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It is worth reflecting that the figures from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Work show that the number of people in work has reached a new high of more than 28 million. Last month saw the third consecutive monthly fall in the number of people claiming unemployment benefit. I have never sought to make too much of one month or even a short run of favourable figures but, bearing in mind the dire predictions last autumn, particularly by the shadow Chancellor, whose judgment on this is as flawed as it is on other subjects, it is a significant achievement that, because of the strength of the economy, we have got more people into work.
Despite that, however, we must do much more; many people are still not in work, but ought to be. A key step in the Budget is to make sure that we break down the barriers that prevent people from getting work; in particular, we must make work pay. The Budget will be remembered for a significant and major change in tax and benefit policy. For years, people have argued and campaigned for the integration of the tax and benefit system; we are starting that process with the working tax credit and the child tax credit, which the Chancellor announced yesterday. The Budget builds on the measures that we have already taken to make work pay; it supports children, whether their parents are in or out of work; it tackles child poverty; and it ensures, critically, that the tax and benefit system helps people when they most need itfor example, when they first start work or are looking after young children.
It is important that the House realises the difference that the Budget makes; perhaps the few Opposition Members present can tell their colleagues about that difference, because it will be directly relevant when they come to knock on their constituents' doors in a few years' time. The working tax credit, which helps single earners with wages of up to £10,500 a year and couples with incomes of up to £14,000 a year, provides significant assistance in ensuring that people without children, as well as people with children, realise that getting into work will result in a big difference to the money in their pocket. As the Chancellor said yesterday, the child tax credit will help families with incomes of up to £58,000; it will make a real difference by reducing the amount that many individuals pay in tax and will help many people.
Our central economic objective is to get more people into work, as that is the best way of getting people out of poverty and opening doors for them that would otherwise remain closed. As a result of the new deal and other measures we made work possible, but we still had to do more to make sure that we tackled a problem in the welfare system that we inheritedmaking sure that it is worth while to take up a job. Over the past five years, we have introduced measures such as the minimum wage and the working families tax credit, all of which were opposed by the Conservatives. It is pretty clear from what the hon. Member for Havant said that they are still against those measures, and will remain so.
The Budget takes those measures a step further. It will make work pay significantly more than benefits and it extends the help already available to families with children to all single people and couples on low incomes.
That will make a real differencesomething that never happened in the 18 years during which the hon. Member for Havant supported the Government or advised them behind the scenes, no doubt working secretly towards a policy of giving more to people when they got into work. Perhaps I will go to Germany tomorrow to see what else he was working towards but not telling us.
It is critical, as we have always said, that new rights are matched by new responsibilities. We announced previously that as we extend the new Jobcentre Plus network across the country, we will require everybody of working age on benefit to come in for work-focused interviews. There will be more conditions attached to the receipt of benefit, because we believe that it is only right that if we offer more assistance to get into work, people ought at the very least to know about it, and an increasing number of people will be required to do something actively to help themselves become independent. Last autumn I announced the new StepUp programme, which will start later this month in six areas and will be extended to 20 areas by the end of this year.
We have found that where we require as a matter of course that people go on a two-week gateway in preparation for going on the new deal, there is a better chance of them getting into work, so we will extend that on a compulsory basis not just in central London, but to Manchester, Swansea and Dundee. It is extra help with more responsibility, and it works.
We are also tackling a problem with which all hon. Members are familiar: older people who are continually drifting in and out of work. Because people cannot join the current new deal if they have been out of work for 18 months, many people miss out. Now, if they have been unemployed in any 18 of the past 36 months, they can join the new deal for the over-25s. Again, that is valued help and the evidence is that it works.
Jim Knight (South Dorset): Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the measure will also help seasonal workers? There are many in my constituency in the seaside towns of Swanage and Weymouth who go into employment during the summer when work is available in the tourism industry and then leave it in the winter. They fall out of many of the statistics and certainly out of eligibility for the new deal. Will the new measure make them eligible for such help?
Mr. Darling: Those are precisely the people about whom we are concerned. Until now, because they came in and out of work, there was never a long enough period for us to help them. I cannot tell my hon. Friend when the programme will be extended to his constituency, but the preliminary evidence is that it works and we want to extend it.
By building on stability, setting our priorities and cutting unemployment, we have been able to do more not just to make the country more economically efficient, but to make it a fairer country where more people can participate and get on. Sadly, the previous Government not only neglected that, but in many cases virulently opposed it.
Jonathan Shaw: Does my right hon. Friend agree that one aspect of people taking part and being treated fairly is that they have some protection in work? There have been 400 additional union agreements with employers this year, and we should be pleased about that. Working in partnership means that people have some sort of protection. I do not believe that the Opposition thought about that when they were in government.
Mr. Darling: The Opposition were never too hot on looking after people who worked. They were the party which said, for example, that the minimum wage would cost 1 million jobs. The shadow Chancellor said that, and he has a rocky record on reliability. He was wrong on that, and my hon. Friend's comments are right.
I turn to the measures that we announced yesterday to help families and children and the progress that we are making towards ending child poverty. It is an awful pity that although my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) asked the hon. Member for Havant a number of timeshaving given him notice of the question three weeks agothe hon. Gentleman's mind was blank about what happened when he was the principal adviser to the Conservative party on these matters some 10 years ago.
Mr. Darling: I shall address you with great pleasure, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was about to tell you of the good things that we have done since 1997. Following the changes that we have made, families with children will be on average £1,200 a year better off after inflation, and the poorest 20 per cent. of families will be on average £2,400 a year better off after inflation. That is a measure of how much we have done in five years.