Economic Affairs and Work and Pensions

Part of Speaker's Statement – in the House of Commons at 7:13 pm on 8th June 2010.

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Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire Labour, Stirling 7:13 pm, 8th June 2010

It is a pleasure to follow Stephen Gilbert. My family has spent many holidays in his constituency, and I think VisitBritain could do worse than collect together all the maiden speeches of the past few days and use them to promote some of the most wonderful parts of our country-indeed, there are bits of our country I would not have recognised at all from the descriptions. I congratulate all Members who have delivered their maiden speeches. I was going to say that my contribution would be an older maiden speech, but one of those adjectives would not quite be appropriate. I shall now launch forward while leaving Members to work out the meaning of that remark.

First, I want to welcome the comments of the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about the principles that will underpin his approach to welfare reform. He said in a recent article:

"Tattooed across my heart is that I didn't come here in any shape or form simply as a cheeseparer."

That is a robust comment to make, certainly for a Conservative Secretary of State for Work and Pensions-and, frankly, it would not be at odds with many of the comments of previous Labour Secretaries of State.

I am also delighted that the new Secretary of State had his road-to-Damascus moment on the road to Easterhouse in Glasgow. I know the area well as I grew up there and my father represented it as a councillor during some of the worst periods of the Thatcher era, when a large community that was essentially made up of aspirational working-class people found itself in an economic desert. It was a period in which intergenerational unemployment and the poverty that the Secretary of State saw took root, and the aspirations of individuals and communities alike were crushed by the lack of jobs. There are similar examples to that in my constituency, where the mining industry was destroyed. Frankly, these communities started on the road to recovery only as a result of the massive investment in economic renewal by Labour Governments in both Westminster and Holyrood.

The absence of any detail in the Secretary of State's programme so far-apart from the loss of the future jobs fund, which has already been dealt with by others-means that I could refer only to the coalition programme for government to see if any further light could be shed on the new approach. We should have some sort of cross-House consensus on how we move forward on welfare reform. Indeed, one of the new Ministers has strongly promoted a consensual approach, and I will be interested to learn whether he sees that consensus being continued now that he sits on the Government Benches.

The coalition wants to have a single work programme, and I think there is some room for rationalisation, subject to the demands, which have changed over a matter of years. I am not yet convinced, however, that a single work programme is necessarily the way forward. We have also heard much from the coalition about "decentralisation" of decisions and "individualisation" of provision. How will a leviathan single work programme respond to the specific needs of individual unemployed people? How will such a programme respond to someone who has a fluctuating mental health condition or a physical disability, or who is a carer or a recently unemployed bank worker? Some may require minimum support for a short time between jobs, but others will require a significant amount of longer-term help. There is no detail of how the initial assessment for support will be made. I assume that the programme will be cash-limited in spite of the Secretary of State's ambitions, so how will the initial financial decisions about who needs more support and who needs less be made? Will Jobcentre Plus continue to have a significant role to play in this, or will people have to refer themselves to some other local or national organisation? If someone is disabled and needs additional help, will they have to compete with others on the programme?

Where does the access to work programme, which daily supports thousands of disabled workers in employment, fit into the new uniform approach? I know that the coalition has said it will reform access to work and I welcome that, but will the coalition Government commit themselves to doubling the access to work programme as the previous Government did, or will this just be rolled into a single approach that is not ring-fenced and that becomes a victim of cuts? On realigning contracts, will that be 100% output-based? In short, how is the whole thing going to work?

Perhaps the Secretary of State can provide answers to questions on his own sanctions policy. What will the level of sanctions be? Who will enforce them? What will happen to children if benefits are taken away from their parents? Where are the safeguards? Will people be forced to take any job, or will there be flexibility within the programme? Will the unemployed people in my constituency be taken off benefit if there are no jobs, or no valid opportunities?

May I briefly comment on the "work doesn't pay" issue, which the Secretary of State repeatedly mentions? I understand and appreciate his sentiments. The coalition document says that it supports the national minimum wage, but I have to ask this question: in terms of the "work doesn't pay" issue, is the Secretary of State proposing to increase individuals' incomes through a mixture of benefits, credits and earnings or, as many of my hon. Friends and constituents fear, to go back to the old tried and tested Tory solution of salami-slicing benefits?

The two Ministers currently sitting on the Government Front Bench-the Exchequer Secretary and the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, Steve Webb-can smile knowingly to each other if they want to. However, given the history of welfare reform, which causes a shudder through many communities, certainly in Scotland but also in many other parts of the country, these are serious questions and the coalition must answer them before its welfare reform programme will have any credibility among Opposition Members.