The House of Commons was dominated by the Pre-Budget Report yesterday, which has been well reported elsewhere on ConservativeHome. But there was also an oral questions session on Work and Pensions.
David Evennett, MP for Bexleyheath and Crayford, exposed a worrying fact – that far too many gas fitters are not properly qualified:
"Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): CORGI estimates that as many as 20,000 people are working illegally with gas in the UK. What more can the Government do to ensure that the public are aware of the dangers of employing unqualified workers?
Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. He is right: about 10 per cent. of installations were carried out by people who are still not registered with CORGI, and more needs to be done on that. As part of the arrangements for the new contract with Capita, that body will donate about £1.7 million to a charity. My noble Friend Lord McKenzie is asking other energy providers to put in resources, too. That fund will be used further to raise awareness. The more we do to raise awareness, the greater the reduction in the number of fatalities will be."
Philip Dunne, the Ludlow MP, uncovered latest unemployment figures:
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): The number of people in the UK claiming jobseeker’s allowance in October was 980,900. In Ludlow, the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance was 651.
Mr. Dunne: I am delighted that the Secretary of State is aware that unemployment in Ludlow has gone up by 10.5 per cent. in the past year alone, but why are there 300,000 fewer British people in work today than two years ago, while there are almost 1 million migrant workers in work?
James Purnell: On the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, we totally understand that people will be worried about the economic circumstances, and our commitment is to do everything that we can to help people get back into work if they lose their job. That is why we have announced, for example, an extra £100 million—to do exactly that. We will do that to ensure that we never reach the unemployment levels that we had in the past of almost 3,000 people, not 651, in his constituency at the height of the previous recession."
Oliver Heald, MP for North-East Herefordshire called for an increase in the levy for the Pension Protection Fund:
"Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): As more employers become insolvent during the recession, will the Secretary of State have to come back to the House and ask for an increase in the levy for the Pension Protection Fund? If not, how will he balance the need to have enough money in the scheme to meet calls on it and yet not overload pension schemes, which are already closing under the sort of pressure that he has mentioned?
James Purnell: The Pension Protection Fund announced very recently that it did not foresee any increase in the levy and that it would keep it at its current level. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is glad that we fixed the roof while the sun was shining and brought in the pensions regulator and the PPF. That is in huge contrast to the Government whom he supported, who were warned about this by Labour Members in the ’90s and did absolutely nothing about it, so that we then had to pick up the pieces through the financial assistance scheme."
On 20 November it was announced that the Pension Protection Fund had set a pension protection levy estimate of £700 million for 2009/10. Created in 2004, the Fund was started in response to fears that people would lose their pension if their employer became insolvent.
Andrew Selous, who represents South-West Bedfordshire, asked about the late processing of benefits:
"Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): The former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), was right to mention a few moments ago the slow processing of benefits. Does the Under-Secretary know that in some parts of the country people are waiting nine to 10 weeks to have a new housing benefit claim processed? If they have just lost their job, they do not want nine to 10 weeks of rent arrears. In other parts of the country, because of the way in which the boundaries of the broad market rental areas are drawn, some people experience huge difficulty in finding properties with the local housing allowance that they are given. Will the Under-Secretary undertake to examine those two injustices seriously?
Kitty Ussher: The hon. Gentleman raises two issues that are local authorities’ responsibility. I share the concern when some local authorities process benefits relatively swiftly and others take longer. In the latter case, we always put in resources to support those authorities and try to encourage the spread of best practice. However, the hon. Gentleman’s question would be better addressed to the local authorities that should improve their performance."
Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Chris Grayling intervened late, but tellingly:
"Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): How much money is actually being saved as a result of the change to the backdating rules for the pension credit, moving from 12 months to nine months?
James Purnell: In fact, as the hon. Gentleman knows, in the medium term the package will cost money, because it allows us to pay for increased benefits for people. It has been supported by Age Concern, and I am surprised that he does not support it himself.
Chris Grayling: What is it about this Government that prevents them from ever answering a straightforward question? I asked the Secretary of State a simple question. This change affects a particular group of vulnerable elderly pensioners, including recently bereaved widows. How much money does the specific change from 12 months to three months actually save?
James Purnell: As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is part of a package that will cost more money. It allows us to improve the services that we give people, and it allows us to give more people more money. The real contrast is between his party, which wants people to suffer during the downturn and will do nothing to help them, and the extra help that will be announced very shortly and to which I am sure he is looking forward."
On a big day in British politics, it is heartening to see Conservative members keep their eyes on the ball.