Oral Answers to Questions — Benefit Reform

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd April 2001.

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Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Labour, Doncaster Central 12:00 am, 2nd April 2001

What steps he is taking to reform social security benefits in order to assist people to return to work. [154859]

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security)

The claimant count is now below 1 million for the first time since December 1975, with unemployment falling in every region. We have introduced reforms in the tax and benefit systems to make it easier to move into work and to ensure that work pays.

We have just announced the creation of "jobcentre plus", which will unite employment services with benefits services for people of working age. There will be 50 pathfinder offices by October.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Labour, Doncaster Central

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. I know from speaking this morning to the manager of the jobcentre in Doncaster that the changes that were announced today, especially the change that enables claimants who wish to take up temporary work to return to benefits more easily, will make a genuine difference to helping to get people back to work. It will give people greater confidence about taking up temporary work and thus gaining greater experience and skills, enabling them to get a permanent job.

If the scheme is as successful as the manager of the jobcentre in Doncaster believes that it will prove, will my hon. Friend consider extending it to other claimants such as those on incapacity benefit and income support?

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There are more people in work than ever before—the figure has increased by 1.2 million since the election—but we want to ensure that the chance to work and the opportunity to make work pay apply to even more people. Rapid reclaim, which allows people to return to benefits more quickly if jobs do not last longer than 12 weeks, will make a good contribution to that. We will evaluate its operation and, if there is a good case for extending it, we will consider doing so.

Photo of Mr Archy Kirkwood Mr Archy Kirkwood Chair, Social Security Committee, Chair, Social Security Committee

Will the Minister confirm that one of the biggest remaining hurdles in the way of getting young people in particular off benefit and into work is the operation of some of the housing benefit rules? Will she confirm that the Government are considering an amendment to the single room rent restriction on the level of housing benefit available to young people? Is she aware that there is some suspicion in the pressure group community that consultation on that will not be adequate, leading pressure groups to believe that relaxation of the restrictions will not amount to very much?

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security)

I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the relaxation of the single room rent restriction, which extends it to properties that actually exist. The shared room rent provision, which we hope will be in operation by July this year, will give single under-25s having difficulty finding rented accommodation much more chance to do so.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Labour, Workington

What additional guidance is being given to benefit offices in counties such as Cumbria—and, in particular, the Lake district—to deal with the very large increase in inquiries from people who own or work for businesses?

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security)

We have issued instructions to all benefit offices in the areas affected by foot and mouth to make clear the rules for those claiming jobseeker's allowance and for the self-employed. Benefits Agency offices must also ensure that any claims made as a result of the foot and mouth outbreak are dealt with quickly, sensitively and flexibly.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I have to tell the hon. Lady that that is not the case. When claimants make inquiries, they find that benefit offices are unaware of the flexibility rules. Will the Minister ensure that that flexibility is made known, particularly when claimants are referred by the rural hotline to local offices and receive no advice from them? Does she understand that basing this provision only in infected areas is a poor way of distributing social security benefits? A business can be greatly affected by foot and mouth but be outside the infected area: it can be a matter of just a few yards. Does the Minister regard as not particularly sensitive the advice given by local officers either to move a business into an affected area or to go bankrupt?

Will the Minister also ensure that the Secretary of State makes representations to the Chancellor to ensure that companies paying out working families tax credit to their employees receive a quick return from the Government? The cash flow and viability of rural businesses are being adversely affected when that does not happen.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security)

We are certainly not issuing advice that businesses should go bankrupt to claim benefits. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to bring examples to my attention, I shall happily deal with them. However, I re-emphasise that special advice has been issued to officers in affected areas. We are in the middle of preparing extra information, which we shall make available, perhaps through local newspapers, about likely entitlements for people in particular circumstances, especially if they are self-employed. We believe that the most confusion probably surrounds that category; employees who have been laid off certainly have a simpler way through the system. We shall make that information available, but if the hon. Gentleman can let me have examples of cases that have gone wrong, I shall ensure that such problems do not recur.