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House of Lords

Monday, 1 March 2010.

2.30 pm

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Bradford.

Unemployment

Question

2.36 pm

Asked By Lord Roberts of Conwy

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, in the quarter to December 2009, 2,457,000 people aged 16 and over were ILO unemployed. In January 2010, 1,635,600 people were claiming jobseeker's allowance.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, welcome as the reduction of some 3,000 in the overall ILO figure is, does the Minister agree that it has to be seen in the context of a 12,000 reduction in the total number of people in employment and a fall of 37,000 in the number in full-time employment-which is, I think, a record high figure? Does he agree that those figures and the 23,500 rise in the number of claimants hardly suggest that we are well clear of the recession and in fact augur rather badly for economic growth and the Government's target of 1.25 per cent for this year, which is twice the EU forecast of 0.6 per cent?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I do not accept that it augurs badly for economic growth in this country. There are now clear signs that the position in the labour market is stabilising-redundancies have fallen back significantly since spring of last year, fewer people made new claims for jobseeker's allowance and the number of vacancies is also increasing. Indeed the number of people unemployed on the ILO definition is now close to flat and has, as the noble Lord identified, reduced a little. Although the claimant count rose in January, and there will always be variations from month to month, the number of people making a new claim-322,600-was the lowest figure for a year. There are still challenges ahead, which is why we must not hold back from the investment that the Government have put into a range of programmes. In particular, we must not divert resources from these programmes to inheritance tax cuts for the wealthy or, indeed, for the married couple's allowance.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: Does the noble Lord agree that the fundamental problem is not only how many are employed or not employed at the moment but how many will be employed in the future? Does

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not the fundamental question concern where our AAA rating is on the global finance markets? If that stands, employment stands.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, of course employment is a very important issue. Before the recession we had the aspiration of an 80 per cent employment rate. As we have come through the recession, we have seen the first quarter of growth, at the end of last year, in a little while. We need to re-energise and refocus on making sure that we hit those employment targets, which is why I repeat that these things do not happen by chance; they happen because the Government have invested £5 billion in capacity for Jobcentre Plus for a range of measures to keep people in employment or to move them closer to the labour market.

Lord Soley: Does my noble friend agree that it is a mistake to sell our country short when, in fact, unemployment in this country is significantly lower, and has long been lower, than that of many of our European competitors? Can we also bear in mind that a 0.3 per cent growth rate is higher than even the best prediction, which was 0.2 per cent? Should we not be at least a little welcoming of the optimism that feeds and drives the British industry that keeps the jobs and investment going?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: Yes, my Lords; I very much agree with my noble friend. It is not just the growth rate at the end of last quarter: a number of surveys are showing improved confidence. He is right that if you look at the UK's unemployment rate in comparison with the rest of the world, we have an unemployment rate that is lower than the G7, EU and OECD averages. We are at 7.8 per cent on the ILO measure. Canada is at 8.3 per cent, Italy at 8.5 per cent, the US at 9.7 per cent, France at 10 per cent and Spain at 19.5 per cent.

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware that this question is about real jobs that will sustain a recovery. He also talks of investment at a time when the car scrappage scheme is ending. How many jobs does he think have been saved by the car scrappage scheme, and how many will be lost by its abandonment?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the car scrappage scheme was part of the fiscal stimulus that the UK economy has received-a fiscal stimulus which I think was opposed by the noble Lord's party. I do not have the data on the precise number of jobs attached to the scheme, but he is quite right that we need to be about sustaining jobs so that people have not only employment but jobs that are sustainable and in which they can grow and flourish. If he looks at the vacancies that came out in the recent report, he will also see that manufacturing showed an increase of something like 23 per cent on the quarter. That is a good sign as well.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that we would not now be facing the need to make so many cuts, in jobs particularly, if all those who sat in this House and took the benefit of living in this country paid full British tax in this country?



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Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I am a great believer in the sentiment that the noble Lord has expressed. The ability of people to sit in this House when they claim to be non-domiciled and are not treated as ordinarily resident and domiciled in this country is a huge mistake-one which I think and hope we will rectify soon.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords-

Lord Haskel: My Lords-

Noble Lords: Cross Bench!

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, we should hear from the Cross Benches.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, can the noble Lord say what assessment he makes of women who would like a job but do not apply for jobseeker's allowance and do not register as unemployed simply because of the job situation?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I am not sure that we have much evidence for that particular assertion. As the noble Countess will recognise, because I think she was involved in our debates on the Welfare Reform Bill, there has been a lot of focus on helping people back into and closer to the labour market-particularly helping lone parents, most of whom are women-and on supporting them so that they can actually move into employment. If one looks at all the issues around poverty, one sees that the thing that makes the difference is people's employment opportunities.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords-

Lord Davies of Oldham:I am sorry, my Lords, we must move on.

Finance: Debt

Question

2.44 pm

Asked By Baroness Gardner of Parkes

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Lord Young of Norwood Green): My Lords, organisations that use recorded phone messages to promote a product or service are required by law to comply with the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003. Regulation 19 requires the caller who leaves a recorded phone message to ensure that they have obtained prior consent. Where a consumer receives a recorded message that they have not agreed to, this is likely to be a breach of the regulations. In these circumstances, consumers are encouraged to report such calls for further investigation to the Information Commissioner's Office, as it has responsibility for the enforcement of the regulations.



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Baroness Gardner of Parkes: I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is he aware that the citizens advice bureaux have drawn attention to the 9,500 new debt problems and 8,200 new benefit problems every working day? The latest call I received said, "You'll be able to work off 100 per cent of your debts in just 12 months. To see if you qualify to take advantage of this scheme and to have your entire debts written off then press 2 on your phone now". I get these calls several times a week. Does he agree that the danger is that vulnerable people will be taken in by that type of message, and that the Government should at least issue warnings about it?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I agree with the noble Baroness. I, too, have had these calls, although I have not stayed on the line as long as she did-I have never got to the "press 2" bit. However, we share her concern about the situation. We realise that a significant number of people are struggling with their finances during the recession. Additional funds were poured into various funding activities: £10 million to support longer opening hours at 330 citizens advice bureaux; £5.8 million for the National Debtline to increase capacity levels on the helpline by 50 per cent, thereby enabling it to handle 220,000 calls a year; and £500,000 to develop a new self-help debt advice toolkit to empower people to negotiate with creditors and agree a repayment plan, thus freeing up more time for debt advisers to deal with people who are facing crisis debt problems.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, I shall slightly widen the noble Baroness's Question. I appreciate that this may be slightly above the Minister's pay grade, but will he undertake to ensure that during the election we do not have a repetition from the Labour Party of what happened last time, when I understand that many people received computer-generated telephone calls from John Prescott at 3.30 am?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: The noble Lord should remember the saying, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone". In 2005, the ICO served enforcement notices against the Conservative Party and the SNP. In 2008, the ICO served an enforcement notice against the Liberal Democrats as they had breached the PECR by making unsolicited automated marketing calls to consumers who had not given their consent.

Lord Naseby: The noble Lord suggests that those who wish to complain should get hold of the Information Commissioner. Is it not about time that the Information Commissioner got off his backside and recognised that there are thousands of complaints out there already, and that he should do something about them?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: The Information Commissioner initially warns companies informally that he will initiate formal action unless they cease to make such calls, which is usually effective and removes the need for formal action. Since 2005, the ICO has issued five enforcement notices. As regards unsolicited marketing calls, as opposed to computer-generated

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live calls, you can use the telephone preference service, which should stop these calls. Fifteen million people have registered for that facility and the number is growing.

Lord Acton: Is my noble friend aware that I now live in mortal terror of getting an unsolicited computer telephone call from the noble Lord, Lord Razzall? Is there a publicity campaign to inform people about this admirable figure, the Information Commissioner?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I thank my noble friend. I cannot do much about the terror in which he lives, but I suggest counselling. We are active in terms of the Government's other activities. The Ministry of Justice runs the Financial Inclusion Fund, the Financial Services Authority and Her Majesty's Treasury are progressing their financial capability money guidance pilots, and Communities and Local Government is providing more help for consumers in difficulties via the mortgage rescue scheme. A number of government schemes are in process and there is a lot of publicity.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom: Can the Minister tell us how many unsolicited calls the Treasury has had to help with its debt and financial problems?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: That information is not available to me.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: Does the Minister recall the opening sentence of Cakes and Ale by W Somerset Maugham to the effect that, when you have been out and on returning home discover that somebody has called you and that it is extremely important that you should call them back, you generally find when you do call them back that it is more important to them than it is to you?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I thank the noble Lord. As a Somerset Maugham fan myself, I could not remember that particular quote. In today's circumstances, you would think "caller beware" before you answer all those calls.

Sure Start

Question

2.51 pm

Asked By Baroness Massey of Darwen

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Baroness Morgan of Drefelin): My Lords,during the period from January to December 2009, 472 Sure Start children's centres were designated. The DCSF's guidance to children's centre leaders and local authorities contains an expectation that they should evaluate the effectiveness of their services. The national evaluation of Sure Start started in 2001 and last reported in 2008. The DCSF has recently commissioned an evaluation of the implementation and impact of the full range of children's centres; its first report is expected in late 2010.



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Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that positive reply. Can she say how many Sure Start centres now exist in total and how the question of outreach to the most vulnerable groups is working? There has been concern about this-has it been addressed?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, we are on track to achieve our target of 3,500 Sure Start centres by this month; that is one in every community-a stark contrast to 1997, when there was none. The Government's vision, built on experience and evaluation so far, is for outreach to be very much part of the work of Sure Start centres. It is in stark contrast to the policy of the party opposite, which I understand is committed to exchanging the work of outreach workers in favour of closing down some Sure Start centres; I think the figure is something like one in four.

Baroness Walmsley: In view of the announcements today about secondary school choices, can the Minister say what percentage of toddlers got their first choice of Sure Start centre? Does she agree that parents vote with their feet when it comes to evaluating Sure Start centres and that the best centres are very oversubscribed by the middle classes? What are the Government doing to ensure that the most vulnerable people get those places?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, my view is that 100 per cent of parents have been able to achieve their choice of Sure Start centre in their community with this Government's vision because we are committed to ensuring that there is a Sure Start children's centre in every community. That is a commitment to a universal service, which was achieved when we created a statutory footing for Sure Start centres in the ASCL Bill. We must ensure that we really drive through our commitment to Sure Start centres by ensuring that there is outreach to disadvantaged communities; we learnt at the start that many of the Sure Start centres in the disadvantaged communities were very conscious of excluding parents who were on their borders. That is not necessary. We also know that Sure Start centres in more advantaged areas are used by children from disadvantaged areas, and that is why it is so important that we have a universal service.

Baroness Verma: My Lords, perhaps I may ask for clarification. The Conservative Party supports Sure Start centres but it wants to ensure that they respond to the needs of the most vulnerable and poorest families in this country. Following on from the Question of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, what has happened to the extra £79 million for outreach workers? Has it been used and are there such workers in all Sure Start centres?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: Let us be absolutely clear about the Conservative Party's commitment to Sure Start centres. As I understand it, it is about taking funding from Sure Start and putting it into other priorities. The shadow Chancellor could not confirm that that was not the case, so let us be clear about Conservative policy here.



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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I understand the sentiment behind my noble friend's Question but is it not the case that if Sure Start schemes were confined primarily to the vulnerable and the disadvantaged, they would become stigmatised and, as a result, children in those groups would not use them?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: I absolutely agree with my noble friend. We have to recognise that Sure Start centres have a great deal to offer every single community. By offering a universal service, we support families from both disadvantaged and affluent backgrounds, but it is the best way of reaching those who would not otherwise access these services.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I welcome what the Minister has said but does she not agree that, if we are to answer industry's need for numerate and literate young people, we must invest earlier than we do? Is it not counterproductive to invest so much in getting young people in the 14 to 19 age range to read, write and count properly when we know that good early years-pre-school and primary-education will be much more effective in ensuring the workforce that we need?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: I believe that the noble Earl's analysis is right. We on this side of the House are saying that we have to invest in Sure Start and that it is not an either/or situation. We see the benefits of investing in Sure Start come through the system, with children who are more ready for school and who display better behaviour, and parents who are more equipped to cope with the challenges of a modern society. We see these benefits coming through the system and, in time, with another Labour Government we will see a much better outcome for 16 to 19 year-olds too.

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, is the Minister confident that Sure Start coverage is as she describes in rural areas, where population density is much lower? I do not believe that the ability to access Sure Start is as good in those areas as she has led us to believe.

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: The noble Baroness touches on a very important point. As we have made clear in the guidance that we have made available, we have to be careful that in rural areas local authorities have the flexibility to look at different kinds of models. Essentially, a Sure Start centre in every community must be the aspiration but, if a local authority can find a better way of meeting the needs of its service users in a rural community, we have to listen to that.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, will the Minister define "community" for us all, and will she say how many Sure Start programmes are based in rural areas?


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