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15 Mar 2010 : Column 602

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman has made an important point, and I agree that we need to do everything we can to make this easier for small businesses. Indeed, I have discussed the matter with the Federation of Small Businesses and other employers with the aim of doing exactly that. We have been working on this for some time, and we already have measures in place that are making it easier for small businesses to take this up. We want to urge as many small businesses as possible to find out about this and, as I have said, to take on apprentices and interns, because those small businesses that find it impossible to offer a full apprenticeship might still be able to take someone on for a temporary internship.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that evidence given to our Select Committee showed a clear link between employment without training and NEETs? Apprenticeships are the preferred option for many young people. Can we seize this last chance in the last weeks of this Parliament to get the full 5,000 apprenticeships with SMEs in place?

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend will know that we have already increased the number of apprenticeships. If we look back 10 or 15 years, apprenticeships had pretty much died away in many areas, which was a tragedy for vocational training across the country. We have now put in the additional investment, which has substantially expanded the apprenticeship scheme, but I agree that we need to continue to work to increase the number of apprenticeships, not only in small businesses but with all kinds of employers across the country.

Jobseeker's Allowance

18. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What recent representations she has received on the criteria governing eligibility for jobseeker's allowance; and if she will make a statement. [321793]The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Helen Goodman): We regularly receive, and respond to, representations about the entitlement rules for all benefits. The eligibility criteria for all benefits are continually kept under review.

Miss McIntosh: May I express my condolences on the passing of Ashok Kumar? We worked together on the recent Flood and Water Management Bill. He will be sadly missed in the House and in his constituency.

May I press the Minister on this question? My understanding is that the Government have changed the criteria for jobseeker's allowance, which has taken a large number of people who would otherwise have qualified for it off the register. I put it to her that the Government are massaging the unemployment figures in this way, and that the actual figures are far higher than they are indicating.

Helen Goodman: I am completely taken aback by the hon. Lady's accusation. I cannot begin to think what leads her to that view. If she would like to write to me about this, I will be glad to respond to her.

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Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Would the Minister agree that the future jobs fund is one of the key means to maintain our effort to combat youth unemployment? Will she underline that it is something that the Government will wish to continue?

Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The future jobs fund is a vital and critical policy in enabling us to keep down the level of youth unemployment. Across the country, it is projected to create 150,000 youth jobs.

Topical Questions

T1. [321795] Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Yvette Cooper): We are today publishing a paper on social fund reform with proposals to simplify the social fund so that it is easier to understand for customers and simpler to deliver. The proposals will also make it easier for people to get one-off help and affordable credit when they are in severe financial difficulties and will also provide more support and conditions for those who need repeat help so that they can have sustainable support to tackle their long-term financial difficulties.

Mr. Bone: The Chancellor stated in the pre-Budget report that retirement pensions would go up 2.5 per cent. In fact, it is only the basic state pension that is going up 2.5 per cent., while the state earnings-related pension scheme-SERPS-is being left with zero increase. Is this just another example of Labour trying to con the British people?

Yvette Cooper: No. In fact, the details were made clear on the day of the pre-Budget report. My hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society gave a statement to the House in which she set out those details. We have been clear about that. As hon. Members will know, the retail prices index for this year would have meant that there were no increases in pensions at all had the ordinary uprating processes happened. We did not think that that was right and that is why we have had the increase in the basic state pension. We considered the implications for the additional pension, but as Opposition Members will also know, it is closely linked across the board to both public sector pensions and a range of private sector pensions, too. That is why we have ensured that there are still no real reductions in the value of the pension and we have increased the basic state pension by 2.5 per cent. too.

T2. [321796] Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Is my right hon. Friend aware that where they do it well, Jobcentre Plus offices play a vital and interesting part in Sure Start children's centres and make a real difference to the possibilities of a family's getting a decent income? Will she ensure that all 3,500 of our children's centres get the same attention from Jobcentre Plus and can we ensure that Jobcentre Plus and her Department share data with the other players in children's centres?

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Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend will be aware that there is considerable work under way between jobcentres and children's centres. In some areas, we have been piloting having outreach workers from the jobcentres working directly with parents in the children's centres. We want to continue with that work. There is significant potential and we certainly agree that there should be close working between all children's centres, Sure Starts and jobcentres. Frankly, anybody who thinks that it is a good idea to cut back on Sure Start does not know what it is like to bring up young children in most parts of this country.

T5. [321799] Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Will the Secretary of State accept that youth unemployment figures are higher now than they were when the Government came into office? Will she have the humility to accept that and to introduce measures that would counter it?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Lady will be aware from our earlier discussion that it is true that young people have been heavily affected by the recession, but that is exactly why we have provided additional support through the future jobs fund, with more than £1 billion, and through the youth guarantee, too. They are all measures that will help young people to get back into work and to get back into training and education opportunities. I have to say to the hon. Lady that they are all measures that her party opposes and would abolish. That is the real challenge that I give back to her.

Mr. Speaker: Mr. Cunningham.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Those on the Labour Benches, who are totally opposed-

Mr. Speaker: Order. Patience will have its own reward for the hon. Gentleman, but I have called Mr. Cunningham at this stage.

T3. [321797] Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): May I ask my right hon. Friend when the Jobcentre outreach service will be up and running?

Yvette Cooper: I am sorry, but I did not catch my hon. Friend's question-I know that he referred to the Jobcentre outreach service.

Mr. Cunningham: When will it be up and running?

Yvette Cooper: The outreach service involving children's centres is already up and running as a pilot programme that involves a series of areas across the country. In fact, I have met some of the outreach workers and I think that they are doing a fantastic job. We are considering the potential for providing additional support in other areas.

T6. [321801] Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Will the Minister clarify why disability employment advisers at Jobcentre Plus are no longer supporting people with disabilities such as those with autism who are in a work programme provided by a private provider? That excludes them from all sorts of disability-specific services at Jobcentre Plus.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): The new posts of disability employment advisers provide important support for disabled people going into jobcentres, and included in that will be people with autism. Once someone is on a programme, they are part of that programme and will receive ongoing support. If the hon. Lady has a particular point to make about a particular constituent, I will more than happily deal with that.

T7. [321802] Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that one of the Government's greatest achievements at a time of global recession has been ensuring, through an investment package, that the global recession has not turned into domestic depression with perhaps 5 million, 6 million, 7 million, 8 million, 9 million or 10 million unemployed? Will she reassure my constituents that the future jobs fund will stay in being and that the 150,000 jobs for the young unemployed are just a start to maintain the stability of the economy?

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right that the Government have put in place substantial support for the economy but also for the unemployed in response to the recession. We expected unemployment to be significantly higher, this time last year; in fact, it is around half a million lower than the average of the independent forecasts of last year, and it is likely to be around 650,000 lower during 2010 as well. That is saving us billions of pounds in unemployment benefits and other benefits for those who are unemployed, which shows that making good investment early on to support jobs and growth is also the best way of bringing the deficit down in future.

T8. [321803] John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that our hugely complicated benefit system erodes incentives to work? What plans does she have to simplify it?

Yvette Cooper: In fact, through things such as the tax credit system, we have already provided additional support and incentives for people to go back to work, and that has made the difference of, often, thousands of pounds for many families, to make sure that they are better off in work. However, we want to go further. That is why, from next year, we will introduce a better-off guarantee so that everyone who has been unemployed and goes back into work will be at least £40 a week better off as a result.

Mr. Winnick: From those on the Labour Benches who are genuinely much opposed to unemployment, may I tell my right hon. Friend that during the 18 years when I sat on the Opposition Benches I saw very little concern-indeed, hardly any-from Conservative Members about mounting unemployment? The position now would be that much worse without the measures that have been taken by the present Government arising from the global recession.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I hope that the Secretary of State will focus her reply on what the Government are doing, rather than on what happened 20 years ago.

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend draws some important historical comparisons, but if the focus is on what is happening now, Mr. Speaker, the key thing is that the
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Conservatives would do the same again. They want to cut back all of the support now, so that would take us back to the 1990s-and to the 1980s as well.

T9. [321804] John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): I wonder whether the Secretary of State will follow up her indication that the social fund is to be simplified-I am sure that many people would welcome that-with an indication that there will be more in the way of grants and less in the way of loans, as I do not think that we want to be pushing vulnerable people into more debt.

Yvette Cooper: I think that the important thing is to provide both grants and loans for people in different circumstances. There are circumstances in which we think it is right for people to be provided with grants-if they do not have a way to repay the money and need additional help for particular things-but we also think it is right to provide access to affordable credit for people who would otherwise find themselves in considerable difficulties, because the modern financial economy has changed substantially. Most people need to use credit at different times to pay different kinds of bills, and if they do not have access to affordable credit and then end up in the arms of loan sharks and so on, that can make life extremely difficult. That is why it is important to provide a loan service in addition to a grant service.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Given that the last Government cooked the books 18 times, changing the way unemployment is measured, and that this Government have accepted the widely recognised International Labour Organisation measure of unemployment, can the Secretary of State give us some comparative figures for unemployment-the United Kingdom versus some of the other European Union member states?

Yvette Cooper: Do you know, I wish I could. I wish I had that sheet available to me, because I could then point out what the current ILO unemployment figure is for this country compared with France, Germany, Spain or other areas.

Rob Marris: Is it lower?

Yvette Cooper: I can tell my hon. Friend that the figure is lower than the EU average. It is also lower than the OECD average and lower than the G7 average. That is important, but I apologise for not having the precise figures in front of me as my hon. Friend asked the question.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): I supported the excellent campaign by Age UK and its predecessors to abolish the mandatory retirement age. We had a positive announcement from the Minister for Women and Equality in January, so can the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions give us an idea about whether the Government will actually do something about it before the election?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. For many people across the country, the existence of a default retirement age simply does not fit with their expectations and their approach to working
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as they get older. That is why we set up the review of the default retirement age, and we are currently looking at the results of the review. The evidence has all been gathered, so we are looking at it and will set out the way forward. The important thing is to give people choice, not to tell people in their late 50s that they suddenly have to work for longer because their state pension is being withdrawn at very short notice. I think it is right to give people choice, as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware that under the Child Poverty Bill it was agreed that one of the measures of childhood deprivation was that every family should have access to a living room that no one should have to sleep in; it should just be used for living, recreation, homework, eating and so on. Can she tell us how that measure is being taken forward?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Helen Goodman): My hon. Friend was most assiduous in promoting the need for improved housing as an important component of ending child poverty. We have, therefore, decided to ask further questions in the family resources survey about the quality of people's housing so that we have reliable data on which we can base policy.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): During the passage of the Welfare Reform Act 2009, we were assured by the Government that council tax benefit was to be renamed. What has happened to that assurance?

The Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society (Angela Eagle): As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have taken the power to do that, but because housing benefit-following its introduction by the Conservatives-is administered by 400 different local authorities, there are some practical issues, particularly to do with IT and software, which we are, even now, working with them to overcome. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are making progress as quickly as possible.

Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): For more than 25 years, the Carlyon print works in my constituency provided work opportunities to those who had physical disability or mental impairment. When it was closed
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down, more than a year ago, the Liberal Democrat and Conservative council that closed it down said there would be further opportunities for those people to take up in the local community, but many of them are still without jobs. What can my hon. Friend do to ensure that councils do not close operations such as that, which provide such an important service-

Mr. Speaker: Order. We have got the point.

Jonathan Shaw: Obviously, local authorities have their own decisions to make in terms of what they provide, and I hear what my hon. Friend said about councils in his area. I can tell him that from October the workstep programme will become work choice, and we are extending the number of places on it for disabled people. He will also be aware that we are increasing the access to work programme with some specific places-about 3,500-for people with mental health conditions and learning disabilities. The public sector, including Whitehall, can do far more to employ people with learning disabilities, and I am pleased to announce that we are employing people with learning disabilities in Ministers' offices.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Government will be aware that many pensioners responsibly planned their retirement relying upon savings. The return from those savings is now virtually nil.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Rubbish.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: It is not rubbish. What thought have the Government given to help people who have fallen on difficult times through no fault of their own, having been responsible in their working life?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As a result of very low interest rates, which have been the right thing to support the economy as a whole, those who depend on savings income have been affected. That is why the Chancellor took action in the Budget last year to try to provide support for people through their savings. We will continue to do that through such things as individual savings accounts, but I agree with him about the importance of people being able to plan with some certainty. That is why I oppose his party's policies to rip up people's retirement age when they are already in their 50s.

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