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Mrs. May: The power already exists, and the answer is yes. I am looking at the sort of provisions that the Government are proposing in the Bill, and there are two ways those could go. The Bill contains a lot of caveats—for example, licences will not be removed from people who need theirs for work because, obviously, if they are not able to get into work, they will not be able to earn the money to pay the child maintenance. So there is a question as to how many people this would actually affect. It is also important for there to be an appeals mechanism, and there are other issues to be addressed—for
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example, the level at which an officer in the child maintenance organisation would be able to determine that this provision should be used.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Kitty Ussher): So you support it?

Mrs. May: If the hon. Lady looks at the Hansard record, she will see that I said yes. But what I have said clearly is that this involves many detailed issues and we want to look at them to ensure that the arrangements that the Government propose are ones that we believe meet the requirements of natural justice and, more crucially, are workable, so that this becomes not only a headline-grabbing opportunity for Ministers, but something that will benefit parents who are desperately in need of those maintenance payments.

Mr. Davidson: Following the comments about accountants being generally a bad lot, does the right hon. Lady agree that the activities of some accountants who clearly assist men, in particular, to skew their financial affairs in a way that allows them to avoid their responsibilities should be examined? It should also be policed by the appropriate professional associations, which appear only too willing to condone that sort of behaviour, through their inactivity.

Mrs. May: In common with all hon. Members, I see cases in my constituency of parents, usually mothers, who are desperate because they believe that the other parent is living the life of Riley while they are not getting child maintenance. However, the whole issue of ensuring the proper payment of child maintenance is one with which the last Conservative Government and this Government have wrestled for many years.

All the issues that I have mentioned give rise to another general concern about the Bill, which is the extent to which it relies on future regulations to put its intentions into practice. Mencap has said that it is

Mind shares that concern, and says:

I hope that when the Minister winds up he will be able to give the House a categoric assurance that draft regulations on at least the key proposals in the Bill will be available for scrutiny and debate in Committee. I also hope that as the Bill makes its way through this House and the other place Ministers will keep an open mind about some of these concerns.

John Robertson: The right hon. Lady appears to have bypassed the issue of mental health and employment retention. It is an important part of the Bill and I would like to know what her party’s policies on that issue are.

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Mrs. May: I know that the hon. Gentleman has tried to introduce legislation on that issue, although it turned out that what he was trying to achieve had been covered in the Disability Discrimination Act. However, I accept that there are often issues about implementation of the requirements in statute. As I said, we believe that much can be done to help the many disabled people who want to work to enter the workplace, and—through the payments over which they have control—to have much more control over their lives and decide which services will help them best.

The Government have promised many times that they would finally reform welfare, but every time they have made that promise, they have failed, because too many Labour Members believe that to support welfare reform is not progressive. However, there is nothing progressive about just handing out cash for being out of work. Real progressives—like the Secretary of State and me—know that we need to reform welfare so that we can help people to help themselves. That is why we Conservatives support this Bill. As it passes through Parliament, the Secretary of State will come under great pressure from many of his colleagues to backtrack. In those circumstances, we will support him if he stands firm, but I shall certainly be watching over his shoulder to ensure that he does so. If he does not, hon. Members can rest assured that he and his colleagues will be replaced by a Conservative Government who will be utterly determined to introduce real welfare reform and to get Britain working.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I must remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, which operates from now.

5.45 pm

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North) (Lab): May I join in welcoming the new shadow Secretary of State to her position? She has certainly increased the comedy element, and I hope that she spends many years in that position. I also welcome the return of the eternal hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), who has spent a long time dealing with this issue.

I welcome the broad thrust of the Bill and the proposals in it, not least because most of the ideas were originally suggested by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions—at least, all the good ones were. In the limited time available, I want to pick first on the issue of simplification. I know that the Secretary of State is wedded to the idea of simplification—simplifying the benefits system has been the holy grail for the past 60 years—but I caution him to go slowly and carefully along that route and to bear in mind that a consequence of simplification is the diminution of the rights and benefits of women. There are very serious issues to do with that.

In recent years, the amount of money lost to fraud has plummeted, but the amount lost to error has stayed more or less the same, as a consequence of some of the complexity in the system. The Secretary of State knows
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that I am a good friend of his—I do not like falling out with him—but I do not think that removing a benefit and then having three different categories of benefit to cope with that removal is a process of simplification. That is a problem. Sadly, people’s lives do not fit into neat boxes. When we are considering simplification or reform, we should understand that creating three categories of jobseeker’s allowance to cover such a change is part of the issue of continued non-simplification. I think that everybody would welcome any progress, but the Secretary of State needs to take a cautious route and to be aware of the consequences of such changes.

Despite the valiant but unfounded efforts of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) to state otherwise, there has been significant welfare reform over the past 10 years. We now have an extremely active welfare system instead of the extremely passive system that existed in the past. Many of the provisions in the Bill for an active welfare state should be welcomed, but they are heavily dependent on two things: resources and extremely good personal advisers.

I know that the Secretary of State has recently been very successful in getting additional resources despite the economic situation, but there is a danger that the psychology of asking why we should do that when there are no jobs takes over. We have heard some of that today, but the idea that there are no jobs is a myth in itself. Apart from anything else, about 800,000 people retire every year, which means that jobs automatically become available. The churn every month is in excess of 200,000. There are still lots of jobs and job opportunities out there, and even if somebody cannot get a job today it is right and proper that the state should prepare them to get a job tomorrow, next month or in three months’ time. It should not wait until the jobs are allegedly available.

John Mason: The hon. Gentleman says that plenty of jobs are available, but does he accept that many people have come out of Woolworths, for example, who are highly trained and experienced, and who will immediately jump to the front of the queue, which means that people at the back of the queue are driven further away from a job?

Mr. Rooney: The retail trade in general has a 25 per cent. turnover in staff. In the big four supermarkets, the rate is nearer 40 per cent. The job churn in the retail trade is phenomenal.

John Mason indicated dissent.

Mr. Rooney: I am sorry, but the figures speak for themselves. There are job opportunities in the retail sector almost all the time, but my argument is that it does not give people careers. Employers want people who are fodder to take money on the tills, but they do not train them for a career in retail. The turnover every year is huge.

It is true that a person who was working yesterday will have more chance of getting a job tomorrow than a person who has been out of work for two years, but that is precisely why so many of the proposals in the Bill are about assisting people and helping them to develop their skills background and CV experience. The aim is to make people more employable.

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The alternative is to do nothing, and we have seen in the past what happens when Governments do nothing. Sadly, the Government of the 1980s did not do nothing: they cut benefits and the state earnings-related pension scheme, and they froze child benefit for three years. The 1988 changes to income support took away the long-term rate for lone parents, so it is clear that that Government reduced people’s income. In the recession of the 1990s, the wages councils were abolished, with the result that wage levels were reduced and poverty increased. Not one job opportunity resulted from that, but if hon. Members from Scotland are happy to go back to that situation, they should do so.

Mr. Russell Brown: No, we are not going back.

Mr. Rooney: I did not think that any Labour Member would want to go back, but I thought someone on the Opposition Benches might. We are not going back to those days.

I come now to the problem of job retention, which one or two hon. Members have mentioned already. Part of any welfare strategy must be to do as much as possible to keep people in work. Two issues need to be considered in that regard, and the first is the possible introduction of a form of wages subsidy scheme. The one used in the 1980s was not entirely successful, but with some fine tuning it has the potential to keep people in work and thus prevent them from entering the benefits system.

The second issue has to do with the widespread concern about the efficiency of statutory sick pay. Far too many people with disabilities or mental health problems who are dumped out of work receive statutory sick pay for 28 weeks and then join the benefits system. By that time, it is almost too late for them to do anything about getting another job. We need to look at the employer’s responsibility to those people, and consider reforming SSP so that it is not a totally inactive benefit. Much more responsibility should be placed on employers. Around 40 per cent. of all new incapacity benefit claims are made by people who left work with mental health problems. We need to reverse that trend.

John Robertson: I am listening to what my hon. Friend is saying, but does he agree that there should be a one-stop shop in Jobcentre Plus? Employers could go there for help, while people with disabilities or mental health problems would be able to find the one person who is the expert and who could point them in the right direction.

Mr. Rooney: I am sympathetic to what my hon. Friend says, although I suspect that it would be difficult to find one person with enough knowledge of these matters to be an expert. What we need is much better signposting for people, and a much better exposition of their rights and means of redress. The benefits system still has many barriers that hinder people’s return to work. Instead of being an inducement to people to try out work, the 51 different income disregards are often an impediment.

There is an interesting debate to be had about mini-jobs—for instance, lone parents are not allowed to work between four and 16 hours a week. Although we must
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be cognisant of the danger that people will merely get a series of mini-jobs and not engage with the welfare system, flexibility must be the key word for personal advisers. If a mini-job is going to help someone move to more permanent employment, it must be allowed. After all, tools such as mini-jobs, disregards and access to education and training will all be used by private providers.

The benefits system does not allow much in the way of education and training. Why should people be able to access things that will help them to get employment after 12 months out of work, but not in the first six to nine months? We need to rethink where the rules and regulations came from. Many have been in existence for 30 or 40 years, and are no longer relevant to today’s labour market and work force. Perhaps we should set some of them aside, or at least give personal advisers more flexibility to support people in doing educational or training courses that will make them more employable.

Two years ago, the Department for Work and Pensions contracted for 40,000 places on courses teaching English as a second language, but only 15,000 were taken up. Employment among certain ethnic minorities is far too low, but although many people say that the barrier is the English language, why are they not taking up the courses on offer? Is it a failure by the Department or by the individuals involved? The Government provided the funding and secured the places, yet 60 per cent. have not been used, so there is clearly a problem.

It is becoming more and more crucial as the recession develops that people get a skills audit and that any skills deficit is made up. In my Jobcentre Plus area, there are almost exactly the same number of jobs to be filled as there are jobseeker’s allowance claimants, but there is a significant difference between the skills of people on the claimant count and the skills needed in the available employment.

The more we join the Leitch agenda with the welfare reform agenda, in the spirit of joined-up government, the more we will remove some of the silly barriers that exist between the learning and skills councils, the regional development agencies and the colleges. By making them work for people, and not for themselves as providers, we will improve our chance to give people the tools and skills that they need to get back into work.

I know that time is short, so I shall conclude by saying that we must press whoever in the Treasury is in charge of the child care tax credit review to publish it. Sadly, it has been a significant failure, with only a third of people entitled to child care tax credit actually taking it up. We know that, for many people, child care is the key to getting employment, so if it is a policy failure, let us change the policy so that it helps rather than impedes people.

As I said at the start of my speech, I support the general thrust of the Bill. We must work on the basis that people who lose their jobs will suffer only a temporary loss. We must get them back into work as fast as possible, but it is also important, especially for people with mental illness, that we continue to support them after they get back to work, because we must make sure that people stay in their jobs.

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5.57 pm

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, who made a characteristically well-informed critique of the Bill. It is nearly four years since I last shadowed this Department. I seem to recall that at that time, a Secretary of State had just published welfare reform proposals that were the boldest since Beveridge—or since the ones that came immediately before; I cannot remember which. That Secretary of State had just promised a crackdown on dads who would not pay child maintenance, so today seems like déj vu.

I thank the Secretary of State for his earlier welcome. He and I go back a long way in this field. He will recall that his predecessor but seven, new Labour’s first Secretary of State in this area, was the present Leader of the House. Introducing the Bill that became the Social Security Act 1998, she said that she wanted to

That Act did not quite achieve that aim, so when the present Chancellor introduced the Bill that became the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000, he said that it was a “radical package of measures” that would be

However, the proposals were clearly not tough enough, so when the present Defence Secretary introduced the Bill that became the Welfare Reform Act 2007, he said that it

He added that it was a

Inevitably, the 2007 Act was tougher in some places and tenderer in others.

So here we are again. Earlier, I thought of intervening on the Secretary of State to ask whether he thought that welfare reform was in a state of permanent revolution, or whether this Bill showed that the Government had arrived at the right balance between rights and responsibilities. Alternatively, if he stays in his post, does he envisage another Welfare Reform Bill being introduced in the next Parliament, and yet another in the one after that? One is tempted to think that a Government who keep on reforming things and then coming back and reforming them again may not have got their approach right. I wonder whether the Secretary of State thinks that the Bill is the end, or the final leg, of the journey, or whether the attitude is, “We’ll have another go next year, and the year after.” Welfare reform Bills are not quite as frequent as Home Office justice Bills, which fail every year; welfare reform Bills are about three years apart. It would be interesting to know whether he thinks that the journey is broadly over.

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