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House of Commons

Monday 2 February 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Child Poverty

1. Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): What progress has been made towards achieving the Government’s target to eradicate child poverty; and if he will make a statement. [253024]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): Since 1998-99, 600,000 children have been lifted out of relative poverty and the number of children in absolute poverty has halved from 3.4 million to 1.7 million. Government measures over the past two years will lift about a further 500,000 children from relative poverty. On 28 January, we launched the consultation, “Ending Child Poverty: Making It Happen”, ahead of a child poverty Bill that will enshrine in legislation the Government’s promise to eradicate child poverty by 2020.

Kerry McCarthy: Does my right hon. Friend share my belief that children should not be written off or consigned to a life in poverty just because they happen to come from single-parent families? Will he join me in rejecting calls for preferential treatment for the children of married couples and confirm that he believes that all children should be given the best start in life regardless of their parents’ circumstances?

James Purnell: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is right that we should help children whatever their family backgrounds, and that means not only helping them through tax credits and reducing poverty in that way, but helping them into work, because work is the best route out of poverty.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): But another report today emphasises the connection between relationship breakdown and adverse effects on youngsters. If the right hon. Gentleman means exactly what he says about ensuring an equality of outcome, can the resources that are currently spent on the consequences of breakdown be reordered, so that we do more to prevent relationships from breaking down in the first place, rather than picking up the bill for the consequences, which cost so much, not least to the children themselves?

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James Purnell: Surely, we should do both. That is exactly why we are, for example, investing more in family intervention projects to help the families who are in the most difficult circumstances, while increasing the amount of money that we put into tax credits. We said in the last Budget that we would take, in total, another 500,000 children out of poverty. I do not think that the Conservative party would have pursued that policy if they had been in power.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are some hard to reach families—I know that there are some in my constituency—and that, sometimes, there are parents who are either addicted to hard drugs or alcohol? There are also children from families whose wider family have brought in a husband or wife, with no education, from very poor parts of Pakistan or Bangladesh. I am not sure whether there are any remedies for such very hard to reach families, but I would appreciate my right hon. Friend’s comments.

James Purnell: My hon. Friend identifies a very important issue, which is exactly why we commissioned Professor Paul Gregg to consider how we can help families in those circumstances. That is why we are saying that we would require such families to find out about the support that is available and then be required, once their youngest child is three years old, to take up skills training or drug treatment to get off drugs and into work. I only wish that the Conservative party would support those measures.

Mr. Speaker: Nigel Griffiths.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Griffiths, Evans, Jones—we are all the same.

Poverty for youngsters is often reinforced when a married couple separates by a missing parent who refuses to take their responsibility. The Child Support Agency is often deficient in chasing the missing parent. What action can the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the CSA takes to make sure that it tracks down missing parents, so that they pay for their own children?

James Purnell: In the past year, the CSA—now the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission—has collected an extra £156 million, but we agree that more needs to be done. That is why we are taking powers in the Welfare Reform Bill to be able to take away people’s passports or driving licences without a court process. That will make things much more speedy. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support that, unlike the Conservative party in the Lords the last time that that was proposed. That is also why we are saying that, where there is a payment, parents should be able to keep all of it and that there should be a complete disregard for child maintenance payments and benefits. We think that that could lift an extra 100,000 children out of poverty.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab): I welcome the publication of “Ending Child Poverty” by the child poverty unit and the road map to 2020 that it sets out. My right hon. Friend will know that, whenever we meet experts, they always raise the issue of financial exclusion and the problem that that causes in respect of child poverty. Does he agree that that will play an important role in helping us to meet that 2020 target? If so, will he consider building on the proposals that are currently in the Welfare Reform Bill?

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James Purnell: Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to do more to support credit unions and enhance financial literacy, so that people know, for example, whether their financial arrangements are not in the best possible order. More money must be put into reducing poverty directly, thus both giving people more resources and a greater ability to earn money. If we had kept to the same policy as the Conservative party, 2 million more children would be in poverty.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): According to a recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 15 indicators of poverty and social exclusion had worsened in the five years preceding the onset of the current economic downturn, more than double the number in the previous five years. That includes the number of people living in very low-income households. Perhaps it is little wonder that the number of children living in poverty has risen by 100,000 in the past two years. How does the Secretary of State explain the Government’s poor performance?

James Purnell: By referring the right hon. Lady to the OECD report, which stated that we had the best record among the industrialised countries for reducing child poverty and inequality.

Mrs. May: Yet again, the Secretary of State is very complacent about his attitude to the issue. Another example of the Government’s complacency is their refusal to end the couple penalty in the tax credit system, which would lift 300,000 children out of poverty. Why will the Government not do that?

James Purnell: The right hon. Lady has no policy of that kind, because she has no way of funding it. The Conservatives used to say that they would fund it out of welfare reform, but now they are not prepared to do as much welfare reform as us. If the right hon. Lady wants to repeat that claim, she will have to find new resources. Hers is a policy without a budget, and I hope that she will not pretend to repeat it.

Benefit Payments

2. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to ensure the prompt payment of benefits to people registering as newly unemployed. [253025]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Tony McNulty): Jobcentre Plus is recruiting the additional staff needed to maintain a good service in the current economic conditions, and new jobseeker’s allowance claims continue to be cleared within the agreed target of just over 10 days, on average.

Tony Lloyd: As my right hon. Friend knows, moving into unemployment is traumatic in itself for many people, but it can also be very confusing because of the interrelationship between jobseeker's allowance and other benefits. Can my right hon. Friend give the House a guarantee that the Government, and those who work for the Government, will make creating a seamless exchange for new claimants a priority, so that they do not fall foul of the consequences of either overpayment or underpayment?

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Mr. McNulty: My hon. Friend is entirely right. That, ultimately, is the ethos behind the merger of the Benefits Agency and the Jobcentre Plus network. I know that Jobcentre Plus staff endeavour to give everyone, at the appropriate time, all the information that they need both on establishing a JSA claim and on the ensuing benefits. The staff also work closely with local government, when that is possible, in connection with other benefits such as housing and council tax benefits.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): While we are discussing the topic of prompt payment of benefits, may I ask when the Department will be in a position to issue a statement on the payment of disability living allowance to those living in other European Union countries?

Mr. McNulty: I understand that that will happen in the near future, but I will certainly get back to the right hon. Gentleman if the position is different.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Does the Minister accept that many of our constituents who have recently been made unemployed and who may have worked for 10, 20 or 30 years are slightly shocked that the national insurance benefit for which they paid over that period amounts to £60.50 a week, exactly the same sum that they would receive if they had not worked for a single day? What plans has he to reform and increase national insurance benefit, so that the national insurance fund, which is in surplus, helps to carry some of the burden of the recession?

Mr. McNulty: My right hon. Friend is right in terms of the premise of his question, but he is not right to imply that that is all that anyone will receive in such circumstances. I will send him some worked-up examples of other benefits that apply, some—although not all—of which take account of the national insurance contribution history.

At the risk of putting my head on the block, let me say that I think that many of my right hon. Friend’s recent pronouncements about taking full account of the history of contributions are worth considering in the longer term.

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): As more people lose their jobs, many jobcentres will struggle to deal with the numbers coming through their doors. Will the Minister consider proposals to use other public buildings, such as council service points or libraries, to extend the reach of Jobcentre Plus, especially in communities where there may not be a jobcentre? That would particularly benefit people living in remote and rural areas such as those that I represent.

Mr. McNulty: The hon. Gentleman has made a fair point. We are already doing that, but we may well need to do more given the volume of people going through the system. When I was up in Scotland fairly recently, there was much use of GPs’ waiting rooms and GP focus centres. As we implement children’s centres throughout the country, they will become another obvious possibility. Given that we are trying to move more and more towards a personalised service for each individual—often confidential, but sometimes involving groups—the space
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within which that happens will become almost a secondary consideration, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about using the wider public estate.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is right about the need to get people into jobcentres as quickly as possible, but can he assure me that the training will be up to scratch? We have observed lately that some of the people in Jobcentre Plus are not up to the mark in dealing with the sensitive problems experienced by some of my constituents, and I hope that the training will become a great deal better than it is at present.

Mr. McNulty: I am sorry to hear that, and if my hon. Friend has details of particular cases I would be happy to look at them. I made a rather foolish and rash promise on a recent Radio 2 show to look at each and every individual complaint, so I am happy to report that there has been a trickle of such complaints, but not the avalanche that the officials who were with me—they fell off their chairs when they heard what I said—thought that there might be. My hon. Friend is right: we have to update the training of staff in Jobcentre Plus constantly, not least for the reasons alluded to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)—that many people presenting this time around to Jobcentre Plus will have been in gainful employment for 10, 20, 30 years or more, and this will be completely new territory for them. We are trying to get that message across to our staff.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Some of the newly unemployed are in urgent need of assistance from the social fund, so why is it that the Department can answer callers to the CSA within an average of 18 seconds, when it often takes applicants to the social fund days to get through? The Department does not even know how many calls it is losing. When will the Department make a commitment to give a decent level of service to the most vulnerable?

Mr. McNulty: That is a serious point, but the hon. Gentleman should perhaps calm down. We are doing much better than we have in the past. It has been an area in which we have been lacking, but I am assured that things are improving considerably. If the hon. Gentleman has examples of that not being the case, I will happily look into them, but he will have to agree that the situation is much better than it was.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): One group of people that has been contacting me recently is the self-employed who are now out of work because their businesses have gone bust. That particular group seems to be having difficulties. What are the Government doing to ensure that that group are getting some advice about what help they can get at this difficult time?

Mr. McNulty: That is a fair point, and I will happily meet my hon. Friend and some of the people about whom he is concerned to lay out clearly exactly what is on offer for the self-employed. At the other end of the continuum, we are trying to say, especially with our enhanced support at six months, that self-employment may be a route out of people’s current circumstances, but it is imperative that we show clearly what a self-employed
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individual can expect from the wider benefits system as well as from Jobcentre Plus. I will happily talk to my hon. Friend about that in more detail.

Pensioner Poverty

4. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): What recent progress he has made in reducing the incidence of poverty among pensioners. [253027]

The Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society (Ms Rosie Winterton): We have made significant progress in reducing the incidence of poverty among pensioners. Through targeted support and £13 billion of extra spending, the proportion of pensioners in relative low income has fallen from 29 per cent. in 1998 to 19 per cent. in 2006-07, with 900,000 pensioners lifted out of relative poverty.

Bob Spink: I congratulate the Government on the various initiatives that they have brought forward to help hard-pressed pensioners. One of the best is of course pension credit: the problem is that many elderly people do not take it up for some reason. What will the Minister do to increase take-up to help hard-pressed pensioners by hundreds—and sometimes even a couple of thousand—pounds a year?

Ms Winterton: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must be vigilant in ensuring that pensioners know about pension credit. I am happy to say that in his constituency the number of households in receipt of pension credit has increased from 2,680 in November 2003 to 4,150 in May 2008. We are continuing to make changes—for example, housing benefit, council tax benefit and pension credit can be claimed over the phone in one phone call. We are also simplifying processes and making home visits to people who want them.

Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): Many pensioners rely on interest from savings to supplement their state pension. They have seen that income drop considerably as interest rates have fallen. Will my right hon. Friend look again at the way in which the amount of savings held impacts on the range of benefits that a pensioner is entitled to receive?

Ms Winterton: As my hon. Friend knows, the Government have not had a cut-off point for savings above £6,000. The amount that people are expected to contribute from their own resources used to be based on £1 for every £250 of savings, and we have increased that amount to £500. There is now no upper limit on the amount of savings that pensioners can have before they are entitled to some help through pension credit.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): The Minister will be aware that there are a significant number of expatriate pensioners living in France and other European countries who are suffering considerable poverty as a result of the Government’s inability to honour the European Court’s findings and to pay to them the disability living allowance and other benefits to which they are entitled. When are the Government going to make a decision on that issue? [Official Report, 9 February 2009, Vol. 487, c. 10MC.]

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