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Employment Statistics

10. Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): If he will make a statement on the number of people in employment in the United Kingdom. [28148]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown): The number of people in employment is 28.2 million—a new record level. There are 252,000 more people in work than a year ago, and 1.33 million more than in 1997. We are committed to employment opportunity for all, which is why we have introduced Jobcentre Plus, extended the new deals, increased the number of action teams for jobs and introduced the rapid response and StepUp initiatives.

Mr. Francois: I thank the Minister for that reply. Can he explain why unemployment under both the claimant count measure and the International Labour Organisation's measure has been rising for more than three months? Why is it that unemployment is going up on this Government's watch, and what are they doing about it?

Mr. Brown: It is always disappointing to hear of rises in unemployment, but the hon. Gentleman must put it in context. We have record levels of employment in the economy. Some 6 million people changed their jobs in the last year, reflecting the mobility in the labour market. For the hon. Gentleman to suggest that that is evidence of a growing national crisis is very mistaken.

The Government have the right policies to bear down on unemployment by the proactive management of the labour market. There would be cause for concern if the jobs were not available. However, the Government know of a third of a million jobs that are available in the British economy, and we believe that the total number of available jobs in the economy that are reported to us is about a third of the total.

Mr. David Miliband (South Shields): I hope that my right hon. Friend remembers with fondness his trip to South Tyneside on 7 January. It included a visit to the action team for jobs that is helping to tackle unemployment and raise employment in a part of the country that has not yet benefited as much as it might have from the economic growth of which the Government

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are justifiably proud. Has he had a chance to think about the plea from that action team to extend its service from just six wards to the whole borough?

Mr. Brown: Yes I have, although I cannot make an announcement on that today. I was very impressed by the work that I saw being carried out by the action team in my hon. Friend's constituency. It deals with an employment base that I know well, as it is very similar to the constituency that I represent on the other side of the river. There are structural difficulties with the labour market and yet local people, making the best possible use of the Government's initiatives, are working hard to overcome them. I congratulate everyone involved.

Private Pensions

11. Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): What targets his Department has to increase private pensionprovision. [28151]

The Minister for Pensions (Mr. Ian McCartney): As I said in November—it seems such a long time ago. [Laughter.] A civil servant with a sense of humour. As I said in November, we are committed to encouraging private saving to meet the long-term challenges of an ageing population, and we remain committed. That is why we are introducing the pension credit, making sure that it pays to save, and why we have introduced stakeholder pensions, which are a secure, value-for-money method of making private provision. We have launched the simplification review to reduce the layers of regulation which increase costs; we have replaced the minimum fund requirement; and we are implementing the recommendation of the Myners review. Our pension education campaign is driving home the message that saving now is the best way to guarantee security tomorrow.

Mr. Blunt: I think that that means the Minister accepts that the success of private pension provision is an essential national economic interest, not only for the future wealth of pensioners but because it has to date given the United Kingdom vastly more resources to invest in the UK and around the world than are available to equivalent countries in the European Union. All that is threatened by the triple whammy of increased regulation, the taxation of pensions and the fall in annuity rates. Does the Minister accept that if policy does not change, we will be on our way to a long-term calamity of missed opportunity in this area?

Mr. McCartney: As far back as the 1960s, generations of colleagues on this side of the House have been in favour of a robust private sector. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the last Conservative Administration, rather than bolstering savings for pensions, got involved in the mis-selling of tens of thousands of pounds worth of policies. It has taken this Government to replace that resource because of what the Conservatives did and the shambles that they left behind.

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As I said in my earlier reply, we are sympathetic on regulation, which is why we have set up the Pickering review. We are sympathetic about changes in the market, which is why the Sandler review has been set up. Not only are we sympathetic but we want to work with the industry, which is why both reviews are very open to the industry and the organisations that represent current and future pensioners. At last we have a Government who have a long-term vision for pensions, both in the public and the private sector.

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield): What measures will the Government take to deal with the abuse of final salary pension schemes? In the past eight months, workers at two companies in my constituency have discovered that their final salary schemes have become almost worthless. Last week, in an Adjournment debate, we heard about the problems that have arisen throughout the country concerning United Engineering Forgings, which has gone through exactly the same process, along with five or six other companies including Chesterfield Cylinders in my constituency. No laws were broken; it was effectively legalised robbery of private final salary pension schemes into which my constituents had paid, in some cases for up to 35 years, only to find that most of their money had gone when it came to the pension scheme paying out. That has also happened to other firms—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. McCartney: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman puts in for an Adjournment debate, so that we can openly debate the specific circumstances. If he wants to raise issues concerning a particular company, he is welcome to write to me. We take strong action on these matters, which is why we have OPAS, the Office of the Pensions Advisory Service, and OPRA, the Occupational Pensions Regulatory Authority, and we have set up a quinquennial review on pensions. We are committed to ensuring that we assist pensioners by trying to rub out fraud wherever it takes place.

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Benefit Fraud

12. Angela Watkinson (Upminster): What progress has been made in reducing benefit fraud since June 2001. [28152]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear earlier, we have already delivered an 18 per cent. reduction in the level of fraud and error in the payment of income support and the jobseeker's allowance—that is against a target of 10 per cent.—and we expect that good progress to continue. From April, we will begin to implement new powers in the Social Security Fraud Act 2001 which will further strengthen our fight against fraud.

Angela Watkinson: The level of benefit take-up in my constituency is remarkably low compared with the level of need, which is due in part to the complexity of the application process and to the complexity of individuals' own circumstances. Does the Minister recognise the strong link between the reduction in benefit fraud and the release not only of additional funds for genuine claimants but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe(Mr. Goodman) pointed out earlier, of additional time to enable social security staff to deal with the very complex needs of genuine claimants?

Malcolm Wicks: The purpose of Jobcentre Plus is to do precisely that. We need to ensure that everyone behaves responsibly by claiming only the benefit to which they are entitled and no more, and that everyone is clear about the fact that they have the right to claim their entitlement. That is our aim throughout our entire modernisation programme. However, let there be no mistake—fraud is a major problem. We are not complacent, but the targets have been exceeded and we are beginning to win the war against the fraudster. The whole House must join in that endeavour, so that the money raised by taxpayers can be spent on the priorities, not on the fraudster.

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Reconstruction of Afghanistan

3.30 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): I would like, Mr. Speaker, to report to the House on the Afghanistan reconstruction conference which was held in Tokyo last week. The conference marked the turning of the focus and attention of the international community on to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. I believe that we now have an important opportunity to provide the people of Afghanistan with the real chance of a better future.

The conference lasted from 21 to 22 January and was attended by Ministers and representatives from 61 countries and 21 international organisations. It was co-chaired by Japan, the United States, the European Union and Saudi Arabia. Chairman Hamid Karzai led a strong delegation from the Afghan Interim Administration, I led the United Kingdom delegation, and there were delegations from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Asian Development Bank, the Islamic Development Bank and United Nations agencies. Kofi Annan also attended and addressed the conference. In the margins of the conference, experts met to discuss military demobilisation, military and police training, de-mining and narcotics.

Chairman Karzai, who performed impressively throughout the conference, outlined current and future priorities for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. A 21-member commission is to be set up through the offices of the UN to oversee the emergency Loya Jirgah process, which will lead to the establishment of a full transitional Government in five months' time.

The Interim Administration's priorities for the next few months—on seeing the list, one understands the task to which we must rise—will be to expand emergency assistance programmes; to establish an effective Government administration; to provide peace and establish the rule of law; to ensure that as many children as possible, especially girls, are in school when the new school year begins on 1 March; to begin to reconstruct the country's shattered infrastructure, in particular, roads, electricity and telecommunications; to rebuild an agricultural system and eliminate poppy cultivation; and to accelerate mine-clearing.

The conference was clear in its conclusion that women's rights and women's empowerment should be fully honoured and mainstreamed throughout all programmes during the reconstruction process. Chairman Karzai stressed the Interim Administration's commitment to responsible economic management, transparency, efficiency and accountability. He also made it clear—and we strongly agree with him—that Afghan ownership of the process of reconstruction will be vital to its success and to the full implementation of the Bonn agreement.

We have the best opportunity in a generation to bring about development and lasting stability in Afghanistan. We must build on the lessons learned from previous efforts to reconstruct failed states such as Cambodia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and East Timor. That experience makes it clear that the United Nations must play a pivotal role, and that we must continue to strengthen the capacity and effectiveness of the UN system to undertake the task.

The conference recognised and greatly appreciated the role that the special representative of the Secretary- General, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, has played and his

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continuing role in promoting peace and stability in Afghanistan. We will need to continue to support his efforts and those of the United National Development Programme, which has been appointed to co-ordinate the early recovery efforts on behalf of the UN system.

It will be crucial to maintain and enhance the existing humanitarian effort while putting in place arrangements for long-term reconstruction. UNICEF will lead the effort to reopen schools. The World Health Organisation and UNICEF will work with the Red Cross to improve health care, and the UN mine action service will lead and co-ordinate the de-mining effort. The World Food Programme will continue to supply food for 6 million people; it will also develop food-for-work schemes across the country so that local communities can begin to rebuild, plus feeding schemes in schools that are focused especially on encouraging girls' attendance.

We must also make urgent efforts to strengthen the Interim Authority and build their capacity to lead the reconstruction effort. To take that process forward, a common trust fund will be established and we will work to encourage co-ordinated support for the Interim Authority's strategy, rather than a proliferation of donor projects provided directly by different countries, which might undermine the Interim Authority.

The preliminary needs assessment undertaken by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the UNDP to prepare for the conference concluded that Afghanistan's funding requirements would amount to just over $10 billion over the next five years. At the conference, $4.5 billion from 36 countries was pledged, including $1.8 billion for 2002, which was more than was requested for that year. I announced a commitment from the UK—funded from the Department for International Development—of £200 million over the next five years. In addition, my Department will make substantial contributions through the EC, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. This commitment is additional to the £60 million that we have allocated in the current financial year for humanitarian and recovery assistance.

Since my last statement to the House, much has been achieved in Afghanistan. The conference in Tokyo was an excellent example of how the international community can achieve results when it works collectively. However, there is still a great deal to do. The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan remains fragile and it is not yet clear whether there will be a fourth year of drought, but there is a real danger that there will be. We should strongly congratulate the UN system and particularly the World Food Programme on having averted a major humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan, and we must be clear that these efforts will have to continue for some time while arrangements for long-term reconstruction are put in place.

The most urgent issue that now needs to be addressed is the need to provide security across Afghanistan, and begin the process of demobilisation and disarmament and the building and training of an Afghan army and police force. As a first step, the UK has offered to work with the Afghan Interim Administration on a scoping study. The greatest danger to the future of Afghanistan is the risk of mounting disorder, criminality and faction fighting, which will create an obstacle to the reconstruction effort throughout the country.

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With the Taliban removed, the Interim Administration in place and the widespread commitment by the international community to the future of Afghanistan made clear in Tokyo, there is real hope now for a better life for the people, and especially for the children of Afghanistan. We must not fail to grasp this opportunity.

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