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4.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): This has been a very good debate. Members on both sides of the House have made excellent contributions. The speeches have varied; some Members told heart-rending stories from their constituency surgeries, and others brought up more specific issues. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) discussed housing benefit, an issue that she has rightly pursued for some time.

At the beginning and the end of the debate, the Opposition spokesmen attempted to say that we had not secured any achievements on child poverty. Well, we have secured achievements on child poverty. When we say so and compare our record to the Opposition’s, they say, “Oh, that was 11 years ago.” As many Labour Members have said, it is not about saying but about doing. When the Opposition had their chance to do something, they froze child benefit year after year. We were at the bottom of the league when it came to child poverty in Europe. If the Conservative party wants to draw a line under that, and accept that we have moved on and that things are fine, we would accept that, but it
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tries to rubbish our achievements. We have taken 600,000 children out of poverty, and have put resources into the budget to ensure that we continue with our target to eradicate child poverty within a generation.

Andrew Selous: As we are talking about child poverty, will the Minister commit the Government to meeting their 2010 target of halving child poverty? Will he do so now?

Jonathan Shaw: It is a challenging target, and we put in more resources at the last Budget. [ Interruption. ] Did the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) support that Budget? No, he did not. He talks about the issue, but will not act or put up the money. Furthermore, we have introduced our programme pathways to work, which has been applauded across the board. The Opposition chose not to mention pathways to work, but my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) referred to the 10 per cent. increase in the number of disabled people entering work. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) chose neither to talk about that achievement nor to welcome it.

There are many other examples of the progress that we have made. Indeed, the Opposition referred to their proposed reforms, but they came out of the Freud report, which the Government commissioned. The hon. Members for South-West Bedfordshire and for Forest of Dean both sought to deny our achievements, but we recognise what we have done, while realising that it is important to find other ways to move the agenda forward, particularly during the economic downturn that we face.

I welcome the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood made, and he, along with several colleagues, applauded our hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire). She held my current position for three and a half years; she was supportive and did a great deal of valuable work, so it is an honour for me to follow in her footsteps. Much of the work that she undertook helped to reduce the number of unemployed disabled people and to produce that 10 per cent. increase.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood, like a number of colleagues, referred to people with mental health issues or fluctuating conditions seeking employment, and the test of our reforms will be whether we can increase the number of people with mental health issues who enter employment. As part of that plan, we will undertake some pilot programmes and work in London alongside Mind to consider what works. It is important that we undertake those programmes to ensure that we work out the detail and get it right, because if we get it right and learn the lessons, we will avoid making mistakes down the line which cause distress and disappointment to those people whom we seek to help.

My hon. Friend mentioned the access to work resource, which we are increasing, and he said that he had seen it in action. I, too, have seen it in action. I was in Croydon a couple of weeks ago with a specialist private sector employment agency, 83 per cent. of whose staff are deaf. It provides employment opportunities for deaf people, and without pathways to work and the access to work scheme, it would not have been able to achieve what it has. While I was there, the agency found two people a job, and staff members said that, every day, they were finding people work. They were using their connections and relationships with a range of different
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employers to find opportunities for people to undertake work experience in the first instance, and many of those people then found employment. Those things did not happen under the Conservative Administration; it is reasonable for me to say that. We have improved the situation, but we need to learn lessons, and we will do so as we take forward our programme.

My hon. Friend and other Members talked about the difference in the quality of service that people receive from council to council, from local authority to local authority, and that is a frustration. How can we achieve greater uniformity across the piece? We will not do so by using levers in Whitehall. We are not going to push a lever to make everything the same across every council area. That is not going to happen—it is not our direction of travel.

I believe that there is consensus among the political parties in that we all want local decision making, so how can we better engender an application that fits the needs of local service users with the services being provided by councils and other public sector organisations? Two mechanisms will be involved. The first is the local area agreements which, I believe, have cross-party support. They will bring together the service providers within a local area and enable them to talk to user groups and identify how services are to be developed. They are still in their infancy but, as they mature—and as the different charities and parent organisations better understand the new infrastructure for local government and in the local areas—they will be able to take part and they will be listened to. Better still, local authorities and health authorities will be able to respond to any concerns that are expressed by parent groups or user groups.

In addition, we are seeing the advent of individual budgets. We have conducted 13 pilots around England, involving a variety of rural, urban and suburban authorities, to determine how people can use their budgets to make decisions for themselves on which services they get. The evaluation of the pilots has shown that young disabled people and people with mental health problems in particular have found individual budgets empowering, as they enable them to decide who provides their services, and when and where they are provided.

We need to do some more work on elderly care and for adults with learning disabilities. However, we can envisage the day—as we carry out the pilots, and learn more in order to get this right—when we will be able to bring together national and local benefits, and when individuals on their own can determine the services that they receive. Also, a situation might arise in which a group of disabled people, for example, come together jointly to commission services, pooling their individual budgets. With people working together to match up the local area agreements with individual budgets, it is possible to see how a better, more consistent level of services could be achieved across the piece. That is part of our reform process.

Mr. Harper: We are very much in agreement with the proposals for individual budgets. I think the Government said that about 1.7 million people receiving social care were potentially eligible for an individual budget, and that it was planned that all those people would have the option of getting such a budget over the next three years. Now that the evaluation has taken place and been reported to the Government, can the Minister give us
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an idea of how quickly he thinks this process will move forward, especially for the categories of people he has just mentioned, who might particularly benefit from having individual budgets?

Jonathan Shaw: We want to get on to them as soon as possible, but it is important to get this right, particularly as we try to align some of the national benefits with what is happening at local level. That presents some interesting challenges, and there will be different views on these issues across the various groups that the hon. Gentleman and I both talk to. For example, when I have spoken to the Disability Charities Consortium, I have heard mixed views on how devolving a national benefit such as the disability living allowance down to local level will impact on individuals. Some people might be concerned about that because, in the main, DLA works well for people. This is all part of the debate that we need to have, but that is our direction of travel—

Mr. Harper: And the speed?

Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Gentleman might ask that, but when we are dealing with people’s lives and their budgets, and with ensuring that they get the services they need, we have to have pilots. If he would be reluctant to have pilots, that is a matter for him—

Mr. Harper rose—

Jonathan Shaw: I am not going to give way just at the moment.

We have had the pilots, and we are evaluating them. We shall then have the discussion on how to take the programme forward. If the hon. Gentleman were to join that debate, rather than just saying “Get on with it!”, I am sure he would be able to make a more sophisticated contribution. I have every confidence that he will do that.

Roger Berry: There are real issues about devolving allowances such as DLA, but I do not want to go there. I want to ask about portability. As a former local councillor, I am keen on some localism, but most disabled people I know are not clamouring for localism to continue in respect of care packages. However, if it does continue, when will there be portability from one local authority area to another? At present, people are imprisoned in their local authorities, are they not?

Jonathan Shaw: That is the clash: local services being accountable to the local council and also having levers of requirement from the centre. Those are the competing demands.

I mentioned the local area agreements, but we are also seeing the advent of multi-area agreements. We may see local authorities all signing up to portability in a multi-area agreement, as my hon. Friend hopes. However, we have to resolve the clash of competing demands. One authority may choose to put a great deal more resources into social care than another, and the local electorate may support that. However, through the independent living fund we have committed to ensuring greater consistency across the piece. That is part of the debate as we go forward.

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I want to refer to a few of the comments made by other hon. Members. The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) referred to contracts and concern about specialist providers having part of the market. That is absolutely right. Within the structure, we need a system that allows entrepreneurialism to come through and small specialist providers to meet the needs of specific groups. I referred to a group in Croydon that I visited a couple of weeks ago, and many other providers offer such services. Earlier I mentioned Mind, the association with which we will set up a pilot for people with fluctuating conditions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) mentioned fluctuating conditions and her conversation with the Secretary of State in acknowledging that the issue is difficult and we need to improve it vastly. I am certainly committed to ensuring that the issue gets the attention it deserves. I shall be closely watching the contracts in the roll-out and how they ensure that they do not cherry-pick and provide employment opportunities only for what my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood referred to as the low-hanging fruit; the issue is also about those who are more difficult to place. That will be the test of our reforms.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean), who is in her place, is the chair of the all-party group on autism and also has an interest in lupus. She referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling. She discussed the reduction in unemployment in her constituency between 1997 and 2007 and mentioned the partnership between the GMB and JCB in her constituency. We want such partnerships to go forward. That partnership and positive working were part of what made it possible for the company to land that £23 million order in Russia. We all welcome that. My hon. Friend also mentioned the all-party beer group, for which she has worked hard, and I shall pass on her remarks to my colleagues at the Treasury. Like many hon. Members, my hon. Friend referred to Jobcentre Plus and the staff who work there. I know that they will be grateful for hon. Members’ comments.

The Jobcentre Plus environment is very different from what it was during downturns in the past, when jobcentres had screwed-down seats and were places of despair with screens. If a person who had lost their job walked into a place like that, it did not uplift them or give them reason to be optimistic. We invested in Jobcentre Plus; the Conservatives did not. When we had the opportunity, we did it; when the Conservatives had the opportunity, they did not. That is the difference between us. Nailed-down seats were adequate for unemployed people in the ’80s and ’90s; they are not adequate for people under a Labour Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burton also referred to the NHS and the impact of getting timely treatment, which is very important.

The speech by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), who is not in his place, was a tour de force. In previous debates we have discussed angling, which, as I am sure many hon. Members are aware, is one of his loves. He talked about the young woman whom he met when he spent the day at the Jobcentre Plus in his constituency, who was bursting with energy and wanting to work. He also referred to people who
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did not take the opportunity to work, and spoke about not sending me letters and telling his constituents, if he felt they should be working, that they should go and get a job.

Within any system, there will be people who choose to abuse it. It is particularly galling for someone on a low income to see someone abusing the system, because they are working hard and can see that someone is not playing by the rules. However, as part of this conversation we must recognise that many disabled people—they may have a mental health condition; they may have autism, or be a wheelchair user—want to get a job and have tried repeatedly to get one. We need to be careful with our language. Of course people should play by the rules, but we do not want to tar everyone with the same brush. People who are feeling fed up because they cannot get a job do not want us as Members of Parliament to do that, particularly at this time. We praise and salute people’s efforts in that regard.

The star of the evening, by universal acclaim, was my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, who brought to the House a story about a young woman in her constituency. She highlighted the difficulties of getting housing, training and employment opportunities and talked about accelerating the interconnectivity that is required across the work of Government. We need to build more social housing. Earlier, I challenged the Conservatives to say which part of the programmes that we have announced since the downturn they would cut. One of those programmes brings forward additional social housing. I hope that they will support that additional housing, because it is needed in every constituency. In my own region, 200,000 people are on the waiting list. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has advised me that we are looking to the conclusions of the housing benefit review, which must include work incentives. She said that any proposals will be tested against the very good case that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham brought to the House. I thank her for her contribution.

The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) talked about his support for the work ethic, and I think that the whole House would agree with him. He talked about the difficult times that his constituency has faced, and he made an important point about the relationship between someone who is not in work and their general practitioner. I can advise him that, as part of the employment support allowance programme, the Department has spoken to GPs. We have provided advice because it is easier for a GP to provide advice if he knows the structure of the new system, and GPs will receive that advice. The hon. Gentleman mentioned incapacity benefit, and people on that benefit will receive it at the current rate—it will stay the same.

My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) praised the minimum wage and the difference that it made in her constituency. She talked about the right to flexible working. If I recall correctly, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire mentioned flexible working, but when the Opposition had the chance to vote for and support paid leave, they did not do it. The first instalment was four weeks’ paid leave, and when they had the opportunity, the Opposition voted against it. When we introduced flexible working, Opposition Members chose to vote against it, but many of them have taken advantage of that policy. Again, when they had the chance to do
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something, they did not do it. We will say what we have done, and compare our records. That is completely legitimate.

I heard the second half of the speech of the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell). I thank him for going to a Jobcentre Plus and for acknowledging the good work done there. It is much appreciated.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) talked about flexibility in retirement, and referred to lollipop ladies and men—my late mother was a lollipop lady. He has made those points before, and it is the case that for some people in retirement, doing work makes a huge difference. As he said, it is good for the individual and for society as a whole. I will pass on the remarks that he made. Like so many things, the issue is about the balance between what the Government want to provide for the individual in society and how much expenditure we have. My hon. Friend referred to an autistic adult, and his story about Jobcentre Plus was not so positive. The mood of the debate generally reflected a positive view of Jobcentre Plus, but we obviously do not get it right every time, and we have to work harder.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) made an intervention on autism; last night, I was at the National Autistic Society, where I met people with autism who were in employment. The hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) talked about a young man in his constituency who is making a great contribution to the company where he works. He said that the young gentleman did not turn up to work one morning. That would have been out of his routine, and the employer understood that. In general, people with autism are always on time—they are never late. They start a task and they finish it, and they can operate at a higher level in many circumstances than any of us in this Chamber. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is a matter of ensuring that employers get that message. We have a programme called “Employ ability”, and it promotes the employment of people with a disability. We need to consider real-life examples of that. He is also right to say that we all have a role to play. It is not just a matter of asking the Government what they can do—we can all play a role by talking to employers across our constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak referred to the support and encouragement that she wants to see for lone parents. We are providing that, but it is reasonable, if we are providing a package of support through all our welfare reforms, and putting in that time and effort, to want people to engage with us. We are saying not that they have to get a job, but that they have to engage with us—get the necessary skills and training to go for a job, produce a CV and so on.

The debate has been good and we have run through a range of issues. We will have differences, and Labour Members will continue to point out where the Conservative party failed, where we will succeed and where we need to try harder. However, the general tone of the debate reflected the consensus that, in the downturn, we need to help people and work with them so that, when the recovery comes, we are as match fit as possible to take advantage of it.

Question put and agreed to.


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Constituency Correspondence (Confidentiality)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Ms Butler.]

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