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The other aspect that I want to see in the Bill is the subject of early-day motion 397, which proposes that the Government should consider giving grandparents national insurance credits if they are involved in child care on behalf of their children. Let me explain how that would help. The Government are absolutely right to try to get lone parents back into work. I do not think that anyone would argue about that, apart from the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), who seems to think that we should not be proactive in encouraging
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lone parents into work and they should make up their minds for themselves. I have some difficulty with that idea, because when I speak to lone parents I often find that they do not know what is on offer for them, especially those who left school at 16, have not really worked and have been bringing up children for the past 10 or 15 years. It is too frightening for them to make that decision wholly on their own—they need support. The Government propose to take them into Jobcentre Plus, sit them down and talk through the options with them. In many cases, they would not do that on their own.

Steve Webb: I am a co-sponsor of the early-day motion that the hon. Lady is talking about, so she is probably picking on the wrong person. She says that lone parents are perhaps a bit overwhelmed by the situation and do not know what is available, but why is coercion, rather than information and support, the answer?

Miss Begg: Because the same is true for lone parents as for disabled people. The hon. Gentleman must have spoken to disabled people who say, “I needed that extra push.” I know that from my own experience of someone who had been on incapacity benefit for 10 years because of a mental health problem. When she got the first letter, before there was any kind of obligation, it went into a drawer. The next letter came in and went into the drawer as well. It took a huge effort for that individual eventually to make it over the threshold. This is part of the Government’s drive to ensure that they take that step. That is true of those on incapacity benefit and true of many lone parents. It is a bit more than just saying, “Here’s a chance, why don’t you take it?”, which is what education or information would do; it is saying, “This is so important that the Government put this amount of store by it, because we think it will make your life better.” Simply telling people that on a piece of paper is not enough, and it is important to offer them the opportunity to sit down face to face with a highly qualified person. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), the Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, that the quality of the personal advisers is important, so that they can sit people down and transform their lives.

If we are to get lone parents back into work, we must ensure that they feel confident about their child care arrangements. That is crucial in giving them confidence that their children will be safe. For many lone parents, such confidence can come through a grandparent. I do not suggest paying grandparents any kind of wage, but if the Government could assure them that they would not lose out on their state pension contributions by giving up some of their working life to look after their grandchildren, they would be much more willing to provide unpaid child care. The mother would have confidence in that care, and the state would get a return on it. That could be done at a pretty small cost to the state, and would encourage grandparents to become involved. It would be good for the grandparents, too. Not only would they not have to give up work entirely, but they would be able to go down to part-time work without fearing that it would interfere with their national insurance and state pension contributions.

I hope that the Government will consider those two proposals, which would improve the Bill. National insurance credits for grandparents, in particular, would give lone
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parents confidence that they had the back-stop of a good-quality childminder in whom they had confidence. That would make them more likely to be well disposed to the other things that the Government are to offer lone parents, such as training, getting work-ready and getting into work.

If the Bill is about anything, it should be about empowering disabled people by giving them individual control of their budget and empowering lone parents to get into work and provide the best possible life for their children. It should be about empowering people who were written off by previous Governments and left on the sidelines. They have been considered too difficult, and particularly in times of economic downturn it has been said, “Well, we needn’t bother with them because they’re too difficult. We’ll just deal with the easy ones.” They deserve a lot more than that from this Government, so I welcome the Bill and I am glad that it will be given its Second Reading tonight.

6.52 pm

Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con): It is a great pleasure to be able to follow the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), because she has done something quite remarkable. She has again raised the profile of the need for blind people to receive the higher rate of mobility allowance. It is a cause that has been close to my heart, too, for a very long time. In fact, 20 years ago, similar action that I took in this place produced an agreement by the Government to provide blind people with the lower rate. I have been fighting for the higher rate ever since, and the hon. Lady has given the issue a high profile.

I believe that we have now convinced Ministers that raising the allowance is appropriate. The difficulty, as usual with these things, is finding the money. To reiterate what is at stake, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who is no longer in his place, is an example of what can be done by blind people given the right opportunities and the right support in the community. He is a wonderful example to all blind people of what they can achieve.

Once one considers the matter, it becomes obvious that blind people find it very difficult to get into work, let alone back into work, if they cannot travel independently from their homes to a place of work. Unless they have somebody to escort them, they cannot go on buses, because they cannot see which bus is coming along. They cannot use the tube or the trains that we use. The only means of transport available to blind people, unless they are escorted by somebody else, is taxis or private hire vehicles, which are extremely expensive. The cost deters most of them from even trying to get into work as it means that the prospect is not viable.

The Government have clearly accepted the argument in principle, but they have not yet made a further leap and said, “Yes, this is something that we must do as part of our determination to get people into work”. I suggest to them that it would not necessarily be as expensive as they have suggested. They have suggested that it might cost £45 million. It might, although that is higher than the estimate of the Royal National Institute of Blind People.

However, we must offset against the costs the economic benefit that many blind people would create if they were to go back into work. Instead of depending largely
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on the state, they would become independent and create their own taxable revenue. They would pay national insurance, and a lot of money would flow back to the Government. I am not at all sure whether the Government have considered that in sufficient detail. Were they to do so, they might find that the cost was actually relatively negligible. Given the amount that they are now spending on all sorts of other things that are in many cases less important, I hope they might be able to accept an amendment in Committee. I have established with the Clerks that such an amendment would fall within the scope of the Bill’s long title, and would not require any changes.

The Secretary of State has said that he believes we might be able to find ways of achieving such an outcome, and there have already been extensive discussions between the RNIB and the Government on what the threshold of disability should be to qualify for the higher rate. One can understand that blindness is not an absolute, as some people have relatively little impairment in seeing and others are totally blind. Some point along the spectrum will have to be chosen at which people will qualify for the higher rate of allowance. We can discuss that, and we may be able to achieve agreement. I honestly believe that if the Government are sincere in their desire to put more people who suffer from disabilities back into employment, it is incumbent on them to consider this very good and simple way of doing so.

6.58 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I wish to try to persuade the House not to give the Bill a Second Reading. I do so not because I do not believe that welfare reform is relevant, which I do, and not because I do not think that welfare reform is becoming more urgent, which I do. I simply believe that the Bill is largely irrelevant to the position in which many of our constituents will find themselves long before it receives Royal Assent.

I pose the question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State: when were the ideas that built up the Bill conceived, and in which world? They were conceived in a world in which we though that the boom would go on for ever, that there would be no problems such as we have experienced in the past and that the marvellous record of the past 10 years, when at least 3 million jobs have been created, would continue into the future.

Two pieces of information in the pre-Budget report are relevant to our debate. One is the Government’s estimate of the borrowing requirement; the other details unemployment levels. Before long, when the Government revise both figures, they will envisage unemployment reaching the pre-Budget report levels not at the end of next year, but, sadly, by the middle of this year. We are entering an economic hurricane and we need to judge whether the Bill will protect the jobs of those who are in work—some of my hon. Friends pleaded for such protection—and whether we are spending the valuable resources of the welfare reform of the past 10 years in the best way possible to get people who are out of work into work.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend intend some form of apartheid whereby those who have been in the workplace for 20 or 30 years and
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find themselves out of work have a much greater right to get back into work than those who need considerably more support? What will that do for achieving our social mobility goals? Has he considered that the recession could be patchy and affect different parts of the country and different types of employment in many different ways? In that case, making overall blanket exclusions and not offering help where it can be given would be foolish. Has he—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Lady has made her point.

Mr. Field: I am arguing my case for the very reasons that my hon. Friend outlined; the continuation of existing policies will lead to the apartheid that she mentioned. That takes me to my first substantive point.

Let us consider the record of the new deal and making work pay. In doing so, let us record that we spent £75,000 million of taxpayers’ money to finance those schemes. Let me remind the House of some of the success figures. Being in work for 13 weeks —permanent employment—is one. We do not collect data after that. Many hon. Friends with marginal seats would not perceive 13 weeks as permanent employment, but perhaps more of that on another day.

I want to concentrate on the new deal for young people. When the scheme began, half of those on it went into a job for 13 weeks or more. Now, two thirds fail to do that. An escalating number of young people are just retreads on the schemes, participating for the second, third or fourth time, or many more. A quarter of those on the new deal for 25-plus people leave benefit, but then go on to incapacity benefit, and 0.3 per cent. of those on the new deal for 50-plus manage to get a job for 13 weeks or more.

Given that we are now leaving the world of rapidly expanding job markets, and will sadly experience surging unemployment, I make two pleas to the Government. I would like them to say for how long we will continue with the schemes, with declining success. At what point do we pull the plug and realise that we could spend the money more effectively?

The first reform I would like is for young people in my constituency and others, whom we have failed through our education system. Some can hardly put a sentence together after 13 years of public investment in their skills and employability. Many have not worked since leaving school. Of course, they left school early because it was so boring and irrelevant to them. I would like us to begin to use the money that we are currently wasting on many of them to establish the one job creation success of the previous Labour Government—the community programme. There should be real jobs for young people. It is not acceptable to allow them to go through the years after school never working. We need more direct intervention. I am asking not for more money to be spent, but for it to be spent differently. We should concentrate our efforts on that group.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has understood the nuances of Labour Members’ concern about single parents. I appreciate that it looks good on a press release—the spin is good—when we say that we are going to rough up some more single parents to get them back to work, but unlike the group I have
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been discussing, they have a job to get on with. The unemployment figures since the downturn started show that women have been losing jobs at twice the rate of men. It will be much more difficult for single mothers to gain jobs in the new world which we are entering. Of course, I accept the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) expressed so well: everybody must be in favour of single mothers maintaining, whenever possible, contact with the labour market. However, if we are considering sanctions, surely they should be linked to those who do not have family responsibilities, who have never worked and for whom we should provide an actual job. My first plea for reform is therefore to make the Bill relevant to those people.

My second plea is for our many constituents who have worked for 10, 20 and 30 years and will sadly be made unemployed. They will get the shock of their lives when they sign on for their national insurance benefit jobseeker’s allowance and find how pitiful the sum is. Instead of continuing to waste money on cutting VAT, we should use it to double JSA national insurance benefit for those who have had, for example, five years’ continuous employment. For those who have worked for 10 or more years, we should pay triple the rate. We know that those people will move back to work as soon as they can. Surely our system should provide them with a much better income than they currently get from an immaculate contribution record.

Mr. David Anderson: My right hon. Friend talks about tripling the amount of money that people who have been in long-term employment get. Might not that be a disincentive to going back to work? It might not be worth going back to work for the wages in the labour market.

Mr. Field: I did not want to embarrass the Government by telling them what JSA national insurance benefit is. Not even tripling it will prevent the people whom I mentioned from going back to work. Work is in their DNA—they will move from unemployment as soon as they can. There is no question of their hanging around.

I am sure that amendments will be tabled on Report about putting fathers’ names on birth certificates. The Secretary of State said that the scheme would not change, so nothing much will happen. However, I believe that we must devise some mechanism whereby children who want to find out the identity of both parents can trace them at some stage. Surely it is not impossible to ask for that information without a Chinese wall. Why do we assume that we must make males put their names on birth certificates? There are some males who wish to put their names on birth certificates and are prevented from doing so. On Report, I hope that the Government will provide a more flexible response.

I shall end as I began, by saying that the Bill, which was drafted in an age of an ever-expanding job market, is no longer relevant in the economic hurricane that is beginning to affect our constituents. We shall need to reshape it radically if we are to serve the needs of our constituents. Sadly, I believe that before it is even given Royal Assent, many more people in the country will be saying exactly the same thing.

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7.10 pm

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): I am tempted to use the first part of my speech to defend accountants, as they got a raw deal earlier. However, I suppose that there are good accountants and bad accountants.

There are parts of the Bill that we are happy to welcome. For example, the power to pay pension credit automatically is positive, because we know that between a quarter and a third of pensioners do not claim their entitlements, and that that has been the case for a number of years. We also agree in principle that we want to encourage people to work. Not only does that increase their income and the wealth of the whole economy; it improves folks’ health and well-being, as they feel that they are really contributing to society. We want children to grow up in households where the parents are working. We want to break the cycle in which members of the new generation have never seen their parents work. I believe that the majority of claimants want to get to work.

During the recess, I spent a morning in a Jobcentre Plus in my constituency. I sat in on a couple of interviews, and I saw folk who were really desperate to get back to work. The question that has just been asked, however, is: are the jobs actually out there? This seems a strange time to introduce this legislation. It might have worked two years ago, but this is surely the wrong time for it. Surely the Government have some responsibility to provide jobs. Can the Secretary of State assure us that jobs will be available when these people want them? Perhaps it would have been better for the £12 billion that was spent on the VAT cut to go into construction and into creating new jobs.

There is a fear that the Bill will remove the welfare safety net. Conditionality is an interesting word. It sounds okay on the surface, but what does it actually mean underneath? Does it mean that people will have to fulfil certain conditions in order to have the right to eat and to live? If people are on an income that is above the minimum, we could make that extra bit conditional. Surely, however, in a civilised society, we cannot make the minimum conditional.

My particular concern is for children and older people in the system. I have already asked Ministers whether they agree with Barnardo’s hope that dependent children will be taken into account before sanctions are enforced. Figures from the United States suggest that when sanctions have been imposed, 60 per cent. of the children involved are at a higher risk of being underweight. And what about those at the other end of the age range? Unemployment among the over-50s is rising twice as fast as in other age groups, and unemployed men over 50 have only a one in five chance of being in a job in two years’ time. Is it right to put pressure on that group as well?

How about having a few more conditional carrots, instead of just conditional sticks? For example, is the minimum wage high enough? Surely the real incentive to get people back into work is the knowledge that they will earn a living wage when they get there. I really must question how we can consider welfare reform without looking at the minimum wage at the same time.

Mr. Davidson: What is your figure?

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