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The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Tony McNulty):
In March 2009, there were 1,662 jobseekers allowance claimants in Blaby constituency
and 1,523,482 such claimants in the UK. Those figures represent 2.7 per cent. and 4 per cent. of the working-age population respectively.
Mr. Robathan: Behind those statistics can lie personal tragedynot only for the person who has lost his or her job, but for their immediate family. We all recognise that. I understand that new statistics are to come out this week. Can the Minister estimate what the next monthly rise in unemployment will be, and what he expects the unemployment figure to be on 1 April next year, which will probably be just before the general election?
Mr. McNulty: The hon. Gentleman will know that the statistics are owned by the Office for National Statistics; it is not for a Government Minister or anybody else to speculate before their arrival on Wednesday at 9.30.
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): Does the Minister have any estimate of how many of the figures for the UK relate to Eddie Stobart Ltd? That company has been abusing the TUPE legislation across the country to make large numbers of people redundant in small groups. It has failed to consult properly or pay for proper consultancy, including in my constituency.
Mr. McNulty: Againan interesting point, and a fair one. The House of Commons Library issues such data regularly. I do not have them about my person, but I will make sure that the hon. Gentleman gets a copy of the very latest after Wednesdays figures.
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): In his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), the Minister refused to speculate about this weeks unemployment figures. Today, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has said that the labour market will deteriorate further in the next 12 months and that unemployment will inevitably rise to more than 3 million by spring next year. Does the Minister agree?
Mr. McNulty: As the right hon. Lady will know, under the established statistics arrangements it is not my place to speculate about Wednesdays figures. The CIPD always brings out its forecast at around this time. I know one thing for certain: unless the right hon. Lady signs up in total to the nearly £5 billion of extra support that we are putting into Jobcentre Plus and assorted other employment interventions, unemployment will be a lot higher than it is otherwise likely to be.
The Minister talks about the steps taken by the Government. The economy has not been growing for a year, yet most of the Governments measures to help businesses are only just coming into operation. Unemployment has been growing for well over a year, yet contracts for the flexible new deal have been postponed and the guarantee for young people under the future jobs fund will not come into operation until next January. Today the CIPD says that 40 per cent. of organisations have made contingency plans to make more redundancies over the next 12 months. The Government continuously claimed that Britain was well placed to weather the recession. Are we not now paying for their complacency in lost jobs?
Mr. McNulty: Quite the opposite. It has been estimated that many of the macroeconomic interventions made over the past year have saved the best part of half a million jobs. The right hon. Lady is entirely wrong to suggest that the flexible new deal has been postponed in any way, shape or form. The Budget put more money into the flexible new deal, rather than otherwise. I repeat: none of these things would happen under her Government, because she cannot commit to the extra £5 billion that is put in through the rapid response service, at pre-redundancy stage, all the way through to what we are doing for people at 12 months. She should listen to her Conservative colleague, the leader of Bradford council, Margaret Eaton, who welcomed the jobs guarantee fulsomely, to the point of embarrassment. I welcome that. I hope that the right hon. Ladys local council, as well as that of every other hon. Member, will be bidding for the future jobs fund and the guarantee.
The Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society (Ms Rosie Winterton): Through targeted support, and more than £13 billion-worth of extra funding, the number of pensioners in relative low income has fallen by 900,000 since 1997. Since 1997, the number of female pensioners aged 75 and over in relative low income has fallen by 300,000.
Mr. Robertson: I thank the Minister for that answer. However, she will be aware that there is a great deal of poverty among older pensioners, particularly women. For example, Age Concern and Help the Aged estimate that only 30 per cent. of women retire with a full basic state pension. I am aware of the other things that they can claim for, but the fact that they are a lot older often means that they do not do so, and that they live in poverty, particularly the older they get. Is there anything else that the Government can do to address that particular issue?
We have made changes in reducing the number of qualifying years for women so that they will be able to get easier entitlement to state pension. We are also bringing in carers credits and grandparents credits so that they can claim national insurance credit. As a result of those changes, by 2025 more than 90 per cent.
of women reaching state pension age will be entitled to the full basic state pension compared with under half today. At the same time, it is important that we ensure that people take up their full entitlements to things such as pension credit.
Mr. Richard Caborn (Sheffield, Central) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend, on behalf of my 92-year-old mother and all the Yorkshire pensioners, for the advances that have been made since 1997. Unfortunately, we had one of the worst records, but now we have had the greatest decrease in pensioner poverty throughout the whole of the English regions. I thank the Government on behalf of all the pensioners of Yorkshire.
Ms Winterton: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, once again, to say that in 1997 some 32 per cent. of pensioners in Yorkshire and the Humber were living in poverty. The most recent figures show that that has fallen by 14 percentage points, which is the biggest percentage decrease of all the regions. At the same time, I am sure that he will look to the future and endorse what has been said from the Government Front Benchthat the implications of abolishing the national minimum wage would be enormous for future pensioners, who would then be reduced to poverty.
Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): Numerous pensioners aged 74 and over caught up in the Equitable Life disaster would wish to have their pensions at a fair and reasonable level. Since Ann Abraham concluded last week that the scheme that the Government have set up is not what she had in mind, will they now consider fairly compensating those pensioners so that they do not find themselves with low incomes?
Ms Winterton: As the hon. Lady will know, the Government have responded to this matter. The most recent announcements were made by the Treasury, and she will know about the ex gratia payments with regard to the Equitable Life pensioners.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): We have certainly made enormous progress in this Governments first 11 years, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported last year on the higher inflation rates that affected the poorest pensioners, with a higher average impact than on the rest of the population. As a result, 800 pensioners per day were passing unseen and unheard into the official definition of poverty, making the total number 2.5 million. What does the Minister project will happen in April 2010, when the basic state pension will go up by £2.40 a week but the prices of food and fuel, two of the core items of expenditure for the poorest pensioners, will no doubt be soaring away at a rate much greater than that?
My hon. Friend is quite right to point to the IFS report, which also stated that in the longer term pensioners were no more likely than other sections of the population to be affected by the increases in food and fuel prices. However, those rises are exactly why this year we have increased winter fuel payments, increased the Christmas bonus allowance by £60 and tripled cold weather payments. There were also a number of measures in the Budgetfor example, to take pensioners out of paying tax. In the round, we have certainly made an
effort to respond to rising food and fuel prices. As some of those prices decrease, pensioners will feel the effect to their benefit.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): In the round, as the Minister puts it, Help the Aged states that 4.5 million pensioners who are entitled to means-tested benefit are not getting it, simply because it is so complicated to apply for it. What can the Government do to ensure that people who are not entitled to benefits do not get them, while at the same time ensuring that weak, elderly, vulnerable people who are entitled to such benefits can receive them easily and promptly?
Ms Winterton: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. As I said, we are now spending £13 billion more than we would have been spending had we pursued the policies of the previous Administration, and we are particularly targeting that extra spending on the most vulnerable pensioners. Problems with the take-up of benefits apply often not just to pension credit but to housing and council tax benefits, for which people do not necessarily apply, and that is why we have made a key change so that, from October, by making one telephone call pensioners will be able to get not only their basic state pension credit but council tax and housing benefits. That will make things simpler in exactly the way that the hon. Gentleman outlines.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): We recognise that Jobcentre Plus is facing an increased work load as a result of the economic downturn. Thanks to the funding assigned in the Budget, Jobcentre Plus will be able to recruit 10,000 more staff in addition to the 6,000 new staff already provided for in the pre-Budget report. The increase in resources will enable Jobcentre Plus to maintain the provision of flexible, responsive and targeted support to help move people into work as quickly as possible.
Liz Blackman: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. May I tell him that Derbyshire Jobcentre Plus is well on target to meet the Departments required recruitment levels at both clerical and executive grades? The capacity and expertise are therefore already in place at local level. However, what are my right hon. Friends contingency plans should further demand on Jobcentre Plus become evident?
James Purnell: Clearly, we will look at that at each pre-Budget report and Budget, but we believe that we have put in place the right number of people for the situation that we face. I am sure that my hon. Friend would join me in taking this opportunity to pay tribute to Jobcentre Plus staff, who are doing a fantastic job. They are coping with almost twice the number of claims of two years ago, but processing benefits three days quicker. We should recognise that in the House.
Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): I recently held a series of surgeries with Jobcentre Plus in my constituency. About a third of those who attended gained work within six weeks. Is there any flexibility in the Jobcentre Plus budget to ensure that more such community-based activities can take place, so that we can utilise the good practice of action teams and pathways to work?
James Purnell: Absolutely. We would be very happy to help any hon. Member from any part of the House who wanted to provide such a service to their constituents. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the initiative he has taken, and in particular on bringing together a number of agencies to help people who will be worried about how quickly they can get back into work. It is an excellent initiative that we are happy to support.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): May I make a suggestion to the Secretary of State on behalf of those of our constituents who have worked all their lives and who now find themselves unemployed? They are often horrified by the treatment they receive from Jobcentre Plus. They accept that in the past, there have been people who were not all that keen to work. Jobcentre Plus has been geared to trying to make the transition from benefit to work easier for those people. However, those who have worked all their lives feel that the mechanical way of interviewing them, with interviews over very short periods, means that they do not get a fair share of the Departments resources. I know that those on the Treasury Bench have to say, Its all hunky-dory; everythings working brilliantly, and I do not expect my right hon. Friend to depart from that line, but might I ask him to take
James Purnell: I do take my right hon. Friends point, but I am sure he recognises that coping with nearly twice as many people coming through has been a significant challenge. The fact that peoples benefits are being paid and that we are maintaining the active labour market regime is an achievement for Jobcentre Plus. He is right, however, to say that we need to put more resources into ensuring that everybody gets a good service, not just certain groups of the population. He knows, for example, that we have worked with more than 300 private sector recruitment agencies to provide a service specifically for professionals who are signing on for the first time, but we want to ensure that we support everybody who claims in getting back into work. My right hon. Friend will be glad to know that more than 1 million people have left JSA over the past four months, which shows that the active regime we have put in place is working.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are constraints on Jobcentre Plus managers? We ought to give them more flexibility and a budget that they can use with individuals for training. A job can come up, but managers do not have the flexibility to say, Yes, you can go on that training scheme, which will ensure that you get a job in future. Can my right hon. Friend give more flexibility and devolve a budget to each Jobcentre Plus office?
My hon. Friend will be glad to know that that is exactly what we propose to do with the adviser discretionary fundwe always take his suggestions
very seriously. We are increasing the adviser discretionary fund, which will pay for costs that need to be borne to get people back into work, such as the cost of buying a suit for an interview, or of getting qualifications in order to get people into vacancies in their areas. I am sure that all parties in the House will support that.
9. Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): How many jobseekers allowance claimants there were in (a) March 2008 and (b) March 2009 in (i) the UK and (ii) North-East Bedfordshire constituency. 
The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Tony McNulty): In March 2008, there were 842,827 jobseekers allowance claimants in the UK and 686 in North-East Bedfordshire. In March 2009, there were 1,523,482 jobseekers allowance claimants in the UK and 1,812 in North-East Bedfordshire.
Alistair Burt: The Minister will appreciate that he has announced in his figures an increase in unemployment in my constituency over a year of 164 per cent. Is he concerned about the number of reports from local businesses that have failed to get information from the Government about schemes that have been announced that might help their businesses? Those businesses failure to access that information is costing jobs. Is he concerned that his efforts to reduce unemployment are undermined by a failure of joined-up government and a failure on the part of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to get that information to companies that might find it helpful in keeping jobs?
Mr. McNulty: The hon. Gentleman raises a fair point. I would have shared some of that concern in the past, but I know that, certainly over recent months, more and more of both the information and the delivery of those programmes and interventions are getting through to businesses and making a difference to local initiatives and local employment opportunities.
Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): What are the Government doing to help former members of the armed forcesparticularly those who have been injured or wounded as a result of their serviceto get jobs, and has there been any special advice from, or linkages with, the Ministry of Defence on that?
Mr. McNulty: I can tell my hon. Friend that I have had a couple of meetings with colleagues in the Ministry of Defence on precisely that point. We are looking at trying to do something specific, especially for longer-term leavers, around Catterick and other departure points from the armed services. It is more difficult in the case of those who are in the services for only three or four weeks, decide they do not want to do it and come out. We are looking to get armed services advisers in at least the key Jobcentre Plus offices close to facilities where the armed services are. I will write to my hon. Friend in more detail about the specifics regarding those who leave wounded or incapacitated and who cannot go back into the armed services. He makes a very strong point all round.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Ministers continually talk about the extra money they say they are spending, but they consistently fail to put in place the help that people need at the time when they need it. Given the figures that the Minister has just revealed, which show a significant increase in the number of people claiming jobseekers allowanceit is now up to 1.5 millionit is sadly very likely that there will be an increase in the number of long-term unemployed people by next summer. We have learned that existing contracts to help the long-term unemployed run out at the end of June, while the flexible new deal, apparently, does not begin until October. First, will the Minister assure us that a system of referrals will be in place to help the long-term unemployed throughout the whole country from June until this October? Secondly, will he give a guarantee that the flexible new deal will start as planned this October? We want a guarantee, please.
Mr. McNulty: I am afraid that the hon. Gentlemans starting premise is entirely wrong. We are deliberately ensuring that the almost £5 billion we are investing in Jobcentre Plus and employment opportunities goes across the piece. It is helping before redundancies, with our rapid response services. It is helping people who, unfortunately, find themselves unemployed and for whom the experience is brand new. It is helping people through the more enhanced packages for those with three months unemployment, six months unemploymentpackages to which all long-term unemployed people will be referred from June and October and beyondand 12 months unemployment.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right to imply that we have had to adjust things. After 10, 11 or 12 very fruitful years for the labour market and employment, when the focus has been on the longer-term unemployed, we have had to bring much of that support forward to much earlier in the process. That is precisely what is happening. There is no reason at all to suggest that the FND will be introduced at any time other than in October, as planned.
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