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19 Oct 2009 : Column 625

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman is right that the problem is most severe for those who have the fewest qualifications. They can find it difficult to get into work and that is exactly why we have introduced the September guarantee this year, which guarantees that all 16 and 17-year-olds can stay on in education. We have invested an additional £600 million in order to make that possible and to provide those additional places. We need to ensure that we have a growing number of apprenticeships and further education places, too. I notice that in the hon. Gentleman's constituency-I think that he will welcome this-the number of 18 to 24-year-olds on the claimant count actually fell slightly last month.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): One reason for youth unemployment is those 16 to 18-year-olds who leave school, do not go into education or training and fall out of the system because they do not qualify for benefits. My right hon. Friend has just mentioned the fact that the education leaving age will be raised to 18, but will she explain why that is so important, as the Scottish National party Government in Holyrood have said that they will not do that?

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right that we need to ensure that young people do not fall through the net and that they get the support they need. That is why we think that it is right to make it an obligation that all young people should stay in some form of education through to the age of 18. That is the best way to provide them with a better long-term future as well as to increase their chances of staying in employment. That is why, as well as funding the additional education places, we need the requirement for young people to stay on in education.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): The Secretary of State is aware that, as she has mentioned, record numbers of students have enrolled on apprenticeships and FE courses. What discussions has she had with the Business Secretary about ensuring that all those places are fully funded and that colleges are not losing out?

Yvette Cooper: As the hon. Gentleman would expect, I have had discussions not only with the Business Secretary but with the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Family about how we can work across the Government to increase the support for further education places and apprenticeships. We are also increasing the number of graduate internships to help people take that first step on the employment ladder as well as enabling them to stay in education.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State consider the situation in which a young constituent of mine finds himself? He is on jobseeker's allowance and he has found a three-month Government-funded course in his chosen profession of leisure and training, but because he is technically not seeking work during those three months he has had his jobseeker's allowance stopped. That has caused him financial difficulties. If we are trying to help young people to gain skills and to move into work, should we review that ruling?

Yvette Cooper: I am happy to look into the individual case that my hon. Friend mentions. He will be aware that there is a lot of support to provide training for those people who are seeking work, including short-term
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pre-employment training places, which help people to get specific jobs, as well as longer term opportunities. It is right that we should provide those training opportunities and it is also right that we should do as much as possible to help people into work and to get that first work experience. People need training and, often, the work experience, too.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Kent county council, which reduced the number of young people who are not in employment, education or training in Kent by 12.5 per cent. whereas the equivalent figure rose by 11 per cent. in the rest of the south-east? Would she further agree that rolling out Kent's example of technical schools and apprenticeships across the country would help to reduce unemployment among young people across the UK?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman may be aware that, in fact, Kent county council backs the future jobs fund, which is one of the programmes in which it is involved, to help young people get jobs and get back into work. Councils across the country support those youth jobs, and it is deeply disappointing that the Conservatives are the only people who oppose those jobs and want to pull the rug out from beneath them.

Long-term Unemployment

8. Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): What steps she is taking to reduce levels of long-term unemployment. [293503]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Jim Knight): Long-term unemployment is lower than in 1997, much lower than it was during the recession of the 1990s, and much lower still than in the recession of the 1980s. Despite increases in unemployment, the numbers on key out-of-work benefits have fallen by about 450,000 since 1997. However, we are not complacent. The tailored support offered by the flexible new deal is the right strategic response to the challenge of long-term unemployment. The future jobs fund and the young person's guarantee are the right measures for long-term youth unemployment.

Andrew Gwynne: I thank the Minister for that response. It is crucial that we ensure that the long-term unemployed have the right support, assistance and training to be able to access the jobs market again. Given that the practice in previous downturns was to encourage people into inactive benefits, what assurances can my right hon. Friend give the House that the number of people on such benefits does not increase in this downturn?

Jim Knight: I thank my hon. Friend for the opportunity to remind the House that when the Opposition were in power they shifted people from unemployment on to incapacity benefit, whereas in just the last year, if we exclude students, inactivity as a proportion of the working-age population is down 0.2 of a percentage point over the past year at 15.3 per cent., which is testament to the efforts of the staff working in Jobcentre Plus, who do the work capability assessments, move people off incapacity benefit on to jobseeker's allowance and then, crucially, into work.

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Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): That was a very helpful question from the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). There are 2.5 million people on incapacity benefit. Under the Government's invest to save proposals, for almost the whole of the next Parliament, if they were returned to office, only about 10 per cent. of those people could expect any help. Why do the Government not follow our approach, rip up the Treasury rules and start to help all those people from day one?

Jim Knight: As the hon. Gentleman knows, both his party and my party are going in the same direction of travel, but he wants to go at a rate that there is simply not the capacity in the system to be able to deliver. He would have to hire 1,500 doctors from somewhere. I do not know where he is going to get them from-perhaps his cuts in the NHS will be so severe that they will be made redundant by the Health Secretary.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): During the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Britain maintained a policy of long-term full employment, not unemployment, following the prescriptions of the great John Maynard Keynes. May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that we return to those prescriptions, fully embrace the wisdom of Keynes and abandon neo-liberalism once and for all?

Jim Knight: My hon. Friend, who is a wise student of these things, will have noticed that the slightly unorthodox approach that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister co-ordinated at the G20 London summit was much more Keynesian in character. As a result, as I said earlier, the ILO has assessed that the effect on unemployment across the G20 is a reduction of between 7 million and 11 million-with 0.5 million here in the UK-thanks to the policies adopted by the Prime Minister.

Personal Accounts

11. Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): What recent progress has been made in the implementation of personal accounts; and if she will make a statement. [293506]

The Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society (Angela Eagle): We are currently consulting on secondary legislation and remain on track for implementation from 2012.

Mr. Vaizey: Apart from the ever-increasing delay on personal accounts, and the ever-increasing expense, is not the real problem that by forcing people to save in a scheme that will then be means-tested, the Government are effectively setting up the greatest pension mis-selling scandal of the 21st century?

Angela Eagle: The proposals on which we are consulting and putting into effect were a result of the Turner commission, which began its deliberations in 2004, and the subsequent political cross-party consensus, which I thought we had, has led us to the implementation phase. The hon. Gentleman appears to indicate that the consensus is over. Is that the case?

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): Perhaps the Minister remembers that Turner said that the scheme should start in 2010. Does she accept that it would be sensible for any new Government to hold a review of personal accounts, especially in the light of the four-year
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delay in implementation that she recently announced? Can she confirm that the delivery authority will not sign any binding contracts with providers prior to the date of the next general election?

Angela Eagle: It seems to me, then, that the consensus is ending. I have not announced a four-year delay. What I have done is agree with the considered advice from the Personal Accounts Delivery Authority, which has looked at the sheer scale of the auto-enrolment that will see up to 10 million people saving for the first time into workplace pension schemes, with a guaranteed employer contribution. It would be folly to decide to do that too quickly and collapse the whole scheme. There is no delay; there is just good implementation that will not put at risk the architecture that we have to create from scratch.

Child Support System

12. John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): How many cases are being dealt with under the (a) old and (b) current child support system. [293508]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Helen Goodman): There are currently 687,000 cases on the statutory scheme which are assessed under the current scheme rules, and 569,600 cases on the statutory scheme which were assessed under the rules in place prior to 2003.

John Mann: Considering the controversy that exists, is there more scope for voluntary agreements? If the Minister agrees that there is not, should there not be a model voluntary agreement written and piloted by Government and backed by sanctions?

Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion. At present the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission can provide support through the new child maintenance options service so that where both parents can agree, they can move out of the statutory scheme to private arrangements that best suit their circumstances. Perhaps if a model were provided, it would not give the flexibility that parents are looking for.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Does the Minister accept that a figure of over half a million people on the old scheme represents untold unfairness and hardship for many of those families? Will she look particularly at the position of those who are on war pensions? I have a constituent who is on a war pension and who has to pay more than £20 a week to the Child Support Agency, notwithstanding the fact that that war pension should be going to him.

Helen Goodman: Although I understand the concerns that the hon. Gentleman expresses about the different impact of the two schemes on different people, the fact is that for every parent who would gain by switching from the old scheme to the current scheme, another parent would lose. Therefore it would not be practical to transfer cases simply on the say-so of one side. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me about his specific case with respect to war pension, I shall be happy to respond.

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Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Enforcement by the Child Support Agency seems to be pants. When are the Government going to get it sorted out?

Helen Goodman: I am afraid I have to disagree with my hon. Friend. The Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008, which we are implementing, introduced stronger enforcement powers to tackle the minority of parents who persist in avoiding their responsibilities. These include deduction of maintenance from bank accounts, recovery from deceased estates, application to courts for curfew orders and passport withdrawal, disclosure of information to credit reference agencies, lump sum deduction orders and deductions from private pensions. Further measures are being taken in the Welfare Reform Bill.

Child Poverty

13. Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): What recent progress has been made towards meeting the 2010 target on child poverty reduction. [293509]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Helen Goodman): Measures that we have taken in the past decade have lifted 500,000 children out of relative poverty and halved the level of absolute child poverty. Had the Government simply uprated the 1997 tax and benefits system in line with prices, we estimate that around 2.1 million more children might live in poverty today. Measures announced in and since Budget 2007 are expected to lift at least a further 500,000 children out of poverty by 2010.

Mr. Goodwill: At the 2005 Labour party conference, the current Prime Minister announced his ambition to halve child poverty by 2010. Will that target be met? A simple yes or no will suffice.

Helen Goodman: We are now in 2009, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman realises. The latest figures that we have relate to 2007, and our best forecast is that the measures taken since then will lift a further 600,000 children out of poverty. That will take us two thirds of the way to our target. The opportunity still exists to take further action and the economy is changing, so I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be patient and wait until Question 1 in 2012, when we will have the answer to his question.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that the biggest increase in child poverty took place between 1979 and 1997-in particular, when child benefit was frozen? Does she agree that any potential Government who in future froze child benefit would lead us to the biggest increase in child poverty, again, that this country has seen?

Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Child poverty figures doubled from 1.7 million to 3.4 million. We continue to increase child benefit and child tax credit, and that is why we have successfully halted and reversed the previous trend.

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): Does the Minister accept that the Child Poverty Action Group reckoned that £3 billion was required to do away with child poverty and move forward, and that, therefore, it is not going to happen?

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Helen Goodman: No one said that the task was going to be easy. On the contrary, because it is difficult we have introduced the Child Poverty Bill to maintain the pressure on the Government, in all circumstances, to achieve the eradication of child poverty by 2020. The most important thing, however, is that in the depths of the recession this Government have continued to take action to tackle that scourge.

Youth Unemployment

14. Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): What steps she is taking to reduce unemployment among young people; and if she will make a statement. [293510]

15. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What steps the Government are taking to reduce youth unemployment. [293511]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Yvette Cooper): I refer the hon. Members to the answer to Question 7.

Mrs. Humble: Is my right hon. Friend aware of an organisation in Blackpool called Progress Recruitment, which, by working with Jobcentre Plus and the Connexions service, is helping young people with disability to get into work? One of its many successes is Rachel Lambert, who at just 17 and with severe physical disabilities has been helped into self-employment, now has her own business and is supported by further training at the Blackpool sixth-form college. The entrepreneurial can-do spirit applies to young people, and, whether they have disabilities or not, that is an option for them.

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right, and we must ensure that we also help young people who have different disabilities and need additional help with different ways into work. She may also be interested to know that the proportion of disabled people in work has increased by about 7 per cent. to more than 50 per cent. in the past eight years, so for the first time there are more disabled people of working age in work than there are out of work-precisely because of the kind of programme that my hon. Friend talks about.

Tony Baldry: Is the Secretary of State aware that 947,000 young people between 16 and 24 years old are unemployed, of whom 500,000 claim jobseeker's allowance? Some 38 per cent. of all unemployed claimants are young people, and the young unemployed of today are likely to be the long-term unemployed of tomorrow. Does she not agree that we need radical action to tackle youth unemployment? What are the Government doing to tackle it?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the fact that young people are affected by the recession. I think that he refers to the International Labour Organisation figures for 16 to 24-year-olds, which include more than 250,000 young people who are in full-time education and also say that they are looking for work. It is right that we provide a range of support from the very moment that young people become unemployed. So far, our work is preventing the long-term youth unemployment of previous decades, so about 10,000 young people are on the long-term claimant count, compared with 200,000 in previous decades.

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