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House of Lords

Tuesday, 14 July 2009.

2.30 pm

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Newcastle.

Unemployment

Question

2.36 pm

Asked By Lord Steinberg

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, by long-standing convention, the Government do not publish unemployment forecasts.

Lord Steinberg: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer, which does not take me anywhere at all. So I am going to press the Minister and say to him that, while unemployment is rising, my party wants unemployment to be reduced.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Steinberg: Thank you very much, my Lords. When do the Government believe that the peak in unemployment will be reached and what are they doing at the moment to try to continue to reduce unemployment?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I am delighted to know that the noble Lord's party, given the chance, would seek to reduce unemployment. We need to see how the party's public expenditure plans would be consistent with that aspiration.

I repeat that the Government do not publish unemployment forecasts. Clearly, a range of data is looked at, including the AME figures available in the Budget, and various workload projections which relate to resource allocation. If the noble Lord is asking what the Government are doing about unemployment, I would say they are doing lots. Indeed, those workload projections are the basis for securing resources from the Treasury. They include, for example, the £1.3 billion that was achieved in November 2008, a further £1.7 billion for Jobcentre Plus and providers in the Budget 2009, and a further £1 billion for the future jobs fund aimed at creating 150,000 new jobs. This Government are doing plenty. They are an active Government who believe that the state should be active in seeking to address unemployment and support people who have lost their jobs.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, my noble friend is quite right not to make a forecast or guess, as most of the best economists in the world are doing. Does he accept that, despite everything that the Government are, rightly, trying to do to keep unemployment down,

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it is, sadly, likely to rise in the near future at least? However, is it likely to reach the kind of levels that it reached in the years when the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, was in charge of our economic affairs?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that there is a relationship with GDP, and unemployment is generally seen as being a lagging indicator. However, if my noble friend is asking me about current employment or unemployment levels in comparison to the historical position, I can say that employment levels are at about 29 million and we will get the updated figures tomorrow. That compares with the 1980s when the figure at its worst was 23 million. There has been a 5.5 million increase since then. The claimant-count-to-unemployment rate was at 4.8 per cent last month. It was pretty much double that in the 1992-94 recession.

Lord Newby: My Lords, have the Government made any estimate of the impact on unemployment totals of the new test for disability benefit claimants; and, if so, what is it?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the noble Lord is referring to the employment and support allowance. This was introduced only in October last year, so it is far too early to assess how it is working. There has been some press speculation around that, but until there has been a full year at least for it to settle into a steady state of introduction, it is too early to make any significant estimate.

Lord Peston: My Lords, you do not have to be one of the world's greatest economists to work out that unemployment will reach its peak more or less about the middle of next year, given the underlying dynamics. Does my noble friend agree that the real worry for the country, given what passes for an economic policy on the part of the Official Opposition-most of us have great difficulty working through it to see whether they actually have a policy-is that they might win an election and we will have a double-dip recession in which unemployment, having reached its peak by that time, will start to go up again?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, my noble friend is a far better economist than I could ever hope to be and far be it from me to do other than support his analysis. We know from history the other party's approach to this. In previous recessions, it put people on inactive benefits and left them there, with no support and no help to get back into employment. That is the key difference between our two parties. We believe in an active state that will support people when they fall out of work and will help, support and encourage them back into employment.

Lord Freud: My Lords, perhaps I may refer to the Financial Times article yesterday on the work capability assessment. The Financial Times reported that figures were circulating among welfare intermediaries about the remarkable results of that assessment. When can the House see those figures?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his question and welcome him to his new duties on the Front Bench. We look forward to

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working with him over many months. I repeat that any assessments in relation to the employment and support allowance are premature. The scheme was introduced only in October last year. The work capability assessment is not yet fully in a steady state. It will make a significant improvement. I will refer the noble Lord to one of his own comments in respect of our approach to these things. In an important report that he produced, he said:

"The Government has made strong, and in some respects remarkable, progress over the last ten years".

I commend his judgment.

Lord Broers: My Lords, if the Minister cannot predict when unemployment will drop, perhaps he can tell us when the large stimulus programmes, particularly those for energy, will come to fruition and thereby help the employment situation.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, much of the stimulus programme is working its way through the economy and helping us to make sure that there are more people in work than would otherwise have been the case. We estimate that half a million people are now in work who would not have been if we had not adopted the fiscal stimulus and other components that we have debated on a number of occasions in the House.

Probation Service Officers

Question

2.44 pm

Asked By Baroness Stern

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, no minimum entry qualifications are required for probation service officers or trainee probation officers. The 42 separate probation areas recruit probation service officers locally to nationally agreed role profiles and competencies. Probation service officer training is delivered locally, in line with a nationally agreed core framework. Trainee probation officer entry requirements are based on a nationally agreed competency-based application and assessment centre process. The training lasts two years, resulting in an honours degree in community justice and a diploma in probation studies.

Baroness Stern: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply but perhaps I may reinterpret what he said. Can he confirm that there are in fact two types of probation staff: those with no entry qualifications who are trained for six weeks and those who are trained to degree level? Can he also confirm that between 2000 and 2007 the number of degree-level probation staff fell by 4 per cent and the number of six-week trained staff increased by 75 per cent, so that there are now more six-week trained than degree-level

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trained people? In the light of the work that we expect the service to do, does he agree that this reduction in the skill levels of the probation service is highly undesirable?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am afraid I do not agree with the noble Baroness on that. I believe that the report to which she refers is Probation Resources, Staffing and Workloads 2001-08,prepared on behalf of Napo. There has been a response to it from the Government. The figures are inaccurate. The number of professionally qualified probation officers in this period did not decrease by 4 per cent but increased by 20 per cent. The inaccuracy in the report was caused by double-counting, with probation officers in training both being counted as a separate group and being included in the figures for qualified probation officers. Therefore, I am afraid that on that point at least the report was wildly inaccurate.

Lord Elton: My Lords, in that case, can the noble Lord kindly tell us what was the average caseload for probation service officers-that is, the lower level that we are speaking about-in Kent at the end of last year? I have seen it reported as being more than 56 cases each.

Lord Bach: My Lords, Kent has confirmed that its current average caseload for a PSO is 68.8, which includes both offenders in prison and those serving their sentence in the community. Of course, it is expected that probation service officers will carry a higher caseload of low-risk offenders, particularly those in unpaid work, while trained probation officers will undertake more intensive work with a smaller number of high-risk offenders.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone: My Lords, in the light of the rapidly increasing caseloads for probation officers and probation service officers, what investment have the Government put into training probation officers in the past three years? More importantly, what investment do they plan for the future in the light of the current situation?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the noble Baroness will know that there has been a sustained increase in probation service funding over the past 12 years. Indeed, between 1997 and 2007 total funding for probation rose by 70 per cent in real terms. The probation service is a high-performing organisation, achieving all but one of its targets in 2008-09. The noble Baroness will also know that there are proposals for the future training of both probation officers and probation service officers. Those proposals, set out in the new probation qualifications framework, are currently out for consultation with a return date of 31 July this year.

Baroness Butler-Sloss: My Lords, what are the current requirements for a probation service officer to qualify? Is it correct that it is six weeks' training and no educational qualifications?

Lord Bach: My Lords, it is not six weeks' training at all. Probation support officers do 12 months' work in an area of the probation service. As part of that they

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are given core competencies and they are taught various things by various groups. Training is dealt with locally and, at the end of the 12-month period of training in a particular probation area, they qualify as probation support officers. However, under the new scheme the training will be somewhat different.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, in speaking about the training of probation officers, the Minister referred to the fact that their training proposals were out for review. In the mean time, according to the Home Office website this morning, all training has stopped. Will the Minister tell the House for how long that will be the case and whether we can assume that there will be no recruitment in the mean time?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the noble Lord cannot assume that at all. He takes me by surprise when he says that the Home Office website says that. This is a matter for the Ministry of Justice.

Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, as the Minister knows, offenders in the community are categorised from tier 4 down to tier 1, tier 4 being the most serious. Can the Minister confirm that no category 4 prisoners or offenders are being supervised by anything other than qualified probation officers?

Lord Bach: My Lords, offenders can be categorised as requiring a tier-4 level of service either because they are assessed as posing a high risk of serious harm, and thus need the full range of intense interventions, or because they may be assessed as being very likely to reoffend prolifically. A probation service officer would rarely be an offender manager in a high-risk-of-serious-harm case but would work as the offender supervisor under the supervision of a probation officer.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords-

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, we are in the 16th minute.

Cyprus

Question

2.52 pm

Asked By Lord Watson of Richmond

The Minister for Europe (Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead): My Lords, the current negotiations represent the best opportunity that Cypriots are likely to have to resolve the long-standing division of the island. It is up to the two leaders and the Cypriot people to seize the unique opportunity to shape their future for the better. The UK welcomes the personal commitment shown by the two leaders and we shall continue to lend our full support by encouraging positive engagement by all parties to reach an agreement by Cypriots for Cypriots. Although good progress has already been made, efforts must now be intensified to make substantive progress in the coming months. A settlement will deliver major economic, social and political benefits.

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All parties, therefore, need to show flexibility and good will to reach an agreement. This opportunity will not last for ever.

Lord Watson of Richmond: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that helpful Answer. Does she agree with my observation on a recent visit to the island that there is a surprising degree of communication and dialogue between the two communities and certainly a shared interest in arriving now at a solution and that the obstacles may lie primarily with Ankara? Therefore, are Her Majesty's Government using the leverage that they have with Ankara, as this country has been a sustained and consistent advocate of Turkish membership of the European Union and there is no chance of Turkey becoming a member of the European Union unless there is a settlement in Cyprus?

Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. However, I point out that, following the recent visit to Turkey, the Foreign Secretary expressed his personal belief and the Government's belief that the Government of Turkey are fully committed to achieving a settlement in Cyprus. Following the April elections in the north of Cyprus, Prime Minister Erdogan and President Gul have both made positive public statements about the importance of supporting Talat in the negotiations.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, my noble friend will recall that, in the last round of negotiations, to facilitate territorial adjustments between the parties we agreed to transfer part of the Sovereign Base Area to the Republic of Cyprus. Does that offer still stand?

Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: My Lords, the focus for now must be on the core settlement negotiations. We will be ready at such time as that occurs to respond to any question of this type, but it must be at the appropriate time.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, are the Government urging parties to the current talks to give due consideration to the positive contribution that the religious communities of Cyprus can make to the future of the island? Are the Government also committed to ensuring the highest standards of religious freedom in a reunified Cyprus?

Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: My Lords, I certainly accept and support what the right reverend Prelate has said. He makes a good and urgent point for us to recognise. The religious division certainly needs to be addressed and understood by us all. We would expect that it will be a factor that will be given priority in the negotiations.


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