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House of Commons

Monday 1 February 2010

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked-

Jobcentre Plus

1. Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): What steps she is taking to improve telephone communications between benefit claimants and Jobcentre Plus. [314101]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Yvette Cooper): In keeping with the 100th anniversary of the labour exchange, which is today, we are continuing to modernise communications with Jobcentre Plus to make it easier for millions of people to get in touch about their benefit or seeking work. We have been concerned for some time that people calling on mobile phones were being charged a lot for calls to claim benefits which would be free from landlines, so we have recently negotiated a deal with the major mobile phone companies that their customers should also not be charged for calling 0800 numbers, and we are looking at what further steps we can take.

Mr. Illsley: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that response, and particularly for her reference to the anniversary of labour exchanges. My constituents and my local citizens advice bureau have complained to me about the use of 0845 numbers in jobcentres. Claimants seem to wait a very long time before their query is dealt with. Although jobcentres offer to call claimants back, by that time they have spent a considerable amount of money dealing with that telephone inquiry. Can the Government move away from 0845 numbers altogether?

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend raises an important point. I have asked for all the phone lines to be reviewed now that we have made important progress. I think he would agree that the first step was to get the deal with mobile phone companies so that people were not being charged for the important calls setting up their benefit claims, which can be the longest calls that people make. The 0845 numbers have traditionally been used for shorter calls, and as my hon. Friend rightly says, Jobcentre Plus will call back any customer who is concerned about the cost of calls, but I have asked the Department to look at what further we can do to support all our customers. He will appreciate that cost always has to be taken into account, but we want to make it as easy as possible for people to get the help that they need, particularly to get back into employment.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): I congratulate the staff of jobcentres on their centenary year and thank them for their very hard work. At a time when the Government have been closing a jobcentre a week and some 35,000 people are being fed by food banks, it is vital that people can get through to the social fund easily. So why is it that the most vulnerable people often have less than 2 per cent. of their calls answered-a far worse rate than at the Child Support Agency, for example-and what are the Government going to do about it?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman is inaccurate in a series of the points that he makes, including on the closure of jobcentres. As he knows, we are investing
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more money in supporting jobcentres-money that his party continues to oppose. Despite the recession, it refuses to back the additional investment and the additional staff that we have put into jobcentres to help people get back into work. He makes an important point about the social fund. We have been increasing the support to make sure that it is much easier for people to get through when they need crisis loans. It is important that people should get access to the help that they need. That is why the position on telephone calls has improved significantly.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): The use of the telephone is very convenient for many people, but for some types of claimants it can be difficult. What training is given to staff working on the telephones to help people who have disabilities, such as people on the autistic spectrum, who may find it more difficult to put across their needs and their difficulties?

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend makes an important point. We provide additional training to make sure that staff are aware of all the kinds of help that people might need if they have disabilities. Also, where appropriate, we make home visits and personal visits, and offer appointments as well as accepting claims by phone. We want people to have the widest range of access to Jobcentre Plus, in a way that meets their personal needs and circumstances.

Employment and Support Allowance

2. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): How many employment and support allowance claimants there were in (a) Vale of York constituency and (b) England in each of the last three years. [314102]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): The employment and support allowance was introduced in October 2008. Information about the number of claimants in each of the past three years is not available. Provisional figures for May 2009 show that the number of claimants of employment and support allowance was 270 in the hon. Lady's constituency and 237,270 in England.

Miss McIntosh: It would have been helpful to have had comparative figures, such as we see in the newspapers today, for the old incapacity benefit compared with the new allowance. I understand that radical reductions have been made. Why did it take the Government so long to analyse the figures and press the changes through? What right of appeal does a claimant who feels aggrieved by the change have?

Jonathan Shaw: On the final point, there is an appeals process. Most of the decisions made by the Department are upheld-more than 60 per cent. The employment and support allowance and the work capability assessment are part of the reform programme that we have instigated over a number of years. As the hon. Lady will remember, between the 1980s and the 1990s the numbers on incapacity benefit doubled. People were out of work and put on sickness benefit. We have arrested that rise since 2003 and we have seen the numbers fall.

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Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The Minister will know that the number of people on incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance is higher today than it was when the Government came to office. The work capability assessment is successfully identifying people who should be able to get into work, but since employment and support allowance was introduced in October 2008 how many claimants have been helped to get a job?

Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Gentleman is selective with his points. He does not acknowledge that the number of people on incapacity benefit doubled between the 1980s and 1990s. It rose until 2003, and it has been coming down since then. [ Interruption. ] It doubled, and we are bringing it down. The pathways to work programme has helped into work 175,000 people who were on incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance, and there has been £1 billion of investment, which is a radical change from what we saw in the 1980s and 1990s.

Jobseeker's Allowance

3. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): What proportion of the population in (a) the UK, (b) Wales and (c) Clwyd, West constituency was claiming jobseeker's allowance on the most recent date for which figures are available. [314103]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Jim Knight): In December last year, 4.1 per cent. of the working-age population of Clwyd, West were claiming jobseeker's allowance. The figures for the UK and Wales were 4.1 per cent. and 4.3 per cent. respectively. Current figures for the UK are 450,000 lower than was predicted at the Budget.

Mr. Jones: Two of the most noticeable recent cases of large-scale redundancies in Wales-Indesit in Bodelwyddan and Bosch in the Vale of Glamorgan-were a consequence of the employer deciding that it was no longer cost-effective to manufacture in this country. That is particularly sad, given Wales's track record in attracting inward investment. What are the Government doing to help ensure that the United Kingdom generally and Wales in particular are cost-effective and attractive places in which to set up businesses and employ people?

Jim Knight: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, through the "New Industry, New Jobs" and growth strategies that have been published in the past six months, has set out where the jobs of the future are coming from and how they will be realised. The hon. Gentleman will have noted, as I did, that the number of manufacturing jobs increased in the most recent set of statistics, and that the manufacturing economy grew in the figures that were announced last week for the final quarter of last year. He will have noted also that last year employment rose in his constituency, which I am sure he welcomes. I hope that he, unlike his Front-Bench team, welcomes also the future jobs fund jobs in his area and, for example, the Rhyl City Strategy Community Interest Company, which is creating 322 jobs throughout Conwy and Denbighshire. Not only are the number
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of manufacturing jobs rising; we are ensuring that we create jobs for young people, in particular, in his area.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): My right hon. Friend mentioned the number of people on jobseeker's allowance in the United Kingdom, and, although those figures are very disappointing, they are much lower than the figures during previous recessions in this country. Will he indicate the comparative figures for other leading industrial economies, such as Spain, the USA or Germany?

Jim Knight: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, because some people-most notably the Opposition-try to pretend that we have historically high figures compared with our international competitors. However, in October 2009 the youth unemployment rate-for 15 to 24-year-olds-for example, was 19.8 per cent. in the United Kingdom, 21.1 per cent. in the European Union, 26.6 per cent. in Italy, 42.8 per cent. in Spain and 25.2 per cent. in France. A range of different international competitors have not been able to respond as effectively as we have, and that is a tribute to the many workers throughout the country who have helped businesses to survive by being willing to work shorter hours and take pay cuts. Part of the story of this recession has been those heroes throughout the country who have helped Britain through the downturn.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): Given the wide variation in unemployment and poverty figures from area to area, does the Minister agree that regionalising the rates of benefit payments would be impractical and unfair?

Jim Knight: I think that the hon. Gentleman is probably commenting on the Opposition's policies. For our part, we have been proud not only to sustain decent levels of support for people who are unemployed, but, importantly, to make work pay through the tax credit system and the minimum wage. We are also pleased to see that, despite the recession, the inactivity rate is moving in the right direction, which is unprecedented. In previous recessions, as we heard, inactivity soared; in this recession it has remained broadly constant. In 1985 in Wales, the inactivity rate was 28.2 per cent.; in 1993, it was 26.1 per cent., and it is now 24.2 per cent.

Pensioners (Financial Assistance)

4. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Whether she plans to provide additional financial assistance for pensioners this winter. [314104]

The Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society (Angela Eagle): This winter older people have again received an additional payment on top of the winter fuel payment, and the poorest continue to receive increased cold weather payments in periods of exceptionally cold weather.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, is she aware that Help the Aged, a charity which I support and whose work I greatly admire, estimates that nearly 3 million pensioners are living in fuel poverty and that many of them are forced
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to choose between heating or eating? As we are likely to get further cold weather, what further action are the Government prepared to take to help this very vulnerable group?

Angela Eagle: I know that the hon. Gentleman is a fair Member of the House, and I hope that he acknowledges that the tripling of cold weather payments this year has helped enormously. We have made more than 10 million payments, costing £271 million, to the most vulnerable, as well as to pensioners. In his own constituency, there have been four triggers of cold weather payments, which means that people in the group that he is obviously concerned about-I share his concern-have already had an extra £100 in four cold weather payments to help them through this exceptionally cold winter. We will consider doing more. However, I merely say that when we came into government, £60 million was spent on helping pensioners with their fuel bills, whereas we are now spending £2.7 billion on winter fuel payments alone. We have a record to be proud of.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): While welcoming the tripling of the cold weather payments, which has made a huge difference-I am sure that this weekend there will be another trigger in my constituency because we have had another 3 or 4 inches of snow-the problem for pensioners is that they do not know that they are going to get the payment because they do not know that it has been triggered. As a result of the scare stories that they are seeing in the media, they are not heating their houses sufficiently because they do not know that they are going to get the money. What would my hon. Friend say to the people out there who are very concerned about their fuel bills to give them the assurance that they should be turning the heating up, that they will get the money, and that that money will help them to pay their bills?

Angela Eagle: I do not want any older person to worry about turning up the heating in periods of cold weather. Cold weather payments are automatically paid to those who are on pension credit, who also have the winter fuel payments and, in many cases, benefit from social tariffs. It is important that my hon. Friend's constituents know, and have confidence, that they can and should turn up the heating if the weather gets cold.

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): The £25 cold weather payment is indeed welcome. However, does the Minister accept that the way in which it is treated can seem very arbitrary because it is based on weather stations, some of which can be many miles away from where people live, creating strange boundary effects such as dividing one side of a road from the other? Does she plan to review the way that these payments are triggered so that they more accurately reflect the actual temperatures where people live?

Angela Eagle: The cold weather payment triggers are reviewed every year. While I accept that no system is perfect, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will admit that all but three weather stations have been triggered this year, and that there have been millions of cold weather payments as a result. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has tripled the level of the cold weather payment.

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Steve Webb: Can I raise with the Minister the issue of vulnerable people, including many pensioners, who are being exploited by having their benefits paid on to prepayment credit cards, which make a charge when money goes on and a charge when money goes off? Is she concerned that vulnerable people, including pensioners, are being exploited, and does she have any advice for people who are approached to take their benefits in this way?

Angela Eagle: My advice would be for people to treat with extreme caution anyone who comes to the door and offers them something for nothing. We are working with the energy companies on social tariffs. The Energy Bill that is going through this House will introduce a new form of mandatory social tariff that includes those on prepayment meters and ensures lower levels of charges for those who are poorest-something that I hope the hon. Gentleman will support.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that in this heated-at times overheated-Chamber, it is important to consider taking away the worry that our constituents, unlike ourselves, suffer. Is it possible to increase the number of weather stations that collect the data to ensure that pensioners get the payments oftener than they get them at the moment, and thus take away the worry that has been expressed?

Angela Eagle: There are 85 weather stations in the system at the moment. There is always a balance to strike; too many measurement points make the system more complex. All but three of the weather stations have been triggered this year and we have paid more than 10 million cold weather payments, which have supported people through the unusual spells of very cold weather.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): While we can agree that older people have been well advised to keep their heating on during the recent bitter weather, does the Minister accept that they are dreading the bills arriving on their doormats? Many have had to choose between heating and eating-a decision that will prove fatal for tens of thousands. Why cannot the Government adopt our policies, including ensuring that poorer pensioners are on cheaper social tariffs, and energy efficiency improvements in every home?

Angela Eagle: We are doing that. We have spent more than £20 billion on energy efficiency treatments in the Warm Front process since we came into government. I will not take lectures from Conservative Members, from whom we inherited soaring pensioner poverty, and who spent just £60 million on helping pensioners with the costs of their fuel payments when we came into government. We are spending £2.7 billion on winter fuel payments alone. We will not take lectures, given our record, from the Conservative party, given its pathetic attempts when it was in government.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that many of my older constituents have raised with me the impact of continuing low interest rates on their income from savings? What are the Government doing more widely to support pensioner incomes?

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Angela Eagle: Most pensioners' savings income comprises a relatively small proportion of their overall income: 70 per cent. of pensioners receive less than £10 a week or no income from investments. However, I hope that my hon. Friend will welcome the fact that, for those who have such income, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor increased the capital disregard in pension credit and pensioner-related housing and council tax benefit from £6,000 to £10,000 last November. That benefited a further 500,000 pensioners.

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