Webchat with Yvette Cooper

yvette cooper webchatYvette Cooper, secretary of state for work and pensions, came to Mumsnet for a live webchat on 27 April 2010. This is an edited transcript of the discussion.

Yvette has been Labour MP for Pontefract, Castleford and Knottingley since 1997. She was born in Inverness in 1969, is married to Ed Balls, secretary of state for children, schools and families, and they have three children (two daughters and one son).

Family policies | Pensions | Benefits | Job Centre Plus | Election | Disability | Self-employment | Pension tax relief | Flexible working

YvetteCooper: Hello. Thank-you very much for the invitation today - and to Mumsnet for tea, biscuits and very calm lovely offices in between hectic campaign visits. I will try to answer as many questions as my typing will let me.

Letter Qilovemydogandmrobama: Oooh! I like her, but am confused. Dept of Work and Pensions is the old Dept of Employment? And isn't it Ed Ball's dept that is Families and Schools?

Letter AYvetteCooper: Yes you are right that Ed is Secretary of state for schools and families -- but I've always thought every department and every spokesperson should talk about families. Certainly work and pensions should. (And Ed, unsurprisingly, is used to me talking about families for so many reasons).


Family policies

Letter Qherbietea: This is part of what you said today "Ms Cooper said Labour wanted to help all children, not just some." You don't help my children.  My children are teenagers and there has been no help for families with teenagers since Labour got into power. I have to pay VAT on their PE kits and school shoes (as well as all their civvie clothes) and not one MP has stepped up to the mark and tackled this. Where are the Youth Centres? There isn't one around here. I am sick and tired of the Labour Party focusing all their 'family policies' around toddlers and maternity/paternity pay and leave. The family unit goes further than that and it is a pity that you can not see that.

Letter Qboffinmum: I agree with Herbie. The teen years are the toughest, yet childcare and family support fizzle out at exactly this stage. Apart from patronising parenting classes for the truly dysfunctional referred to clinics.

Letter AYvetteCooper: To herbietea and boffinmum, You're right that we focused particularly today on plans in Labour's manifesto for a toddler tax credit and a Father's month (a month's flexible paid leave for new dads). That's partly because before 1997 there was pretty much no support for the under 5s at all -- and given that its such an important time in families lives, I think Sure Start and child care help have been vital and shouldn't be cut back. But as the mother of a preteen I am predictably increasingly keen on helping families with teenagers too. We've substantially increased support for youth centres and youth activities in the last couple of years -- including £11m more in Youth Community Action, and £270m for new state-of-the-art youth centres which are underway. Parents of teenagers also get child tax credits too.

Letter Qherbietea: Why do you persist with the pledge of 'increasing toddler tax credits' when the country is nearly bankrupt? This is a luxury and when you are skint you can't afford luxuries. It makes no sense to me, and perhaps it might go some way as to explain why the Conservatives and Lib Dems are ahead of you in the polls.

Letter Qgingercat: I am a part-time working mother-of-one. Retirement is not an option for our generation, I realise that, so I am more interested in childcare at the minute. I know everybody always complains about this, but it is a big hindrance to equal opportunities at the workplace and in life. Nursery places are so expensive that we can only afford to have one child, otherwise I would have to give up work, go on benefits, etc - which I would never willingly do. We live in the North, so job opportunities are few and far between. As a result, my husband cannot really reduce his hours, and I am quite grateful to have found any part-time job requiring a degree at all.

Letter AYvetteCooper: Gingercat and Herbietea we are pledging in our manifesto to increase tax credits for 1 and 2 year olds by £4 a week -- because that's when parents and especially mothers often want to work part time or stay at home with the children and so face extra costs. We're paying for it by some reforms to the benefit system which we set out in the Budget and will save around £200m a year. 


Letter QLeninGrad: What needs to happen to get more women to make their own pension provision? 
What was the thinking behind reducing the number of qualifying years needed for a State Pension to 30? (Great move, especially for women, but how is it affordable?).

Letter Qmmrsceptic: I gave up work to look after the children. I'll have a ten year gap in my NI contributions. So what happens to my pension? It shouldn't be reduced, I worked really hard in that time. How am I affected?

Letter AYvetteCooper: mmrsceptic and leningrad asked about the pension changes. We have changed the rules from this April so that people only need 30 years contributions to get a full state pension. For a hundred years there has been a deep rooted inequality in the state pension between men and women, because too many women were penalised for time spent looking after kids or elderly relatives. These changes help turn that round. But we're also reforming the Home Responsibilities Protection to make it more generous for mums staying at home. More info available on directgov.


Letter QBongobaby: I would like to ask why labour sit back and happily dole out benefits to single mums. So that they can support their kids. It's simple maths really. Make the fathers pay their way. And the dismally huge benefits bill wouldn't be so large. And a burden on the taxpayer!

Letter AYvetteCooper: Single parents get help because it can be tough bringing up kids on your own and we shouldn't leave children in poverty. But we have changed the rules so that single parents with children over 7 are expected to look for work in school hours and are expected to prepare for work during nursery and school hours once the kids are 3. But I agree with you that absent fathers should pay their way and latest figures from CMEC show that almost 75% of non residential parents are doing just that. I think the important thing is to support all families and all children -- which is why i strongly disagree with the Tories married couples plans, which bizarrely rewards fathers who leave their children and remarry.

Job Centre Plus

Letter QMumcentreplus: Hi Yvette, as a DWP employee and 'proud' you came to visit my JCP earlier this year. I would love to see JCP breaking down barriers for the unemployed, not just passing them on to providers that take 13-19 wks to achieve [or not] what can be done in a couple of weeks!. It’s money wasted -  SIA cards, CSCS cards, Passports, Fork-lift/PCO licenses, training etc readily available for more people at the advisor’s discretion. Also more encouragement of the appreciation for what civil servants do. We work hard and try our best…We want to make Britain a place of inspiration, education and employment and I think we are short changed in this regard.

Letter QNinthWave: Please don't make me redundant if you win the election. Nervously, a JCP employee.

Letter Qonadietcokebreak: When are government departments actually going to be allowed/able to practice the family friendly policies? I’m talking JCP Processing centres. Flexi time has been eroded. Part time working requests result in an intense battle that damages any further promotion changes...term time working is laughed at as unworkable.

Letter AYvetteCooper: Quite a few questions on Job Centres and private providers. To mumscentrepuls, onadietcokebreak and NinthWave - thanks for the work that you are doing. Job Centre Plus has done an amazing job during the recession - coping with more people coming through the door and getting people back to work much faster than in the 80s and 90s. It's a significant part of the reason why unemployment is around half a million lower than everyone expected this time last year and around half the level of previous recessions.

It's true that we use private providers for different contracts to help people get back to work. The Flexible New Deal does pay contractors by results - they actually get most of the money once people are in jobs. That's new. I don't think Job Centre Plus should try to do everything when there are private providers or voluntary sector providers who can also make a real difference getting people into jobs. But I think the Conservatives are wrong to think that Job Centres should cut back and pass almost everything to private providers. Job Centres have been doing a great job. But I think we should give advisers much more discretion and flexibility to do what they think will make most difference to get people jobs.


Letter QOttavia: Hi Yvette, I've noticed there's a concerted Tory campaign to oust Ed (your dh) from his seat - they're aiming for a Portillo moment, they say and have raised quite a lot of money for the Conservative candidate standing in your dh's constituency. It must feel really weird and personal to see your husband targeted in this way - does it make you really hate the Tories?

Letter QEwe: I am always intrigued by couples who work alongside each other, especially doing what you do at this time of year! The fact that Ed is hotly tipped for a Portillo moment this year can only make it worse.

Letter AYvetteCooper: To Ottavia and Ewe, there is a lot of Ashcroft and other money helping Conservative candidates in lots of constituencies. There's also a lot of spin coming from the Conservatives about which constituencies they are targeting. Ed's been running a strong local campaign for a long time - the Conservative candidate hasn't. I don't think you can just flush a constituency with cash at the last minute and expect to be taken seriously.

Letter QEwe: It feels as though Labour's female hard-hitters have been virtually invisible in the core campaign - why is that? It's all so relentlessly male. I think it's an error - in an election where many seem to be finding it difficult to distinguish between the parties as they cling to the centre, this could have been a way for Labour to set themselves apart - most female MPs etc. And apart from that, it's blimmin annoying from a feminist perspective. This day and age, and all that.

Letter AYvetteCooper: I always think it’s good to have more women campaigning and talking about politics. Over half Labour's candidates in seats where MPs are retiring are women so we've been keen to get far more women involved. I think this campaign has been unusual in the much greater focus on the leaders as a result of the leaders’ debates, which does also mean the cameras have heavily followed them. But Harriet, Tessa and I and many other Labour women are campaigning as hard as we can right across the country. And today lots of Labour candidates are campaigning at school gates on our plans to increase toddler tax credits and against the Conservative and Lib Dem plans to cut them back.

Letter Q Ninebellies: I'm really hoping you won't dodge this question like every other politician seems to be doing their best to: if there were to be a hung parliament, would you serve in a government with Nick Clegg?

Letter AYvetteCooper:You are right, journalists are asking this question a lot, and most politicians are not speculating about hung parliaments and who will work with who. But there is a reason for that. The votes have not yet been cast. And it's a decision for the public not for politicians what kind of parliament we get. I think there is something presumptious about politicians speculating and planning before the election has even taken place. In the end all the parties will have to abide by voters' decisions and make it work. There are things I agree with the Liberal Democrats on - like keeping up support for the economy and not cutting it back this year. But there are things I disagree with them on - not least their plans to cut tax credits. That's why I'm campaigning for a majority Labour government.

Letter Q PeppaPigHere: Hi Yvette, Sorry I couldn't make your launch today - hoped I'd be able to come along but the Beeb put their foot down. RoaryTheRacingCar was keen to step in, but they went and locked the doors of his garage and gave him a stern lecture about BBC bias.  I'm doubly sorry because I know how tough it's been for you to get the big slebs like me to turn out during the campaign. Maybe if I dressed up as Elvis I could sneak past the security camera... I'm working on sourcing the white suit as we speak. Best of luck with the rest of the campaign. Rest assured we're all on your side in the Pig household (although MummyPig is quite taken with Cleggy and even I have to admit he's quite dishy don't you think?) Oink, Oink.

Letter AYvetteCooper:Thanks for your support Peppapighere I appreciate you are an international superstar with more fans than Madonna, so I guess the minders can get a bit heavy.


Letter QOttavia: What are your views on early intervention for autism? Despite your avalanche of initiatives (Early Support, every Child Matters, Together from the Start etc etc) I can tell you that nothing has changed on the ground. Local Authorities still block costly (but effective) interventions for children and drag out the SEN process until children are 5 or older. What is the point of getting an autism diagnosis at 2 if there are no services until 5? And why are you letting LA Autism Outreach teams and Special Schools pursue eclectic /TEACCH approaches for autism when all the research shows they have the least evidence to support them compared to behavioural /ABA models? Behavioural methods particularly for under 5's have been upheld again and again as the most effective. Why can't we have NICE type guidelines to set a minimum intervention level for autism eg 25 hours a week (as in USA) and 10,000 hours in 2 years (as in Australia)? Surely deciding on expensive (but in the long term probably economically sensible) autism programmes should have national guidelines not be left to local councils? Why is only 3% of autism research money spent on assessing intervention treatments? What parents want more than anything else is effective evidence based treatment.

Letter AYvetteCooper: I'm sorry no one has answered your question about autism before. I won't pretend to be an expert on different autism interventions but i do strongly agree with you that early diagnosis and intervention is vital. I think Treehouse are doing some really good work on the ABA programme -- including research and evaluation on how it works in the UK. And i think NICE guidelines are a good opportunity to improve standards -- they are in development at the moment.


Letter QHousewifeOfOrangeCounty: I started a small self employed business a couple of years ago that I had to fold due to childcare costs. Why are the self employed not able to claim childcare against tax? I wasn't making loads of money, but enough to give us more disposable income as a family - say to have a lovely holiday every year.  Many women are looking for the holy grail - the career that fits around school hours, but unfortunately it rarely exists. Therefore if I want to work my three children have to go to an after school/holiday club. Making these costs tax deductable would have made a big difference to me and would have enabled me to continue working (and paying tax).

Letter AYvetteCooper: Hello HousewifeofOrangeCounty. We have increased support for children - spending, I think, over £25bn in early years and childcare since 1997. But you are right, there isn't anything specific to the self employed. You can still get free child care for 3 and 4 year olds and depending on your income the child care tax credit too. We're keen to increase the amount of free child care for 3 and 4 year olds and make it more flexible, as well as to steadily increase free child care for 2 year olds as well.

Pension tax relief

Letter QRunningwithscissors: Are the reductions of tax relief on pension contributions for high earners a matter of Labour party principle, and therefore expected to remain permanently, or is this something tht you would hope to reverse when the economy recovers?

Letter AYvetteCooper: On pensions tax relief the Chancellor hasn't set out any plans to reverse the change. Given that those on the very highest income and with the highest pension contributions also get far, far more in tax relief on their pension contributions than everyone else, Ii think this is a sensible and fair long term change -- which also helps us raise revenue when its needed for the public finances.

Flexible working

Letter QCaptainNancy: I would like to know how you personally think more women can become involved in politics whilst caring for their families? Do you feel that your children have missed out at all, particularly as both their parents are in that business?

Letter AYvetteCooper: Captain Nancy asked about women, politics and caring for children. I think it can be hard to balance any job with looking after children -- and I've always thought some of the hardest jobs are actually those which involve shift patterns, like doctors or police, rather than politicians. Westminster isn't a very family friendly place still -- though its a lot better than it was twenty years ago. And it can be harder for women journalists, or staff that work there than for MPs. We do need to go much further with reforms -- including on the hours. Travelling to and fro each week on the train with the whole family can be a challenge too -- especially at the potty training stage! Ed and I have only been able to manage because of my Mum -- who has been a real lifeline, and is looking after our children again tonight.


Letter QOttavia: What's Ed's worst habit (not including talking on his mobile while driving)?

Letter AYvetteCooper: Hogging the telly all Saturday afternoon and walking very fast through stations and crowded places so neither i nor the kids can keep up, and I'm always afraid one of them will get lost, but he does do all the cooking.... (Justine says I should answer another question and not get distracted by too long a list).

YvetteCooper: Sorry I couldn't get through all the questions. There were some detailed questions about individual benefits entitlements where more information should be available through the DWP helplines or direct gov. Thank-you very much for all the comments and sorry my typing wasn't faster. Justine is now explaining to me how to come up with my "Tory Candidate's name": Anthony Wigeons-Benham!

Last updated: 7 months ago