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2 Feb 2009 : Column 565

Ms Winterton: We have been clear that if people claimed the benefit before they moved abroad, they are entitled to continue to claim it. For people who are eligible for it, it is frozen at the limit at which they received it before they left.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South) (Lab): There is an increasing prevalence of one-stop shops in local authorities. I visited one last week in Halewood in Knowsley where constituents can access all sorts of services, including health services, social services, housing services and so on. One of the problems, of course, is identifying and making contact with those older people. Have the Government given thought to offering older people benefit health checks when they visit that sort of facility? That is a way of contacting the people who would otherwise not be claiming the benefits that they are entitled to and deserve.

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend raises an important point. We have been looking through some of the Link-Age pilots at how we can ensure that people have a one-stop shop approach to accessing services. He is quite right to say that that can be used as a way of ensuring that people have a benefits check at the same time.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): One of the gravest charges against this Government after a decade is that 60 per cent. of pensioners in deepest poverty are still not receiving income support, minimum income guarantee or pension credit entitlement. Given the Government’s sustained attack on savers and the fact that there are now a number of proud pensioners in this country who have never claimed anything from the state and who shy from doing so, which leads to disguised poverty among pensioners, when will the Government wake up and present to those people that they, too, are entitled to some kind of support?

Ms Winterton: I set out earlier the measures that we intend to take to ensure that people know their entitlement. We have made a number of changes to that. Of course, the hon. Gentleman might not be aware of some of the recommendations of the Turner commission about automatic enrolment and automaticity, which will make a difference.

Occupational Pensions

5. Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East) (Lab): What recent steps his Department has taken to protect employees’ occupational pensions. [253028]

The Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society (Ms Rosie Winterton): This Government introduced a more powerful and proactive pensions regulator to protect the benefits of occupational pension scheme members. We also established the Pension Protection Fund, which provides protection to more than 12 million members of eligible defined benefit occupational pension schemes. About 140,000 people will receive help from the financial assistance scheme.

Mr. Heppell: I thank the Minister for that answer. With the CBI and the TUC telling both employers and employees that now is not the time to withdraw or
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withhold pension contributions, what can the Government do to strengthen that message and get it across to people that pensions are now safer and a better long-term investment than they have ever been in the past?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is right. I welcome the consensus on such a long-term approach. Obviously, fluctuations in markets will affect the value of assets in the short-term, but the fact is that it is the long term that is important for pensions. The framework that we put in place in 2004 is stable and durable, but it is important that we continue to work with the pensions industry to ensure that we respond to the points that are made. It is also important that we work together to give out the message that pensions are one of the best means to save for retirement.

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): The Pension Protection Fund has been increasing the levy that it charges on company pension schemes each year, and it might now be approaching the ceiling that it is allowed to levy over the next few years, particularly as company schemes close. Once it reaches that ceiling, the only other way for it to make ends meet will be to cut pensions in payment. If it approaches the Government requesting permission to cut the value of pensions in payment, will the Minister guarantee that she will refuse such a request?

Ms Winterton: The PPF has made it clear that it does not believe that it needs to increase the levy. In fact, it has frozen the current rates for the general levy and for the PPF administration levy. Of course, the hon. Gentleman will know that we have a rolling deregulatory review to see how we can make the systems simpler and less burdensome, and that we have reduced the revaluation cap from 5 to 2.5 per cent. These are all measures that we are taking to support pensions at the moment.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): In view of the fact that some employers have announced their intention to close their occupational pension funds not only to new members but to existing members, is the Minister’s Department having discussions with such companies to try to dissuade them from taking such steps?

Ms Winterton: As I have said, we are trying to set the general framework, so that we can do everything we can to support companies and the industry at this time. I have outlined a number of the measures that we are taking, but we will continue to work with the industry on some of the concerns that is has raised, to ensure that we maintain that dialogue with it.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): But does the right hon. Lady accept that the last line of defence for occupational pensions is the Pension Protection Fund, which some experts now believe to be heading for a £1 billion deficit? Does she believe that the extra burden should fall on struggling companies, or that the benefits paid by the PPF should be cut? Or is she now reviewing whether the Government should stand behind the PPF as guarantor?

Ms Winterton: As I have said, the PPF has made it very clear that liquidity is not a problem. It has £3 billion in assets, and it is paying out about £4 million a month
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in compensation. It provides reassurance and an essential safety net, and it has made it very clear that liquidity is not a problem at this point.

Jobcentre Plus

6. Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of Jobcentre Plus services in dealing with an increase in the number of people registering as unemployed. [253029]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): Jobcentre Plus continues to meet the demands of the rising number of people looking for work. Clearance times are at an average of 10 days, which remains the best performance since records started to be kept in 2003-04.

Nia Griffith: Some former Woolworths employees might be fortunate enough to get one of Asda’s 7,000 new jobs, but for many other redundant workers, there might be a mismatch between their present skills and those required for any other jobs that are likely to become available in the foreseeable future. In the light of the comments of a former Woolworth’s employee on television yesterday that she would have to be unemployed for six months before becoming eligible for any new training, what help with training can people expect from jobcentres, and what plans does my right hon. Friend have to introduce more flexibility in order to give redundant workers earlier access to training schemes, when that is clearly what is required?

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I gently say, as I have said before, that although it is important that we argue for those who are unemployed, there should be no written statements made in supplementary questions? Also, supplementary questions should be short; I do not expect a prepared statement.

James Purnell: My hon. Friend makes the important point that we should be getting help to people, even before they are made redundant. That is why we have been working with Woolworths and others to get help for people to retrain, if necessary, and to improve their CV and their knowledge of how to look for work. From day one of their unemployment, people are able to train, as long as they combine that with a job search, and, after six months, we step up the support that we offer to people. We think that that is the right approach.

Anne Milton (Guildford) (Con): As we anticipate that mental illness is likely to rise with the rise of unemployment, what steps are the Government taking to ensure not only that the staff at jobcentres have adequate training but that they can refer people on so that they receive the necessary early intervention to ensure that their mental health does not deteriorate and further reduce their chances of getting back into work?

James Purnell: The hon. Lady makes a good point. We are working with pilots such as Talking Therapy, which she will know about, to make sure that employment advisers work side by side with therapists so that both employment prospects and people’s mental health are discussed. It is also important that we do not forget
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about people on incapacity benefit or employment and support allowance because of their mental health. We need to keep up the support and continue to reform welfare so that such people are not left behind because of their specific conditions.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): In her question, my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) referred to a situation in which a large number of people were being made redundant and in which training might therefore be offered. In Milton Keynes, there are more than 500 vacancies but large numbers of people are being made unemployed from a variety of different places. Can the Secretary of State think about how those people could be put on training almost straight away, to upgrade their skills so that they match the jobs available locally? There are no low-skilled jobs available for them.

James Purnell: That is a good point, and exactly why we say that people can train from day one as long as they combine that with a job search. Furthermore, if they have not found work after six months, we step up the offer so that there is either a full-time training course to support people setting up their own companies or a job subsidy to make sure that people do not become unemployed long term. The real danger is that long-term unemployment becomes the scar that defaced so many of our communities in previous recessions.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): How big an increase in staff is the Secretary of State planning for this year to deal with the unfortunately very large increase in unemployment that most people are forecasting?

James Purnell: We are planning to recruit an extra 6,000 people.

Mortgage Assistance

7. David Wright (Telford) (Lab): How much funding his Department plans to provide in 2008-09 to people with mortgages who have lost their jobs. [253030]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Kitty Ussher): We will provide the funding necessary to meet our commitment that people with mortgages who have been on income-based jobseeker’s allowance for 13 weeks can get help with interest on up to £200,000 of mortgage capital. Updated expenditure projections will, of course, be published in the Budget.

David Wright: “Lose your job, lose your home” is the great fear that people have at this time. It is important that they should get quality advice when they first approach Jobcentre Plus having lost their jobs. There is a little confusion out there about the type of product on offer. The Government have made positive changes on support for people who have mortgages and lose their jobs. Will the Minister make sure that the advice given by Jobcentre Plus is of the highest quality?

Kitty Ussher: My hon. Friend makes a good point. People who have been in work for a while and are paying mortgage costs may not be aware that the Government can, in some circumstances, take the burden of paying mortgage interest from them. We will be
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judged on how we respond to the recession that currently faces so many countries. In previous recessions, under previous Governments in this country, people ended up out on their ears and out of their homes due to the large number of repossessions. We are making sure that we are providing support to people where they need it. The first advice is always to talk to the lender, but the Government will now help after 13 weeks.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): Two months after the pre-Budget report, why are the Government still unable to set out the costs of their proposed mortgage deferral scheme and to say how many people will take up the scheme? Two months after a Government statement that promised action to help people with mortgage problems, there has been no delivery. When will the delivery take place?

Kitty Ussher: I simply do not understand the hon. Gentleman’s point because, as I just said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright), we will make the funding available to meet the commitments that we have stated clearly in the pre-Budget report. It has been estimated that, as a result of the more generous support for mortgage interest, about 5,000 repossessions will be avoided. Those repossessions might have taken place under the policies of the previous Conservative Government. Obviously, we are working with colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government to make sure that the package provided is what people want. Updated expenditure projections are always published in the Budget.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): Interest rates are at a record low and home ownership is at record levels. Is it not sound economics to keep everybody in their homes?

Kitty Ussher: As my hon. Friend will know, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister have been working with the Council of Mortgage Lenders to agree a deal to put to people who have mortgages with its banks and building societies. The details will be announced shortly; in fact, some have already been announced in the past few months. As a result of the pressure that we are putting on banks and building societies, the advice that we give people is clear: people should always talk to their lender first. There is flexibility there. After 13 weeks, the Government will help people on income-based jobseeker’s allowance who are having difficulty with their mortgage payments.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): Does the Under-Secretary agree that one way of reducing the number of unemployed people who have to seek mortgage help is by her instructing her officials, and the Chancellor instructing his, that bureaucracy in the Government should not impose the firm rules for VAT, PAYE and other taxes? Companies can then survive for longer than normal because they are not pursued by the bureaucracy, which, with its rigid, authoritarian approach, drives companies to the wall and creates greater unemployment.

Kitty Ussher: I do not know whether that point was directed to the hon. Gentleman’s Front Benchers or to ours, but we have already announced that companies can simply ring the Inland Revenue if they need help
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with rescheduling their payments to the Government. We are providing the flexibility. The problem with the Conservative party is that it will not agree to increase spending at this time to make such flexibilities— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): The help that the Government offer families on income support with their mortgage payments is welcome. However, in many families, one partner may be on short-time working, or one may have lost a job while the other is still in work. Those families are not on income support, but their reduced income means that they struggle hard with their mortgage payments. Can the Government do anything to assist families in those circumstances? Otherwise, we will have a lot of avoidable repossessions.

Kitty Ussher: Absolutely. Obviously, every family is in different circumstances—that is why it is important that the Government can work constructively with the Council of Mortgage Lenders to ensure that banks and building societies give appropriate advice and flexibility to people in all sorts of circumstances. It is not in the interests of the banks and building societies for repossessions to take place.

Cold Weather Payments

8. Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): When he next plans to review the mechanisms for triggering cold weather payments. [253031]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Kitty Ussher): The cold weather payment scheme is reviewed every year, normally in the summer. We consider the suitability of postcode to weather station links, and the effect of any changes to the postcode system made by the Royal Mail. Given today’s inclement weather, I hope that you will permit me, Mr. Speaker, to say that £165 million has been paid under the scheme so far this winter, including £16.7 million today to 668,000 people.

Mr. Cox: That is all very well, but hundreds of my constituents have been and are being deprived of cold weather payments, to which they should be entitled, especially in upland areas, because of the way in which the temperature is measured. For example, the temperature for Dartmoor is measured in the centre of Plymouth, where it can be between three and five degrees higher. Will the Under-Secretary take steps to review the method of measuring the temperature so that people in upland areas in Dartmoor can receive their cold weather payments?

Kitty Ussher: We take the professional advice of the Met Office in determining which postcodes are linked to which weather station. As I said previously, if the hon. Gentleman wants to make representations on behalf of his constituency, they will be taken into account. I will look into the matter that he has raised.

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