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5 Nov 2008 : Column 287

Andrew Selous: The hon. Lady mentions delays. Does she share my concern at the fact that the recent average figure for processing new housing benefit claims—sadly, this applies to many people at the moment—is about 34 days? Does she, like me, want to see that improved?

Jenny Willott: Absolutely, and that is another example of how the economic downturn is having an impact across the whole range of services—Jobcentre Plus, councils—provided for people who are really struggling. That shows that the system is starting to creak. I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

I have another concern, which has been highlighted by previous speakers. The situation for Jobcentre Plus is likely to get significantly worse over the next 12 months, not just because of rising unemployment and the accompanying claimant numbers, but because of changes to other benefits that are also pushing more people on to jobseeker’s allowance.

The Minister mentioned both ESA and lone parent changes. On the ESA changes, the Government estimate that over the next year the number failing the work capability assessment and therefore moving on to JSA will be 60,000 and the number of lone parents being moved from income support to JSA will be 110,000. Thus, in addition to the estimated 30,000 a month newly unemployed, 170,000 people will be moved by Government policies on to JSA. That will clearly put an extra strain on the overstretched Jobcentre Plus.

I would be grateful if the Minister clarified what the Government are doing to examine Jobcentre Plus’s ability to absorb those extra people going on to JSA and to ensure that the support they need will be available to them. The Government need to examine the range of offices available, the number of staff available and the staff-to-claimant ratio, because they must ensure that that does not get too high.

Although the Government appear, in many ways, to be travelling in the right direction, they seem dead set on making the same mistakes that have been made before, and not only in the UK; they are not necessarily learning from international experience. My concerns focus particularly on the issues of delaying support, rather than introducing it right at the beginning; on the setting of targets for contracts that are not achievable and will cause the commissioning system not to work properly; and on not enough money being put into those contracts to ensure that those furthest from the job market are able to get jobs. I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to some of those issues. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, he is querying a lot of what I am saying, so I look forward to his response and to his giving us an idea of how he plans to ensure that the Government do not copy the mistakes made by the Conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s, because we cannot afford to write off another generation.

2.32 pm

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise issues relating to employment and unemployment in my constituency, and people with disabilities. I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) in welcoming the Minister responsible for disabled people
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to his post and in praising the former holder of that post, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), for her brilliant work with disabled organisations.

In 1997, unemployment in some of the inner wards in Burton upon Trent stood at 17 per cent.; the reduction in employment in the brewing industry in Burton had taken its toll. The town of Uttoxeter had still not recovered from the loss of more than 2,000 jobs in the early 1980s, when the local dairy and Bamfords agricultural machinery factory closed. More than 2,000 people were unemployed in my constituency in 1997, many of them long-term unemployed and young, but between 1997 and 2007, unemployment in my constituency decreased by well over 50 per cent.

Until the recent downturn, Government policies such as the new deal, more help for parents through tax credits and the provision of better advice and support through Jobcentre Plus had transformed the job situation and the hopes and opportunities of hard-working people. Unfortunately, the number of people claiming unemployment benefit in Burton has risen steeply. However, I understand from Jobcentre Plus that it is still receiving 20 to 30 vacancies per day. Companies are still choosing to relocate to my constituency because of our excellent work force and strategic position in the country. Although unemployment has risen, 81.7 per cent. of those claiming unemployment benefit in Burton have been doing so for less than six months, compared with 69.9 per cent. in the west midlands as a whole.

These are difficult times and the Government need to do everything possible to support those who lose their jobs, to ensure that they can be retrained and can regain employment as quickly as possible. I welcome the Government’s decision to endeavour to help small businesses to withstand the downturn by making the swift payment of invoices a priority; I hope that local authorities will do the same. I also welcome the Government’s action in encouraging the banks to open up credit facilities for small businesses.

I also welcome the Government’s decision to maintain spending and to bring forward capital projects where possible. That is crucial in order to stimulate the construction industry, save jobs and build homes that people need, as well as to continue to improve this country’s public infrastructure. It is far better to borrow to maintain jobs than to have the downward spiral that we experienced in the 1980s. One of the first companies to be hit by the global downturn, particularly the downturn in the construction industry, has been JCB, whose headquarters is at Rocester, in my constituency. JCB’s UK work force, who are mainly based in Staffordshire, had increased by 44 per cent., from 3,900 to 5,700, between December 2005 and December 2007. Sadly, JCB announced earlier this year that more than 500 workers would be made redundant because of the worldwide downturn.

I am grateful for the help and support offered at that time by agencies such as Jobcentre Plus, Advantage West Midlands and the Learning and Skills Council, and by voluntary bodies, such as the citizens advice bureaux. More recently, JCB announced the prospect of further redundancies or the alternative of a shorter working week and fewer redundancies. I congratulate the GMB and the work force on deciding to accept a cut in working hours and pay in order to protect jobs. It will be a hard time for JCB workers and their families, but
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we hope that the company can quickly increase production again if there is an upturn in the world economy. Indeed, since that decision was taken we heard good news; when the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, led a delegation to Russia, the announcement was made that JCB had secured a £23 million order to supply machines to help build the transport infrastructure for the 2014 winter Olympics. I also commend Advantage West Midlands, the LSC and other agencies for the work that they are doing to try to protect the 950 jobs at Fox’s Biscuits in Uttoxeter. The west midlands is fortunate in having the expertise to help businesses to improve their production and training, and the skills of their work force.

Brewing and pub companies remain extremely important employers in Burton upon Trent, in my constituency. There has been a gradual decline in the number of people employed in brewing and there are great pressures on the industry. It is important for all Departments to examine how they can help that traditional industry. I recently co-chaired an inquiry into community pubs on behalf of the all-party group on beer. Our report suggests sensible ways of helping the pub and brewing industry. We urge the Government to reconsider their policy on beer duty, and to examine how the rating system can reflect the benefits that pubs bring to local communities, the differential between pricing in the on-trade and the off-trade and how red tape can be reduced. We need the Government to give a positive response to the report in order to save jobs in my constituency and elsewhere.

I know that besides trying to prevent unemployment, the Government want to ensure that those with disabilities and ill health are not left behind and that even in a downturn they are given equal opportunities to retain and find employment. I congratulate Jobcentre Plus on the work that it has done through the pathways to work programme. I also welcome the Minister’s reassurance on the training that Jobcentre Plus officers have received to help people with autism. I chair the all-party group on autism, so I know that those with conditions ranging from autism to lupus and other inflammatory arthritis welcome the principle behind the changes that the Government are making to prevent people from being disadvantaged in employment opportunities because of their disability. However, we must ensure that the process works well on the ground and that other agencies, such as the national health service, understand the need to treat people quickly to ensure that patients can retain their employment or train for new employment. Thankfully, the waiting times for operations have been greatly reduced. For conditions such as inflammatory arthritis, however, timely and correct referrals to consultants for diagnosis and treatment are important. We want not only to keep people in work or get them back to it, but to improve long-term prognoses so that people can be maintained in work. NICE should take account of the benefits of quick treatment and the most effective drugs when producing its guidance on drugs and treatment—it does not always do so.

We must ensure that the medical assessments of the Department for Work and Pensions are accurate. I recognise that the doctors who carry out the work capability assessments will consider what people can do irrespective of their medical condition, but we need to ensure that those doctors understand claimants’ medical
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conditions. Recently, I attended the Burton upon Trent scleroderma and Raynaud’s group, and was horrified when a lupus patient described her medical to me. The doctor had no knowledge of the condition, did not refer to a consultant’s letter or report and kept referring to the symptoms as having been caused by drugs; anyone who knows anything about the condition knows the symptoms caused by it.

We must ensure that people do not fall through the gap between incapacity benefits and jobseeker’s allowance, especially at a time of rising unemployment. We must ensure that people do not necessarily lose their benefits just because, following a medical, they are told that they are fit for work. Some employers keep people’s jobs open for them only until their consultants believe that they are fit for work. I recognise that for many people these are worrying times, but I welcome the proactive work of the Government and agencies such as Jobcentre Plus and the regional development agencies in trying to prevent redundancies and, when they do arise, to ensure that good advice, training and support are available.

2.42 pm

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): When I was a young man—[Hon. Members: “Now.”] When I was a younger man, I lived for a while in America. About twice a year, I would fly back and forth, and I nearly always travelled economy class. Once, however, I was upgraded to club class. Having been called to speak so early, that is how I feel now—I feel like I have been upgraded to club class. I know that it will not happen again, so I am very grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I congratulate the excellent staff at the Waltham Cross Jobcentre Plus office in my constituency. They do an incredible job dealing with some very hard client groups and without expecting much thanks. They are truly professional and we are very lucky to have them. They also do their jobs without great financial rewards. They are excellent public servants. A few weeks ago, when I visited the office, I was told about some of the consequences of what we all know is happening in the economy: the number of clients visiting jobcentres was rising and the number of vacancies falling. We are in for a very difficult two years, and I imagine that all Members will be holding some very difficult surgeries. We will have many families and people coming to see us in very desperate situations—having lost their jobs and, tragically, their homes.

One of my concerns about the current system is that it is very difficult for people who have been self-sufficient throughout their lives to access help in their time of need. In a sense, they are not professional claimants, and they probably thought that they would never have to call on Jobcentre Plus and the Department for Work and Pensions. Many probably thought that they would always be employed and able to look after their families through their earnings. Suddenly, however, and through no fault of their own, they need some help—not for a long time, but to get them back on their feet. I hope that the Government, the Opposition, Jobcentre Plus and the Department are alive to those people’s needs. Over the next two years, we must be there to help them and to give them the leg-up they need.

When I visited the jobcentre, I was struck by its awareness of and concern about the number of professional claimants—people who believe that the state owes them
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a living and who have not done a stroke of work in their lives. We need to tackle that problem. Nothing makes hard-working people, earning the minimum wage or just above, whether they live in Broxbourne or Burton, more angry than seeing people in their streets taking the system for a ride. It is worth reminding the House that many of the Department’s advisers are also on very low wages, so I am sure that they are just as upset and angry when people present themselves, week in, week out, with no intention of getting a job.

All hon. Members need to work together to end this culture. I am well aware that the Government have tried to get people back into work; they have received pressure from Labour and Conservative Members about it. However, it is about time that people such as Charles Walker, the Member of Parliament for Broxbourne, got a bit of spine and backbone. All too often I have put pressure on the Government to act. We all know that many people who come to our surgeries have terrible and tragic stories, but we also know that some are just telling a story. However, instead of offering wise counsel and saying, “The Government are right and my best advice to you is to get a job, because you will be much happier that way”, I actually say, “Isn’t that appalling? This horrible Government! Let me take up your case. I shall write to the Minister and demand that your case be reviewed.” In doing that, I am not being honest with my constituent, myself or my constituency.

We hon. Members are good people who do not like to disappoint others, but it is incumbent on us to say to some people, “I am sorry, but it is in your interests to get a job, and that’s the end of the matter.” If they say, “I’m going to the local newspaper”, we should say, “Be my guest! Here’s the name and address of the editor and the news reporter.” If they went to the newspaper, the overwhelming majority of constituents, whether in Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat or independent seats, would say to us, “Good on you, Member of Parliament.”

Jonathan Shaw: I look forward to not receiving the hon. Gentleman’s letters.

Mr. Walker: Well, I look forward to not sending them. However, talk is cheap in this place, and I suspect that the Under-Secretary might still receive the odd letter from me.

Many people are desperate to get back into work. They might have been out of work for a number of years, had mental health or disability problems and lost their self-confidence. We need to help them rediscover that self-confidence so that they can re-launch themselves in the world of work. However, a small minority of people remain who simply will not work; they are, I am afraid, work-shy and believe that the state owes them a living. A life on benefits should not be an option for those people. We have an obligation to look after people in their time of need, but we need to put a time limit on benefits.

Of course, I am not saying that we should throw people and families into the street to starve. That would be ridiculous, but at some stage it would not be unreasonable to tell able-bodied people who are capable of working but choose not to, “Mr. Jones”—or Mr. Bloggs, or Mrs. Jones or Mrs. Bloggs—“your benefit needs to be earned. We’ve paid it for two years but that ends today.
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When you come and see us tomorrow, you will present yourself in this office at 9 o’clock in the morning and you will join a group of people going out into the community to do good and important work. When you have done that work, at the end of the week we will give you your money.”

Of course people will bitch and moan about that: they will be miserable at having to work, but they will have to if they want to get their money. Anyway, who knows? After two or three weeks or three or four months, some people frightened by the concept of work might actually discover that they like working with a group of people, and that they like to be motivated and achieve something as part of a team. At that stage, they might decide voluntarily to get a proper job with an employer.

Let us all work towards that. I am not a paragon or beacon of virtue. I have been work-shy in my past life, but very occasionally people close to me gave me a kick up the backside, and that was the motivation that I needed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, thank you for calling me so early in this debate. I have thoroughly enjoyed making my brief contribution.

2.51 pm

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): It will be hard to follow the speech by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), especially as I shall come at the subject from a completely different angle.

I want to focus on an area in the welfare and work agenda that, although small, is of the utmost importance to the constituents whom I represent. I want to underline the difficulties experienced by many in my constituency who are forced to live in temporary accommodation and who, as a result of the high rents that are charged, find it impossible to work and keep a roof over their heads. That is due almost entirely to the way in which the housing benefits system works, and I hope to be able to impress on my hon. Friends on the Front Bench the seriousness of the poverty trap that that causes.

I make this speech in the knowledge that we are just weeks away from a Queen’s Speech and new legislation. I have mentioned this matter at least twice in the Chamber and three times in Westminster Hall debates, and I hope that something can be done.

Professor John Hills’s report into social housing was launched in February 2007 by the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly). In her speech, she excellently summed up the Government’s aspiration for social housing:

it was based in my constituency—

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