Social Inclusion

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Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): I applaud the hon. Gentleman for endorsing the national minimum wage. Does he agree that, when the Bill on the subject went through the House, the line that his colleagues took on regional variations in the wage would have caused an unmitigated disaster?

John Thurso: I would not say that there would have been an unmitigated disaster. The exercise was valid

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intellectually. The proposition was well thought out and deserved consideration. Parliament made its decision. With hindsight, I might say that Parliament was right on that occasion. My party and my colleagues can reflect on how things change, and we can change our minds in the light of experience. I wish all politicians would do so. We are happy to say that the minimum wage as enacted has done the job.

I agree with the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) in that the different rates for adults and young people need to be re-examined. I shall take an example from the industry that I recently left. Why should a 19-year-old chef, fully trained and working in the kitchens, be paid less than a 22-year-old chef with the same qualifications who does the same work? I fully recognise the strong argument for a lesser rate for those in training, but fully qualified people aged over 18 should get the same rate for the same job, and I ask the Government to consider that.

The Secretary of State mentioned unemployment and the new deal. The statistics are interesting. In 1990, unemployment was at 9.3 per cent. overall, which had come down to 7.6 per cent by 2000. I welcome that and, like her, I say that we should do more. Within that, however, there is a slightly disturbing trend. Male unemployment has come down only from 9.7 to 9.1 per cent. The counterpart to that is that female unemployment has come down from 8.8 to 5.9 per cent. While I obviously welcome the drop in female unemployment, it is a concern that male unemployment has not come down at the same rate.

When considering unemployment statistics, we need to think of the background. In Wick in my constituency unemployment is around 7 per cent. When I visited the jobcentre to talk about that, the staff pointed out that approximately 50 per cent. of those unemployed in the area were the almost permanently unemployed, the long-term unemployed. The other 50 per cent. came and went and found jobs reasonably quickly.

It is the long-term unemployed who deserve our full attention. Many of those people have been on the register for 20 or 30 years. They might never have worked in their lives, and they need help. Among them are people who are willing to work, but face special barriers. One of the first meetings that I had following the election was with People First in Caithness, an organisation for people with learning difficulties. I was sad to find that I had been at the Miller academy in Thurso with one of them. At that school, he had been regarded as a bit of a bully. I now understand that he was seriously challenged, in terms of mental capacity and his ability to learn.

We need to consider what we can do for people who face such challenges. I welcome much of the mental health Bill, but it has caused a great deal of concern in communities of people with such disabilities. When the Bill is examined in the House, I hope that we will ensure that those people are properly looked after.

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Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): The unemployment statistics that the hon. Gentleman mentioned are not recognised by several of us, as our unemployment has fallen. However, I take his point about the long-term unemployed and I suggest that he considers action teams. I had the same problems with the long-term unemployed in my constituency, but we established action teams, and the scheme is making considerable progress. It is a good scheme, and I urge him to contact the Department for Work and Pensions.

John Thurso: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I already have a strong dialogue with the Department, with which I do considerable work.

The figures that I mentioned came from the web, although I may not be very good at surfing it. They come from page 8 of a document entitled ''Scottish Statistics 2001'' and they contain International Labour Office assessments of the labour market. I shall be happy to give them to anyone who wants them afterwards.

I want now to deal with pensioners. Those of us who are in work and who still have the opportunity to create wealth for the future can accept that the way in which society deals with pensions must change. There is a broad consensus that the old model is simply unsustainable and that we shall need new ways of dealing with pensions. However, some people have already retired, and they have their entire working lives behind them. They paid their stamp and they expected, as of right, that the state would make provision for them to enjoy a reasonable retirement. It is too late for those pensioners to make provision, and we have a duty to look after them, particularly elderly pensioners, as has been mentioned.

I welcome the minimum income guarantee and the pensioner credit, but I have two specific concerns. First, whatever people may say, the provisions are complicated. Pensioners simply do not want to seek advice, particularly if they are proud and elderly—many are ex-service people—or if they live in distant rural areas. If one asks whether they know about this or that, they will accept help, but they will not ask for it on their own.

I pay tribute to the citizens advice bureaux, which have done a tremendous amount of work on the issue; indeed, my attention was drawn to it by the work of the Wick citizens advice bureau. In a question to the right hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), who was then responsible for these matters at the Dispatch Box, I mentioned that 14 out of 27 pensioners at a luncheon club were under-claiming or not claiming their benefits. Very properly, as was his wont, he flicked me hard to the boundary. There are two things that people should do when they are in a hole: one is to stop digging and the other is to use it for lobbing grenades at the other side. The sensible point, however, is that the Government must consider how to make schemes simpler and how to reach the target that we all want to reach.

My second concern as regards pensioners relates to the introduction of the universal bank—or the lack of it—and to the changes that will take place in post offices. I learned only a few weeks ago that those

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changes will start in September, when the last books will be sent out. The changes are almost upon us, but much of the hardware is not in place in post offices. I have grave concerns about whether we will be ready, quite apart from the fact that there are clear implications in the documentation that people will be pushed towards bank accounts. People should have the choice of staying with the Post Office and having a bank card with it. Again, that issue is particularly relevant to our sparsely populated rural areas.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that another problem could affect the two-thirds of Scotland's pensioners who still get their pensions paid through the post office? The run-down of the network could have serious implications for rural areas, because Consignia's definition of 90 per cent. of the population being within half a mile of a post office does not apply in many rural areas.

John Thurso: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Indeed, many older people may be quite happy for their carers to take their pension books to the post office to get the money to go shopping and come back with the change and a receipt, but they are not happy to give their Switch cards to their carers and ask them to go the automated telling machine. In many parts of my constituency that would be rather difficult since we do not have such machines.

The other factor that affects remote and rural communities is transport. Those of us who work in London or in any other great metropolis, such as Edinburgh, Glasgow or Inverness, have easy access public transport, and we can get to work and back on reasonable, regular and frequent public transport—sometimes. Those who live in Durness or other remote communities—when they are not being shelled by the Royal Navy—do not have the opportunity to go to work by bus or rail. That will never happen. The car is and will remain the only viable mode of transport in those communities.

In that regard, it remains a scandal that those who have to use a car are penalised by the extra 10p, 15p or even 20p that they have to pay for fuel, over and above the prices in Inverness or other cities. That extra cost is not imposed by the garage owners, who have to operate on very thin margins. I believe that it is added elsewhere in the supply chain. The Government would do well to look at that, because someone somewhere is making money, and it is more likely to be the big oil companies than the little local garages. Transport is so important because social inclusion is not just about education or about not being poor. It is also about the right to leisure, to enjoy oneself, to play sport and to have access to culture. Transport is vital for all such activities.

I suspect that most members of the Committee have the same objective. We all want to eradicate poverty and to increase opportunity for young people. We all want to ensure that the elderly have a comfortable and decent old age. In achieving much of that, the Government have and will continue to enjoy our support. However, as in so many areas where the Liberal Democrats are a little ahead of the Government, we will continue to press them to adopt some of our ideas. I note that the

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independence of the Bank of England was to be found in only one manifesto—ours—but it has proved to be probably the best idea for the country's financial stability. I commend that manifesto to Labour Members, as it contains many great ideas, but we will continue to support the Government here and in partnership in Scotland on all those areas where, together, we can make a difference.

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