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The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling): Nearly 250,000 lone parents have joined the new deal for lone parents and so far more than one in three participantsjust over 100,000have found work.
Caroline Flint: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and I welcome what the new deal is trying to do, alongside sure start, of which I am a board member locally. What measures is my right hon. Friend considering to assist those lone parents who have been on benefit for some time, perhaps 10 years, and those whose youngest child is of secondary school age?
Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend knows that the new deal for lone parents has been very successful. The problem has been that there are still too many lone parents who, because the scheme was voluntary, did not come and find out what was on offer. Therefore, the Government have introduced regulations that will progressively require lone parents, beginning with those with older children and moving on to those with children of down to the age of five, to come in for interview and to find out what options are available to them under the new deal. If people live in one of the areas covered by one of the new Jobcentre Plus offices, they must go in to receive advice as a condition of receiving benefit and will therefore know what the new deal has to offer.
The more people who know about the new deal for lone parents, the easier it will be to get people into work. I remind the House that the number of lone parents on benefit has steadily fallen in the past five years. Our job is to ensure that we move progressively towards our target of 70 per cent. of lone parents in work.
Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I hope that the Secretary of State is aware of the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics that show that the percentage of people finding work after joining the new deal for lone parents is falling. Is that a sign that the system is failing, and what will he do to reverse the trend?
Mr. Darling: I have just said that the problem with the new deal for lone parents is essentially that it was voluntary and that too many people, perhaps for too many years, did not know that initiatives such as the new deal, the working families tax credit and others would help them into work. That is why we have decided to make it a condition of receiving benefit that lone parents will have to come and find out what is on offer. Once people know
Mr. Wright: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. However, some areas of the country experience unemployment far in excess of the national average. I have had discussions with my local employment office staff and they suggest that the new deal could be more flexible. For example, the six-month waiting time for unemployed people could be reduced to three months. That would have a dramatic effect in constituencies such as Great Yarmouth in reducing the unemployment figures even further.
Mr. Brown: I thank my hon. Friend for the consistent support that he has given to the new deal. As he knows, we keep the matter under review and the regulations governing the different new dealsfor young people and for 25-plusare slightly different, but all the regimes make provision to get those people who need help the most on to the schemes before the normal waiting period.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Following the Secretary of State's earlier argument, does the Minister agree that many of those entering the new deal would have removed themselves from the jobless register anyway, and that the vast majority of effort should be put into the over-50s and the long-term unemployed?
Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Opposition, instead of constantly undervaluing the new deal, should recognise its success? Does he also agree that hon. Members could lead by example by employing new deal workers when they are suitable?
Mr. Brown: All support for the new deal is welcome. As my hon. Friend has said, it is worth pausing to think about the alternative: under the Conservative Government, about 3 million people were unemployed.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): We are working closely with local housing authorities on a range of initiatives. Until now we have been hampered by a shortage of information about housing benefit fraud. That is why this year, for the first time, we have introduced a continuous measure of the level of such fraud. When we have that data, we will consider the appropriateness of, and scope for, setting targets to reduce fraud.
Mr. Robathan: May I give the Minister some information? Last year, about 460,000 suspected cases of benefit fraud were reported by local authorities, of which 1,100 were successfully prosecuted. In the most recent financial year, only 42 per cent. of local councils successfully prosecuted anyone at all. Is it not the case that we have heard a great deal of talk and spin about cracking down on fraud, but have seen precious little action? There is no evidence that fraud is being reduced substantially, at a time when it should be going right down.
Malcolm Wicks: We have reduced fraud by about 10 per cent. above our target for income support and jobseeker's allowance, for example, so we are beginning to win the war against fraud. As for housing benefit, of the 370,000 cases that went for investigation, in 100,000 cases fraud was established and a weekly saving was claimed. If the hon. Gentleman feels that there should be more prosecutions locally, I tend to agree with him, and when we have the data about housing benefit fraud I shall be sympathetic to considering the idea of having local targets for prosecutions as well as for fraud reduction.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): The new deal for lone parents has already helped more than 100,000 lone parents move into work. This is just one of a range of polices that we have introduced to help raise the employment levels of lone parents to our target of 70 per cent.in line with those found elsewhere in Europe and the United Statesby the end of the decade. Already we are making progress. In recent years, the lone parents employment rate has increased from 45 per cent. to 51 per cent.
Paul Goggins: Both sides of the House welcome the fact that through the new deal and other initiatives, the Government are increasing the employment rate for lone parents at almost three times the overall national rate of increase. Given that the lack of affordable child care remains a significant barrier for many lone parents who want to move into work, is the Minister confident that there will be sufficient child care places to meet the ambitious 70 per cent. target by 2010?
Malcolm Wicks: Yes, I am confident. Taking account of turnoverthe fact that we always lose some child care places every yearwe have added more than 200,000 to the stock of child care places available, and some 418,000
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways to increase employment among lone parents is to ensure that job shares are widely available in the labour market? Has he any plans to provide incentives for employers to offer more job shares?
Malcolm Wicks: A number of employers, aware of the need for flexibility in the labour market and the need for many parents to work part time rather than full time at a certain stage in their lives, are attracted by the idea of job shares. I would certainly encourage that. Among other things, we need to ensure that work is family friendly, and job shares are one way aheadalthough not necessarily in all jobs, I am bound to add.