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Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission

13. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What recent discussions she has had with the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission on measures to increase the amount of maintenance paid by young absent fathers. [314113]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Helen Goodman): Under the current rules, non-resident parents are obliged to pay £5 a week when they are on benefit and, as they enter work, their child maintenance calculation increases correspondingly as a proportion of their income. From 2011, when the new child maintenance scheme will be introduced, the payment for those on benefit will increase to £7. Furthermore, we have instructed commission officials working on detailed policy development for the new child maintenance scheme to review the maintenance status of full-time students. Although students are not currently required to pay child maintenance, we want to promote responsibility among all parents to support their children.

Mr. Allen: Does the Minister agree that teenage pregnancy, which the Nottinghamshire teenage pregnancy taskforce is urgently looking into, is just as much a problem for young fathers and young men as it is for young mothers and young women? Will she ensure that a balance is struck between the two and kept in
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perspective, and commend the work being done by the taskforce to ensure that young fathers take on their responsibilities?

Helen Goodman: I certainly will. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work as chair of the One Nottingham board, which met CMEC staff recently and agreed to develop new local initiatives, including preparing 45-minute lesson plans entitled "Do you want to be in my position?" These teaching packs for sex and relationship education are being piloted particularly in Nottingham.

Child Poverty

15. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What recent estimate she has made of the proportion of children living in poverty in (a) the UK, (b) Greater London and (c) North Southwark and Bermondsey constituency. [314115]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Helen Goodman): The proportion of children in relative poverty in the UK for the period 2007-08 was 23 per cent. For the period 2005-06 to 2007-08 the figure for London as a whole was also 23 per cent. The figures for inner London and outer London were 27 per cent. and 20 per cent. respectively.

Simon Hughes: Given that London is the sixth richest city in the world, can the Minister tell the House why child poverty levels, which mean that one in every two children in inner London are in poverty according to Government official figures, have remained similar for the past 10 years of the Labour Government?

Helen Goodman: I thought that I had just explained that the figure was closer to one in four, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman's basic point that this is a major problem in London. A major reason for it is that parental employment is 8 per cent. lower than it is in the rest of the country. The London child poverty delivery group, which I chaired in the summer, is driving forward programmes on three key things: increasing the supply of part-time vacancies, increasing the take-up of tax credits and increasing the use of formal child care.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that a high percentage of children living in poverty are those with disability. She mentioned child care. Will she liaise with ministerial colleagues to ensure that there is appropriate child care for children with disabilities, so that their parents feel confident, in going out to work, that they are leaving their child in good-quality child care?

Helen Goodman: Of course my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Families in which either a child or an adult is disabled are more likely to suffer. In order to deal with that, we have an extra element in the child tax credit system so that people can pay for child care for disabled children, which is often more expensive.

Topical Questions

T1. [314126] Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

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The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Yvette Cooper): Today marks the centenary of the first labour exchange in this country, which was opened by Winston Churchill in 1910. At that time labour exchanges had separate entrances for men and women and separate rooms for skilled and unskilled workmen, and apparently were often difficult to find, as Winston Churchill himself got lost trying to open the Whitechapel Road exchange. This is an opportunity, however, for us to pay tribute to the work of the staff of Jobcentre Plus. The service has modernised substantially and is offering a very good service, and people have worked extremely hard in what has been a very difficult year as a result of the recession. I urge hon. Members to take the opportunity to do as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform and I have done and visit local jobcentres to thank the staff for all their hard work.

Mr. Robertson: The Secretary of State says that Jobcentre Plus has modernised, but benefit claimants in my constituency have their claims assessed in Cornwall. Would it not be better if they were assessed locally, and preferably face to face?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we try to streamline services as much as possible in order to provide a fast turnaround and provide people with the information and support that they need as rapidly as possible. That means that we provide local services, but we also provide help through helplines and contact centres, in order both to be efficient and to provide a local service. It is right that we get that balance, and that the hon. Gentleman knows that his constituents can go into a Jobcentre Plus and get help directly in their local area if they need to and if their personal circumstances mean that they have difficulties using the telephone.

T9. [314135] Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the case of Zoey Smith, who, when she was pregnant, worked as a volunteer in a welfare rights office. She wrongly had her benefits stopped, and as a result gave birth two months prematurely. She could not cope, and she has disappeared off the face of the earth. The child has gone into care and the whole sorry story has been a disaster from beginning to end. Does my hon. Friend agree that the benefits regime for pregnant women is incompatible with meeting our child poverty targets?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Helen Goodman): I am aware of the unhappy experience of my hon. Friend's constituent, which in essence came down to poor administration in her local benefit office. The existing rules for income support are consistent, however, with the rules for maternity leave. Both begin at the 11th week before the expected due date, which strikes a fair balance between the interests of the pregnant woman and the interests of the taxpayer. To pull the date forward would privilege the position of pregnant women over that of women in work.

T2. [314127] Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Ministers have been asked twice how many of those on employment and support allowance who have gone on to jobseeker's allowance have actually found
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work. Is the failure to answer because Ministers are embarrassed by the situation or is it because they simply do not know?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): The hon. Gentleman will be aware that people who are eligible for employment and support allowance then go on to the pathways to work programme, which has assisted 180,000 people through incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance.

David Cairns (Inverclyde) (Lab): May I tell the Secretary of State that Inverclyde council's future jobs fund has been assessed by her Department as the second best performing scheme in the whole of the UK? Will she give me an assurance that the focus of the scheme will continue to be on real jobs in the real economy in sectors such as construction, which will enable Inverclyde to see unemployment continuing to fall as it has been falling every month for the past five months?

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Jim Knight): I am happy to give my hon. Friend that reassurance. The future jobs fund sets us apart from the Tories with their work programme in that we are offering real jobs for at least six months on at least the minimum wage while providing a community benefit. What my hon. Friend says about construction is hugely important because at least 10 per cent. are apprenticeship jobs and if it were not for the fiscal stimulus provided by this Government over the last year-building schools, building hospitals, building roads, building the infrastructure this country needs-our construction industry would be on its knees by now.

T4. [314129] James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): What is going to be done about the £1 million incorrectly paid out to 10 claimants? Have we got the money back yet?

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that six of the 10 debts occurred because of frauds or errors made by customers before 1995. The rate of error has now fallen to 0.6 per cent. and the work to recover the debt has had significant success. The recent report from the National Audit Office noted that the Department has improved its performance; the Comptroller and Auditor General said that there had been significant performance improvements.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): In a period of joined-up Government, will the Secretary of State tell us whether or not the Department of Health consulted her about the decision arbitrarily to tear up the reciprocal health agreement between the Isle of Man and the United Kingdom, given the ramifications it has for the chronically sick and disabled and the elderly who want to travel to and from the island?

Yvette Cooper: I will write to my hon. Friend about that.

T5. [314130] Chloe Smith (Norwich, North) (Con): The number of cases handled clerically by the Child Support Agency or the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission has increased from 19,000 to 75,000 over the last three years at a cost of £3.7 million
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a month. Does the Department really have no plans to stem this staggering administrative failure before 2014?

Helen Goodman: I do not agree with the hon. Lady that there is a staggering administrative failure. On the contrary, record numbers of children are now receiving maintenance through the system, and the improvements we have implemented have lifted 100,000 children out of poverty.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): Last week, I met a group of members of a miners support group to discuss the application of industrial injuries disablement benefit for osteoarthritis of the knee, and they complained of wide variations between assessments given throughout the regions. Will my Ministers ask their medical advisers to look at the medical process to ensure that it is applied uniformly at centres throughout the country?

Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important point. The whole House would acknowledge what he has done to champion the cause of former miners across the country, including in my own area of Kent. It is important that there is confidence in the system, so we need continuity within the assessment process. I will most certainly look further at this issue and write to him accordingly.

T6. [314131] Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I join the Secretary of State in congratulating Winston Churchill all those years ago on opening the first ever labour exchange, and I also welcome the modernisation that has clearly taken place over the last 20 years. Does the Secretary of State agree that those living in rural areas face particular problems accessing job centres-in the Vale of York, for example, there is simply no jobcentre-and that this sometimes increases the frustrations that claimants experience? What are the Government proposing to do to make them more accessible?

Yvette Cooper: We want to do everything possible to make it easy for people in rural as well as urban areas to obtain the help that they need in order to find work. That is why, as well as providing jobcentres, we are making more information available online and by telephone, and using new technology to make it as accessible as possible. This is a question not just of the support that jobcentres can provide directly, but of our ensuring that we continue to invest in the economy, that jobs are created and that the economy grows, and that means sustaining investment and support for the economy rather than reducing it.

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): In view of this afternoon's outrageous attempt by the political scavengers on the Conservative Front Bench to affect an interest in young people, will my right hon. Friend remind them of the full generation of young people who were abandoned without hope and opportunity by the last Conservative Government?

Yvette Cooper: My right hon. Friend is correct. The level of claimant unemployment in the 1980s was twice as high as it is today, and young people were abandoned
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for many years without support or help. We must never abandon a generation in that way again. We should bear in mind that unemployment kept increasing after the recession had ended. That is why investment to support the recovery this year is so important now.

T7. [314132] Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): In earlier exchanges about the size of the public sector deficit liability, the Minister-apart from not knowing which Department was responsible-gave an inaccurate figure. Even the Office for National Statistics believes that the figure is £810 billion. Then she said that it did not matter. Does she really believe that a deficit liability of that scale, in addition to the projected national debt of £1.5 trillion, is of no concern to this Government? If so, we need a change of Government.

The Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society (Angela Eagle): What I really object to is the right hon. Gentleman's pretence that the problems caused to the global financial system by the greed and excess of a very small number of people should be paid for by our taking from public sector workers their modest pension support, which amounts to an average of £5,000 a year. That is the difference between our values and those of the Conservative party. We will protect such support, whereas they cannot wait to rip up the public sector pension contract for all public sector workers.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): People with skills within the construction sector have just been made redundant and unemployed and have signed on at my jobcentre. They want to work on the railways, but they need certification in order to do so, and the jobcentre will not pay for it. There is therefore a void, leaving people on the unemployment register when jobs are available. All that is needed is someone to help with funding. What does the Minister think?

Jim Knight: I am sure that my hon. Friend has studied carefully the White Paper that we published last month. One of the things that we seek to do is increase our personal advisers' flexibility so that they can give people more personalised support in circumstances such as those that he has described. We particularly want to increase flexibility in their use of the new single skills fund that we have created, along with the skills accounts, so that when there is a real prospect of a job at the end of the process we can deploy funds to help people.

T8. [314133] Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): More than 1.7 million pensioners are currently missing out on their cold weather payments because they do not claim pension credit. What are the Government doing to ensure that pensioners do not have to do without those payments during the current spell of particularly cold weather?

Angela Eagle: We devote a great deal of time and effort to trying to ensure that pension credit is claimed by those who are eligible for it. We have partnerships with 200 local authorities, we organise regional advertising, and we arrange 13,000 visits a week to vulnerable pensioners. Only last week I spoke to a pensioner who had just been told that she was eligible for an extra £32 a week, and that she would not have to pay her council tax.

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Pension credit makes a real difference to pensioners' quality of life. We want them to claim, and we are reaching out to them. If there is anything that the hon. Gentleman can do in his own constituency, such as talking to local pensioners, we shall be more than grateful.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Will the Minister explain why the Government are not encouraging the Child Support Agency to get on with it and transfer people from the old system to the new, fairer, percentage-based one?

Helen Goodman: I am sure my hon. Friend realises that it takes time to build the new computer system for the new system. We do not want a repeat of the sort of shambles and collapse that we have seen in the past. We therefore think that this is a case of more haste, less speed.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): Unemployment in my constituency is now significantly higher than it was in 1997. Despite the initiatives of the past 13 years, were not young people better off in work in 1997 than out of work in 2010?

Yvette Cooper: As I pointed out earlier, the claimant count for young people is, in fact, about half what it was in the '80s. It is a major concern that young people have been affected by the recession, however, and that is exactly why this party and this Government are funding the youth guarantee, providing hundreds of thousands of additional opportunities for young people, but the hon. Gentleman's party opposes that and wants to cut it. [Interruption.] If he really cares about young people, he should have a word with his own Front-Bench team.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I recognise that the House is eagerly awaiting the Foreign Secretary's statement, but, even so, far too many private conversations are taking place in the Chamber. That is very unfair on both the Member asking the question and the Minister answering it.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): Although most people agree with the principles of the employment and support allowance, there is a group of people who pass the work capability assessment, but who may still have health issues that are acting as a barrier to work. Will Ministers ensure that they are given proper advice, instead of being put on to jobseeker's allowance and then being ignored, and not getting specialist help to make it easier for them to find work?

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. We know that some people who undertake the work capability assessment and are found to be able to work may still have a health condition that makes things difficult for them in some form or another, or that may affect their attitude to work. It is important that they get appropriate help and support. That is exactly why we are looking again at the pathways programme-at how it works and to whom it applies-and at what kind of support people should have, regardless of what kind of benefit they are on.

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