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19 Oct 2009 : Column 631

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Has the Secretary of State yet had the opportunity to consider the report published by the Federation of Small Businesses last week-"Small Businesses, Big Employers"-in which it makes the point that some 69 per cent. of apprentices are employed in small businesses but only 5 per cent. of small businesses are aware of the full range of help that is available to them for apprentices? What is she going to do about that?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. That is exactly why we announced only this year that we wanted to work with the Federation of Small Businesses so that it could take on not only more apprenticeships but more internships, particularly for graduate interns, who can often provide additional support for small businesses. Internships are also a great opportunity for young graduates to get their first bit of work experience. That is how they can benefit small businesses and young people. We are looking at ways to increase the support in jobcentres for small businesses to do exactly that.

Personal Accounts

16. Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): What recent progress has been made on the introduction of personal accounts; and if she will make a statement. [293512]

The Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society (Angela Eagle): I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave to the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) a little while ago.

Mr. Holloway: Eighty-six per cent. of smaller employers have said that they will review their pension arrangements ahead of the introduction of personal accounts. Of those, 41 per cent. have said that they will consider closing down their existing schemes as a result. Is not the Minister worried that this is a levelling down?

Angela Eagle: The real issue is that two thirds of people who work in the private sector have no opportunity of a workplace pension at all. That is why Members on both sides of the House agreed to introduce automatic enrolment in the 2008 legislation on pensions. The hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing, much as the Conservative party argued when we introduced the minimum wage, that if there is a minimum everybody reduces their arrangements to that minimum. It has not happened with the minimum wage, and I do not believe that it will happen with pensions.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Will the Minister ensure that employers contribute their share to the personal accounts of their employees and do not, under false pretences, get their employees to opt out when it is not appropriate?

Angela Eagle: We will design the information for employers and employees to ensure that we make the case positively for those who are automatically enrolled to stay in personal accounts. It is important that they contribute to pension saving to build the second tier of pensions on top of the improvements to the basic state pension that we are introducing next year, which will make it more universal, fairer and more generous.

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Jobseeker's Allowance

19. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What the percentage change was in the number of people claiming jobseeker's allowance between the end of September 1997 and the end of September 2009 in (a) England and (b) Wellingborough constituency. [293515]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Jim Knight): From September 1997 to the end of September 2009, there was an 8.6 per cent. change in the number of jobseeker's allowance claimants in England, with a 96.3 per cent. change in Wellingborough parliamentary constituency. However, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that in September the number of people leaving JSA exceeded the numbers coming on to JSA by 51.

Mr. Bone: Unemployment is higher across the country now than it was in 1997; unemployment in Wellingborough is actually double what it was in 1997. Why is it that when every Labour Government are thrown out of office, unemployment is higher than when they came to power? Is it not true that Labour is the party of unemployment?

Jim Knight: As I have already said, it is not true: it is the hon. Gentleman's party that is the party of unemployment. It is worth his noting, for example, the employment rate-2.5 million more people are in jobs now than in 1997. It is also worth noting that the number of lone parents on benefit in his constituency has fallen by 23 per cent. Looking at long-term unemployment, the numbers of young people claiming JSA for more than 12 months is a seventh of what it was when we came to power and a twentieth of what it was during the last recession.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My right hon. Friend realises that unemployment is a tragedy for those unemployed, but will he give us the percentage of those unemployed and those in employment over the past few years? If he does not have the figures now, will he send me a copy and put one in the Library?

Jim Knight: I will gladly write to my hon. Friend with the detailed statistics that he asks for. I am grateful to him for his question, because beneath the exchanges that we have over the Dispatch Box it is important to remember that every person who is unemployed, and their family, is going through a crisis. However much heat we might generate in the House, we must not forget that.

Incapacity Benefit

20. Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): How many recipients of incapacity benefit who have been reassessed for employment and support allowance (a) have been placed in the work-related activity group, (b) have been placed in the support group and (c) did not meet the qualifying criteria. [293516]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): Some 195,000 processes have begun for new ESA claimants, and we will migrate the rest of the incapacity benefit cohort from 2010 to 2013.

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Danny Alexander: I am grateful for that answer, but my experience from my constituency case load, and the experience of the Inverness citizens advice bureau, is that the new rules for ESA are being used to exclude far greater numbers of people than were excluded from the previous benefit. In one case, a former member of staff at the Department for Work and Pensions was rendered unfit for work and retired on the grounds of ill health thanks to an assessment by an Atos Origin doctor. That same doctor then gave him a nil score for ESA. There is huge inconsistency in the process. Can the Minister assure me that Atos Origin doctors have not been instructed to-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think we have got the drift of it.

Jonathan Shaw: There is a new assessment, which considers what people can do rather than what they cannot do. As I said, 195,000 people have begun that process, which is backed up with the pathways to work programme. We are assisting people to find employment. The incapacity benefit test is very different from the work capability assessment under the new arrangements, and part of the programme is that we want to see more people in employment rather than confined to incapacity benefit year after year.

Topical Questions

T1. [293521] Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Yvette Cooper): My Department is today publishing research that has found that there is still significant racial discrimination in recruitment, so that similar applicants with ethnic minority names are less likely to get a positive response. We believe that that is completely unacceptable. It is also bad for business, because it is missing out on talent. We are considering ways to strengthen the approach to governance and procurement, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform is looking at further ways to address the problem.

Simon Hughes: I thank the Secretary of State. We spotted that problem a long time ago, and I am glad that her Government now have too.

Over the summer, a 79-year-old disabled and deaf pensioner in my constituency had his pension payments suspended for a fortnight as a result of one of the random checks carried out by the Pension Service, for which he has received an apology. Will she undertake that in future, no pensioners will be left without any money at all because of an administrative checking system that clearly does not take any account of the needs of individuals in receipt of pensions?

Yvette Cooper: I am very happy to look into the case that the hon. Gentleman refers to. If he wants to supply me with details, I will look into that case and the wider repercussions.

T3. [293523] Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this Government have spent more than £100 billion on pensioners since 1997, but can we also have a commitment that they will
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not increase the pensionable age by 2016 and that people will know that when they retire, the money they have paid in is protected and they do not have to work an extra year?

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right that we have increased the support, which has helped lift pensioners out of poverty. He is right also that it is not fair on people in their 50s, particularly their late 50s, suddenly to make them rip up their retirement plans and say that they have to work an additional year before they can get their pension. We know that we have an ageing population, and we have set out long-term plans to increase the retirement age, but people should have security to plan for their retirement. It is not fair otherwise.

T2. [293522] Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): With reference to future employment prospects, is it a good thing or a bad thing that Royal Mail is taking on 30,000 temporary staff?

Yvette Cooper: Those decisions are a matter for Royal Mail, not for the Department for Work and Pensions.

T10. [293530] Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Has the Minister seen the recent report from the TUC stating that if a person loses their job, their out-of-work benefits are just 10 per cent. of the average salary? They were 19 per cent. in 1970. Does that not show that it would be wrong to launch another assault on benefit levels, as the Tories want to do, when they are already difficult for people who lose their jobs?

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Jim Knight): I have seen that report from the TUC and, as ever, its interesting analysis. I refer my hon. Friend to the reply I gave to our hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who asked a similar question. It is important to take into account all the benefits to which people are entitled-not just jobseeker's allowance or employment and support allowance, but council tax benefit and housing benefit. In the end, it is also important to ensure that we make work pay. My concern about the Conservatives' proposals is that they want to shunt people around the benefits system-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I say to the Minister of State that we are interested in his comments on Government policy rather than that of the Opposition.

T4. [293524] Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Unemployment in the Shipley constituency is now 31 per cent. higher than it was in 1997. Do the Government take responsibility for that, and what do they propose to do to help people in the constituency back into work?

Jim Knight: Clearly, the recent serious rises in unemployment in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, as elsewhere, have been as a result of the global recession. Unemployment has been rising all over the world, but it is worth noting that long-term unemployment in his constituency has fallen by 48 per cent., that long-term youth claimant unemployment has fallen by 32 per cent., that the employment rate has risen by 0.1 per cent., and that the number of lone parents out of work has fallen by 1.2 per cent. I am very happy to take credit for those figures.

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Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): On cold weather payments, inland areas in my constituency have their temperature measured 30 miles away on the coast, which is neither accurate nor acceptable. What more can the ministerial team do to address that?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Helen Goodman): My hon. Friend is no doubt aware of the decision to maintain at £25 the cold weather payment for this winter. We will shortly be announcing the results of the annual review of the weather stations, which we do in consultation with the Met Office.

T5. [293525] Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Is there any other country in Europe today that has a higher proportion of children growing up in workless households than we do here in the UK?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, in fact, the number of children growing up in workless households has dropped since 1997 as a result of programmes such as tax credits, which help people back into work, and as a result of the substantial support that has increased employment among lone parents, and is continuing to do so even during what is a difficult recession. The Government believe that we need to keep cutting child poverty by continuing to support children and by supporting families into work.

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend take steps to stop the benefits of pregnant women being sanctioned? She will be aware that employers are not exactly falling over themselves to employ pregnant women. That goes absolutely nowhere towards meeting our child poverty targets.

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right that we need to ensure that pregnant women are not discriminated against in employment. She may also be interested to know that we have recently tabled an amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill to remove the sanctions for families with children under one so that they are no longer financially penalised if they miss a work-focused interview when, for example, the child is very young and we would often expect parents still to be on maternity leave.

T6. [293526] Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): What discussions has the Minister had with the Treasury about the system of child support when the care of the child is split equally between two former partners? I have a constituent who cares for her child fully half the week, but because she is not named as the recipient of child benefit, she is deemed by the Department for Work and Pensions to be the non-resident parent. She therefore finds herself in a fight for resources with her former partner and is impoverished as a result. Her former partner receives the full amount of child benefit and is also entitled to maintenance payments from her.

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman raises a specific case; there are a small number of people in the same situation as his constituent. Obviously, operational matters are dealt with by the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, to which I will refer the case.

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Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Earlier today the Minister told me that the Child Support Agency was going to get even more powers for enforcement. When will the Government stop giving the CSA more powers for enforcement and actually ensure that it uses the enforcement powers it already has?

[Official Report, 29 October 2009, Vol. 498, c. 5MC.]

Helen Goodman: I can inform my hon. Friend that CMEC is using its powers extremely effectively. The maintenance collected has now reached £1.136 billion, which is £157 million above the target.

T7. [293527] Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Throughout Question Time, we have heard talk of billions of pounds invested in job creation and grandiose schemes, and constant attacks on the wicked Tories. I see Ministers in denial. Can the Secretary of State tell us simply whether youth unemployment has been rising since 2005 and is it now at a record level approaching 1 million?

Yvette Cooper: We have had this discussion already. In fact, the ILO figures to which the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) referred include more than 250,000 young people who are in full-time education and say that they are looking for work-including part-time work. We are also concerned that youth unemployment has been affected by the world recession, and that is happening in countries across the world, but it is important that we do everything that we can to help young people and increase the support for getting them into work and training, rather than-as Opposition Members still want to do-to cut that investment just when it is needed most.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Some two thirds of tracing inquiries for mesothelioma and other industrial asbestos victims relate to post-1972 exposures when insurance was a legal requirement, but fewer than two in five are successful. What is the current position on the setting up of an employees' liability bureau, as suggested by many Labour Members?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): My hon. Friend will know that 98 per cent. of people can trace the insurance cover from their former centre of employment, and the Government are working with the insurance industry to look at those thousands of cases that remain. The insurance industry is looking to bring together all the different insurance policies so that they can address this. The work done by the unions and hon. Members has been raised with Lord McKenzie, and will be taken into account. We are keen to move forward.

T8. [293528] Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): I was staggered to hear that, after all these years of Labour utopia, 40 per cent. of year 11 children in my constituency are not getting a C grade in English or maths. How does the Minister propose to ensure that those kids do not end up not in education, employment or training?

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