§ Mr. Nellist
To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many 16 and 17-year-olds are currently disqualified from benefit for not taking up the offer of a place on a youth training scheme; and if he will make a statement.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mrs. Gillian Shephard)
None is disqualified, because the question of disqualification does not arise in the case of a 16 or 17-year-old.
§ Mr. Nellist
Is it not a fact that in the 12 months to September, 15,400 16 and 17-year-olds had to apply for income support on special grounds of severe hardship, because they had been disqualified by not having a YTS place, and that 5,230 were rejected and have no benefit at all? When will the Government end this period of economic conscription to YTS through denial of benefit? If the youth training scheme offered a guaranteed job at decent allowances and a genuine future for teenagers there would be no need for the legal theft of putting thousands of teenagers into penury.
§ Mrs. Shephard
The Government consider that it is the best possible start for young people to obtain a training place on YTS and to benefit from the allowances associated with it, and 400,000 young people throughout the country are currently doing just that. I remind the hon. Gentleman that there are many vacant places on training schemes which should make it possible for young people to find an appropriate training place. The hon. Gentleman's point about severe hardship proves the need for the scheme introduced by the Government to cope with young people who for one reason or another were obliged to wait for a training place or who fell into some kind of difficulty. The hon. Gentleman will also recall that some categories of young people receive income support because for one reason or another they cannot benefit from a YTS place.
§ Mr. Baldry
We all welcome our hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box. Does she agree that there can be no possible justification for 16 or 17-year-olds not being either in full-time education or in full-time training? At a time when jobs will increasingly go to those who are skilled and qualified, it is criminal to deny those between 16 and 17 and up to the age of 19 opportunities for the best possible 462 education and training. Is it not depressing that some people in the Labour party seem to want some kind of lumpenproletariat to continue?
§ Mrs. Shephard
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I repeat that it is the Government's view that the best possible start for young people is to continue in education, to get a job, or to take advantage of the youth training scheme. As I have said, 400,000 young people are currently doing just that.
§ Mr. Flynn
We welcome the hon. Lady to her new post with warmth and sincerity. I recall that when she was a Back Bencher she spoke about this issue in Committee. It is disappointing that her reply does not reflect the concern that she expressed then. Has the Minister read the recent report by the citizens advice bureaux which makes it clear that the changes made in July are having no effect and tells a bleak story of growing numbers of young people at the most vulnerable time of their lives having the problems of poverty unnecessarily heaped on them? There are stories of young pregnant girls who have no chance of taking part in a YTS scheme because of their pregnancy but who can get no income support and are left without any money at a time when diet is so important. There are also stories of family break-ups because there is no income in the family.
The CAB confirms, as an independent body, that this is Government-sponsored poverty—it cannot be blamed on anybody else—because the Government have not only greatly increased the number of young people in hardship, but have intensified their suffering and destitution. The Salvation Army confesses that it cannot cope and the Church of England Children's Society says that there are 98,000 children without hope. Everyone else can see that this is a growing problem. When, in the name of pity, will the Government see it?
§ Mrs. Shephard
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. The CAB report makes six recommendations, all of which can be fully answered by my Department. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the case of young pregnant girls. The view of the Department and of the Government is that 16 and 17-year-olds, including pregnant girls, are covered by the guarantee of a place. There is no evidence to suggest that pregnancy is an obstacle for young women who are genuinely keen to undertake training, and who are medically fit to do so. In that respect, the rule that they should work until 11 weeks before the expected confinement is in line with the rule applying to women over 18.