Page last updated at 01:23 GMT, Monday, 22 December 2008

Unemployment: Your questions answered

Employment minister Tony McNulty MP
Employment Minister Tony McNulty answers your questions
As part of a series on Britain's jobless, the BBC has put some of your questions to Employment Minister Tony McNulty.

Redundancies are rising and unemployment is regularly in the headlines, having reached an 11-year high at 1.82 million last month and increased again - to 1.86 million - last week.

The government is planning to introduce new measures that would force more benefit claimants to prepare for work or face losing payments.

Here Tony McNulty responds to some queries posted by BBC News website readers.

Do you think that if unemployment gets too high a four-day week will work? Should this be something the government should be looking at? Do you think it will work? If not what do you think will work should unemployment get very bad?
Rob Lalor, Edinburgh, UK

TONY McNULTY MP: Decisions on working hours are for individual businesses to make. But we believe it's important that even during a downturn companies find ways of keeping their skilled staff. Once the upturn comes and the economy improves they will need their skilled staff to help them recover quickly. Currently, some companies such as Honda are finding ways to keep hold of their staff by offering sabbaticals and reducing the days of the working week.

What are you going to do about the construction industry. We are losing thousands of jobs per week, but as usual nobody cares about the self-employed
Andy Bell, Gloucester, UK

I was unemployed from July to the end of November, and have recently started my new job. After accepting a job offer, I was told that I wouldn't receive any benefits/financial support for going back to work as I hadn't been unemployed for long enough, even though I would only get paid at the end of the month.

This seemed to me to be an incentive to remain unemployed for longer, so I would qualify for extra money. I didn't, thanks to financial support from my family. How can you think about tackling unemployment and benefit fraud when there is no incentive to go back to work, and when we do return to full time employment we have to struggle financially?
Laura McGhee, St Helens, UK

TONY McNULTY MP: I think you make a very fair point, Laura, and it is something we will keep under review. The government has improved in-work incomes, improved financial incentives to work and tackled poverty among working age people through the National Minimum Wage and Working Tax Credits. Good luck in your new job.

How is the minister reforming welfare to make people who have been out of work, say with HIV, and find it difficult to get work because of stigma and needs arising from disability? I understand the Jobcentre only has an intranet for guidance, with no training in the needs of people with HIV - so your team at the DWP tell me.
John, Fulham, UK

TONY McNULTY MP: Jobcentre Plus decision-makers get independent, accurate and authoritative medical advice from approved healthcare professionals. These professionals are trained to provide advice on the effects of any disability or condition. The training includes material on HIV/AIDS.

More generally, while the vast majority of employers don't deliberately discriminate against disabled people, too many still perceive that employing a disabled person may carry additional risks for their organisation. So whilst we are making encouraging progress, we still have work to do to demonstrate to employers that employing disabled people really does not carry such risks and that there are many advantages and opportunities to be gained from a more diverse workforce. Once in work, disabled people are often very loyal employees who have less time off sick. I do accept, though, that we have some ways to go with some employers.

What is the purpose of raising the pressure on benefit claimants when the current job market is practically non-existent?
John, Portsmouth, UK

I suffer from severe narcolepsy. As a result, I fall asleep at random, cannot commit to deadlines, my short-term memory is impaired, and I am considered 'unemployable'. However, I have made myself useful, by spending many hours a week volunteering my time to a local charity.

Should benefit laws change, would my existing volunteer work be taken into consideration, or would I be forced into some form of menial 'job', thereby leaving the charity at a severe disadvantage? Has any investigation been done into what the impact will be, if [people like me] are forced to stop volunteering, in order to satisfy the recent proposals? Or, will the volunteering be considered adequate to meet the new criteria?
Gary, Hastings, UK

TONY McNULTY MP: Our proposals for Work for your Benefit relate to people receiving Jobseeker's Allowance. I would completely agree that volunteering serves a very useful and valuable purpose and can have many advantages for those out of work, as well as the wider community. It can help keep them keep in touch with the labour market as well as offering opportunities to obtain skills and experience. As happens now, people receiving incapacity benefits, or the new Employment and Support Allowance, can continue to carry out voluntary work without their benefit being affected.

However, Gary, where an individual is capable of work, we believe there must be a proper balance between allowing benefit recipients to pursue voluntary activity while at the same time encouraging them to retain a clear focus on moving off welfare into paid employment.

What are you going to do about the construction industry? We are losing thousands of jobs per week, but as usual nobody cares about the self-employed.
Andy Bell, Gloucester, UK

TONY McNULTY MP: I appreciate these are difficult times for those working in construction, as in many other industries across the economy. We are acutely conscious that individuals are facing the loss of their job and their income, and the uncertainty of how they are going to replace it. The government is doing everything it can to support those who become unemployed, across all industries, back into work as quickly as possible, with extra help and support available through Jobcentre Plus.

We are looking at bringing public expenditure forward so that we can spend money now to help the construction sector, and others, through the downturn. Also, Andy, my father and brother are self-employed builders so I do understand the difficulties.

As some workers are being asked to take a pay cut, would you be willing to donate your salary to charity until the economy picks up, say in 2016? If you are confident in the government fiscal policy then this would be a gesture you would surely make.
David Noble, Derby, UK

TONY McNULTY MP: David, my job is to do all I can to make sure that Jobcentre Plus is ready to help those who lose their jobs. I think your pessimism over 2016 is not right at all.

I have obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety and severe depression, I have worked almost all my working life but my mental health deteriorated to the extent where I became suicidal and I went on to benefits. I aim to get better if I can and get back into some sort of work. However, I find the proposed welfare reforms terrifying and worry that if I don't satisfy the criteria for my benefits I will be forced into unsuitable labour or even left without any financial support. Will this be the case?
Steve Harrild, Westgate, UK

I am 'punished' if I need to retrain. It is a catch-22 situation, how can you justify this?
Aldwyn Jenkins, Ebbw Vale, Gwent

TONY McNULTY MP: I am very sorry to hear about your ongoing health problems. I am very impressed by your determination to get work. I would like to reassure you that you will not be forced into work. If you are assessed as being able to work we will give you the personalised help and support you need.

Our reforms are not about forcing people on incapacity benefits into jobs or into work-related activity which would be detrimental to their health. Through our welfare reforms we are endeavouring to provide support for people to be able to help themselves, so that they can move from dependence on benefits to self-sufficiency and a more fulfilled life. We are setting out to help people, not penalise them.

What is the purpose of raising the pressure on benefit claimants when the current job market is practically non-existent? Should the first priority not be creating more jobs?
Jon, Portsmouth, UK

TONY McNULTY MP: In previous slowdowns government has made the mistake of easing the benefit regime and allowing people to drift into inactivity, leaving them ill-prepared to take advantage when the economic recovery came. It is key that this time we keep people attached to the labour market. Moreover, there still are jobs out there: in the last month Jobcentre Plus has taken an average of around 10,000 new vacancies every working day. Conditionality is focused on getting people ready to work, not forcing them into jobs.

Having been made redundant I now earn the basic rate of pay of 5.73 per hour as a support worker, on a zero contract with a private limited company. My experience over the past three months, supporting people with disabilities, has brought to light the reality that the number of public sector workers involved with each client must be costing millions of pounds.

What is the REAL cost of the plan to get [disabled] people back to work, bearing in mind the public sector workers currently employed in this service provision for the disabled? Presently small private firms must tender for the new contracts by the end of the year - how many more people will become unemployed? Has this been factored into the decision, and at what cost?
Janet Richardson, Bo'ness, West Lothian

TONY McNULTY MP: We recognise that some disabled people need specialist support to find a job and also, to retain employment. We offer a wide range of support including support workers, adaptation to premises, help with travelling to work. However, we believe more can be done, and are introducing reforms from October 2010 which will offer improved help for disabled people who need support.

I have just been made redundant. I am eligible for a grant of up to 3,500 to retrain but if I take this training I will have my benefits stopped (60.50 a week, how do you expect anyone to live on this amount?) so I am 'punished' if I need to retrain. It is a catch-22 situation; how can you justify this?
Aldwyn Jenkins, Ebbw Vale, Gwent

TONY McNULTY MP: I'm sorry to hear that you have lost your job. Benefits can be affected when a person receives an income for personal support costs, but not usually when a grant covers the costs of training provision.

We are doing all we can to help people who lose their jobs. I have promised that people will get to see an expert Personal Jobcentre Plus Adviser who can support them; they will have access to a wide range of jobs and get help with CV writing and completing job applications forms. Where necessary, they will get help with skills advice and retraining. And they can also receive help with their mortgage.

I would advise you to make an appointment with Jobcentre Plus to get some advice on your specific issue and to see what other support you can get, or send me further details and I will make sure you get full advice and the right answers.

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