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Mr. Plaskitt: On the hon. Lady’s first point, I agree that it is of course desirable that both parents continue to be involved in the upbringing of the child. We would
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all subscribe to that idea. However, the point is that relationships break down, and it is then up to the separating couple to decide how they will maintain their relationship with the child or children. Some couples will do that voluntarily and others as a result of being forced to do so by an agreement that is arrived at in court. However, what should not happen is that a dispute between parents results in the child or children becoming a pawn in the settlement of maintenance. The two issues are linked, but in establishing a system of determining maintenance, it is important that they are not linked in the way in which the hon. Lady suggests.

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): I say to my hon. Friend respectfully that it is not a bad idea to consider that issue as part of the review and reform of the child support process. In doing so, will he consider the case of one of my constituents, Frances Lyttle, who has had a nightmare 10 years since her husband left her with two children? She was in court today, trying to resolve divorce issues. The Child Support Agency is absolutely incapable, and it is so inflexible that its actions are creating an injustice while the courts try to bring about a just settlement.

Mr. Plaskitt: My right hon. Friend is, I think, talking about contact orders, which are not the responsibility of the Child Support Agency, nor will they be the responsibility of its successor body. She may be aware that the Government have already taken action in the Children and Adoption Act 2006 to try to reinforce contact orders. I repeat that we would not want a tussle between parents over contact to drag in the children and make them a pawn in the argument. That would not be right, which is why the issues are quite properly kept separate. The matter was reconsidered in the context of David Henshaw’s review, and there was no consensus among the groups that were consulted for any change in the arrangements, which is why we have decided to persist with them.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): It is not often that I entirely agree with the Minister but, on this subject, I do. As someone who has dealt with the matter as a solicitor and as a Member of Parliament, I urge him to resist calls to link the two issues, because there is a real danger of children being used as pawns by both sides in such an argument. It is important that the issues are kept separate.

Mr. Plaskitt: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support.

Unemployment

6. Mr. Ian Austin (Dudley, North) (Lab): What assessment he has made of trends in unemployment levels in the UK; and if he will make a statement. [140295]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. John Hutton): In the early 1990s, unemployment rose by more than 500,000 in one year alone, and it was consistently above 10 per cent.

Since 1997, unemployment has fallen substantially, the number of people in employment is up by more
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than 2.5 million, including by 93,000 in the last year alone, and the inactivity rate is now close to its lowest level for 15 years.

Mr. Austin: My constituents recognise that the long-term trend this past decade has been one of falling employment and record numbers of people in work, but those who work hard, play by the rules and pay their way believe that there are still too many people claiming benefits who could be working. What more can the Government do to tighten eligibility so that those people get off benefits and get a job?

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. What he has said will be echoed in constituencies all over the country. The benefit system has to be fair and reasonable—fair to those on benefits, but also fair to those who pay for benefits through their own hard work. There is a case for looking again at some of the rules, particularly those on jobseeker’s allowance, and we are doing that. We hope to bring forward proposals shortly.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Secretary of State agree that we are at our best when at our boldest? I urge him to be bold and say that we will aim for nil unemployment in some areas of the country, such as my constituency, where the number of jobs about to be created in the Southern general hospital and its associated development is far greater than the number of unemployed people in that area. A drive towards nil employment would be bold but it would clearly discriminate in favour of those who are in greatest need. Will he order his civil servants to work accordingly?

Mr. Hutton: It will not surprise my hon. Friend that I agree that we are at our best when at our boldest. I have visited his constituency with him and seen some of the developments that he mentioned. The really gratifying thing about the changes that have taken place in unemployment is that the biggest falls in the past 10 years have been in constituencies such as those of my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) and for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin). That is right and proper. The Labour Government are here to help those in the greatest need; that has been and will continue to be our priority.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): On the question posed by the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), has the Secretary of State considered the welfare arrangements in Wisconsin that created a life-term period for access to welfare, which had an extraordinary impact on the number of people claiming benefits?

Mr. Hutton: Jobseeker’s allowance is already a time-limited benefit, and we have no plans to change any other arrangements.

Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): Mr. Speaker, you will know about the recent announcement in Wallasey about job losses at my local Burton’s Foods’ biscuit factory. Initially, I thought that 660 jobs were to be lost, but that number has gone up to 821. Will my right hon. Friend meet a delegation and tell us what to
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expect if the closures go ahead, so that we can try to recover the low rates of unemployment to which my constituents have become accustomed in the past 10 years?

Mr. Hutton: I am happy to meet my hon. Friend’s constituents. I understand that she already has a meeting arranged with the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform. Jobcentre Plus will be there to help her constituents in any way possible. We have an effective and efficient system of providing such help that has, sadly, been tested on several occasions. I am also happy to discuss with her what arrangements we can put in place to help her constituents.

Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): We recently had the honour, in my constituency, of welcoming my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform to meet 31 constituents—mainly single parents. In my right hon. Friend’s review of support for getting single parents into work, is he giving particular consideration to the difficulties of parents of larger families with more than two children, and to the support given to parents through Jobcentre Plus?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, we are considering all aspects of the problem. There is no doubt that many single parents in London face serious problems with getting back into work, such as problems with transport and child care. We are working closely with the Mayor of London to address those challenges. My hon. Friend will know that we are also working with five boroughs in the east end of London to develop a more integrated, efficient and, I hope, more effective and individually tailored service to help people such as the ladies whom she mentioned get back into work. We have a responsibility always to continue to consider what more we can do to help, and we are certainly prepared to do that.

Occupational Pensions (Temporary Insolvencies)

7. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): If he will take steps to assist workers whose occupational pensions were wound-up by companies which were fully solvent but which created temporary insolvencies and closed pension schemes. [140296]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (James Purnell): Ongoing solvent employers have a clear moral duty to support their pension schemes and to provide the benefits that members were expecting. The taxpayer should not be expected to step in and make up such shortfalls in scheme funding levels where there is a sponsoring solvent employer. However, we recognise the complexity of this issue, and one element of the financial assistance scheme review of scheme assets is to examine whether—in addition to those with compromise agreements—there are other pension schemes where it would not be reasonable to expect the employer to have a continuing responsibility for supporting an underfunded scheme.

Dr. Cable: Has the Minister read the forensic accounting study sent to him that showed that some leading American companies—highly profitable companies, such as EMC, EDS and Parsons—systematically
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manipulated their UK subsidiary accounts to create temporary insolvencies, wiping out their pension obligations? In those circumstances, will British pensioners be entitled to financial assistance scheme compensation, and will the Minister then pursue the companies to compensate the British taxpayer?

James Purnell: I obviously cannot comment on individual cases, but if the hon. Gentleman is concerned about those schemes, they should apply to the financial assistance scheme operating unit to find out whether they are eligible. We have drawn the definition of insolvency as widely as possible to allow people to do so, and it is also open to him to make representations to the Young review to find out whether they should be included in that category.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): More than 50 per cent. of occupational pension schemes have assets that far exceed their liabilities, and other schemes are rapidly catching up with them. Can my hon. Friend give the House any assurance that we can stop employers raiding those pensions schemes in the future or creating contribution holidays for them, as happened in the past, which is exactly what got them into trouble?

James Purnell: I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that we now have a much more effective regulatory framework, and partly because of that framework and the pensions regulator’s work, deficits are falling, exactly as my hon. Friend says. The regulator works very closely with trustees to ensure that the promises that have been made to people will be delivered, because people are making contributions on that basis and they should expect that to happen.

Saving

8. Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): If he will make a statement on progress in increasing opportunities for working people to save for their retirement. [140297]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (James Purnell): The personal accounts White Paper, published last December, set out our proposals for increasing opportunities and incentives to save for retirement. We reached the end of the consultation period in March and shall publish our response shortly. Our proposals will place simplicity and independence at the heart of a system that, from 2012, will introduce a scheme of low-cost personal accounts for millions of people currently without access to good occupational schemes.

Mr. Devine: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, and like him, I am very proud of what Labour has done for pensioners over the past 10 years, but what is he doing to ensure that employers meet their obligations?

James Purnell: That is a very good point. Unfortunately, the truth is that only a minority of people currently have access to employer contributions to their pension, and through these reforms, we will now extend that to every employee, so that whenever an employee wants to save in their pension, it will be mandatory for their employer to match that, with tax relief from the state. That is a significant step forward.


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Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): Does the Minister agree that people would have greater confidence in saving for their own retirement if the Government had acted to reform public sector pensions, perhaps guided by an independent review? Will he join the consensus initiated by Lord Turner in another place on 14 May that the Government have so far failed to act on the issue? What steps will he take to answer that call?

James Purnell: I am sure that nurses and teachers will notice that the Liberal Democrats are now committing themselves to cutting their pensions, and I am sure that we will be very happy to debate that with them at the next election.

Child Poverty

9. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Whether he expects to meet the Government’s 2010 child poverty target. [140298]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): Over the past decade, child poverty in the United Kingdom has fallen faster than in any other major economy, but we have to go further to achieve our target, which is why we published our refreshed child poverty strategy on 27 March.

Bob Russell: Hundreds of thousands of children are still living in poverty, by the Government’s definition. If the Minister accepts that housing is a crucial part of removing children from poverty, will he prevail on the new Prime Minister to reverse 25 years of housing policy failure and restore council house building?

Mr. Murphy: Of course, we have invested more than ever before in housing, as a Labour Government, certainly overcoming the record and our inheritance from the previous Government. But the fact is that, in terms of the responsibility of the Department for Work and Pensions, the biggest significant input that we can have is to encourage ever more people to get the chance to get into work—work that pays, and work that is sustained. Of course, we have further to go, but it is important to reflect that, each working day that we have had a Labour Government over the past decade, 190 children have been lifted out of poverty, which is in stark contrast to the fact that, in the previous 18 years, 240 kids went into poverty every day.

Carer’s Credit

10. Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): How many carers he expects to receive the carer’s credit in 2010. [140299]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): In 2010, we estimate there will be around 240,000 more people who could qualify for the state second pension through carer’s credit. Of those, around 160,000 could also qualify for carer’s credit for their basic state pension, and we will work with carers’ representatives to encourage all those who are eligible to apply to do so.


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Mr. Wright: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply, but given the invaluable contribution that carers make to our society and the billions of pounds that they save the taxpayer, could we not do more? Will my hon. Friend consider taking specific steps to ease the financial burden on carers, specifically to ensure that carer’s credit and carer’s allowance are equivalent to the national minimum wage and that carer’s allowance can be claimed in conjunction with the state retirement pension?

Mrs. McGuire: Obviously, I can agree with my hon. Friend about the valuable work that carers do and the energy and commitment that they give to their task. He raises two issues that are complex, especially the payment of carer’s allowance and the state pension. As he is aware, there is an overlapping benefit rule that makes it impossible to pay two income maintenance benefits to one individual at the same time. However, I hope he also recognises that we lifted the age barrier on entitlement to carer’s allowance so that people could carry forward their entitlement to the allowance past the state pension age. Even if such people could not claim carer’s allowance itself, they were thus entitled to claim the carer’s premium within pension credit.

We are examining ways in which we can enhance the income of carers, not just in retirement but throughout their lives, which is why, for example, carers can earn up to £87 a week as well as receiving carer’s allowance. I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to examine constantly how we can improve the situation for carers, which is why we are undertaking a review of the national carers strategy.

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): Given that, according to Carers UK, we will need an additional 3.5 million carers in the next 30 years but that more than half of current carers say that financial worries are affecting their health, does the Minister agree that the complexity of the benefits system does carers no favours? Does she have any plans to review the complexity of the system to ensure that we encourage and support people in their caring roles, rather than frustrating them to the extent that they pass on their responsibilities to the state?

Mrs. McGuire: As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, we have taken steps to simplify elements of the application for carer’s allowance. We are constantly looking at how we can improve the application process. We work closely with Carers UK and other carers organisations to examine the wider issues for carers—not just the benefit issue, important though that is. I have pulled together several carers stakeholder groups to examine some of the wider strategic issues. I hope to update the House as appropriate when we have further discussions with that group.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): May I push my hon. Friend a little bit further on people with old-age pensions being able to claim carer’s benefit?

Mrs. McGuire: Well, I appreciate that my hon. Friend, in the nicest possible way, wants to push me a little further on this particular issue. There is a complication with two benefits that are essentially for income maintenance being paid to the same person for
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the same purpose at the same time. We have lifted the state pension age barrier, which, to be frank, was in place for all the years of the previous Government. We lifted that to allow carers to claim the extra entitlement through pension credit that gives them an extra £27.15 a week, to recognise the caring element of their work. The problem is difficult to explain and to understand, but it arises from the overlapping benefits rule. The rules, which have been agreed by this House, across the House, on more than one occasion, state that two benefits cannot be paid to the same individual for the same purpose at the same time.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that financial pressure is one of the biggest worries that carers suffer? As my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) rightly asked, should we not ensure a minimum standard by introducing a minimum wage for carers?

Mrs. McGuire: The carer’s allowance was introduced by a Labour Government in the 1970s as a recognition of carers’ commitment to their caring responsibilities. It was never intended to be a carer’s wage, and that has rarely been challenged in this House. We want to look at the wider issues relating to support for carers and, as the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) allowed me to point out, we are working with carers organisations to look across the issues, not just at the benefits system. I reiterate that even carers who receive the full carer’s allowance may earn up to £87 a week, after deductions, to ensure that they enhance their income. We are working closely with carers organisations to examine the wider strategic issues relating to carers.


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