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Jobseeker's Allowance

5. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What the percentage change has been in the number of jobseeker's allowance claimants in (a) Wellingborough constituency and (b) England between 1997 and the latest period for which figures are available. [304066]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Jim Knight): From October 1997 to the end of October 2009, the numbers claiming jobseeker's allowance in England have gone up by 163,277 and in Wellingborough by 1,578. This is a change of 14.1 per cent. and 105.1 per cent. respectively. In the same period, employment has risen by 2,685,200 in England and by 11,700 in Wellingborough.

Mr. Bone: In 1997, Tony Blair said that things could only get better. In Wellingborough, unemployment has more than doubled since 1997. How could Tony Blair have got it so wrong?

Jim Knight: Things have certainly got better for those 11,700 people who, thanks to the policies of this Government, are now in work and who would not have been in work before. Things have got better for the 137 people net who came off jobseeker's allowance last month in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I do not hear him celebrating the fact that the figures are now starting to come down in his constituency. All in all, the management of the economy that we have seen over the past year through this recession is in stark contrast to that when his party was in power, when unemployment was deemed a price worth paying. We have now seen unemployment figures that are 400,000 less than those predicted at the time of the Budget in April.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): In Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, including in Wellingborough, those who have been on jobseeker's allowance for 12 months are referred by the local jobcentre to a private sector organisation, the offices of which I visited last week to discuss its approach. How confident is the Minister that the training and support that those outsourced contracts provide will be appropriate to those who seek to find work in a very difficult market?

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Jim Knight: My hon. Friend is right to point out that, however good the providers are, we also need to ensure that we have policies in place to create work for people to move into. Those providers are paid on the basis of results-for those whom they successfully get into work-and that is a strong incentive for them properly to match the support that is needed with the individuals. The biggest threat comes from the policies that have been put forward by the shadow Chancellor, which The Economist has said would lead to a doubling of unemployment to 5 million.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Was not the pledge of Labour in 1997 to get 250,000 under-25s off benefits and into work? Is it not the case that today there are 300,000 more under-25s out of work than there were in 1997, and that that figure has been rising for many years? Was it not higher before the recession took hold than it was in 1997? Is there not a problem of structural youth unemployment today, and do we not need some fresh thinking rather than the failed policies of the Government?

Jim Knight: I am afraid that that is more rubbish from the Conservative party. The pledge on the famous pledge cards in 1997 was about long-term youth unemployment and what would be delivered through the new deal. As the noble Lord Freud said a year ago, that was a huge success. We were able to tackle long-term claimant youth unemployment, which is currently an 18th of what it was in 1997. It has been slashed, thanks to the imaginative ideas of the Government. The problems that we have now are in relation to short-term levels of unemployment.

Youth Unemployment

6. Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): What steps her Department is taking to reduce unemployment among young people; and if she will make a statement. [304067]

12. Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): What steps the Government are taking to reduce the level of youth unemployment; and if she will make a statement. [304073]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Jim Knight): We have launched a number of targeted initiatives to tackle youth unemployment, as hon. Members have been hearing. From next month, the young person's guarantee will ensure that all 18 to 24-year-olds on jobseeker's allowance will be guaranteed either the offer of work, work-focused training or meaningful activity. They will then be required to take up one of those opportunities. The future jobs fund will create 150,000 jobs. About 95,000 jobs have already been approved and some have already started, but the Government cannot prevent youth unemployment on our own. That is why we have launched Backing Young Britain, and I am delighted to report that, as a result, more than 330 employers are already pledging new opportunities for young people.

Mr. Clarke: What measures within the future jobs fund and other initiatives within the Department are focused specifically on disabled young people, the vast
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majority of whom want to experience the same job opportunities and job satisfaction as has been the experience of their peers?

Jim Knight: My right hon. Friend is well known in the House as a champion for disabled people. The future jobs fund is designed to help all young people and, with my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), I am looking to secure good access to all future jobs fund opportunities for young disabled people. Among the future jobs fund bids, First Movement in the east midlands will offer creative arts and outreach activities for people with disabilities, and, in Scotland, the Royal National Institute of Blind People has proposed a number of jobs, including positions such as facilities officers, conferences officers and an admin director.

Mr. Hepburn: Programmes such as the young person's guarantee are to be welcomed, and I am sure that they will do a lot of good. However, does my hon. Friend realise-I do not know what was in the press yesterday, but as far as I am concerned this is the case with the rules today-that there are daft rules? There is a 39-week eligibility wait before one can qualify for that scheme, which means that about a third of young unemployed people in the north-east will not qualify at all. Will the Minister look into this issue and scrap the rule to make sure that all young people get their rights from day one?

Jim Knight: Given that my hon. Friend comes from the part of the world that he does, which has been hard hit by the recession, I naturally listen carefully to his encouragements. Of course, we continue to consider the point at which people become eligible for increasing levels of support, according to the risks that they have of becoming long-term unemployed. We will have more to say about that in the next few days.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I am sure that the Minister recognises the anger and frustration of young people and families who find themselves unemployed at this time. Why have the numbers been rising steadily, even before the credit crunch? Does he understand and accept that unemployment when one is young has a long-term, scarring effect, from which people often do not recover?

Jim Knight: We know only too well, from our memories of the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, when the Government of the day thought that unemployment was a price worth paying, about the scarring effect of unemployment, especially on young people. It can damage their self-confidence for the rest of their working lives. That is why we have put such a focus on preventing long-term youth unemployment through the £5 billion investment-opposed by the hon. Gentleman and his party-which has been successful, as I have already said in answers today. That is why, if we consider the international position, we see that our youth unemployment is below the European average and that of countries such as France, Italy and Spain.

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Local Housing Allowance

7. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the rules governing local housing allowance. [304068]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Helen Goodman): We are taking forward a review of the first two years of the operation of local housing allowance. In many respects, it is effective, but we will shortly consult on the reform of housing benefit. Our aim is a system that is fair to customers, landlords and the taxpayer.

Angela Watkinson: Does the Under-Secretary agree that more private rented accommodation might become available if tenants could opt to have their LHA paid directly to the landlord? The landlord would thus be guaranteed to receive the rent and tenants would not be at risk of accumulating unmanageable debt.

Helen Goodman: I am afraid that we have no independent evidence to support the hon. Lady's proposition. Indeed, the number of people living in the private rented sector has increased by 200,000 since November 2008.

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): The local housing allowance was designed to give people an incentive to shop around; if they could get a rent for below the going rate, they could keep the difference. However, the Under-Secretary knows that the Government plan to scrap that. In those circumstances, why would landlords offer rents below local housing allowance level? Will not they simply put up rents as a result? Is not that a direct transfer from the taxpayer to landlords?

Helen Goodman: At the moment, we are considering the consultation responses to our proposals about the £15 excess. We will respond to that in due course. I am afraid that I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's proposition. We believe that the freedom that we have given tenants enables them to shop around. It also gives them more choice, enables them to manage their benefit payments and open bank accounts, and improves their financial inclusion generally.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): But why do the Government persist in refusing tenants' request to have their local housing allowance paid directly to their landlords? That is what tenants want. There is much evidence to show that money goes straight to loan sharks or drug dealers. The policy also reduces the supply of social homes to local housing allowance tenants. When will the Government give tenants the choice for which they are asking?

Helen Goodman: As I have said, the evidence is unclear. The feedback that we have had from local authorities generally is that most tenants manage their benefit payments and do not get into increasing arrears. Choice is only one aspect of the local housing allowance; responsibility is a key principle. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would accept that principle.

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Pensioner Poverty

8. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): What her most recent estimate is of the number of pensioners living in poverty. [304069]

The Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society (Angela Eagle): Through targeted support and additional funding, we have got 900,000 pensioners out of the relative poverty in which they were living in 1997. However, there are still 2 million pensioners in relative poverty, which we define as 60 per cent. or below of median household income.

Malcolm Bruce: Does the Minister acknowledge that a reason for that is the complexity and delay involved in applying for benefits, particularly pension credit, for which the form is 18-pages long and the guidance is 19 pages? Does she not accept that, for many people, that is simply a deterrent, which means that they do not claim benefits? Is that not the Government's intention? If it is not, surely they could find a better way of ensuring that people who are entitled to benefits get them.

Angela Eagle: First things first: I am proud to be part of the first Government ever to end the link between poverty and old age. A report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on 3 December revealed that there has been a historic reversal in the fortunes of pensioners over state pension age, who are now at the lowest risk of being in poverty than any other age group. I do very important work with the Pensions Service in attempting to encourage pension credit recipients to claim, and that service makes 13,000 visits a week to the homes of vulnerable pensioners to take them through the claim form. People can claim for pension credit, housing benefit and council tax benefit in the same phone call, and the hon. Gentleman's own local authority-Aberdeenshire-is one of 203 local authorities working in partnership with the Department for Work and Pensions to improve the take-up of pension credit, and we believe that we are succeeding.

Jobseeker's Allowance

9. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): How many jobseeker's allowance claimants there were in (a) the UK, (b) Wales and (c) Clwyd, West constituency on the most recent date for which figures are available. [304070]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Jim Knight): In October 2009, there were 1,582,555 jobseeker's allowance claimants in the UK, 78,234 in Wales, and 1,603 in the Clwyd, West parliamentary constituency. Employment levels have risen since 1997 by 121,200 in Wales and 6,700 in Clwyd, West.

Mr. Jones: Almost half of the last quarterly increase in unemployment across the UK was attributable to job losses in Wales, which was particularly hard-hit by the downturn. I know that the Minister's Department works closely with the Welsh Assembly Government in the delivery of their ProAct programme, so can he explain why in the 12 months to October this year, not a penny
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was spent under that programme in the county of Conwy, which includes my constituency, where there has been a 50 per cent. increase in unemployment?

Jim Knight: The hon. Gentleman is right that I regularly meet Ministers from the Welsh Assembly Government. Over the summer, we were pleased that Wales appeared to buck the trend and be moving in a positive direction. Some people put that down to the effectiveness of ProAct and ReAct. I cannot give him a detailed answer on spending in his part of the world, but I can tell him that in the past year, employment has risen in his constituency, inactivity has fallen and the number of people claiming jobseeker's allowance fell in the past month.

Gloucester Works Project

10. Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Gloucester Works project. [304071]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Jim Knight): This is a good-quality project, providing support to unemployed people and businesses in Gloucester, and bringing together the public and private sectors to ensure that local communities benefit from regeneration. During the first phase of the Quays development, the project has delivered 236 jobs for local people, 67 per cent. of whom had previously been unemployed or facing redundancy. I was very pleased to see this for myself when I visited the project in October to meet people who have secured jobs thanks both to the investment Government are making and to the tireless work of their excellent local Member of Parliament.

Mr. Dhanda: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who will be aware that Gloucester Works has contributed to a reduction in unemployment in the city of Gloucester in four of the past six months. The project is worth something like £4 million of investment from the Government, so does he share my concern that that funding would not continue should the Opposition ever come to power?

Jim Knight: I share my hon. Friend's concern, because the funding has come from two organisations about which the Opposition are sceptical-the regional development agency and the European Union. As I have said, the project has delivered 236 jobs that would not be delivered if the Opposition's policies had their way.

Local Housing Allowance

14. Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the rules governing local housing allowance. [304075]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Helen Goodman): I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson).

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Mr. Goodwill: To return to where we were on Question 7, would the Minister be surprised to hear that, despite a private landlord contacting Scarborough borough council to inform it that three months' rent that had been paid to a tenant had not been passed on, and that, before eviction proceedings could take place, the tenant absconded, the council said that it had no alternative but to pay the subsequent payment to the tenant, although they had left the property with three months of arrears?

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman has told this story, but the overall picture is quite different. In total, across the whole country, there are a million people receiving local housing allowance. It is, on average, £110 a week, and they use that to pay their rent.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): I am sure the Minister saw the story in the newspapers last week of a family in west London who were receiving some £180,000 worth of benefits, most of which formed their housing allowance. The hon. Lady previously had plans to cap the very large sums of rent that were paid to families. Can she explain how such an extraordinary state of affairs came about?

Helen Goodman: We have already acted to cap those high levels of benefit by capping the local housing allowance to the five-bedroom rate. We will shortly be consulting on reform of housing benefit to make it fairer and support access to reasonably priced accommodation. The hon. Lady makes a fair point. Nobody expects housing benefit to pay for a small number of people to live in extremely expensive accommodation, but I point out to her that fewer than 100 households across the whole country receive housing benefit of more than £1,000 a week.

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