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Jobseeker’s Allowance

10. Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): What proportion of the population in (a) the UK and (b) North-West Cambridgeshire constituency is claiming jobseeker’s allowance. [273493]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Tony McNulty): In March 2009 the proportion of the population in the UK claiming jobseeker’s allowance was 4 per cent.; in North-West Cambridgeshire it was 3.8 per cent.

Mr. Vara: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, he will be aware that 288,000 new unemployed claimants appeared on the register in the first quarter of 2009—a rapid rise, and the fastest of any quarter. Is that what the Minister meant when he talked of light being at the end of the tunnel?

Mr. McNulty: The direct reference to light at the end of a tunnel came in a rather long-winded and tortuous sentence. It started with, “These are very bad figures and I fear that they are going to get worse.” In the middle came something like, “But recession is not the default mode of the British economy,” as I recall, and
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then, “And there will be light at the end of the tunnel.” Plenty in the media scrunched all that down to: “Village idiot Minister says that there is light at the end of the tunnel because the figures are so bad.” The hon. Gentleman needs to go back to the original quotation, rather than relying on the selectivity of parts of the media.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Unemployment in Wellingborough, unfortunately, is more than two thirds higher now than it was under the last Conservative Government. I wondered whether that was unique, so I checked. On average, in all Conservative-held constituencies in the country, unemployment is higher now under Labour than it was under the Conservatives. Does the Minister agree that Labour still is not working?

Mr. McNulty: No, and nor would I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s support—I have not heard that he feels otherwise—for those Conservative Front Benchers who do not support the £5 billion package that will help in his area, as it will elsewhere. I certainly would not agree with him, given that he is, I think, a signatory to the outrageous little Bill that will seek to abolish the national minimum wage this Friday.

Pensioner Poverty

11. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to alleviate pensioner poverty; and if he will make a statement. [273494]

The Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society (Ms Rosie Winterton): Compared with 1997, we are now spending £13 billion more per year on pensioners, particularly those on the lowest incomes. As a result, we have lifted 900,000 pensioners out of relative poverty.

Mr. Mackay: When I was manning a stall in Bracknell town centre recently and asking people to sign a petition on pensioner poverty, a large number of pensioners asked me why the Chancellor had not zero-rated or stopped taxing their unearned income, given that they were on the basic rate of tax. I could not answer that, and I cannot believe that he has not done so. Perhaps the Minister would like to explain why that has not happened.

Ms Winterton: I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will have taken the opportunity, when discussing these matters with pensioners, to point out that we are spending £13 billion extra on pensioners this year, and that, over the term of this Government, we are spending £96 billion more than we would have spent had we followed the policies of his Government when we came to power. I am sure he is also aware that the changes to personal allowances in the recent Budget mean that almost half of pensioners do not pay tax at all.

Topical Questions

T1. [273507] David Wright (Telford) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): We want people to have the support they need to get back to work quickly. That is why, last month, we
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extended our local employment partnership programme to help newly unemployed people as well as disadvantaged jobseekers. I am pleased to confirm that, in the last financial year, these local employment partnerships have been highly successful. More than 20,000 employers have recruited more than 146,000 people, which is 40 per cent. more than expected for the year. The number of people moving into work through local employment partnerships continues to grow, increasing by almost 500 a week over the last quarter, proving that, even in these difficult times, we are still helping disadvantaged customers into jobs in significant numbers.

David Wright: During the 1980s, very little support was available to help young people to find work or training. I am conscious that the Government want to put together partnerships with local government, training providers and local employers to ensure that young people have the opportunity to enter work quickly. What advice can my right hon. Friend give to local MPs on helping to put together those partnerships? Is it not important that local authorities of all political persuasions come forward and play the game?

James Purnell: I am sure that they will. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform mentioned, the Conservative chair of the Local Government Association has strongly welcomed this scheme, and I urge all Members to work with local authorities, charities and social enterprises to bid for the future jobs fund, to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, when a generation was left on the scrap heap. Instead, we can guarantee to find young people work or training within a year, and hopefully much faster than that.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): The Secretary of State will know that many elderly people in private residential homes are struggling to pay their fees. Why are those living in such homes not able to receive the winter fuel allowance, when they could if they were living in their own homes and paying for fuel and lighting?

The Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society (Ms Rosie Winterton): The first reason is that, in many instances, the cost of the fuel is covered by the fees that are paid by, for example, a local authority. The second reason is that if fees are paid to the home privately, the energy costs are considered to be taken within the payments made. I have looked at this issue closely, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we feel that this cost is covered by the fees that are often paid by the local authority.

T2. [273508] Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Carers week, in early June, will celebrate and recognise the role of the United Kingdom’s 6 million carers. What measures are Ministers taking to assist carers, whether they are in work or not?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue of carers. He will be aware that the Government are investing more than £255 million to support carers in the short term. That includes £150 million to allow carers to have planned breaks, £38 million from
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my Department to help carers re-enter the job market and, importantly, £6 million from the Department for Children, Schools and Families to support young carers in the work they do. We have set out our carers strategy and are looking at reforming the benefit system, so as to avoid some of the complexities that carers complain about.

T3. [273509] John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Many benefit claimants are going to experience real hardship when their payments are moved from weekly to fortnightly in arrears, and they have been told that the answer is to take out a loan to repay the weekly amount. How will this change benefit recipients, rather than just the bureaucrats?

Ms Rosie Winterton: The reason why we are making these changes is, in a sense, to simplify the overall system. At the moment, some benefits are paid in arrears and some are paid in advance, which has caused confusion for recipients. On the loan, the idea is to give people a payment up front, so that they will still have the money and nobody will lose out as a result of the changes. The loan will ensure that people do not face difficulties in the transition period.

T4. [273510] David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The reduction in interest rates is clearly having a serious impact on pensioners’ income from savings, but the problem is aggravated for those on pension credit as a result of the official assumption that for every £500 over the threshold, a pound a week in interest is generated. That works out in the calculations as an annual rate of 10.4 per cent., which is clearly well detached from reality. Is there nothing we can do in these particularly difficult times to reform that assumption, which has essentially been inherited from previous Administrations—in the plural?

Ms Winterton: First, the assumption made in respect of the tariff income has never had anything to do with interest rates. It was laid down in legislation. We changed the position so that instead of assuming a pound for every £250 of savings, which was the case under the previous Administration, we make that assumption for every £500. We reduced the upper limit so that people could go much higher up the scale before they started to pay. In the recent Budget, following representations from hon. Members and a number of charities and organisations representing older people, we have changed the amount at which people have to start making a contribution from £6,000 to £10, 000.

T6. [273513] Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): When in opposition, the present Prime Minister said that he wanted to see the end of means-testing for elderly people, and I think he was right to do so because means-testing penalises people who have done the right thing, worked hard, been thrifty and tried to save a bit for their old age. Given that the Government have expanded means-testing by an astronomical amount, will the Minister explain why the Prime Minister was wrong?

Ms Winterton: When we came into power, we said we would make the system for claiming extra benefits simpler. If the hon. Gentleman wants to abolish means-testing altogether, that will, of course, benefit the wealthiest
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people more. What we have done is to target money on the most vulnerable people. As I have said, overall, £96 billion more has been spent on pensioners under this Government, but what we have not done is to take away means-testing entirely, because that would have the greatest effect on the poorest people in our society.

T9. [273516] Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Ministers will be aware that Labour Members, particularly those in London, have been campaigning hard for changes in the housing benefit regime, particularly with regard to high-rent and low-wage areas and the phenomenon known colloquially as the “cliff-edge”, which disincentivises work. What progress has been made on this issue?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Kitty Ussher): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question and I am indeed extremely aware of the campaign that she and other hon. Friends have run, which has been very effective. I am particularly concerned, as she is, about work incentives for people in low-income areas who face high rents. That is a real problem in her constituency and in a number of others, quite a few of which are in London. That is one reason why we are looking at the whole operation of housing benefit, and I hope to publish a consultation paper on this very point in the next few months.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): May I pick up a point made by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)? Given the current background of large increases in the number of redundancies and the lowest number of job vacancies coming on to the market since records began in 2001, will the Minister ensure that the newly unemployed receive the maximum possible assistance, that they are treated sensitively, that they are encouraged to widen their choice of jobs, and that it is pointed out to them very firmly that it is easier to improve one’s position when one is in employment—that is, to move from one job to another—than to obtain one’s first job from a position of unemployment?

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Tony McNulty): All that is rooted in precisely what we are doing with the £5 billion of extra investment. As I said earlier, we have had to change the model slightly to offer much, much more both pre-redundancy with the rapid response service and when a person is first made unemployed, and then again after three and six months of unemployment. However, the hon. Lady has made a fair point, and I take it seriously. Given the present downturn, we are ensuring that Jobcentre Plus is learning all the time, and that it treats people differently if, for instance, they have a history of 15 or 20 years’ successful employment or come from backgrounds or professions that make them unaccustomed to using its services.

T7. [273514] Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What is the Department’s attitude to access to vouchers for food banks? Social services, the probation service and health visitors all provide such vouchers, but when charities want to provide them at Jobcentre Plus offices many refuse to issue them, saying that it is wrong and that according to the Department’s guidance they should not be issued. Why are the Jobcentre Plus offices doing that, and is it right?

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Mr. McNulty: I will certainly take the matter up further for the hon. Gentleman, but his starting premise is correct: the advice is not to disseminate information or procedures of that kind for the use of third parties, at least those in the public sector. However, the matter has been raised with me before, and I will take it up and get back to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend recall that when the Conservatives were in power, high unemployment was a price worth paying, if it wasn’t hurting it wasn’t working, and a whole generation was abandoned to poverty and benefits? Is it not the case that we are trying to stop—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman should ask a question. We have heard that statement and that speech before.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Given that the Secretary of State has talked about helping the disadvantaged and given that these are topical questions, may I ask what message he has for the disadvantaged victims of Equitable Life, who are the subject of repeated pleas by the ombudsman in unprecedented critical reports?

James Purnell: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have said we will make ex gratia payments and also apologise where appropriate. As he also knows, the problem happened under both Governments and we have taken steps to put it right. If he has further proposals, he should say how he would fund them.

T8. [273515] Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): The Building Societies Association has suggested that the Equality Bill could outlaw “silver saver” accounts for over-50s, which would mean diminishing returns on savings for many hard-pressed senior citizens in Southend, West. What are the Government going to do about that?

Ms Rosie Winterton: I assure the hon. Gentleman that we do not believe that the Equality Bill would have the effect that has been alleged on “silver savers”. I should add, however, that we shall be consulting on some of the detail in the coming weeks to ensure that there is no such detrimental effect, and that it is possible to make available products aimed at particular age groups.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench consider introducing a short-time working subsidy in order to keep people in employment, rather than paying them to be unemployed? That would be a way of ensuring that people are in the right place when we move forward and the economy picks up. Rather than trying to find the skills afterwards, we could keep the skills and allow people to be trained in the workplace.

James Purnell: I am sure my hon. Friend will welcome the fact that, thanks to tax credits, more than 300,000 people are getting an extra £35 a week to soften the blows from the current recession. He will also welcome the fact that people who are working short-time can claim JSA for a short period, and he may want to make that known to his constituents. What is most important, however, is that we take the necessary action to get the economy going again and to support confidence. We believe the actions we have taken have saved 500,000 jobs so far, and we will continue to do more.

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Speaker’s Statement

3.30 pm

Mr. Speaker: Members will be aware of the unauthorised disclosure of material relating to their allowances, which has appeared in the press on Friday and over the weekend. This has caused great public concern.

Leaving aside the legal aspect, to which I shall return in a moment, the House has to make serious change to the system of allowances. Right hon. and hon. Members will know that we have been working to new rules from 1 April. We also know that there will be further changes, with proper, independent audit assurance. But working to the rules and the rules alone is not what is expected of any hon. Member; it is important that the spirit of what is right must be brought in now. We are also setting up an operational assurance unit with independent oversight to secure the proper handling of claims. This will be operating very shortly.

To return to the legal aspect, the Clerk of the House immediately sought advice. He was advised that there was no real basis for seeking an injunction but that there was some basis for considering that a criminal offence or offences may have been committed. As right hon. and hon. Members will know from a communication that they received on Friday afternoon, he accordingly referred the matter to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan police. I can understand hon. Members’ concerns about the revealing of details of bank accounts, style of signature and verbal passwords and their concern that an individual who may have sold the data is also capable of selling this information further. That is why the police have been informed. I am also writing to the publisher of the newspaper, drawing this fact to their attention and reminding them of the serious security implications if personal data that might expose Members and others to risks to their safety were to be published. The letter will be copied to all national newspapers.

I turn to the matter of what action on publication, originally scheduled for July, should now be taken, I can tell the House that the House of Commons Commission will be meeting this evening to give this matter its immediate attention.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. I will take some points of order, but I remind Members that I cannot reveal every piece of information, or every action that the Commission and Officers of the House will take.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I say something of a more positive nature about this matter? I was pleased to see that, in publishing some of the material, The Daily Telegraph has been careful to black out such information as Members’ home addresses. That is reassuring given that The Sunday Telegraph has been the newspaper that has been arguing for so long that Members’ private home addresses should be published to all and sundry. I have communicated with the editors’ office of The Daily Telegraph and I have their permission to say what their position is on this. I have just received the following from the consulting editor, Mr. Wynn Davies, who says:

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