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Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab):
I have a constituent who, after working all his life, was diagnosed with a serious, life-threatening disease in his early 60s. He is now 63 and the Departments doctor has decided that, following treatment, he can now return to work and his incapacity benefit has been stopped. At his age, it is unlikely that the jobcentre will look seriously for a
job for him and it is even more unlikely than any employer will take him on. Will my right hon. Friend consider allowing people of that age and in those circumstances the opportunity to self-certify for incapacity benefitfor the higher levels of the new benefit that he is proposing?
James Purnell: I do not know if we can go as far as self-certification, but I know that my hon. Friend has met ministerial colleagues about that case, which he feels is distressing. Those decisions are taken independently of Ministers by medical professionals, but I am happy to look at the case and see whether any general lessons can be learned for the work capability assessment, which will be part of the employment and support allowance regime.
John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his statement. We all support the idea that as many people as possible should be getting into work, but can he guarantee that the jobs will be there? It has been suggested that in my constituency, for every single job, there are some 33 people available and looking for work. Does he agree that it is the most vulnerable who are likely to lose out from this kind of proposal and that there must be a safety net and a minimum income for every person in this country? Does he also agree that it is the ordinary folk who currently struggle with the complexities and bureaucracy of the system and that the danger is that they will suffer in the future? Does he share my concern about some of the words used, such as wasting money, benefit savings and offenders, which suggest that the direction of this proposal is towards a Conservative policy?
Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is a new Member, but can I gently point out that he should ask one supplementary question and not make a speech? He is not the first to make that mistake, but he will know that next time.
James Purnell: This is not about penalising the most vulnerable; it is about helping them and ensuring that they have support and the expectation that they will take up that support. It is worth pointing out that in the past 11 years, Scotland has gone from having higher unemployment than the national average to having lower unemployment than the national average, because of the policies that we have put in place. Unfortunately, I think that the SNP Executivethe hon. Gentleman can nod if he wants towill refuse to have policies to help people with drug problems to address those problems, and will not supply treatment places. They are cutting training policies and apprenticeships, so that people will not have help to get back into work; and they are not going to use the NHS to help people to tackle problems of ill health at work. They are cutting away the very support that has helped people to get back into work during the past 10 years. That is a retrograde step and I hope that they will change their mind.
Mrs. Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friends statement and ask him to recognise that some of the fears that individuals and organisations are expressing are founded on their experience during the 80s and 90s when, along with
colleagues such as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson), we had to manage training programmes that were little to do support or individuality. During the consultation on the White Paper, will he recognise those fears and emphasise that conditionality is about investment in people, not benefit cuts?
James Purnell: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I thank her for her help in developing the Green Paper and the White Paper and for all her fantastic work with disabled people. She championed the right to control and I am glad that we are putting it into legislation, as a tribute to the work that she did.
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Following the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), can the Secretary of State tell the House how he would explain to hard-working couples with families who struggle to pay all their bills and taxes how it is fair that parents who have separated should have their child maintenance disregarded for income-related benefits? Can he reassure the House that that change, unlike other Labour reforms to the benefit system, will not provide an incentive for couples to live separately in order to boost their incomes?
James Purnell: I can indeed give the hon. Lady that reassurance, because there are no child maintenance payments where the parents stay together. If money is being paid, it is right that it should go to the children. That is the right thing to do and it has been widely supported by organisations that represent poor children.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Has the Secretary of State considered the problem of the high level of private sector rents, particularly in major cities such as London? Families are routinely placed in private rented accommodation by local authorities, where the rents can be as much as £300 to £400 a week, and when people are offered jobs, they cannot afford to take them because they will be considerably worse off. Is he prepared to tackle such excessive rents and the need, I believe, for rent control and a housing benefit taper that reflects the problem that too many families face?
James Purnell: My hon. Friend identifies a problem that our housing benefit review intends to look into. The problem particularly affects inner-city London constituencies such as his, so if he and a group of London MPs would like to meet me to discuss it, I would be happy to work with him.
John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con):
Will the Secretary of State provide a little more detail to that part of his statement where he said that instead of receiving jobseekers allowance or employment and support allowance, crack and heroin users will receive a treatment allowance, alongside an obligation that they address their problem? Will he tell the House whether that is confined to just crack and heroin or whether it extends to other addictive drugs and alcohol? Will he also explain what protections he plans to build into the disbursement mechanism to reduce the risk of vulnerable
drug addicts going out and spending the money inappropriately? Will he confirm that the obligation that they address their problems is a
James Purnell: The problem now is that people can receive JSA or ESA, but have no obligation to address their drugs problems. By sharing information across Government, we are ensuring that we have much better information about who has a drug problem. That is the right thing to do, because there is no point in putting people through a back to work regime if they have a serious drugs problem. The other problem in the system is that it is hard to check whether people are undertaking their treatment. We therefore think it right that, instead of being in the JSA regime, people should be on the treatment allowance. In return for that, however, they have to show that they are taking steps to address their drugs problem. Otherwise, the money will just go straight into drug dealers pockets.
Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friends statement and I am sure that all of us who want to make our long-term commitment to abolish child poverty a reality will strongly support the White Paper. Given its emphasis on returning to work, does he agree that there will be an increased need for work readiness skills training and that colleges of further education and the voluntary and private sectors could have a role in delivering area and sector-specific programmes?
James Purnell: That is a very important point. Ensuring that the skills support we offer people is appropriate to them is one of the things that I am working on closely with the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills. We want to ensure that that skills provision specifically addresses work readiness. FE colleges spend quite a lot of money on that already and we want to ensure that our work is supported. My hon. Friend knows that we are integrating skills into the welfare system. I thank him for his help in developing the housing benefit and social fund proposals that we are taking forward in the White Paper.
Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): I noted with interest the Secretary of States statement that the sanction for those not meeting the conditions would be having to work for their benefits. What will be the ultimate sanction for anyone who refuses to work for their benefits or to participate in a scheme? Who will monitor how well the schemes are working, if it is a private or public provider giving feedback on whether people are complying and getting something out of the system?
James Purnell: I hope that I can reassure the hon. Lady that sanctions are not enforced by private or voluntary providers, but by Jobcentre Plus advisers and expert decision makers. As is the case now, if people refuse to take a job, they can lose their benefits for six monthsthat has been in the system ever since 1911. If people fail completely to comply with the system, they lose their benefits for six months. That is the ultimate backstop, but virtually no one gets there, because people can avoid a sanction simply by ensuring that they do what is expected of them.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): My right hon. Friend knows that my constituency still has relatively high levels of structural unemployment. His proposals today will almost certainly be welcomed as a way of tackling those structural problems. However, will he ensure that areas have the capacity relative to their needs, so that areas of relatively high unemployment such as mine have training places and the ability to enable people to return to work?
James Purnell: Yes, absolutely. That is one of the reasons why we are bringing forward the extra funding. However, just as the money is important, so too is devolving power to the people who can use it most effectively. We will make it clear in the White Paper that we want to devolve power to local authorities that want to work with us on tackling worklessness. Manchester is one area where we can make the greatest progress, because there is an opportunity to devolve power across Greater Manchester, to ensure that we deal with exactly the issues that my hon. Friend raises.
Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): Further to the point made by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), does the Secretary of State accept that there are times when some parents of children over seven need to be with their children, which means that full-time work might not be a realistic option for them? What assurances can he give us that parents who choose part-time work in the best interests of their children will not be financially penalised for doing so?
James Purnell: Within the regime for lone parents, they can choose part-time work after their child is seven if they think that it is the right thing for them. If a lone parents child is disabled, they do not have to be looking for work. If there is a problem or crisis, such as the child being excluded from school, the system is flexible, in order to ensure that people can best balance looking after their children and working, exactly as the hon. Lady describes.
Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): Will special consideration be given to the parents of children aged between six and 12 who have severe disabilities, especially learning disabilities, where the parents have a special caring role? My right hon. Friend will be aware that there was a carers parliamentary lobby here last Thursday. Will the White Paper that he has described to us today link with the Governments response to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions report on valuing carers, which was published last August?
James Purnell: Yes it will. My hon. Friend made representations to me about her view that we should not go ahead with the proposal to move carers on to jobseekers allowance. We have made it clear that we will not do that, but will look at the right approach as part of our work on long-term care and a single working-age benefit. On her first point, which she is absolutely right to make, parents who care for disabled children who receive carers allowance will be outside the conditionality regime completely. If they are on JSA but their child receives the middle or higher rate of the disability living allowance, they do not have to look for work either. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend.
Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): I listened carefully to the Secretary of States reply to the point that the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) made about the revolving door problem, whereby people who have gone into work but who cannot hold on to their job suffer when they go back on benefits. That problem exists today. I have written to the Secretary of State a number of times about people who have suffered from long-term sickness, particularly those with depression or drug problems, being petrified that if they do not hold on to a jobsadly, that happensthey will be unable to pick up the benefits that they need to survive. I am not talking about just housing benefit, but other benefits as well. Can we look into the problem now, as the pilots proceed, so that we can protect such people and encourage them into work, rather than scare them?
James Purnell: One of the key elements in the new employment and support allowance for the group that the hon. Gentleman is talking about will be the much greater ability for people to try out work while keeping their benefits. They will be able to do 16 hours a week work at the minimum wage, which will give people with depression, for example, the ability to try out something to see whether they can manage. It is important to point out that most people now recognise that being in work is a very good way of helping people with depression, but what the hon. Gentleman says is absolutely right.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): We have 2 million unemployed, we are facing the longest and deepest recession in our lifetime, the Government have laid off 30,000 workers in the Department for Work and Pensionsthe very people who are there to assist people to get back into workand the lack of affordable child care has been admitted by the Prime Minister, yet we are threatening to withdraw benefits from some of the poorest people in our society. What measures will be put in place to protect the children in families that lose their benefits from falling into even more severe poverty?
James Purnell: This measure is about reducing child poverty. We think that our reforms to lone parent benefits will lift 70,000 children out of poverty, and it is right that we should do that. We know that, when a parent is working, their child is eight times less likely to be in poverty than if they are not working. It is also worth saying that, where we can make our Department more efficient, it is right that we should do that. We have used the reduction in the number of people working for us to increase the number of people on the front line: the number of personal advisers has increased by 1,500. Now that we have a rising claimant count, we have announced that we will be spending more than £1 billion more, and that means 6,000 more posts in jobcentres, which I think my hon. Friend might welcome.
Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Many of the measures in my right hon. Friends statement are welcome, but what consideration is being given to the experience of bringing up children well and of creating a welcoming and stable home on a low income as being excellent preparation for paid work? What measures are in the White Paper to ensure that such work is valued, recognised and supported?
James Purnell: That is exactly why we are saying that the JSA regime should not be taken down to parents in that category and that people should instead be coming in and developing action plans that work at their own pace. If they do not want to go back to work when the child reaches one or two, or older, that is absolutely their right. That is the correct approach. We must ensure that people find out about the support that is available, including child care and Sure Start, and about the help that can enable them to bring up their children in exactly the way that my hon. Friend wants. I am happy to discuss this matter further with her, if she would like to.
Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Many decisions are taken in this House based on laudable principles, but the interpretation of the decisions and the way in which they are applied outside the House can be a real problem. As MPs, we are the first in line to have to deal with these problems. Will the Secretary of State ensure that we have direct access to a hotline, so that we can deal with these matters properly? May I also suggest that he meets the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, because many of the vehicles for the provision of health services, nursery care and so on are dealt with by the devolved Administrations? If we are to carry these measures through, it is important that he meets those people to ensure that this can all be done properly.
James Purnell: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. Indeed, it was the present Secretary of State for Scotland, when he was Minister with responsibility for welfare reform, who started this process off. I have also met representatives of all three devolved Administrations to ensure that we can work together. My hon. Friend is right to say that MPs need to be able to deal with any issues that their constituents raise, and I am happy to look into the possibility of a hotline. I will write to him to let him know more about that.
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Further to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton), will the Secretary of State tell us what will be done to change the culture among some of the people in his Department? A constituent of mine, a bricklayer, suffered a hernia and had to undergo an operation. He contracted an infection and, while he was waiting for his fourth operation, he was told that he had not scored enough points on his incapacity benefit form. He had an open wound in his stomach, yet he was told that he was fit for work and that he should go on to jobseekers allowance. That decision was callous and wrong, and it was not overturned on appeal. If we are going to deal with such people in the way that my hon. Friend has suggested, we need to deal with them as people and not through forms and box ticking. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that, where such a culture exists in his Department, it will be changed?
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