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The Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society (Ms Rosie Winterton): As well as protecting pensioners who are savers by preventing the collapse of the banks, this year we also added £60 to pensioners’ Christmas bonus, increased winter fuel payments and tripled cold weather payments.

John Robertson: I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. She is right—we have done quite a bit for pensioners, but many still have problems with their savings. In some cases, with interest rates going down, savings will not match the needs for which they have to pay. What do the Government intend to do to help those people? Is there more in the pipeline for them? Will she assure me that, even though half do not pay tax, the rest will be looked after, and that we will ensure that they do not suffer, especially towards the end of the year when winter approaches again?

Ms Winterton: I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. Obviously, we all feel sorry for people who are affected by the economic downturn. I confirm that half the pensioners who are over 65 do not pay tax. We have taken a series of measures to get real help to people now, when it counts. That is why we focused especially on the extra money for the winter fuel payments and the Christmas bonus. Although last year approximately £8 million was paid out in cold weather payments, the figure this year is £209 million.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Is the Minister satisfied and happy about the balance between the pain that borrowers endure and the pain that savers suffer during the recession?

Ms Winterton: As I said, we have tried to get help to pensioners, especially through the extra winter fuel payments and the Christmas bonus. Compared with 1997, when the Government came to power, the average pensioner is about £1,600 a year better off and the most vulnerable pensioners are about £2,200 better off. If we had continued with the 1997 Tory Government’s policies, we would spend £13 billion less on pensioners.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): There has always been a mismatch between the assumed income that pensioners can receive from their savings and the interest that they could receive. Now that interest rates are so low, has the time come for the Government to re-examine pensioners’ assumed income from their savings? Obviously, there is no way in which they will get the assumed amount.

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is talking about the 10 per cent. rule—the social tariff. The Conservative Government introduced tariff income in legislation in 1987. It was never linked to interest rates; an assumption was made about a sum that could reasonably be expected to contribute to weekly income. Instead of assuming £1 for every £250, as the Tory Government did, we assume £1 for every £500. In addition, under the Conservative Government, no savings over £6,000 were allowed. We have raised that so that there is no limit on the amount of savings people can have if they are to access savings credit.

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Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): May I join the Minister down memory lane? Does she remember these words:

She should recognise them, because they were in her Government’s consultation paper in 2000. Will she now revisit that unfair rule, which is causing extra hardship to hundreds of thousands of pensioners who have been prudent enough to save during their working lives?

Ms Winterton: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was in the House when the regulations were introduced or whether he opposed them under the previous Conservative Government. I do not remember that, so perhaps he will correct me if I am wrong. We felt that the previous system was unfair, particularly the £6,000 cut-off point, at which no savings were taken into account, so we ignore the first £6,000 of savings. We ask people to contribute a small amount above that, but we have also made the rules more generous than they were under the previous Conservative Government.

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): What does my right hon. Friend say to pensioners who had low incomes during their working lives, who put something aside for a rainy day and who use the interest on savings to make essential repairs, but who otherwise live a hand-to-mouth existence? How is she promoting all the work that she says she is doing to make them feel that it is not as unfair as they feel it is?

Ms Winterton: One of the things we have done is raise personal allowances for older people, so that more than half of all people over 65 do not pay any tax. In addition, through the pension credit system we have tried to target money on the most vulnerable—those who perhaps saved a little bit, but who were penalised under the previous Government because of the little bit of money they had saved. We have changed the system so that it does not a punitive effect on the very people whom my hon. Friend talks about.

Jobseeker’s Allowance

4. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): How many claimants of jobseeker’s allowance there were in (a) the UK and (b) Clwyd, West constituency on the latest date for which figures are available. [263316]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): In January 2009, there were 1,282,645 jobseeker’s allowance claimants in the UK and 1,403 in Clwyd, West constituency. Those numbers are based on seasonally unadjusted figures.

Mr. Jones: The Secretary of State may know that the Indesit-Hotpoint factory in Bodelwyddan, which employs 305 people, is due to close at the end of July. That will be a serious blow to an area with very little other manufacturing industry. The factory union has arranged an advisory day on 22 May, with a view to helping the workers deal with the financial consequences of the closure. Will the Secretary of State encourage the local Jobcentre Plus office to attend the event to give the
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workers the benefit of its experience and as much advice as possible in dealing with this severe blow for them and their families?

James Purnell: Yes, I am aware of those redundancies. I believe that we are still in the 90-day consultation period. I will ensure that we attend as part of the rapid response service. We will also want to work with the union and the Welsh Assembly Government, who have a good scheme—the ProAct-ReAct scheme—to ensure that we can get help that enables people to get back into work as quickly as possible.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): The hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) makes a perfectly reasonable point. One of the difficulties in our area is that the travel-to-work area crosses the Welsh border and reaches into Chester and my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, in engaging with the work, the DWP takes into account the travel-to-work area and ensures that advice is given that crosses the border properly?

James Purnell: Yes; indeed, I met the Secretary of State for Wales and the First Minister recently to do exactly that, because the Welsh Assembly has some devolved responsibilities in this matter. We want to ensure that the offer that we have in place is seamless across the border. There are some differences between the Welsh schemes and our schemes, so that will be a challenge, but we are working closely together to do exactly what my hon. Friend wants.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): The claimant count in Clwyd, West has gone up by 40 per cent. in the last year and the number of vacancies posted has gone down by two thirds. The same figures pertain to my own Caernarfon constituency. Is the Secretary of State aware that the director of CBI Wales, David Rosser, said on Friday:

What lessons can the right hon. Gentleman’s Department learn from the success of the Labour/Plaid Cymru Government in Cardiff?

James Purnell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that unusually friendly question. I can reassure him that we have learned directly from the ProAct-ReAct scheme. We think that this is the right approach, bringing about at its heart extra training opportunities and extra employment subsidies. That is exactly what we have done with our six-month offer, which will come into force in April, as the hon. Gentleman knows. We are working closely together and I hope that that will be to the benefit of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and all the people of Wales.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): In response to a question put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) in last Tuesday’s unemployment debate, the right hon. Gentleman said that the Government were still committed to rolling out the flexible new deal on 1 October. On the same day, however, the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform said that the Government still aimed to do that,
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but acknowledged that, given the time slippage and delay in the Government’s issuing of contracts, there were concerns about whether bidders would be able to hit the timetable. Bidders have been asked to indicate in their tender submissions whether they can hit it, but given the Minister’s acknowledgement of these concerns will the Secretary of State tell us about the Government’s contingency plan?

James Purnell: We are still committed to October. In the same way as Jobcentre Plus had to amend its proposals in the light of the downturn, so must our providers. The reason the hon. Gentleman is raising questions about delivery is to distract from the fact that he will be cutting £2 billion from the employment budget, just on employment benefit—

Mr. Harper: Nonsense.

James Purnell: It is not nonsense; it is the truth. The Conservatives have a policy of opposing the fiscal boost, so they need to own up to the consequences, which will mean cutting help for people just at the time unemployment is rising. We will not repeat that mistake, which was their mistake in the ’80s and ’90s.

Departmental File Stores

5. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Whether agency workers are used by Capita for its contracted work in his Department's file stores. [263318]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): Agency workers are employed by Capita for contracted work at all Department for Work and Pensions file stores. The number of agency staff employed can vary according to the specific project activities required by DWP. Capita undertakes strict security verification checks on all employed staff. DWP and Capita both take the handling and security of all data extremely seriously, and we have robust procedures in place that we review regularly.

Mr. Prentice: Ten million files are in the file store in my Pendle constituency, so I want the Minister to reassure me that no one handling the sensitive files has a criminal record. I also want him to tell me that he does not take everything on trust from Capita, but that the Department carries out spot checks in the file store— because my spies are everywhere!

Jonathan Shaw: Right, well, we know where one of them is, anyway. I can assure my hon. Friend that DWP continues to review the processes. He wants to be certain that proper procedures are in place regarding the files in the office in his constituency and in others throughout the country. We are about to undertake a further audited internal review, in which we will look at security infrastructure processes, staff recruitment—both permanent and casual—security checks and procedures for staff training and compliance and monitoring processes. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend—and he can bring along his associates if he wishes—to discuss the outcome of that review. We take it seriously; it is ongoing; and I would be happy to discuss it when it is completed.

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Citizens’ Pension

7. Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): If he will consider the merits of introducing a pensions system in the UK based on the principles of the citizens’ pension system in New Zealand. [263320]

The Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society (Ms Rosie Winterton): We did consider it, but, like the Pensions Commission, concluded that because of the complexity and expense that its introduction would involve, it was not the right approach for the United Kingdom.

Mr. Carswell: Given that the Minister has ruled out the citizens’ pension on the grounds of its extraordinary cost, does she agree that it is pure fantasy politics for the Liberal Democrats to pretend that it is a feasible alternative?

Ms Winterton: I thought it was the Conservatives’ policies that were fantasy, but I am happy to describe all the Opposition parties’ policies as fantasy land.

The obvious problem with the Liberal Democrats’ policy is that it rules out the possibility of conveying help to the most vulnerable people. Without any element of means-testing, it is very difficult to help those people. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, once again, the Liberal Democrats have come up with an idea that is no solution. It represents, perhaps, the same level of thinking as that of their leader, who believed that the basic state pension was £30 a week.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): Even given the introduction of personal accounts, a fair amount of evidence is emerging to suggest that in the next generation and the generation after that, significant numbers of retired people will be living in poverty. Is my right hon. Friend aware of that, and has any research been carried out that might lead to action that ensures that future generations can live in dignity?

Ms Winterton: I am sure my hon. Friend will know that as a result of the pension reforms that we are introducing, some 9 million people who have not been able to gain access to second pensions will have that access because of automatic enrolment. Let me also draw his attention to a European Commission report published last week, which stated that while in 1997 pensioner incomes in this country were 15 per cent. below the European average, they are now 9 per cent. above it.

Jobseeker’s Allowance

8. Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): How many jobseeker’s allowance claimants there were in (a) the United Kingdom and (b) the South-West Hertfordshire constituency on the latest date for which figures are available. [263321]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Tony McNulty): As I said earlier, in January 2009, there were 1,282,645 jobseeker’s allowance claimants in the UK and 1,006 in the South-West Hertfordshire constituency. Those numbers are based on seasonally unadjusted figures.

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Mr. Gauke: Given the OECD’s prediction that unemployment in the UK will rise higher and faster than that in any of the other G7 countries, does the Minister believe that the UK economy was best placed to withstand a recession?

Mr. McNulty: We are not in the game of making predictions about unemployment. There are many forecasts about where unemployment and, indeed, the economy may well go, but our job is to ensure that there is help and support for each and every person who is unemployed. In that context, the Jobcentre Plus network is very well placed.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Both the Minister of State and the Secretary of State have referred several times today to the ProAct scheme, which helps to subsidise wages and training in many companies in Wales but is not available to companies in England. Will the Minister, or indeed the Secretary of State—we have worked together well on other occasions—agree to meet me, and other midlands Members of Parliament, to discuss how the scheme could be extended to England so that we can reduce the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance and keep people in work?

Mr. McNulty: If the hon. Gentleman chooses to visit his local Jobcentre Plus on 6 April, he will see that the scheme is part of the six-month offer.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Evidence from all quarters now suggests that there are many more jobseekers than there are vacancies advertised in jobcentres or vacancies in the economy as a whole—not least in the Secretary of State’s own constituency, where there are 18 jobseekers for every vacancy in the jobcentres.

I welcome the fact that Ministers have now given up on the complacent assertions that they were making until recently about the number of vacancies in the economy. I include the Secretary of State, who was making such assertions until very recently. Now that those Ministers have woken up to the reality that is faced by so many of our constituents who are having to visit jobcentres, may I invite them to give jobseekers the best possible opportunity to fill vacancies by making available to them the personalised employment programme that we have said should be provided at a much earlier stage in the handling of a claim than it does under the Government’s plans?

Mr. McNulty: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are more than aware of the reality facing people in this country. If there is any complacency, assertion and smugness, it resides on the Opposition Benches, whose Members indulge in fantasy politics and put no money up.

Mortgage Repayment Assistance

10. Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to help people who have lost their jobs as a result of the recession to meet mortgage repayments. [263323]

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