HC Deb 15 January 1998 vol 304 cc467-9
1. Mr. Coaker

What representations he has received on his policy to spend the proceeds of the windfall tax on a welfare-to-work programme. [21051]

14. Mr. Plaskitt

What representations he has received from employees' representatives on his policy to spend the proceeds of the windfall tax on a welfare-to-work programme. [21065]

The Paymaster General (Mr. Geoffrey Robinson)

I am pleased to tell the House that we have had widespread positive acceptance of our welfare-to-work programme from employers, from employees and their representatives and throughout the voluntary sector. In particular, I am most encouraged by the firm support of British industry. I am pleased to say that many Members of the House are acting as positive ambassadors for the programme, and that is having a very good effect locally.

Mr. Coaker

I thank the Minister for that reply. Can he confirm that the many positive replies that we have had on the welfare-to-work programme include those from employers in my constituency in the Greater Nottingham area, such as Boots, Experian and East Midlands Electricity? Can he also confirm that not only big employers but many ordinary people are pleased to have a Government determined to tackle unemployment and the scourges of social exclusion and poverty that it brings with it?

Mr. Robinson

I agree with my hon. Friend on all those specific points. The three companies that he mentioned—East Midlands Electricity, Experian and Boots—are all active in his area, which, as he is aware, with 4,000 new dealers passing through the programme in the first year, is the biggest in the east midlands. We are very encouraged by the work that is being done there and by the initial response to the pathfinder programme, which is not operating in his area but which, I am pleased to tell the House, is off to a flying start.

Mr. Plaskitt

I also welcome the introduction of the welfare-to-work scheme in the pilot areas. However, looking forward to the time when the scheme goes nationwide, can my hon. Friend confirm that many substantial employers in my constituency, Warwick and Leamington, have expressed a commitment to participate in the scheme, and that their involvement will be vital to bring opportunities for work and training to the many young unemployed people in my constituency?

Mr. Robinson

Again, I can agree with all that. My hon. Friend will be aware that, in particular, Ford and Christian Salvesen are very active in the programme in his local area and I am sure that when it gets under way in April 1998, when we roll out the programme nationwide, he will rapidly become aware of considerable benefits accruing from that to those who have previously been denied the opportunity to work. One of the most positive aspects of the pathfinders is that the new dealers are responding extremely well, and especially those given a personal adviser.

Mr. Forth

Given that unemployment has now been falling for about five years and is at an all-time low, at least in living memory, and given that the numbers of both the long-term unemployed and the young unemployed have been falling dramatically and continue to fall, why does not the hon. Gentleman review this ridiculous gesture programme, which is costing so much money, and give the money back to, for example, the pensioners who have been mugged by his Department?

Mr. Robinson

I think the whole House and the country—and perhaps, on reflection, the right hon. Gentleman—will be dismayed at the terms in which he tried to dismiss this very important initiative. It is true that young unemployed 18 to 24-year-olds are fewer than they were. It is also true, however, that many are still coming on to the programme, and will be coming on to the programme, who have been out of work for six months or more, and we, as a Government—unlike the Conservatives when in government—intend to do something about it.

Dr. Cable

Does the Minister accept that in some parts of the country there is a growing labour shortage, especially of young people, and that there is some impatience that the resources of the welfare-to-work programme cannot be redeployed more quickly for older workers who have been out of work for a long time?

Mr. Robinson

As the hon. Gentleman knows, within the welfare-to-work programme £350 million has been put to one side for those who have been out of work long term, and that will have good effect. We also have a separate skills shortage programme to put that problem right.

Mr. Blizzard

May I say how welcome the new deal scheme is in my constituency of Waveney? In answer to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the virtue of the scheme is that, by its very nature, it involves precise targeting. In my constituency, there are pockets of unemployment within a relatively prosperous area and the scheme will attack those pockets. The unemployed in those areas will benefit most from the scheme because it directs resources where they are needed most. My constituents are looking forward to the scheme getting under way in April and preparations for it are well advanced. Does my hon. Friend agree that this policy proves the Government's commitment to social justice and economic efficiency?

Mr. Robinson

Indeed. It is a £3½ billion project that will last for four years—unlike some of the tinpot schemes that were dreamt up by the Conservatives when they were in government. My hon. Friend will also be pleased to know that the gateway programme targets specifically particular pockets of unemployment in otherwise relatively prosperous areas. That is one of the scheme's innovations that will make it a success.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

How can the Paymaster General plausibly promote a welfare-to-work programme that involves cutting welfare to the poorest people and raising taxes for ordinary savers while, at the same time, he is dodging taxes through the use of an offshore trust that he now admits that he controls? If the Paymaster General wants to retain a shred of credibility for himself and the programme, he should belatedly make a full disclosure about how his welfare is being looked after and how his windfall is being protected by the use of an offshore tax-avoiding trust, which the Labour party said before the election that it was committed to removing.

Mr. Robinson

The right hon. Gentleman seeks to hide the fact that the Tory party opposed the money and voted against the programme. I am pleased to say that many Opposition Members are now taking a positive interest in the programme and are playing a positive role. However, the right hon. Gentleman seeks to hide the fact that he voted against the measure. While the Opposition will the end, they refuse to vote the means.

Mr. Alan W. Williams

Does the Minister agree that the welfare-to-work programme not only tackles poverty but, by expanding the available work force, increases the capacity of the economy and will play a very important role in tackling inflation in a much more positive and beneficial way than by raising interest rates, for example?

Mr. Robinson

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The welfare-to-work programme will play a particularly important role in Wales. As to the question of skills shortages and the tightening of the labour market generally, all sectors of British industry firmly support the programme because they have begun to see that it could be the smart way of easing existing skills shortages.

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