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My constituents regularly complain to me about the way in which they are told that they are fit for work. A general practitioner, or even a hospital specialist, will
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say that a person is unfit, but then a board of individuals who have perhaps never seen the person before may decide, within an hour and a half, that the person is fit for work. We need to overcome that issue. The lack of joined-up thinking about whether a person is fit for work is still a huge barrier. Another concern is the board’s understanding of medical conditions. We have heard about mental health issues, but boards may not have the experience and expertise to understand how other conditions, such as diabetes and addiction, affect people’s lives. We need to be mindful of that.

In my constituency, we are struggling to provide support services, including adequate child care, which we have heard about this afternoon, and training. Training centres are under threat as we speak. The voluntary sector is probably one of the areas that not only helps with training, but could be bolstered by people coming off benefits. Borough councils, and especially social services, have a huge role to play. The links with social services are important in supporting people who are looking to get back into the employment market.

My biggest worry about how we tackle the issue is the target-setting mentality. I worry that jobcentres are given a target for the number of people that they must get off benefits. It worries me that people may be coming off benefits not because they are fit for work, but because Jobcentre Plus, or whoever—there are other organisations involved—have to hit their targets. That is a major concern. I had a constituent of 61 years of age, who had been on benefits for some 15 years. All of a sudden, he was told that he was fit for work: he may have been, but the shock was immense. When he walks into a Jobcentre Plus office and sees young people sat around the room, he will wonder why he is being targeted. That is why target-setting worries me. For those who can work, there is no problem, but we must be mindful of the way in which we achieve it.

There will be further pressures on Jobcentre Plus, as we have heard, and its role in working with many agencies will be critical if the Green Paper and its plans are to succeed. I honestly believe that shutting Jobcentre Plus offices at this time is a mistake: to lose their staff’s expertise and experience will do nothing for the people whom we represent. I also worry about the further privatisation of the welfare state: putting the lives of our people in the hands of those who are there to make a profit is a real concern to me.

I urge the Government to listen to the words of the Social Security Advisory Committee, which has many concerns about the Green Paper, and to listen to, and negotiate with, the trade unions that represent the people who work at the sharp end, because, if we do not listen to the people who work in the incapacity benefit system and to those whom it affects, we may end up making very grave mistakes. There will be a negative impact—certainly on constituents in constituencies such as mine.

3.20 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): We need to look very carefully at why there are 600,000 vacancies, yet there are people who are not in work, because it is not always as easy as it might seem to match up the two. I shall begin by referring to our record and by asking: how do we make people go to work?

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The first important thing is to have work for them, and the general economic situation over the past 11 years has provided opportunities where there were none before. In my constituency, there have been far more opportunities in the past few years than there were previously. Secondly, we have to make work worth while. The national minimum wage has been absolutely key to making going to work worth while for people, so keeping and increasing it must be a priority. There was enormous opposition when we first mooted the idea. The world was about to end, we were told—everything would collapse, everybody would be unemployed and nothing would function; it was a total impossibility. However, we looked at other countries where it worked perfectly well, had the courage of our convictions and went forward with it, and the fact that now nobody is expected to work for less than the minimum wage has made an enormous difference.

Working tax credits have made an enormous difference, too. One can earn a certain amount of money and the working tax credit and child tax credit help to make that income more worth while. We must be mindful of the fact that, without those systems, it is very easy for people to fall into the poverty trap of not being able to work because, with the additional costs that work brings, they cannot afford to make ends meet.

Flexible working has also been important in helping people into work. It is important that we recognise the needs of people, such as carers and parents, and the fact that trade unions such as the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, of which I am a member, have done a good deal of work. The way in which we have treated paternity and maternity leave has given people more opportunities to go back to work, to remain in work and to continue to do jobs that they enjoy, while having a family. However, we can still do a lot more, which is why we will shortly bring forth the draft equality Bill.

Although there have been improvements since 1997, it is true that disabled people are still more likely to be out of work than those who are not disabled, that one is still less likely to find work if one is from an ethnic minority than if one is not, and that among the over-50s there is still a feeling that their age counts against them when seeking work. That is why the Government are preparing the draft equality Bill, which will strengthen protection against discrimination and advance equality.

We all recognise the serious worldwide economic situation that we face, and it is difficult to predict how it will work out in the different job sectors. We know that even before the current difficulties our manufacturing industries faced severe competition from cheaper locations abroad. All those issues lead people to be anxious about the future, which is why Government action and support at this time is absolutely vital, and why we need to maintain our public spending programme and starting levels in public services, such as the national health service, education and the police force. It is also why we need to maintain our capital expenditure programmes, and not abandon them. That, in turn, provides jobs for the private sector. Thousands of private sector firms, large and small, depend on public service contracts or on work that they are going to do for public capital expenditure projects in order to maintain their incomes. It is far better for us to pay people to be in work and paying taxes than it is to support them through unemployment benefit.

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I believe that our borrowing can be justified, because we have reduced our public debt considerably, from 43 per cent. of gross domestic product in 1997, to 37 per cent. last year. If we look at how we compare with other countries, such as Italy, whose debt is 101 per cent. of GDP, and the relatively strong economies of France and Germany, which have debts of more than 50 per cent. of GDP, we realise that we are in a strong position, and can take on more borrowing. When people talk about our economy slowing down more quickly than the economies of some other European Community members, they must remember that our economy has been like a jaguar—like a cheetah. It has raced ahead, and while it may be slowing down a bit, it is still working well and going faster than some of the more elephantine economies in the eurozone. Although we may be slowing down more quickly in relative terms, we are still doing better than many of our European neighbours.

We know that in spite of all the efforts to keep the economy going, however, there will be some redundancies and some sectors will be badly hit, so it is important that we have strong Government support for those who face losing their jobs. They are often highly skilled workers with many years’ experience, and that is why I welcome the £100 million of new money that will go to retrain people and help them find alternative employment. I know, too, that many people worry very much about losing their homes; it is their first worry when they hear that they might lose their jobs. They desperately want to keep a roof over themselves and their family, so it is important that we have introduced that measure, because it will help people considerably.

We have also brought forward, from 39 weeks to 13 weeks, the amount of time that one must be out of work before one can start to claim mortgage help, and we have raised the capital amount threshold from £100,000 to £175,000, in keeping with the average price of a home these days. Those measures are extremely important, because, often, the home is people’s first worry.

It is also extremely important that we are strengthening the Jobcentre Plus rapid response service to ensure that it can respond when there are major job losses, and I pay tribute to the excellent work of the Jobcentre Plus staff in my constituency. The work of personal advisers in helping people get back to work is absolutely invaluable. Many of our employers have also been helpful, particularly when dealing with people whom we might call very hard cases. The employers have had to have the patience of saints to encourage, cajole and help those people to overcome the considerable difficulties of returning to work. It was a great pleasure for me to attend an awards ceremony not long ago at which those employers were rewarded for the work that they do.

My local Jobcentre Plus has also managed to access some European convergence funding for a “want to work” programme. That dovetails very well with the Department for Work and Pensions programmes for getting people back to work, and it will be particularly effective in the Community First wards in my constituency. Those include Tyisha ward, Glanymor ward, Bigyn ward, Felinfoel ward and Llwynhendy ward. It will help considerably in enabling people to go back to work.

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However, I would like to sound a note of caution on dealing with lone parents, which needs to be done sensitively and cautiously. Any system of sanctions will affect the child as well as the parents. We therefore need to use encouragement, help and support to get lone parents back to work, rather than a system of punishment. We also need to consider carefully the different factors affecting whether lone parents can work or not. We must accept that parenting is an extremely challenging role, and that it can be exhausting for a lone parent. Not only are they the only parent; they are also the only adult doing everything else in the household. That, in itself, is a full-time job. It is easy for us to look at a highly paid professional who has a car and who can do a few hours’ work, combine it with well-paid child care and organise their life, and forget that that is not the reality for those with the fewest skills.

The problem for those with the fewest skills is that their earning capacity is limited. They therefore have to work longer hours to make ends meet, and they often face difficulties with transport. In some of the outlying areas of my constituency, for example, the costs and the time factors involved in leaving children somewhere, getting to work and getting back from work in time to pick up the children can be extremely complex. That can make things very difficult. It often precludes children from being able to attend a breakfast club or an after-school club, because the transport times do not enable parents to return in time to pick up their children.

Andrew Selous: I am listening with great interest to the hon. Lady. She has made the point that many single or separated parents have to do everything themselves. Does she agree, however, that we need to move towards a much greater culture of co-parenting in which—in those circumstances in which it is safe to do so—we ensure that both parents share the load? In that way, a mother who has her children with her would not need to do everything, because the father would be coming in to do his bit to help her.

Nia Griffith: I should just like to point out that, when my father was widowed, I saw what it was like to be a single parent. As the eldest child, I also saw the responsibility that that situation places on the eldest child. Certainly, sharing parenting is very important, but we need to recognise that that is not always appropriate or possible.

I want to move on to the issue of child care. Not every school has a breakfast club or an after-school club. That is another difficult issue that we need to tackle when we are dealing with lone parents; we need to find out whether those facilities exist. That is why it is important that the Minister develop the encouraging statement that she made earlier that the circumstances of each individual would be taken into account before considering any form of sanction. That is extremely important, and something that we really must stick to. It has worried me that, last week in a statutory instrument Committee, the age of the child in the requirement for a lone parent to go back to work was lowered. I do not want us to go any further in that direction in relation to sanctions. We need to use encouragement, help and support, for the reasons that I have already outlined.

It worries my constituents that, of the people who are on benefit and among the now small number who are unemployed in my constituency, there is a very small
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minority who are playing the system. We need a welfare-to-work programme for such people. We need to make it absolutely clear that when people are fit and well and able to work, they should be encouraged to do so. There is a place for stricter measures for that very small minority who continue to play the system. In general, I very much welcome our Green Paper on welfare to work. I think that it represents the right way forward.

3.33 pm

John Howell (Henley) (Con): I want to make a number of points about the welfare programme and, in particular, the flexible new deal. Before I do that, however, I want to pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott). She mentioned the difficulty that people in rural communities experience in accessing a Jobcentre Plus. That is a worry not only for the moment but for the entire approach to this programme. Many of the providers that she mentioned have very little experience of delivering these products in rural communities. They have a good base in the urban communities, but they have no experience elsewhere. When talking to those providers, I have been conscious of the fact that, although they are aware of the differences and the additional costs involved, they do not really have a handle on the quantification of those costs and difficulties.

The Government models that I have seen so far have been largely based in urban areas. However, we do not have to go too far out of our cities—just 50 miles down the road from here to Henley—to see a constituency many of whose areas are already quite rural. I foresee a cost problem in Henley. We are already seeing a cost in terms of the claimant. If someone lives in a village for which there is only one bus once a week, they have no option but to use other transport, and that has a cost. There is also a cost to the providers that will operate there. Rural areas also have difficulties arising from distance and isolation; there are fewer opportunities to look for ways of getting back into work, and in many cases the economy is more on the margin. All those factors mean that, overall, more effort is required to achieve fewer outcomes.

The final difficulty with the Government’s approach is one of customer choice. One hopes that customer choice works well—particularly within the flexible new deal—in an urban setting, where different providers operate and there are real choices. However, that will not be the case in rural areas, where it will not be profitable for many providers to work at the same time. I would like the Minister to say how rural issues are to be tackled. Will he encourage some sort of differential in targeting rural areas? The problem is serious.

I turn now to the overall scheme. I have difficulties with how it is structured—that probably owes something to my background in management consultancy, a discipline that likes things to be just so and in place. I am happy, however, with the idea of a scheme being based on outcomes. In this case, the outcomes are essentially based on getting into work and on that work being sustainable. The difficulty is that, as the providers to whom I have spoken acknowledge, those outcomes are not easy to measure and we will therefore rely increasingly on proxies that bring us back to delivering something equating to those measures.

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I have no problem with such proxies, although it is difficult to see which will be chosen. A proxy of getting people off benefits is an approximation to getting people into work, but it is clearly not the same. Combining that with tax information will add to it. If I understood him correctly, the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) made a point about one of the things of which I have become wary, particularly given that I have seen how it operates in the Netherlands. One proxy is to put the emphasis on the tender rather than on one of the other proxies. The difficulty with that in the Netherlands has been that it has skewed the whole system so that it focuses no longer on outcomes but on measuring proxies.

In the Netherlands, a whole system and bureaucracy have grown up that measure not the outcomes but the tenders; the tenders are tightened up all the time. In that way, any innovation is squeezed out of the system. That is partly because the measurement systems are not got right at the beginning, but it also comes from the enhanced suspicion and mistrust of the private sector that there often is when such schemes are put together. So we end up with more inspection regimes and a need for more funding and bureaucracy. We also end up with a post hoc justification of success, which is never a good idea if these schemes are to be successful in reaching the people whom they should be reaching.

As regards the hard-to-reach groups, we heard a request for early intervention and for the scale of that intervention to be much larger than originally envisaged. There is a third element, however. I detect a sequential approach to people who have difficulties other than being unemployed, whether those difficulties be drugs or lack of literacy, whereby the mentality is to tackle those problems first before moving on to the problem of unemployment. Having seen the situation in the Netherlands, I think it would be a mistake to continue with that. It is necessary to tackle the problems simultaneously. As we have seen from examples not only in the Netherlands but elsewhere, it is entirely possible to tackle the problems of literacy and drug abuse while somebody is in a job, so that the whole situation becomes a virtuous circle feeding into the individual getting to where we want them to be, and where they want to be, much earlier.

I made some remarks about skills in a topical debate a few weeks ago, but as only one Labour Back Bencher was present throughout the entire debate, I have no hesitation in giving the benefit of my wisdom to the larger number who have turned up today. The point that I made, which the Minister said that he would take away, concerned the need to address the lack of flexibility and granularity in skills programmes such as Train to Gain. The skills agenda must be matched with the skills needs of business and of an area as a whole. My constituency has less than 1 per cent. unemployment and a high-tech, high-end business sector. It therefore has fundamentally different requirements in terms of the skills market from other, less fortunate areas. The one-size-not-fitting-all approach is demonstrated superbly by comparing my constituency with another that is less fortunate. Unless we put flexibility into the system, we end up losing the competitive advantage in areas that have high-tech, high-end businesses and need those skills.

Small and medium-sized businesses in my constituency are already showing commitment. They have an extremely good reputation for providing training
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for apprenticeships and beyond apprenticeships into the future. The Conservative proposals for more workplace apprenticeships, including a £2,000 bonus for each apprenticeship, are welcome. More importantly, we can help small businesses in this regard. Big businesses are able to help themselves. When I was a cabinet member on a county council, my job was to restructure many aspects of the council, which meant getting rid of a number of posts. One way of doing that while retaining the skills that had built up was to set up a job-finder service within the organisation. That works well in large organisations but is clearly impractical for SMEs on their own, but we can encourage them and provide them with the resources to develop self-help schemes that can produce the critical mass to enable them to operate similar schemes.

In the summer recess, I went to work for a day at the local jobcentre that covers the southern part of my constituency. It was an interesting experience. Only one individual was too aggressive for the ladies who were dealing with him to cope with, and given that I have to face similar situations at surgeries, I felt perfectly qualified to be able to deal with it myself. I have to echo the comments already made about the staff at Jobcentre Plus; I have enormous admiration for the patience and diplomacy with which they deal with people.

Perhaps the most heartening experience of the day I spent working there was that of a young single mother who had rushed to the job centre within hours of getting a job because she could not wait to get signed off and to get on with her life. It would be nice to feel that any welfare-to-work system could bottle up that enthusiasm and independence and help to spread it. That is a good example of someone wanting to work and of support being provided through an opportunity to get out of the welfare system, which she clearly hated being involved with, and to get on with her own life.

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