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House of Commons

Monday 18 February 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): What steps he proposes to take to work with the voluntary sector to tackle poverty. [186542]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): The Government see a vital role for the voluntary sector in tackling poverty. In 2006, more than a quarter of new deal main contracts were awarded to voluntary sector organisations and more than a third of subcontractors are from the sector. Next week, the Department will publish its commissioning strategy. Throughout the consultation on the strategy, we have made it clear that the voluntary sector will play a growing role.

Ms Barlow: Volunteering provides a much-needed road into employment for many of the long-term unemployed. Brighton and Hove volunteer centre in my constituency has worked with more than 400 voluntary organisations this year, providing the unemployed with much-needed skills, necessary references and some confidence. What does my right hon. Friend hope to do to help provide that service?

James Purnell: I wish to start by paying tribute to my predecessor and the radical programme of welfare reform that he established. I am honoured to be building on the work that he achieved.

I congratulate the centre that my hon. Friend mentioned and reassure her that volunteering and the voluntary sector are at the heart of our programmes to get people back into work. Volunteering can teach people important skills that bring them closer to the labour market, and the voluntary sector plays a growing role in getting people who are on incapacity benefit and those in the new deal back into work.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State to his position and look forward to debating with him in the months ahead. I also welcome the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform to his new Front-Bench job. He and I have had debates in the past and it is a pleasure to see him there.

Are the Government on track for achieving their target of halving child poverty by 2010?

James Purnell: The Government are committed to the goal of reducing child poverty. We continue to keep the strategy under review and we will make announcements at the appropriate time. However, it is surprising that the hon. Gentleman raises the issue when I do not believe that the Conservative party is committed to even an aspiration, let alone a pledge, to reduce child poverty. Perhaps he would like to answer that point.

Chris Grayling: I look forward to our changing jobs in the near future. From the lack of an answer to my question, I judge that the Government will not achieve their target of halving child poverty by 2010. Will the Secretary of State give the House a sense of when the Government hope to achieve that target?

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James Purnell: As I said, the Government are committed to the target. The House will notice that the hon. Gentleman ducked the question on whether the Conservative party is committed to the goal. Under his predecessor, it was at least an aspiration, but it is not even that now. He is not prepared to say that he shares the aspiration of getting children out of poverty in this country, which is shameful.

Child Support Agency

2. Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the performance of the Child Support Agency following the introduction of the operational improvement plan. [186543]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): The agency’s performance has improved significantly since the operational improvement plan was launched in April 2006.

In simple terms, thanks to the plan, so far, 80,000 more children are being supported by an extra £140 million of payments. The number of uncleared cases is falling steadily and processing times are speeding up.

Mr. Flello: Several of my constituents are on the old CSA system and fear that they are consequently worse off. What advice can my hon. Friend give my constituents? In what time frame can they expect to be moved off the old system?

Mr. Plaskitt: We all have a sense of frustration about the timing, and about the difficulties that the existence of two schemes running side by side creates. However, as we have always said, transfer from one to the other could not be undertaken safely or have any chance of being completed until the IT system was up to scratch. That is where the big problem lies. My hon. Friend knows that, as part of the operational improvement programme, major investment is now being made in IT and that there will be a major re-engineering at Easter. From next year, as we move to the new commission arrangement, parents will be able to choose whether to have a private arrangement, stick with an existing scheme that works or move into the new system. After that, we can migrate everyone to one unified system.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): The Under-Secretary may know that I held an Adjournment debate as long ago as 24 July last year on the CSA constituency case of Mrs. Sonia Poulton. I do not know how he can stand at the Dispatch Box and say that the agency’s performance is getting better. I have corresponded with him since the Adjournment debate, to which the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) replied. I tabled a pursuant question for answer on 17 January, and it has not been answered—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Another Adjournment debate might be in order.

Mr. Plaskitt: I said that the CSA was performing better; I did not say that it had reached a state of perfection. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that the fact that 80,000 more children
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are being supported, that £140 million more is being collected in maintenance, that the number of uncleared cases is down by 45 per cent. since the plan started and that the agency is now clearing 50 per cent. of cases within six weeks is all improvement. I fully accept that there are still problems with some cases, and I will look into the constituency case that he raises. I will consult colleagues who have dealt with the correspondence and come back to him.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the improvements in the operational improvement plan that my hon. Friend outlined. He mentioned the computer upgrade, which is due at Easter and upon which a great deal depends. Will he meet me to discuss how staff such as those at the Plymouth office can be encouraged in the work that they are doing, despite the uncertainty that the future holds for them, so that he can continue to make such announcements at the Dispatch Box in future?

Mr. Plaskitt: My hon. Friend will know that I have visited the Plymouth office, where I discussed with the staff both the agency’s current performance and the move to the new commission arrangement. I am pleased to report that the staff are behind the work that the Department is doing and fully support the move to the commission. In so far as they have any reservations about their status, which they raised when I visited, we have been able to resolve them by telling the staff that they will remain Crown employees. The staff fully support the changes that we are making, because they want to be part of a child maintenance arrangement that works.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): The abolition of pension contribution limits means that children are suffering, as huge pension contributions are now allowable deductions from income assessed for child support. A mother from your hometown, Mr. Speaker, has called this “a loophole that can be exploited by parents lining their own pockets, rather than paying for their responsibilities.” Her MP, the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Murphy), has called this clearly unfair. Does the Minister agree, and will he ensure that the law is changed?

Mr. Plaskitt: As I have already pointed out, despite such issues, the agency is collecting £140 million more in child support than it was before, on behalf of 80,000 more children. The hon. Gentleman knows that when the commission takes over later this year, there will be an opportunity to review other aspects of the agency’s arrangements—he and I have debated the issue in Committee, and he knows that to be the case. The important thing is to ensure that we build a platform of success within the existing agency for when the commission takes over. It will then have the opportunity to review all the arrangements covering the current maintenance systems.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I congratulate the Minister on the improvements he has announced today. Will he indicate—if not now, in a note in the Library—how many children have to wait six months and how many have to wait more than 12 months before the first of their often irregular maintenance payments arrives?

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Mr. Plaskitt: I can certainly supply my right hon. Friend with that information. He is right that there are unacceptable waits in some cases—after all, 38 per cent. of non-resident parents are failing to pay part or all of their maintenance assessment. That is clearly not acceptable, but we are dealing with people who will sometimes go to the most extraordinary lengths to avoid facing up to their clear responsibility, and the agency cannot always do all that it would like in going after them. However, in addition to the improvements to which I have referred, the agency is now taking a record level of enforcement action to go after the non-resident parents who will not pay, with record numbers of charging orders, suspended committal sentences, removals of driving licences and deduction from earnings orders, as well as doing more than ever before to collect arrears.


3. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of poverty rates among disadvantaged groups. [186544]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): We have made considerable progress in tackling poverty. Since 1998-99, the number of pensioners in relative poverty has fallen by more than 1 million, and the number of individuals in relative poverty living in households continuing a disabled person, after housing costs, has fallen by about 900,000. There are now 600,000 fewer children living in relative poverty, before housing costs, than there were in 1998-99.

Mr. Hands: The UK has a higher proportion of children living in workless households than any other EU country and, according to the Sutton Trust, social mobility in the UK is at the lowest level of any developed country. What connection does the Minister make between those two facts?

James Purnell: I make the connection that, for 18 years, there was a huge rise in child poverty— [ Interruption. ] That is a serious point. We cannot measure the life chances of a child who is 10 years old, which is the oldest that they could be if they had spent the whole of their life growing up under this Government. Those figures clearly measure life chances over the past two or three decades. We inherited a significant problem of child poverty; we have cut it by 600,000, and we have measures in place to cut it by another 300,000. The proportion of children in workless households has fallen by 400,000 under this Government. It was rising under the Tories, which damaged children’s life chances, but it is now falling under us. Over the next 20 years, as we are able to judge those children’s life chances, I believe that we will see a significant improvement.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, when dealing with families living at the bottom end of the economic ladder and those with young children, there can be no scope for using the removal of housing as part of the process of getting people back into the world of work? Will he confirm that there are better ways of doing that, and that it would be unworkable and unacceptable to use housing as a weapon in that way?

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James Purnell: I think that my hon. Friend is referring to the debate that the Minister for Housing has started about people’s responsibilities in respect of social housing. It is right that, when people get social housing, which is much sought after, we should talk about the responsibilities that go with that. That is exactly the debate that my right hon. Friend has started. One thing that could be done, for example, is to ensure that applicants for social housing get employment support alongside it. We could take other measures as well. That is a debate that my right hon. Friend the Minister and I will be happy to have with my hon. Friend in the coming weeks.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The Department’s own statistics on households on below-average incomes show that, since 2001, the bottom 10 per cent. of families have become worse off. They are going backwards, and getting poorer. How has that come about?

James Purnell: The figures on the proportion of people who are on below 40 per cent. of median earnings—I think that is what the hon. Gentleman was referring to—have been described by the Office for National Statistics as not reliable. For example, there are many people in that category who do not declare any income at all. There may well be a certain amount of fraud in those figures, and the sample size is too small anyhow. The figures that are internationally recognised, which relate to those on less than 60 per cent. of median earnings, have shown a fall of 600,000 since 1997, and we have measures in place for another 300,000 to be taken out of poverty. The clearest contrast, however, is the one between this Government, who are committed to reducing child poverty, and the Opposition, who will not even say that they have an aspiration to reduce it.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I see from the Annunciator that, following these questions, the Chancellor is to make a statement that will help us to deliver on our 1983 manifesto pledge on banking. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether it will be 25 years before we deliver on our 2005 manifesto commitment to a full programme of action to support disabled people in leading independent lives and to increase their inclusion in the economy and in society? The Independent Living Fund has just announced that it is raising from £200 to £320 the threshold sum that a disabled person must be receiving from local authorities in order to access ILF funding. Will not this worsen poverty and increase disabled people’s exclusion from society?

James Purnell: I believe that that was done in consultation with local authorities and will not affect existing claimants. We do not think that a significant number of people will be affected. My hon. Friend is right, however, to say that the Government have a radical goal of getting equality for disabled people by 2025, and we have a number of policies in place to achieve that. However, I would be happy to talk to him if he has any further suggestions on what course the Government should be pursuing.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The recent report by Leonard Cheshire Disability shows that disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people; I know that the Secretary of State will be
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familiar with that. Over the past 10 years, the employment rate of people with work-limiting disabilities has risen by just 3.7 per cent., according to the Government’s own figures. What specific policies do the Government have to enable them to do better in future, and why should anyone think that they are any more likely to be successful?

James Purnell: I look forward to meeting Leonard Cheshire Disability and I am happy to look into the suggestions it has made. As the hon. Gentleman says, there has been an improvement in the employment rate of disabled people, but we want to go further. Reforming incapacity benefit by introducing the employment and support allowance will, we believe, help to get about 1 million people off incapacity benefit and into work. At the end of the spectrum where people have really significant barriers to work, we should be clear that we are not saying that they cannot work—we want to support everyone who wants to work—but we are seeing what more control we can give people in that situation so that disabled people, like everybody else, can have the expectation of being able to get into work.


4. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): If he will meet pensioner groups from East Anglia to discuss payment of old age pensions and related benefits. [186545]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I regularly meet national pensioners’ organisations, which seek to reflect the views of pensioners from East Anglia and other parts of the country. I hope to visit Norwich in the next few months and I intend to meet a pensioners’ group there.

Mr. Bellingham: I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for that reply, but is he aware that the number of pensioners living in households earning less than 40 per cent. of the national average income is rising to a figure of nearly 500,000? Is he aware, more particularly, that pensioners in East Anglia have been hit especially hard by council tax increases—so much so that many pensioner households are now spending a very large percentage of their income on council tax bills? What plans does the Minister have to help those pensioners who just miss out on council tax rebate to get some respite?

Mr. O'Brien: I would hesitate, if I were a Conservative, to complain about pensions, given that under the Conservative Government the poorest pensioners were forced to exist on only £69 a week—barely enough, one would have thought, to pay for a bottle at the Bullingdon club. We have done an awful lot to help pensioners, and the number of pensioners living in relative poverty has fallen by more than 1 million since 1997. Just before Christmas, I announced some new proposals to help large numbers of pensioners who are not claiming pension credit or, indeed, the help that they need with council tax at the moment. When these proposals come into effect next year, we will mount a campaign to encourage pensioners to apply for help with council tax, which will automatically bring them some of the
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other benefits to assist them more widely. Pensioners’ organisations asked for that, and they have broadly welcomed it.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Will the Minister look again into the disadvantage suffered by people who reach retirement age, but are in receipt of a carer’s allowance and are caring for their loved ones? By what logic are they penalised or disadvantaged, particularly bearing in mind the fact that some devolved Assemblies in the UK are about to consider unilaterally remedying that wrong?

Mr. O'Brien: I looked into this problem recently, as some carers raised it with me. The benefits system does not allow for double payments. We are looking into ways of helping pensioners better to deal with some of the problems that they face. There are anomalies whereby someone living in an area receives help while the person living next door does not—and these are a matter of concern to us. I do not have an easy answer for my hon. Friend now, but I recognise the nature of the problem. It is an expensive problem to resolve, but we are still looking into ways of doing so.

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