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House of Commons

Monday 24 November 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


London Local Authorities Bill [ Lords]



Message to the Lords to acquaint them therewith.

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Cold Weather Payment

1. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): How many households in Milton Keynes he estimates will be eligible for cold weather payments if the temperature falls below the level which triggers payment of the allowance in 2008-09. [237962]

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Ms Rosie Winterton): We estimate that the number of households that would be eligible this winter for a cold weather payment in Milton Keynes, should such payments be triggered, is 84,000.

Dr. Starkey: I am sure that my constituents will welcome the extra money should it be required, but would it not be a better long-term solution to insulate more houses more effectively? Is my right hon. Friend’s Department considering sharing data with other Departments, so that Warm Front grants, for example, can be more effectively targeted at those who are known to be on low incomes because they are in receipt of various benefits?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend raises the important question of how we get the information to people who may be eligible. As I am sure that she knows, people on certain means-tested benefits are eligible for Warm Front grants, but they have to claim them. We are working with the Department for Energy and Climate Change to make sure that we can use some of the ways that we used to ensure that people on lower incomes were aware of benefits such as pension credit. We will work with the Department for Energy and Climate Change on that basis.

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Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Of course, many of the households in Milton Keynes that the Minister mentioned will be made up of pensioners, who will be delighted that finally, after months of dithering, the Government have renewed the Post Office card account contract. Does she not believe that those pensioners should be allowed to use that account to pay their utility bills, so that they can enjoy the benefits gained by others who pay by direct debit?

Ms Winterton: Pensioners are already able to arrange a direct debit payment with other banks, but in the longer term, we will of course look at ways in which the Post Office card account could increase its functionality.

Domestic Heating Engineers

2. Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): What steps the Health and Safety Executive takes to ensure that workers in the installation and maintenance of domestic heating systems are fully qualified. [237963]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): Gas safety law requires work in domestic premises to be performed only by competent people. The law also requires installers to register with the HSE-approved body, CORGI. That includes demonstrating that employees are approved in the correct way. Self-employed installers must also fulfil those requirements. The HSE enforces the law.

Mr. Sheerman: My hon. Friend will know that three of my constituents, including a little boy of 10, Dominic Rodgers, were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. Many of us in this House are part of a campaign to make sure that such a thing never happens again. CORGI is to end as a brand, and as a trainer, and Capita will take over, so it is a sensitive time for the gas industry and its safety. Can my hon. Friend assure me that the transition will be smooth, and that in April we will have a better product than we do now?

Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and I am aware of the campaign that he has been involved with in his constituency relating to the Dominic Rodgers Trust. There has been a reduction in the number of fatalities due to carbon monoxide poisoning, and we continue the work of raising awareness. He is right to point out that the transition arrangements for the new contract awarded by the HSE will include further awareness-raising, and will allow a smooth transition to ensure that customers and installers are aware of the new requirements under the contract.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): CORGI estimates that as many as 20,000 people are working illegally with gas in the UK. What more can the Government do to ensure that the public are aware of the dangers of employing unqualified workers?

Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. He is right: about 10 per cent. of installations are still carried out by people who are not registered with CORGI, and more needs to be done on that. As part of the arrangements for the new contract with Capita, that body will donate about £1.7 million to a charity. My noble Friend Lord McKenzie is asking
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other energy providers to put in resources, too. That fund will be used further to raise awareness. The more we do to raise awareness, the greater the reduction in the number of fatalities will be.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend ensure that engineers who install heating systems are well aware of some of the toxic substances that surround heating systems, such as asbestos? Will he make sure that people get the proper equipment when working with that toxic substance, which causes disease, as there are long-term cancerous effects from working with it?

Jonathan Shaw: My hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention to the necessity for people receiving installations to ensure that the fitter is reputable and properly registered, and to workers’ health and safety, and I am grateful for his comments.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): In 2005, two young people died in my constituency of carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of inadequately attended gas installations. Two pensioners died a year ago in my constituency for the same reason, and, 10 days ago, another pensioner died of suspected carbon monoxide poisoning, and his wife was lucky to survive. Will my hon. Friend do everything that he can to promote the use of carbon monoxide monitors to complement the work that he talks about, perhaps by ensuring, for example, that every time a house is sold, the home information pack requires there to be a carbon monoxide monitor in the house?

Jonathan Shaw: As I said in answer to an earlier question, under the new arrangements, the operator, Capita, will put in substantial sums of money, and we want there to be further amounts of money to raise awareness, so that people know that the installation of their gas central heating system, which is the predominant heating source in this country, will be undertaken by an appropriately qualified installer. I shall pass on my hon. Friend’s comments about monitors to my noble Friend Lord McKenzie as he works with the industry to ensure that the number of deaths continues to fall.

Jobseeker's Allowance

3. Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): How many jobseeker’s allowance claimants there were in (a) the UK and (b) Ludlow constituency on the latest date for which figures are available. [237964]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): The number of people in the UK claiming jobseeker’s allowance in October was 980,900. In Ludlow, the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance was 651.

Mr. Dunne: I am delighted that the Secretary of State is aware that unemployment in Ludlow has gone up by 10.5 per cent. in the past year alone, but why are there 300,000 fewer British people in work today than two years ago, while there are almost 1 million migrant workers in work?

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James Purnell: On the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, we totally understand that people will be worried about the economic circumstances, and our commitment is to do everything that we can to help people get back into work if they lose their job. That is why we have announced, for example, an extra £100 million—to do exactly that. We will do that to ensure that we never reach the unemployment levels that we had in the past—almost 3,000 people, not 651, in his constituency—at the height of the previous recession.

Mr. Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): The fact that the numbers of people on jobseeker’s allowances are rising is, nevertheless, a big contrast compared with the 1980s and 1990s, when people were just abandoned in the terrible Tory years. [I nterruption .] As we are entering a period of turbulence in the jobs markets and rising unemployment, will my right hon. Friend specifically look at the question of people not receiving their benefit and support quickly, if not immediately, particularly in respect of mortgage relief and of those who are made redundant? People should receive their benefit right away and then be helped back into work, instead of languishing for a period in no-person’s land.

James Purnell: We are introducing today the lone parent changes, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for that radical welfare reform package, for which he was responsible. He is absolutely right: we need to ensure that we get people their benefits as soon as possible, and that is why we have brought forward the help that people receive if they lose their job and need to pay their mortgage, from 39 weeks, as it was under the Conservative Government, to 13 weeks.

I know that Opposition Members did not like it, but my right hon. Friend was absolutely right to remind them that in the ’80s and ’90s, millions of people were abandoned when the Conservatives massaged the figures to get people on to incapacity benefit. We will not repeat that mistake.

Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): Given that the number of new jobseeker’s allowance claims is rising quickly alongside unemployment, and that Government policy changes mean that an extra 350,000 people will be moved on to JSA between now and 2011, at the same time as the Department for Work and Pensions plans another 7,000 job cuts on top of the 16,000 jobs that have already been lost, will the Secretary of State guarantee that Jobcentre Plus staff will have the time and resources to deal with the increasing work load? Does he agree that this is the time to recruit more Jobcentre Plus staff, rather than to continue with job cuts?

James Purnell: The hon. Lady is right to say that we need to make a commitment to do everything that we can to help people find their next job. However, she misunderstands the nature of the efficiency changes that we have made; they are about moving people from back-office jobs to the front line. Actually, there are 1,500 more personal advisers today than two years ago, so we have got more people to the front line. On top of that, we are retaining an extra 2,000 people who were helping us with the introduction of the employment and support allowance; they will now help us with the higher volume of claims. The hon. Lady will have to wait for the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s announcement later this afternoon to see whether anything further is coming.

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Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend look towards ensuring that there is a skill match for people who have lost their jobs and that if those people need to be trained, training is available immediately, rather than their having to wait a long time before qualifying? That would begin to help the situation at Leyland Trucks, where jobs have, tragically, been lost. With a bit of skill matching and extra training, we can get those skilled people back into work. That is the kind of support that they need. Will my right hon. Friend look towards assisting them?

James Purnell: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The earlier we can get help to people, the easier it will be for them to find their next job. That is exactly what we want to do. We want to make sure that the rapid response service helps people when redundancies are announced, before they even lose their jobs, so that they can be provided with help on retraining. As my hon. Friend says, with a small amount of retraining, people with good skills can get back into work quickly. That is exactly what the extra £100 million that we have announced is, in part, designed to do.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne); he did not even attempt to answer my hon. Friend’s point about the impact of migrant workers. As the recession bites and unemployment rises, what plans does the right hon. Gentleman have to make representations to the migration advisory committee, so that when it considers shortage occupations, it looks first at people who will be helped by the Government’s welfare reform programme, rather than bringing in people from outside the country to do those jobs?

James Purnell: Is the Conservative party against migration now? The tone of its questioning is getting suspiciously close to that. It is important that we have a system for managing migration effectively, and that is exactly why we are bringing in the system based on the Australian points system. However, it is important to remember that in the past 10 years we have gone from being the poorest country in the G7 to being the second richest. Three million more people are in work than in 1997. We come from a context in which, earlier this year, we had the lowest unemployment count since the 1970s and the highest employment ever. We now need to make sure that we do everything that we can to help people fairly through the coming downturn. That absolutely involves welfare reform to get people back into work.

Occupational Pensions

4. Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): What steps his Department has taken to protect employee occupational pensions. [237965]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): The Government have introduced a more powerful and proactive pensions regulator to protect the benefits of occupational pension scheme members. The Pension Protection Fund and the financial assistance scheme provide protection to members of eligible defined-benefit occupational pension schemes.

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Mr. Love: In recent years, there has been a dramatic fall in the number of defined-benefit pension schemes, and that issue is likely to be exacerbated by the slump in the stock market. A gap has therefore opened up between provision in the private and public sectors, and there are those who suggest that the way to solve the problem is to reduce benefits in the public sector. Surely, however, we should be looking at the issue exactly the other way round. What more can my right hon. Friend do to try to protect and enhance defined-benefit schemes in the private sector, so that we can ensure dignity in retirement?

James Purnell: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to achieve a balance between protecting employees’ benefits and the promises made to employees, and encouraging employers to continue to contribute to the schemes that they have set up. That is exactly what we intend to do. We are considering where we can reduce regulation—for example, by reducing the section 75 obligations when they get in the way of people restructuring appropriately. Furthermore, we have changed the inflation indexation and made it absolutely clear through the pensions regulator that contributions have to be affordable and should not put a business at risk. That is the right approach: balancing protecting people’s benefits with encouraging employers to continue to contribute.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Are we not looking towards a future in which only compulsory state earnings-related pension schemes for everyone, with good defined benefits, will make sure that there is no poverty in old age?

James Purnell: My hon. Friend is right to say that the additional part of the state pension is vital. That is why I am sure that he welcomes the changes that we have made to the state second pension; they will bring equality for women, recognise caring contributions and make the system an awful lot simpler. I am sure that he will also welcome the huge changes that will come through the implementation of the Turner commission’s recommendations. That will mean that instead of only a minority of people benefiting from company pensions, as in the past, all employees will have the right to an occupational pension matched by the Government and their employer. That fundamental change will increase people’s benefits and bring them equality, as was never achieved in the past.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): As more employers become insolvent during the recession, will the Secretary of State have to come back to the House and ask for an increase in the levy for the Pension Protection Fund? If not, how will he balance the need to have enough money in the scheme to meet calls on it and yet not overload pension schemes, which are already closing under the sort of pressure that he has mentioned?

James Purnell: The Pension Protection Fund announced very recently that it did not foresee any increase in the levy and that it would keep it at its current level. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is glad that we fixed the roof while the sun was shining and brought in the pensions regulator and the PPF. That is in huge contrast to the Government whom he supported, who were warned about this by Labour Members in the ’90s and did absolutely nothing about it, so that we then had to pick up the pieces through the financial assistance scheme.

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