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House of Commons

Monday 16 March 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—

Jobcentre Plus

1. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment he has made of how Jobcentre Plus in Devon and Cornwall is responding to the increase in demand for its services arising from the recession. [263313]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): Jobcentre Plus in Devon and Cornwall continues to perform well despite rising work loads. New jobseeker’s allowance claims are being cleared within target. Jobcentre Plus is increasing staffing and ensuring it has the office and infrastructure capacity it needs to respond to the current economic situation.

Linda Gilroy: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, which certainly chimes with what district manager, Phil Weeks, told me when I met him recently. However, given the pressure and the great need among our constituents for the service, is my right hon. Friend absolutely confident that there are sufficient resources for us to be on the front foot not only now, but during the forthcoming, important months?

James Purnell: Yes, I think I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We are recruiting 6,000 extra people for Jobcentre Plus, 4,000 of whom have already been recruited. Thanks to that and the work that Jobcentre Plus staff are doing, we are processing claims in 10 days, compared with 13 days two years ago, and performance is up, even though more work is going through. I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in thanking Jobcentre Plus staff for all the work that they are doing.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): Given that, within Devon and Cornwall, unemployment has risen faster in my constituency than anywhere else, I have visited staff at my local Jobcentre Plus, who are doing a fantastic job. However, is there any possibility of reopening Jobcentre Plus in Paignton? Frankly, the Torquay centre is becoming overwhelmed with the ever-rising number of people out of work.

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James Purnell: If there are specific issues in Torquay, I am happy for the hon. Gentleman to write to me about them. Overall, however, we believe that the system is performing well—phone calls are being answered in a minute, and we are processing people’s claims faster than we were when unemployment was low. The key is for us to make sure that the system is flexible enough to respond to the high level of claims. We must also bring in extra help. We are, for example, bringing in extra training at six months so that people do not go from being short-term unemployed to long-term unemployed if they can get back into work with that extra help. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has congratulated Jobcentre Plus staff and I shall pass his words on to the chief executive.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman’s constituency is a bit far north of Devon and Cornwall, but we will hear what he has to say.

Mr. Field: Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the problems facing Jobcentre Plus in the south-west, as elsewhere, is the lack of jobs to offer claimants who want to work? Is he not disturbed, as I am, that up to last month the Government allowed in 150,000 skilled workers on their work permit scheme without those jobs having been tested and advertised first in the Jobcentre Plus network in the south-west and elsewhere? Will my right hon. Friend contact the Home Office and the Treasury this day to get that rule changed so that no one from the rest of the world is allowed to work in this country on a skilled-work permit until the jobs have been advertised in Jobcentre Plus?

James Purnell: We have already said that that is exactly what we are going to do; jobs at tier 2 will be advertised in Jobcentre Plus. However, it is important that we recognise two things. It is now harder for people to find work and there are fewer vacancies, so we need to provide people with more help. However, we should also say that we should not give up on the notion of people finding work; more than 200,000 people left JSA last month. We need to recognise that times are tougher and to make sure that we do not give up on people, but help them get work—by providing them with more help, rather than cutting it.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I add my thanks to the hard-working staff at Plymouth Jobcentre Plus, many of whom are my constituents; they are coping well with the current crisis.

With the benefit of hindsight and given that unemployment in Plymouth has risen by 53 per cent. in the past 12 months, was it not a crass error of judgment to close Plympton jobcentre? That has simply added more pressure to staff in the centre of the city.

James Purnell: Not at all. We wanted to modernise the service and we would have done that whatever the level of unemployment. We merged Benefits Agency and Employment Service offices so that when people sign on, they have to look for work as well. That process was recommended and praised by not just the National Audit Office, but the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, who commended the modernisation as a
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model big public sector project of its kind. The modernisation has been done precisely to improve the service for people, and it has improved.

In Plymouth, we are processing claims in 10 days, which is a significant improvement on two years ago. We are able to do that because of the modernisation programme, which has made the system more efficient and released resources so that there can be more front line advisers and we can give better help to people. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman’s party supported efficiency, but obviously it does not.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Many of my constituents claim child benefit through their local Jobcentre Plus office, but they report delays of three to four months in processing claims, which has a knock-on effect on many other benefits. What can the Secretary of State say to assure those people that there will be joined-up thinking across Departments and local authorities to ensure that people get the support, whichever Department it comes from, exactly when they need it?

James Purnell: The hon. Lady makes an important point. She may know that we have been conducting a pilot with the Local Government Association and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to look at how we can provide a single place for claiming benefits from HMRC, housing benefit and benefits from us. That has been so successful that we are now rolling it out around the country. She makes exactly the right point: people should have a convenient service whereby they can go into Jobcentre Plus and claim all those benefits in one place.

Jobseeker’s Allowance

2. Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): How many jobseeker’s allowance claimants there were in (a) the UK and (b) Reading, East constituency at the latest date for which figures are available. [263314]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Tony McNulty): In January 2009, there were 1,282,645 jobseeker’s allowance claimants in the UK and 1,585 in Reading, East constituency. Those numbers are based on seasonally unadjusted figures.

Mr. Wilson: I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he ask his colleague, the Secretary of State, to guarantee two things when he visits Jobcentre Plus in my constituency tomorrow? First, will he guarantee to its hard-working staff that Reading jobcentre will not join the 38 jobcentres that have been closed by this Government? Secondly, could he explain to my constituent, Chris Richman, why he may soon be able to claim £300 for a new suit for an interview but is refused an advance of the travel costs to get to an interview?

Mr. McNulty: I am sure that my right hon. Friend will get the same warm welcome at Reading Jobcentre Plus as I did when I was there quite recently. I gave the assurance then that not only would it remain open but that it, along with all the others, will get what it needs in terms of people, as well as other resources, to carry on doing the splendid job it is doing. On the hon. Gentleman’s second point, I therefore assume that he is against what we have announced on the £300.

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Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): On yesterday’s “Politics Show”, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was asked whether he could live on £60.50 a week jobseeker’s allowance. I can tell him that it is almost impossible for someone to do that if they are feeding themselves properly, paying their utility bills, especially throughout this winter, and have commitments such as direct debits or standing orders for contents insurance. A close member of my family is on jobseeker’s allowance, and if I were not topping it up—indeed, almost doubling it—he would not have a decent standard of living. I plead with my right hon. Friend the Minister to consider raising it when Budget time comes around.

Mr. McNulty: We have already announced that jobseeker’s allowance will go up in April; I am not sure if it is by 5 per cent. or 6.3 per cent. As my right hon. Friend said yesterday, very few people are required to live on jobseeker’s allowance alone; with a combination of other benefits, they will always be getting significantly more than that. I take my hon. Friend’s point, none the less. We have modernised and put efficiencies into the Jobcentre Plus network to try to get people back into work at the earliest opportunity.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The average age of engineers on the London underground is now 58. I have a large number of automotive engineers on my patch who have just been made redundant at prodrive—excellent guys with good engineering skills. What will the Department for Work and Pensions do with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and other Departments to try to ensure that where skills that are needed in one part of the country are available in another part, there is a match-up? At the moment, London Underground appears not to be able to recruit new engineers. It seems daft that we have very good young automotive engineers in one part of the country, yet we are preparing for the 2012 Olympics in London, including work on Crossrail, with an average age of 58 on the London underground. Why cannot we use engineers from the west midlands here in London?

Mr. McNulty: I am sorry if I looked perplexed, but the hon. Gentleman is down to ask Question 11 and I was not expecting him to jump up quite so readily. He has now missed the excellent answer that I had for him on his own question.

Through what we are doing with DIUS and other Departments, and with Train to Gain, we are considering precisely that sort of skills mismatch in various parts of the country. To be perfectly fair to him, the Mayor of London, whose name escapes me for the moment, announced recently that efforts are being made to join up what is being done in recruitment and apprenticeships to the greater advantage of not only the London labour market but those beyond. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point, and I shall certainly take it up with the Mayor of London next time I see him.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): It is very sad that in the face of the world recession, unemployment under this Government has now reached the level that it was at in 1997 when they came into power. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that this Government will not abandon the International Labour
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Organisation measure of unemployment, and will not seek to cook the books on unemployment statistics, which the previous Government did on 19 occasions?

Mr. McNulty: If I had the time, I would go through the 19 times when the previous Government cooked the books. We have recognised the ILO’s figures and what they measure, and we are quite happy on a month-by-month basis to take full account of those figures as well as the JSA claimant count, which clearly measures something entirely different.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): The Minister will be well aware, as is every jobcentre in the country, of the real pressure that is being put on front-line staff. That makes the ill-advised programme of cuts that we have seen very ill thought through. Reports are circulating that people are being taken away from other areas, such as disability and child maintenance benefits. Will the Minister assure the House that those people will not suffer to plug the jobseeker’s allowance gap?

Mr. McNulty: As part of the overall rationalisation and greater efficiency of Jobcentre Plus, and in the context of everything that the Department has done, more and more staff were going to be moved from those areas to the front line anyway. That will not in any way damage the integrity of the front line in those services. I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance, but I shall take his point about ill-advised closures with the fatuity that was implied in it.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The unemployment rate in North-West Leicestershire has risen quite substantially in recent months. From a rate of 2.5 per cent., which put us in the lowest quartile of UK constituencies, it has risen by 40 per cent. to 3.5 per cent. That has included the closures of United Biscuits at Ashby and, worryingly, the long-standing firm of Pegson in Coalville. Will the Minister be willing to see me to discuss that run-down of staff, which includes their transferring to the firm’s country of ownership? I want to check that the firm is operating within EU guidelines.

Mr. McNulty: As my hon. Friend well knows, I am always very happy to see him.

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): The Secretary of State has kindly invited hon. Members to a seminar next week on the personalisation of the welfare system. What personal service can jobseekers expect, given that even after the current round of recruitment there will still be 10,000 fewer people working in jobcentres than there were four years ago, with rapidly rising unemployment?

Mr. McNulty: But with more and more on the front line doing precisely what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State suggests—providing a greater personalisation of service, focused on the individual. Given the hon. Gentleman’s question, my only point about the seminar is that he should attend it and listen.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I have been contacted by a constituent who is concerned that the announcement of a Government package to help senior
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executives who have lost their jobs to get off jobseeker’s allowance and back into work indicates that we are not concerned about other people who have lost their jobs. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that we will make equal efforts to help anybody who has lost their job in the current downturn to find work again?

Mr. McNulty: As was rather implied by the last question, we are seeking to personalise the service more to each individual. If there are gaps because of what the current recession has presented us with, we will seek to fill them. It is new to have executives coming through the system, and Jobcentre Plus needs to respond to that. However, we respond to each and every individual in their own terms.

Just as important, from my perspective, are those who up until now have been very successful in work. When people present at the jobcentre having been successfully in work for 15, 20 or 25 years, they need to be treated very differently in the initial encounter from someone who presents there regularly. I can assure my hon. Friend that we seek to provide the best service for each and every person who presents to Jobcentre Plus.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): On 25 November, the Secretary of State said that

Does the moratorium still stand?

Mr. McNulty: Yes.

Mrs. May: It is a funny sort of moratorium on Jobcentre Plus closures that allows jobcentres to continue to close. When the Secretary of State announced that moratorium, people assumed that it meant that no more jobcentres would close, but jobcentres in Orpington, Brixton and Feltham are closing. The one in Orpington will close on 1 April. People will have to travel to Bromley, where the jobcentre is already struggling to cope with the numbers. There are queues and people are getting only a three-minute interview with a personal adviser. Moreover, the Government will have to pay to extend the jobcentre in Bromley to cope with the increased numbers. Are the Government genuinely that incompetent or do they just take people for fools?

Mr. McNulty: There is only one fool in the room. The right hon. Lady’s predecessor said on 25 November:

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) knew in November that those three jobcentres were already scheduled for closure and not among the 25 that were announced as part of the moratorium. He got it in November; we are now in March—give her a bit of time and the right hon. Lady will get it, too.

Pensioners (Living Standards)

3. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What additional steps the Department has considered taking to support pensioners who are dependent on interest from their savings accounts to maintain their standard of living; and if he will make a statement. [263315]

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