, who rightly expect us to support them through these difficult times. Yes, unemployment is rising—there is no denying that. The number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance has been rising since the beginning of 2008, with the last figures going up by just over 30,000.

That increase is the net result of 260,000 people entering claimant unemployment and nearly 230,000 people leaving jobseeker’s allowance. The situation is dynamic. Even in these difficult times, people are leaving unemployment to restart work. Every working day, Jobcentre Plus helps 5,400 people into work. Furthermore, people are leaving unemployment faster than they used to—a direct result of the more active, supportive regime developed for jobseekers. Although the numbers starting to claim JSA have risen and may rise further, our aim is to help as many people as possible find their next job as quickly as possible.

In an economic slowdown we need to do more, not less, to keep people as close as possible to the labour market. According to the latest figures, there are 600,000
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vacancies in the economy right now. We want to prepare everyone to get those jobs and we want more people to get more jobs as more jobs become available. That means having active labour market policies keeping more people as near as possible to work-related activities. The alternative is to let people sink.

Unlike the last Conservative Government, we are not shifting people away from the labour market to get them off the books and make unemployment look lower than it is—quite the opposite. We are moving people closer to the jobs market and more people on to JSA, because more people will then have more opportunities to leave JSA and go into work. Other things being equal, we estimate that our reforms to lone parent benefits will increase the JSA count by about 80,000 by 2010-11. Our reforms to the ESA will also add several thousand each year in the next two to three years, before any effects of the economic downturn are taken into account.

We need to learn the lessons from previous slowdowns and from overseas. They are: first, to increase support and not relax conditionality; secondly, not to move people on to inactive benefits; and thirdly to maintain efforts to reduce inactivity. We are not giving up. We are not surrendering to the doom and gloom merchants who say that the force of economic change means that we should leave people to perish in the storm. We are holding true to our aspiration of an 80 per cent. employment rate and standing by our commitment to ensure that by 2025 disabled people are respected and included as equal members of society.

Mark Williams: The Minister mentioned people with disabilities. Is she satisfied that the arrangements for them are robust enough? I am thinking particularly of conditions such as autistic spectrum disorders. Is she satisfied that Jobcentre Plus staff have the capacity to help such people navigate their way through the system? She has talked a lot about identifying skills deficits early on, but I have mentioned a special group of people who need added assistance to work their way through the system. Can she reassure us that that support is there and will proactively help such people get nearer the job market? She used the expression “doom and gloom merchants”, and I do not want to be one of them; not many Opposition Members do, but we want to ensure that those people have maximum access and support.

Kitty Ussher: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I think that I can reassure him. We are training our staff extensively and in conjunction with excellent organisations such as the National Autistic Society to ensure that the expertise is at the front line.

Mark Williams rose—

Kitty Ussher: I shall give way one more time, and then I will conclude.

Mark Williams: How widespread is that support? In my constituency, the charity Autism Cymru contacted Jobcentre Plus on its own initiative to give the staff there that specific training. How widespread is such support in all Jobcentre Plus offices across the country?

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Kitty Ussher: We are working with such organisations nationally and we are rolling out the training in conjunction with them. If Autism Cymru gets in touch with us, we will ensure that any of its extra insights are incorporated nationally and locally.

I was explaining that we are standing by our commitment to ensure that by 2025 disabled people are respected and included as equal members of society. Furthermore, we are still committed to eradicating child poverty by 2020.

We believe that while we must support the most vulnerable, there is no automatic right to a life on benefits, that paid work is the best route out of poverty, and that each of us has a role to play in contributing to the society that we live in. Equally, however, we believe that no one should be left behind, and we will provide personalised support to everyone who needs it to ensure they have the opportunity to get into and remain in work. When jobs are harder to find, it is even more important that we help people to prepare for work with practical advice and support. Our welfare reform proposals are about changing the system to offer that support to people looking for work.

To conclude in a sentence, our direction of travel is right in the bad times as well as the good, and I look forward with interest to the contributions of all hon. Members who have chosen, despite some alternative attractions, to be with us today.

1.10 pm

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): This debate on work and welfare is most welcome in the light of the current very difficult economic circumstances facing our country. The economy has slowed substantially in the past quarter and, according to the conclusions of the recent Ernst & Young ITEM Club report, “Out of the financial frying pan, into the fires of recession”, it is likely to contract further in the coming months. Many people have already lost their jobs, and there is great anxiety among many others in all areas of the country that a similar fate might await them. Although the Minister failed to use the “recession” word, it has been used by the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty). We are facing very difficult economic times, and these issues will increase in importance over the coming months. It is therefore right that the House debates them today and it will no doubt do so on a number of occasions in future.

It would be interesting if the Minister or the Under-Secretary told us who are the doom and gloom merchants saying that we should leave people to sink or swim by themselves. I do not know of anybody in this House who is suggesting such a thing.

It is a shame that the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) has not been joined by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), the Liberal Democrat spokesman on disability issues. He recently said that having been in the job for only nine months he was on a “strict learning curve”, and was

He said that he hoped that we were not facing an immediate election and that the Liberal Democrats would have time to develop some policies between now and then. I am sure that everyone in the House wishes them good luck in that endeavour.

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The unemployment figures released last month by the Office for National Statistics made grim reading. It is disappointing that the Minister failed fully to face up to the scale of the problems that we are presented with. In the last quarter to August, there was a rise of 164,000 in the number of jobless on the internationally comparative basis that the Labour party used when it was in opposition. The unemployment level was 1.7 million and, as the Minister said, the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance increased by 32,000 in September—the eighth consecutive monthly rise and the highest figure for almost two years. The dole queues are lengthening by more than 1,000 people a day. The Minister’s remarks suggest that there is a great deal of complacency in the Government’s approach: saying, “So far, so good”, is not a conclusion that I would agree with.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could explain why his party is so opposed to additional borrowing when it is clear that it will provide additional jobs. It is absurd to say that the Government are being complacent in undertaking that borrowing, and it explains why we are hearing words such as “doom and gloom”, which is exactly the image that the Conservatives project when they suggest that we should not borrow because they do not want job opportunities to be created for people in this country.

Mr. Harper: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor have acknowledged that in a recession the automatic stabilisers in the economy mean that borrowing will rise. However, they oppose a programme of deliberately spending money on public works programmes and putting up taxes. As my right hon. Friend said earlier today, the Prime Minister himself said at a Labour conference that one does not build the new Jerusalem on a huge debt burden. Spending a fortune and racking up debt that our future generations will have to repay is not a very sound economic policy, nor is it one that will be successful.

Kitty Ussher: If that is the hon. Gentleman’s view, which of our current spending policies would he reverse?

Mr. Harper: We are not talking about current spending policies—we are talking about the future policies that the Minister and her Government imply they will introduce. We have not seen any details, but it will be interesting to see them in due course.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that job creation is not simply about public spending but about easing the burden on small businesses, which are the real job creators? The policies being followed by the Government are making it much more difficult for small businesses to do that. If we are going to find ways of re-channelling those who are unemployed, there must be a good, strong small business sector.

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