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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op):
Will the Under-Secretary reassure Labour Members that she will not revert to the sort of advice given by the former hon. Member for Salmonella and South Derbyshire in a previous Government: that older people should knit woolly hats? Does she agree that any action that we take should be tangible and well thought out, not
specious and patronising nonsense, which probably damaged the woollen hat industry in my hon. Friends part of the world?
Kitty Ussher: Indeed. My hon. Friends point speaks for itself. We are providing real help, which is why the cold weather payment increased from £8.50 to £25 this winterI presume that that increase would not happen under a Conservative Government, since Conservative Members voted against it.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Does the Minister not accept that many elderly and retired people are very responsible and thrifty, and although they might benefit from a cold weather payment, they will hesitate to turn up their heating to give them an acceptable quality of life during a very cold spell such as today and, therefore, could well suffer from hypothermia? Is there any wayperhaps by following the suggestion from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox)that one could re-examine the way that cold weather payments are met, taking account of the responsible and thrifty people who comprise a majority of our retired people?
Kitty Ussher: We are looking at improving the communication available to people as to whether they will be eligible. Everybody on pension credit as well as other low income groups will be eligible, even if the forecast rather than the actuality is an average of less than 0º C over a seven-day period. People can therefore act with confidence in the knowledge that they will get their payments quickly and in time for their next bill when it lands on their doorstep.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My hon. Friend is aware that pensioners are afraid to put on their heating because of the high energy prices, but we must remember that huge profits are being made by the energy companies. Has she considered having conversations with the energy companies to see whether they will pass on some of their money to pensioners, rather than keeping the immoral profits? Let us see if we can ring-fence those profits and bring them back to pensioners through vouchers.
Kitty Ussher: My hon. Friend knows that that is rightly not a matter for our Department, but I agree with the point that he makes. That is why I am pleased that my right hon. Friends managed to negotiate the social tariff. I urge all energy companies to ensure that they pass on information about the availability of that to all their customers who may be eligible.
The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Tony McNulty): Latest figures show that 3 per cent. of the UK working age population and 1.7 per cent. of the Banbury working age population are claiming jobseekers allowance.
Tony Baldry: Last Friday a weekly job club was launched in Banbury with the support of the whole community. Between 200 and 300 jobseekers turned up for the first day, which is an indication of how grim the situation is getting. What is Jobcentre Plus doing to ensure that notified vacancies are matched up to jobseekers as quickly as possible, and that jobseekers can as easily as possible access the Jobcentre Plus notified vacancies? Not every town has a Jobcentre Plus office.
Mr. McNulty: I take the hon. Gentlemans point, which is why we are making sure that there is outreach work, for want of a better phrase, directed at smaller towns and areas. He will know that the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire district has developed a local employment partnership through which many of the notified vacancies are filled. About 45 per cent. of all vacancies are signed up to through the local employment partnership, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must not only provide help and support, but get notified vacancies publicised to as wide an audience as possible. I will reflect on his point about rural areas and the sparsity of provision of Jobcentre Plus offices. They cannot be everywhere. Much of the work that we do in respect of notified vacancies is over the phone or the internet. None the less, it is a fair point and I will reflect on it.
Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Women in the retailing and hospitality industries, especially those in part-time jobs, are particularly vulnerable at this time. What is Jobcentre Plus doing specifically to address the needs of women workers who lose their jobs?
Mr. McNulty: Again, that is an entirely fair question. On the figures up to now, I do not concur entirely with what the TUC said about last months figuresthat this is turning in to an equal opportunities recession, with a disproportionate impact on womensave for the fact that we know that in all downturns or recessions, part-time work, short-time work and temporary work are the first to go. Those are the very categories that include women. We are making sure that Jobcentre Plus is doing all it can not just for women who present, but especially for those from the retail sector. Our colleagues will know and understand that, as I said in my previous answer, we need to link up much more directly the vacancies out there in the retail sector with those recently made unemployed in the retail sector. It is a fair point that [Interruption. ] Along with the impact on young people and others, we need to keep an eye on that point during these serious times, which the Opposition clearly are not bothered about.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Do we not have to put the figures that the right hon. Gentleman gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) against the background that the number of UK workers in work went down last year, while the number of non-UK workers has gone up, with most coming from outside the EU? Is it not the case that we need effective control over work permits for workers coming from outside the EU? We also need an effective welfare-to-work policy for the nearly 2 million people who are unemployed, and for the additional 2 million economically inactive people who want to work, but who have been left to languish on benefits. Can we have less spin, less dithering and some fresh thinking please?
Mr. McNulty: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has the front to say less spin at the end of that question. He does make some serious points, but let us be clear: about 8 per cent. of those in employment are foreign nationals and UK nationals account for more than nine out of 10 people in employment. Well over half of the increase in employment since 1997 is accounted for by UK citizens.
Through the points-based system, we are improving considerably the situation regarding work permits. Broadly speaking, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues agree that there should be a focus on the economy and the skills shortage in the migration process, but he must be careful when using the other figures that he bandies about. Either he is conflating the International Labour Organisation and incapacity benefit figures, or he is [ Interruption. ] It is not possible to use them to arrive at the figure cited by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) of more than 5 million, giving the impression that they are all economically inactive, without includingat least in partthose on disability living allowance, many of whom are in work, and carers, to whom it is a complete insult to suggest that they are in such a position.
Miss McIntosh: Can the Minister tell the House what happens at the end of six months when those claimants come off jobseekers allowance? Do they no longer feature on the register of the unemployed? How many of them are in work? It is an absolute scandal that those people receive money for six months, and then are no longer either in employment or on the unemployment register.
Mr. McNulty: Their numbers are reflected in the ILO figures, which is why we accept without comment the notion of two sets of figures. I thought that the hon. Lady was going to say how wonderful it was that Yorkshire Forward and the Government have agreed on £54 million Train to Gain funds for those recently made redundant in Yorkshire. It is a shame that she did not want to celebrate that.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell):
The Government are determined to avoid the mistakes of previous recessions when, too often, short-term job loss became long-term unemployment. In addition
to the £1.3 billion in extra investment through the pre-Budget report, we have now taken further action through an extra £500 million of support for people who have been on jobseekers allowance for six months. Those measures will mean that personal advisers can offer a range of additional options to help people to get the support that is right for them so that they can get back to work.
Angela Watkinson: Will the Secretary of State clarify the Governments plans to compensate Equitable Life pensioners? Will he take this opportunity to reject any suggestion that only those policyholders who are experiencing financial hardship should be compensated? It was not the recommendation of the parliamentary ombudsman that compensation should be means-tested. It should be paid to everyone who has suffered loss caused by regulatory failure.
James Purnell: The Government have apologised for the problems that occurred under both the hon. Ladys Government and ours. We have said that we will make ex gratia payments, but that is a matter for the Treasury, and she is very welcome to ask the Treasury that question.
T4.  Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): I very much welcome the relaxation of the 16-hour rule and the fact that it is possible under the national voluntary training pathfinder for people in certain categories to get into training quickly. However, given the recession and the number of people in Stoke-on-Trent who find themselves out of work, there is an urgency about ensuring that they can access training from day one. Will my right hon. Friend review the integrated employment and skills framework, and will he get back to me on this issue?
James Purnell: I hope that I can do better than that. People can train from day one, as long as they combine that with a job search. Indeed, they can train earlier. For example, with Wedgwood and other major redundancies, we are going in from the moment that they are announced, to see whether we can retrain people so that they can get a new job, either in the same sector or, potentially, one that is close, but different. We want to provide training whenever it is appropriate.
T5.  Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): Given the rapidly worsening employment position in Wales, as illustrated most recently by the loss of 1,100 jobs at Corus last week, can the Secretary of State say how much his Department liaises with the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that those affected by redundancies receive as seamless a service as possible from all levels of government, to help address the financial consequences of their job loss and to prepare themselves for new employment?
James Purnell: We work together very closely; indeed, I met the First Minister recently to discuss how our employment policies could be best dovetailed. We have learnt from the ReAct and ProAct schemes that the Welsh Assembly Government introduced, which we have used for the six-month offer that we have introduced, which includes employment subsidies and training. We are learning from what is working in Wales and across the whole country.
T6.  Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): In my area of Teesside, a nylon plant is going to be closed down after 50 years in operation and 300 highly skilled people will be made redundant. What support can the Government give to those highly skilled people at this very difficult time and what help can they give, so that they can find alternative work?
The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Tony McNulty): I hope that in the first instance Jobcentre Plus will send in its rapid response service to deal with those individuals long before the redundancies kick in. That has been done successfully elsewhere, notably with Woolworths and some other companies, often on a regional basis, but I would be happy to talk to my hon. Friend separately about ensuring that it happens in this instance, too.
T7.  Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): The Government have admitted that unemployed people entitled to support with mortgage interest payments have on occasions received less than they should have done, owing to a computer glitch. How many people have been underpaid and by how much, and can the Minister now give an undertaking that not one of those affected will lose their home?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Kitty Ussher): I can absolutely give the hon. Gentleman that assurance, because increased payments are going out from today for the next few weeks, so that the overall payment received by people is exactly the 6.08 per cent. that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor specified in the pre-Budget report. Just by way of explanation, the reason why peoples payments dipped slightlyand why they will be higher, so that the average is precisely 6.08 per cent.is that the Bank of England reduced its base rate on 6 November, but the pre-Budget report was not published until 24 November. In the intervening period, our automatic tracker system went into effect, which meant that some payments were reduced, but that is now being compensated for. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentlemans question, although I will write to him with the precise number of people affected.
Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): Sadly, with the huge decline in jobs in the ceramics industry in north Staffordshire over many years, the trade union Unity, the former ceramic union, has extensive experience of helping people back into work. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the work being done, particularly at Wedgwood recently, and would he care to visit my constituency to see the factory and meet workers and others affected by the downturn?
Mr. McNulty: At the risk of accepting every invitation, I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend in his constituency to talk to Unity and others, not least about the work that the rapid response service has been doing and how it has helped, and about the outstanding difficulties in the ceramics industry.
T9.  Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con):
All Ministers present will be aware that the benefit system deems people to be earning a rate of almost 10 per cent. on their savings when it makes benefit
calculations. Can any one of the Ministers tell us where such a rate of interest can be secured in these straitened times, when the bank rate is plunging towards zero? If they cannot, can they tell us when those assessments will be fairer?
The Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society (Ms Rosie Winterton): I can assure the hon. Lady that there is no 10 per cent. rule. Tariff income is a simple method of calculating the contribution that people with £6,000 of capital are expected to make to help meet their living costs. Under the previous Government, anyone with savings over £12,000 was not eligible for any support at all. Also, the less generous rules assumed £1 a week income for every £250 of savings. The rate of tariff income is now half the previous rate, and we also abolished the upper capital limit, giving more people access to more support.
Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): The Government have made it clear that training payments will be available to major companies that train those who are still unemployed after six months. Midlothian council is by far the biggest single employer in my constituency. Will the Secretary of State ensure that all local authorities are also entitled to that payment for training requirements?
James Purnell: I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that. We want to make sure that we use the training subsidies in the most effective way possible. It is just a shame that the Scottish National party Government are cutting training, rather than increasing it.
Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): As the Secretary of State is aware, the Buncefield incident decimated the commercial sector in my constituency. Sadly, unemployment is now 30 per cent. higher than it was in 1997. Lord Newtons report specifically said that Hemel Hempstead required special status to help regeneration. Where is that help?
Mr. McNulty: Although I am more than aware of the circumstances of the Buncefield fire, I do not know what is happening across government to provide the help mentioned in the report. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, or indeed to write to him in fuller detail.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): The administrators of a company called Gibsons in my constituency have thus far failed to answer questions that I have raised about the employment rights of the people who were made redundant after the factory closure. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State encourage Jobcentre Plus to impress on employers their duties and responsibilities when they make redundancies? In this particular case, if my right hon. Friend finds anything suspicious, will he ensure that his colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform are made aware of it?
I think that my hon. Friend has just made my colleague from that Department, the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, aware of the matter. We want administrators, and companies that are going into administration, to live up to their
responsibilities to their employees, and we want to make sure that they provide as much information as possible. There have been cases in which administrators have been reluctant to do that, and have even been reluctant to let in the rapid response service. We would be very worried if that continued to be the case. We want administrators and companies to help people who have lost their jobs as much as they possibly can.
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): In Newton Abbot, Jobcentre Plus shares offices with Her Majestys Revenue and Customs. What assurances can the Secretary of State give that those people in Revenue and Customs whom his Government are about to make redundant will be found employment by their colleagues downstairs?
James Purnell: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are working with HMRC to see whether precisely what he suggests can be done. If there is an opportunity to transfer people from Revenue and Customs to Jobcentre Plus, to which we are recruiting more people, we will do so. We are already in discussions with it about how that can be done.
Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree with the Secretary of State for Health, who yesterday called for a revision of the European posted workers directive to prevent the undercutting of terms and conditions, particularly in the construction sector, and to deal with various judgments of the European Court of Justice?
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