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3.45 pm

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): Before I make the four points that I intended to make, I shall mention something raised earlier in an intervention. We face a recession that may be quite severe, but I would not commend as appropriate a xenophobic policy response that focuses on narrowing opportunities for those from overseas to work in our country. It has not been particularly edifying to see a certain amount of competitive spirit applied over that instinct. There are reasonable immigration controls, which I am perfectly happy to support, but the tenor of the debate on that matter has not been helpful to those who want a thriving economy based on appropriate skills, which are often delivered by people from overseas, or those who want a more tolerant society.

I shall now move on to the substance of my speech. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) sat through an Adjournment debate I initiated on a topic relevant to today’s debate—flexibility on retirement. I wish to refresh the memory of those on my Front Bench on some of the issues raised. Many of those who seek to work beyond 65 do so for entirely understandable reasons. They actually enjoy their life, and correctly recognise that a certain amount of work in older age is good for people. An active retirement is a positive contribution to longevity, and we should try to have systems in place that permit such retirement.

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My Adjournment debate of two years ago focused on some of the things that we are getting wrong. I cited the example of a constituent—a marvellous man, who was 74 then and still a truck driver. He had just been injured, but talked at length to me about how much his job meant to him, and how we should have a society that encourages such behaviour. There are three little things that we could do to make matters easier. First, if an employer employs someone of that age, they continue to pay national insurance, even though the contribution to the state pension is redundant at that point—the person in question has normally fully paid up over the number of years that they have accumulated. It would be worth considering the national insurance obligations for employers of people who have gone beyond the point where maximum contributions can be achieved. Secondly, if a person defers their state retirement pension, they currently get a pound-for-pound reallocation of that saving towards their future pension. To be honest, that is a pretty substantial understatement of the benefit that they are creating by continuing to work. It would be reasonable to attach some premium to a person’s postponement of their claiming of the state pension, to facilitate their willingness to continue to work.

Thirdly, there may be merit in applying some fiscal measures to incentivise working beyond 65. I have no shame in returning to that topic. It is partly about individual liberty—we are permitting controls that employers enforce to drive people out of work at 65 when they are willing to continue—and partly about flexibility in our economy.

Let me give another example—I fear that not all these issues are linked, but the broad nature of the debate presents an opportunity to raise a range of topics. Derbyshire county council has drawn to my attention its difficulty in recruiting crossing patrols—lollipop ladies or men—and the problem of allowing someone to combine that work with claiming a benefit for which they are eligible. As I said in an intervention, we should examine the disregards that we apply to people who claim specific benefits to permit them to carry out such activities. The case that we are considering involves relatively few hours and rather modest pay. There are strong therapeutic arguments for such an approach in the case of someone who qualifies for benefits related to incapacity benefit, and there are obviously strong social advantages. To be honest, the loss to the Treasury is likely to be modest.

Such changes are worth considering as the minor adjustments necessary to open up opportunities at the edge of job markets for people who currently do not find it worth while to take on work. I should have made my next comment before my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) left her place, but she made an incredibly good speech about the marginalisation and exclusion that some people face. I am speaking, on the whole, about more fortunate individuals, relatively speaking, but we are considering the charmed circle of admission to work in our society and trying to find methods of building outwards and creating opportunities that are good for individuals and society.

It is good that one or two hon. Members who take an interest in the next subject that I want to raise are present. I know well the father of a now adult autistic boy, and I was struck by an earlier intervention about the difficulties that adult autistic people experience in
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migrating to work. I have a letter, which I shall not quote because I have not asked permission to do so, but I am prompted by that intervention to refer to some of its contents. The writer’s son has been trying to enter employment for nine years. His dad and those who saw him recognised that he needed help with that. He needed accompanying and appropriate guidance for a placement so that he could work effectively there. Sadly, despite repeat experiences, that has not been made available to him.

The latest letter was sad to receive, and gives the last such experience. Lengthy engagement took place with Jobcentre Plus, so that everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing. The son would turn up at the suggested placement and have an appropriate interview, which would suggest the sort of support that he might receive. The father and son turned up at the offices of the organisation involved, which was in the voluntary sector, presuming that Jobcentre Plus had provided a brief to the body about the son’s needs. They found that the organisation had not been briefed and had little history to which to refer of the son’s previous experience. There was a reference to a discussion with Jobcentre Plus staff, but it was not made clear with whom the discussion had taken place. The son was taken through a history of placements that bore no resemblance to those that he had attended. Reference was also made to a placement that he had never been on.

We are talking about a fragile young man who needed support to get into employment. He had experienced significant difficulties and frustration in the past and was unfortunately facing them once more, albeit fortunately with his dad, who could support him through that repeat negative experience.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): The harrowing story that the hon. Gentleman is recounting will be widely replicated throughout the country, as the statistics attest, with somewhere between only 10 and 15 per cent. of adults living with autism in employment. Does he agree that helping people in that situation more effectively is right in terms of not only compassion towards and benefit for the individual, but benefit for society as a whole, which is cost about £28 billion a year by adult autism?

Mr. Todd: The hon. Gentleman is right, as he is very often. The point is not just about me feeling sad and compassionate; it is about a waste of a young man and his capacity to contribute to our economy and a waste of resources, in assisting him to stay workless, when with some imagination and proper information management, he could be helped and given an appropriate opportunity. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, this is not just about compassion.

I maintain a regular correspondence with that young man’s dad, who is a very capable man and who must find it most frustrating to deal with the problem repeatedly. I hope that we can reach an appropriate local resolution. The issue highlights the fact that the bold words used by the Minister about the level of available training and resources are perhaps more optimism than reality, at least on the basis of the experience that I have described and that of the hon. Gentleman, who knows far more about the subject than I do and who has quoted the reality.

The fourth issue that I want to raise is again completely different, but links to the speech of the hon. Member
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for Henley (John Howell), because it relates to keeping people in work and close to the job market and providing them with the appropriate skills that they need. I have done some work on the issue with a body called the midlands engineering industry resource group, which was an excellent project that provided a network of engineering employers to pass on job opportunities and training ideas when jobs in the sector were threatened. Unfortunately the contractors lost the bid for the project’s continuance, but the basic principles remain.

I want to commend a similar project called the better west midlands project. One might say, “He’s an east midlands MP, so why’s he talking about that?” The reason is that I want it in my area, too. The better west midlands project, which is a partnership among various unions, the European Commission and the local learning and skills council, aims to deliver a range of interventions when jobs appear to be threatened, so that redundancies are consulted on.

The critical factor is union involvement, without which the typical position is to say, “We’re going to bargain over redundancies, but we’re not going to talk about any of the practical stuff to do with supporting people into future opportunities until we’ve gone through the consultation phase and resolved things.” That can mean losing 90 days straight away. With the unions’ participation, however, it is possible to launch into work on the practical issues with their support and enthusiasm, which includes the following: an initial assessment of the work involved; a Skills for Life screening; one-to-one confidential advice about future career options; a training needs analysis to work out where people are in their careers and what they might require to progress; the development of an action plan for people to follow; the provision of a certain amount of training and support to meet some of the needs that have been identified; referrals to specialist organisations, which may involve debt counselling and benefits advice; and help with job searches. That is excellent. It is an example of resources being targeted exactly as we will need them to be, I am afraid, during what look to be hard times. Such examples are not always available.

Sadly, when the unions involved approached the east midlands learning and skills council, admittedly a few months back, it produced the rather optimistic statement, “Well, we do not see too much call for that here.” Most of us who heard that thought, “That probably was not entirely accurate then, but sadly it is not likely to be accurate in the immediate future.” We will certainly need dedicated resources delivered in partnership with recognised trade unions, because that adds an additional edge to the capability of the project.

In all these areas, I am talking about protecting jobs and giving people individual rights to the opportunity to get a job in our society. As the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said, that is not just because I feel sorry for people—although I tend to—but because that is the basis of a successful economy and a more robust society, in which we would all seek to live.

4.1 pm

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Let me start by mentioning an issue that the hon. Members for Burton (Mrs. Dean) and for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) raised: getting autistic young adults and adults into employment.

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I want to cite a story from when I was a councillor involving a young man whom I had known since he was a child. He was quite high up on the autistic spectrum, but he had specialist attention. When he left education, a large company asked him to join its training programme. We move on a number of years, and that young man is in his 20s; he is holding down a job in that large company and he is succeeding. The company is making exceptions and showing the great understanding necessary in such situations. One day, when the young man did not appear for work, someone from the company went round to where he was living, asked what was wrong and talked through the problems with him. He was back in work the next day. That is an example of what can be achieved.

I am not suggesting for one moment that larger companies, such as the one in my example, need any help by way of resources to offer such support, but I would like that approach to be spread across the business spectrum. Any good employer should help some of the most vulnerable in our society to achieve the maximum that they can achieve, which is obviously different according to each young person and each adult’s situation.

I welcome the Ministers to their new roles, and I thank their predecessors, who took a cross-party approach and met me to try to achieve such a solution. I do not believe that the issue is anything to do with party politics. If it is, it certainly should not be. We are talking about people’s lives, and we are in the House to try to help. It is irrelevant which side of the House we sit on.

How can we encourage businesses—small businesses might need some assistance through tax breaks and so on—to employ the most vulnerable and help them through? I am duty bound to mention an organisation, and as its patron I have a vested interest—the UK Autism Foundation, which was recently formed by a good friend of mine, Ivan Corea. I first met him when, as a Labour party candidate, he stood against me in a council election. Fortunately, I won, but you cannot have everything, can you? We became great friends, and through the work that he has done, he has been an inspiration. I have been able to help him, in some small way, in that work. The organisation is looking to raise funds through charitable causes to help with that very problem—in my own area and more widely. I also thank the National Autistic Society for its help and good work.

I hope that Members will note that this subject is very dear to my heart, and I would like to further the cause by relating one other story from my constituency. Some residents complained to me about what they described as a nuisance neighbour, but nobody had spent any time with that gentleman or tried to find out what the problem was. I went round and found that this was not a nuisance neighbour, but an autistic person, living a lonely life on his own, who did not realise that his neighbours were being disturbed. We got them together and this person is now carrying out odd jobs for the very neighbours who had complained about him. That suggests that we sometimes need to look wider at the root causes of what might be happening when constituents complain at our surgeries.

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The current financial crisis, particularly its impact on small businesses and unemployment, provides another important issue. A small business might employ only one or two people, but one of them has to be laid off in order to cope with the crisis. A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a business, although I shall not name the business or the bank involved. It is a very seasonal business, with more than 80 per cent. of its trade coming over the Christmas period of December and January. Every year, it had from its bank a facility of £250,000 to fund the stock. Once the credit crunch started, however, the bank recalled the money, asking for it back “tomorrow”. The money was put into stock. It was a question of either giving the keys of the business to the bank as it was not possible to pay the money back or of the bank letting the business trade through the Christmas period so that it could pay the money back afterwards, with any interest, leaving money to live on for the rest of the year. Fortunately, another bank stepped in, but notwithstanding all that the Government are doing to encourage the banks to give money to small businesses, the banks are simply not doing so. I would therefore like to ask the Minister to use his good offices to speak to his Treasury colleagues to emphasise how important this facility is for small businesses—and perhaps sometimes for big businesses, too. The banks should certainly use the money they are being given more wisely to help the very people who are suffering from these problems.

Let me touch briefly on a number of other issues. I cannot remember who it was, but a Government Member spoke earlier about councils and the provision of social services packages— [Interruption.] Perhaps it was not even a Government Member; I am sorry. It is right that the problems differ from council to council. I know from my own London borough of Redbridge about the wonderful work that is done, but it does come down to resources. If the amount of money is finite, a council has to live with it. There are only two ways of getting the money: either through the Government of the day whose resources are finite, or through the council tax—yet we know that many people cannot afford rises at the moment. That has to be measured.

I am going to use some particular words now—I apologise to Ministers for not clearing these words with anyone—as perhaps some form of ring-fencing of moneys is needed.— [Interruption.] Perhaps that is why I am on the Back Benches— [Interruption.] I hear a sedentary intervention to the effect that I am apparently getting closer to the Front Benches.

The hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) spoke about people attending their constituency surgeries. My hon. Friend and I regularly write to the Minister. Everyone who visits my surgeries makes worthy cases, so I shall continue to write to the Minister. All these people genuinely want to be in work. I would go so far as to say that at my surgeries I have never come across anyone who does not want to work. The key thing is to help them into work where it is beneficial so that they enjoy a higher income and a better standard and quality of life than they could through not working. It is also important that they are given the ability to work, either through training or through the help that jobcentres can provide. It is beholden on all of us to try to help people back into work; otherwise, we should hang our heads in shame.

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4.9 pm

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): On the evidence of this afternoon’s contributions, I am sure that it is right to say that all Members share the Government’s aim that no one should be written off. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) that that aim should not be dismissed even if we are entering an economic downturn. However, the economic situation must be taken into account as we seek to achieve that aim, and there is some scepticism in all parts of the House about whether the programmes in place will be sufficient to achieve it in the current economic climate.

I agree with the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) that there is little evidence that there are significant numbers of people who are unwilling to work if they can do so. Hard cases make bad law. As my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) said, we should have a system that supports and encourages people, and that helps people—many of whom will have been in a very depressed state, often spending excessive periods at home—to regain their confidence and to be included once more in society.

I entirely support the concept of the flexible new deal, but I am concerned about how flexible the support offered will be in reality. I earlier gave the example of a constituent who is working 14 hours a week. Although he would like full-time work he has been unable to get that, but his current employer says he will give him full-time work as soon as he can. In the meantime, my constituent is being forced to attend the jobcentre to sign on at a time when he should be in work; the appointment is at 4 o’clock, which is when his work finishes. He has found it very difficult to be able to leave work early and get to the jobcentre on time to sign on. He has asked his advisers whether he can sign on at a different time, but they have refused point blank to be more flexible. I wrote to the Secretary of State expressing my concerns about the implications of this lack of flexibility for other people—for people who may be more vulnerable than this individual. There is considerable concern among those in the welfare-to-work business that the cash available and the targets being set are so unrealistic that those who find it hardest to get jobs will face long periods of inactivity while under pressure to find work, and that they could spiral into depression.

I am particularly concerned about people with mental health problems or other fluctuating conditions. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) emphasised that although the new deal for people with disabilities and pathways to work have been successful in helping many people into work, they have been less successful in helping people with mental health problems. The Secretary of State acknowledged that to me and said he is concerned about it, but it is unclear what measures are being put in place to ensure that people with such conditions will not be placed under even greater pressure than they are at present.

Debbie Scott is the chief executive of Tomorrow’s People, and she has said that

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