Yesterday the House of Commons had Work and Pensions questions.
Ribble Valley MP Nigel Evans asked what can be done to make parents take responsibility for their children:
"Poverty for youngsters is often reinforced when a married couple separates by a missing parent who refuses to take their responsibility. The Child Support Agency is often deficient in chasing the missing parent. What action can the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the CSA takes to make sure that it tracks down missing parents, so that they pay for their own children?
James Purnell: In the past year, the CSA—now the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission—has collected an extra £156 million, but we agree that more needs to be done. That is why we are taking powers in the Welfare Reform Bill to be able to take away people’s passports or driving licences without a court process. That will make things much more speedy. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support that, unlike the Conservative party in the Lords the last time that that was proposed. That is also why we are saying that, where there is a payment, parents should be able to keep all of it and that there should be a complete disregard for child maintenance payments and benefits. We think that that could lift an extra 100,000 children out of poverty."
The new Shadow Secretary of State, Theresa May, put pressure on the Secretary of State over child poverty:
"According to a recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 15 indicators of poverty and social exclusion had worsened in the five years preceding the onset of the current economic downturn, more than double the number in the previous five years. That includes the number of people living in very low-income households. Perhaps it is little wonder that the number of children living in poverty has risen by 100,000 in the past two years. How does the Secretary of State explain the Government’s poor performance?
Mrs. May: Yet again, the Secretary of State is very complacent about his attitude to the issue. Another example of the Government’s complacency is their refusal to end the couple penalty in the tax credit system, which would lift 300,000 children out of poverty. Why will the Government not do that?
James Purnell: The right hon. Lady has no policy of that kind, because she has no way of funding it. The Conservatives used to say that they would fund it out of welfare reform, but now they are not prepared to do as much welfare reform as us. If the right hon. Lady wants to repeat that claim, she will have to find new resources. Hers is a policy without a budget, and I hope that she will not pretend to repeat it."
We are still likely over a year away from a General Election, so the Conservatives do not in fact need to cost all their policies now.
Shadow Minister Andrew Selous received a typically complacent response to his question:
"Some of the newly unemployed are in urgent need of assistance from the social fund, so why is it that the Department can answer callers to the CSA within an average of 18 seconds, when it often takes applicants to the social fund days to get through? The Department does not even know how many calls it is losing. When will the Department make a commitment to give a decent level of service to the most vulnerable?
Mr. McNulty: That is a serious point, but the hon. Gentleman should perhaps calm down. We are doing much better than we have in the past. It has been an area in which we have been lacking, but I am assured that things are improving considerably. If the hon. Gentleman has examples of that not being the case, I will happily look into them, but he will have to agree that the situation is much better than it was."
Another Shadow Minister, Nigel Waterson, asked about pensions:
"But does the right hon. Lady accept that the last line of defence for occupational pensions is the Pension Protection Fund, which some experts now believe to be heading for a £1 billion deficit? Does she believe that the extra burden should fall on struggling companies, or that the benefits paid by the PPF should be cut? Or is she now reviewing whether the Government should stand behind the PPF as guarantor?
Ms Winterton: As I have said, the PPF has made it very clear that liquidity is not a problem. It has £3 billion in assets, and it is paying out about £4 million a month in compensation. It provides reassurance and an essential safety net, and it has made it very clear that liquidity is not a problem at this point."
Let’s hope that Ms Winteron is right.
Shadow Minister for Health Anne Milton asked a very sensible question:
"As we anticipate that mental illness is likely to rise with the rise of unemployment, what steps are the Government taking to ensure not only that the staff at jobcentres have adequate training but that they can refer people on so that they receive the necessary early intervention to ensure that their mental health does not deteriorate and further reduce their chances of getting back into work?
James Purnell: The hon. Lady makes a good point. We are working with pilots such as Talking Therapy, which she will know about, to make sure that employment advisers work side by side with therapists so that both employment prospects and people’s mental health are discussed. It is also important that we do not forget about people on incapacity benefit or employment and support allowance because of their mental health. We need to keep up the support and continue to reform welfare so that such people are not left behind because of their specific conditions."
Former Cabinet Minister John Redwood uncovered that the Department for Work and Pensions will be a rare oasis of job creation:
"How big an increase in staff is the Secretary of State planning for this year to deal with the unfortunately very large increase in unemployment that most people are forecasting?