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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Kitty Ussher): From 5 January, we have doubled to £200,000 the size of the mortgage on which
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support for mortgage interest—SMI—is paid, and we halved to 13 weeks the length of time people need to wait to qualify. While it is too early to have precise figures, our latest estimate is that this should help prevent about 10,000 repossessions per year.

Ms Keeble: Will my hon. Friend look again at the people who are entitled to claim SMI? It is linked to income-based jobseeker’s allowance, whereas most of my constituents who lose their jobs are on contribution-based JSA and, as a result, are under real pressure and are losing their homes. Will she instead consider that it might be linked to the tax credit system, so that more help can be given more effectively to my constituents who face losing their homes?

Kitty Ussher: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue, and we will, of course, evaluate and review the SMI package in due course. It is worth making it clear that people can receive SMI even if they are on contribution-based JSA, if they are single and meet the qualifying criteria for income-based JSA in terms of the level of savings and so on. However, I suspect my hon. Friend refers to situations when somebody is part of a couple, in which case she is right as the remunerative work rule means that it is long held that they cannot access income-based benefits of any kind if their partner is working more than 24 hours per week. It is precisely to help and support this type of family in such circumstances that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing will shortly be introducing the mortgage support scheme.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): In Wellingborough, there has been a 100 per cent. increase in unemployment in the last year, and one of the practical results that have been reported back to me is that many people are not getting their redundancy money quickly enough, so that they are unable to keep up with their home mortgage payments. Does the Minister think there is some merit in the Department for Work and Pensions taking over responsibility for redundancy payments?

Kitty Ussher: The hon. Gentleman is always keen to quote figures from his constituency, but I do not doubt that the schemes we have introduced will support his constituents as well as people throughout the rest of the country. I am happy to look at what the hon. Gentleman has suggested, but it is also important to say that, by working together through the lending panel with banks and building societies, we are able to establish better codes of practice, so that lenders give more discretion to those having to pay their mortgages to ensure that, unlike in the ’80s and ’90s, people do not end up unnecessarily losing their homes.

Pension Credit

12. Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): What estimate his Department has made of the amount of pension credit unclaimed by residents of Merseyside. [263325]

The Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society (Ms Rosie Winterton): Estimates of the amount of unclaimed pension credit are not available at regional level. In Merseyside, there are 88,410 households—107,670 individuals—in receipt of pension credit.

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Dr. Pugh: I thank the Minister for that answer. A constituent of mine was refused pension credit on the not unreasonable grounds that he was in prison. However, he has never committed an offence or been convicted or gone to prison in his life. Does this not show we have some way to go in administering this scheme, or that we simply do not know who is in prison?

Ms Winterton: Obviously, the hon. Gentleman’s constituent would not have been very pleased to be accused of being in prison if he was not. However, we have been able to ensure that the targeting of pension credit has become increasingly successful. Of course we regret any errors, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will pass our apologies on to his constituent, but, in general, I hope he will realise that pension credit has helped millions of very vulnerable pensioners, particularly since this Government came to power.

Jobseeker’s Allowance

13. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): What targets apply to Jobcentre Plus for the time within which jobseeker’s allowance claims should be processed. [263326]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): Jobcentre Plus has a target of 11.5 days average actual clearance time in which to process new claims for jobseeker’s allowance. Jobcentre Plus is continuing to meet the challenges it faces and is currently meeting this target within 10.1 days.

Mr. Swayne: Is it meeting it in Lymington?

James Purnell: I am very happy to give the hon. Gentleman that information in writing. He will be interested to know that that figure is three days better than it was two years ago thanks to the £1.5 billion of efficiencies that we have released through our modernisation programme, which his party opposes. I know that he is the Parliamentary Private Secretary to his leader—perhaps he should send him one of his e-mails and say to those on his Front Bench that he is committed to £1.5 billion on top of the £2 billion that they will not support.


14. Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): What steps he is taking to encourage saving through pension schemes. [263327]

The Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society (Ms Rosie Winterton): We have already taken steps to strengthen and protect the private pensions system to ensure that people can continue to have confidence to save for their future. In addition, under our pension reforms, employers will automatically enrol an estimated 9 million to 11 million eligible workers into a workplace pension from 2012.

Mr. Benyon: Actuaries calculate that changes announced by the Prime Minister in his first Budget as Chancellor in 1997 have cost pension funds £100 billion, which is equivalent to £4,800 for every person with a pension, and there are also the deductions from pension credit payments that were discussed earlier. Is it any wonder that the savings index is as low as it is? It is historically
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low. Does the Minister agree that we have to get people saving again if we are to help get this country out of recession?

Ms Winterton: Yes, it is important that people save. Pensions in particular are one of the best ways of saving for security in retirement. However, under this Government, we have a Pension Protection Fund that provides a safety net for 12 million members of defined benefit pension schemes. We have the financial assistance scheme and the pensions regulator, which reduces the risk of problems arising in pension funds in the first place. None of that existed under the previous Conservative Government.

Topical Questions

T1. [263338] Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): The continuing responsibility of my Department is to ensure that people get the support they need to get back to work quickly. We are investing now so that those who have lost their jobs do not fall into long-term unemployment and so that those who have been out of the labour market for a while can be helped by the measures in our Welfare Reform Bill.

Annette Brooke: What progress is the Secretary of State making in promoting public procurement of Remploy products? In the factory in my constituency, a small band of very vulnerable people are left with very little work and the South West of England Regional Development Agency feels that a national approach would be more appropriate.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. She and I debated Remploy, and her factory in Poole in particular, in Westminster Hall. She will be aware that the regional development agencies, led by the Northwest Regional Development Agency, are developing and putting in place regional showcases where they invite local employers and businesses from the public sector to procure the many products that can be made at Remploy factories. Locally, we can all make a contribution to encouraging our public sector bodies to procure products from Remploy factories. Nationally, I am leading a cross-cutting Government committee on national procurement and I expect to make some positive announcements on that front very soon.

T2. [263339] Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Bearing in mind the cost to the Department’s budget of alcohol misuse, including the loss of working days, will the Secretary of State say what his response is to the recent proposals from the chief medical officer, including those on the minimum pricing of alcohol?

James Purnell: Clearly, I was asked about the overall policy yesterday. We made it clear that we would be sceptical about proposals that punished the majority for the sake of an irresponsible minority. We are taking powers in the Welfare Reform Bill, so that in future we can require people who have problems with alcoholism
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to take up treatment as a condition of their benefits. I am sure that my hon. Friend will support those proposals tomorrow.

T4. [263341] Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Blind people in Kettering and across the country would like to know when Her Majesty’s Government will make them eligible for the higher rate mobility component of disability living allowance.

Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking that question. We debated this during the Committee stage of the Welfare Reform Bill, and there will be an opportunity to do that tomorrow. Interestingly, although there was a contribution in the discussions from the Liberal Democrats and from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), who tabled an amendment on this issue, there was a lack of any response whatsoever from the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on whether he agreed or did not agree. I think that the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) needs to have a conversation with his own Front Benchers.

T3. [263340] Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): Although I am not in any way downgrading the extent of the recent problems, one of the positive things happening in Gateshead is that Jobcentre Plus is working very closely with the local council, the local college and the regional development agency. Is that being replicated across the country, and do we have enough resources to make sure that jobcentres can work with these people to try to limit the damage?

James Purnell: Yes, that absolutely is happening around the country, and where we have funding that we can devote to, for example, training people before they are employed, we are keen to do that and to expand it. Indeed, the regional Ministers, of whom the Department for Work and Pensions is blessed with three, are playing a key role in making sure that exactly that integration is happening in regions around the country.

T6. [263343] Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): Given the current economic situation, which obviously has nothing to do with the Government’s stewardship of the economy, does the Secretary of State think that it will still be possible to get 1 million incapacity benefit claimants back to work? If not, what sort of figure does he think is doable, and in what sort of time frame?

James Purnell: That is our aspiration. It has always been a stretching goal, and the reason we wanted such a goal was to make it necessary to have a fundamental reform of the welfare state to get to that point. That is exactly why we want to have re-testing for everybody who was on incapacity benefit, why we have abolished IB and replaced it with employment and support allowance, and why we have the measures in the Welfare Reform Bill, which will be discussed tomorrow. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman’s party is not proposing to support them. It wants to posture and to oppose measures that are supported by both David Freud and the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith). The Conservatives still have time to change
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their policy before tomorrow and to show that they are serious about welfare reform. Somehow, I doubt that they will.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend knows, the very first “Communist Manifesto” stated that we would give work to those who can and benefits to those who cannot. What it missed out was those rascals who will not work—those whom people in my constituency describe as those who have never worked or wanted to. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me and my constituents that the Welfare Reform Bill will tackle those individuals, and not those who genuinely need benefit?

James Purnell: Absolutely—anybody who is defrauding the benefit system is taking money from people who genuinely need it, which is exactly why we have halved fraud over the past 12 years and why we are taking measures to crack down further on people who defraud the system in the Welfare Reform Bill, which will be discussed tomorrow. As my hon. Friend knows, right from the first Labour MP’s speech in this House—that of Keir Hardie—we have argued for the support to get people back in to work, but also for making sure that they should have the obligation to do so. That is what tomorrow’s Welfare Reform Bill does, and it will make a genuine difference to reducing child poverty and to increasing employment all around the country.

T7. [263344] Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): As the pension uprating is always based on the September inflation figures, and given that, as the Secretary of State will be aware, most economists believe that there will be negative inflation by this September, what will happen to pensions?

James Purnell: Of course, we do not speculate on Budget questions. What I can tell the right hon. Gentleman, which is a fact, is that we brought forward the uprating to this January by having the £60 bonus. His party opposed that. It should apologise to pensioners around the country, because it wanted to deprive people who needed it of that £60.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of the issues affecting the ceramics industry. What plans does he have to visit Stoke-on-Trent to talk to workers about what more can be done to help get them into work, and what more he can do at Cabinet level to try to get the investment in tableware and in bricks that could be part of the regeneration that we need for the country as a whole?

James Purnell: My hon. Friend may be glad to know that I plan to visit the area shortly to follow up on a conversation that I had with the general-secretary of the Unity union. It is pioneering an approach whereby it brings together its own money for investing in training with money from the regional development agency and from Jobcentre Plus, to make sure that we can give people help even before they are made redundant and to get them back into work as quickly as possible. I know that this is a vital industry in my hon. Friend’s area and that she has campaigned long and hard for it. I will continue to work with her on doing that.

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T8. [263345] Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): With the evolution of the Child Support Agency, does the Minister agree that when maintenance calculations are drawn up, a parent in receipt of a company car should be treated on the same grounds—on the same level of benefit—as a parent who receives money in lieu of a company car?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Kitty Ussher): The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and this issue, too, was discussed in the Welfare Reform Bill Committee. This depends on why the individual is receiving payment in the form of a company car, and each case will be different. If someone is doing so to reduce his child maintenance liability to his children, that should be taken into account, because every parent’s first financial responsibility should be to their children.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): This Wednesday marks the 10th anniversary of the Government’s commitment to abolishing child poverty. Will the Minister reassure the House that despite the economic downturn, we will not depart from that ambition and we will do all we can to ensure that we meet our targets?

Kitty Ussher: When the Conservatives ran this country, child poverty doubled—we turned that around, and I am proud of the fact that 600,000 children have been lifted out of poverty since 1997, with a further 500,000 children due to be lifted out of poverty as a result of policies that are being implemented. We want to go further, which is why my hon. Friend is right to raise this issue and why we will be legislating this year to eradicate child poverty in this country.

T9. [263346] Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): I am told that the other week all the jobcentres in my constituency had only a dozen or so jobs available, yet many hundreds of local people were looking for work. What do Ministers propose to do—rather than just say—to help those people back into work and to stem the rising tide of unemployment in Essex?

James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is harder for people to find work, which is why from April we will be bringing in extra training for people, helping people to set up companies and introducing recruitment subsidies to persuade employers to take on people who are in danger of becoming long-term unemployed. That policy will be introduced in April as a result of the £2 billion that his Front-Bench team opposes. Real help requires real money, and without the money, which his Front Benchers oppose, that help would not be made available in April. He should be lobbying his Front Benchers and telling them to reverse their policy, because it is the wrong approach—it is the one that they had in the 1980s and 1990s and that failed so miserably.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Can the Minister tell the House why, thus far, the Government have not supported the proposals to make blind people eligible for the higher rate mobility component of disability living allowance, as exemplified in new clauses 10 and 4 to the Welfare Reform Bill, which we will debate tomorrow, that were tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson)?

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Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter, which we debated in the Welfare Reform Bill Committee and will debate again tomorrow. On his specific question, we need to establish a time when we can afford to make provision for this particular benefit —[Interruption.] I am always reassured when talking about finance to see my right hon. Friend the Chancellor appear. We will need to examine this carefully, because we need to be able to provide the funding not only for this year, but for many years to come. We are working closely with the Royal National Institute of Blind People and we are grateful for its input. As I say, this is about affordability—that is the primary reason for our approach—but we hope to be able to do it when resources become available.

T10. [263347] Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): The Secretary of State will know that young people are particularly vulnerable during a recession. I know that the Department is helping apprentices who are at risk of redundancy in the construction industry, but what steps is he taking in other sectors, particularly in respect of the 115 apprentices who lost their jobs at Woolworths?

James Purnell: We want to make sure that apprentices can finish their apprenticeships whatever sector they are coming from, and we believe that the rules allow people to do that, because apprentices normally train for fewer than 16 hours a week. We are committed to ensuring that even if they are training for longer than that, they can continue to finish their apprenticeships, because they have made a real investment in their own skills and we want them to benefit.

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