§ 8. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)
If he will make a statement on the work of the rapid response service for people made redundant. 
§ The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling)
The rapid response service works closely with Jobcentre Plus helping people who are affected by redundancy: 56 Jobcentre Plus pathfinder offices have already opened and are working well. Later this week, I will announce that a further 225 offices will open in the coming year, 2002–03. I shall arrange to place a list of the areas where the offices will be in the Library, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Work will write to all hon. Members with offices in their constituencies setting out the details.
§ Lawrie Quinn
I thank the many people from the rapid response service who assisted my constituents last year, when Plaxton's bus factory faced closure. Does my right hon. Friend envisage that the service will link up with agencies such as citizens advice bureaux to give debt counselling to those who face redundancy, and to help them manage associated domestic finance problems?
§ Mr. Darling
My hon. Friend's point about the rapid response service is important. It is sometimes overlooked 15 that, after redundancies are announced—last autumn, a number were indeed announced—the Employment Service and its specialist services work closely with employers to help get people back into work as quickly as possible. The Employment Service was very active when Plaxton's faced closure in his constituency.
The whole object of the new Jobcentre Plus regime. which brings benefits and job searches together under one roof, is to ensure that we can turn round people who lose their jobs as quickly as possible. I was just asked about the difficulties of the over-50s. Jobcentre Plus is a new and better way to help back into work people who, in the past, were left out and in some cases simply written off when they lost their jobs. Jobcentre Plus and the rapid response service will continue to do everything that they can to help people such as my hon. Friend's constituents.
§ Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)
Given that the number of notified compulsory redundancies is increasing quite rapidly in some parts of the country, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the rapid response service is welcome and necessary? Does he also recognise the need to do something specific about the imbalance between manufacturing and the service sector, and what has he urged the Chancellor to do in the Budget to correct the exchange rate problems and to increase industrial regional aid budgets?
§ Mr. Darling
The exchange rate issue is probably beyond the scope of this question. As I said, redundancies were announced, particularly last autumn, but the number who went back into work was encouraging. Indeed, a record number of people are in employment. That is due primarily to a strong and robust economy and to the steps taken by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, but also to the supply-side measures that we have taken. We have improved people's skills and training, reformed the Employment Service, established the new Jobcentre Plus regime and the rapid response service, and implemented a raft of measures designed to ensure that we get people who lose their jobs back into work as quickly as possible.
Coupled with a strong economy, those measures have made a big difference; it is just an awful shame that the Liberal Democrats opposed almost every provision that brought them about.
§ Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)
I know that my right hon. Friend understands the trauma that affects an individual who is made redundant, especially if he or she—Ido not want to exclude women from this ball game by any means—is in his or her 40s. Can he reassure me that the job transition service, which is currently in project form, will be universally available by April 2002, and that it will build confidence in such people so that they can face new jobs and training for new skills? That confidence is invariably missing in families who face redundancy.
§ Mr. Darling
It is important to do everything that we can to help people in their 40s or 50s who face losing their jobs. At the moment, nearly a third of people aged over 50 are out of work, and most of them depend on benefits for the majority of their income. There is no doubt that that situation is far from satisfactory. It is a legacy of the events of the 1980s, when people who lost their jobs were written off.
16 My hon. Friend asked about the job transition service and the rapid response service. We want to ensure that that help is available where it is needed. Some services, such as the Jobcentre Plus regime, will be nation wide. Measures such as the rapid response service have been taken to deal with specific circumstances; they are not intended to deal with every situation because that would not be appropriate.
I can tell my hon. Friend, however, that the idea of bringing together benefits and job searches under one roof is to get rid once and for all of the artificial distinction between those who are looking for work and those who sign on for benefits—disability benefits, lone parent benefits or any other benefits. This is a far better approach, which will build on our efforts to get more and more people into work.
My hon. Friend has the assurance that she seeks. We will do all that we can, particularly for older workers. We need to redouble our efforts in that regard, for obvious reasons given by Members on both sides of the House today and in the past.