Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 502: debated on Monday 7 December 2009

Today, the Secretary of State for Health and I announced a number of publications on mental health conditions and employment. Because of the devastating impact that mental health can have on people and their families, we know that it also costs the economy between £30 billion and £40 billion in lost production, sick pay, NHS treatment and unemployment. We want to do more not only to help people—and their families—who have mental health conditions, but to improve their employment chances, because that is good for the economy, as well as for such individuals and their families. Later this week, the Department will publish its back to work White Paper, with extra help for young people and others who are struggling to find work.

But does the Secretary of State recall the parable of the 10 wise and foolish virgins? Would it not have been wiser for the Government to have prevented the £3 billion worth of benefit fraud and overpayment each year, rather than to set up yet another taskforce, which is foolishly 12 years’ too late?

The hon. Lady will realise that the Government have done a huge amount of work to reduce fraud and overpayments. The progress that we have made has been hugely important, but we want to go further, so it is right that we look both throughout the government and in the private sector at how we can go further and build on the very considerable progress that has already been made.

A constituent of mine, who was successfully helped back into work by the new deal for lone parents, found herself within 3p of losing her carer’s allowance when the minimum wage went up in October. What work is the Department doing to synchronise minimum wage rises with the earnings threshold for carer’s allowance?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and we are looking at what more can be done to help carers who are often very keen to work, even if they are able to do so for only a limited number of hours, so that they can combine such work with their caring responsibilities. That is one of the issues that we have looked at as part of the back to work White Paper—how we do more to support carers and parents who need more flexible work. I am happy to talk further to my hon. Friend about that issue and the concerns of her constituent.

May I tell the Secretary of State of a constituent who came to see me on Saturday morning? His partner died on 8 September, and he is having tremendous problems getting the child benefit and tax credits that should be paid over to him. He is in desperate straits, and so are his children—obviously suffering the terrible loss of their mother. If I give the Secretary of State’s office the details, will she ensure that the situation is sorted out by Christmas?

I can say that I will look into this immediately. If the right hon. Gentleman gives me the details today, I will get my office on to it straight away. It is important that people are provided with rapid support at a very difficult time. We are trying to work right across government so that, particularly in cases of bereavement, it is possible for people to tell not only our Department but any other area of government, just once, about what has happened so that all areas of government concerned can work together to provide that support rapidly. I am very sorry to hear of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent’s case.

T2. This morning, together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, I had the pleasure of attending a youth impact project run by Charlton Athletic community trust in partnership with CARE—the Charlton Athletic race equality project. The project works with NEETs—people not in education, employment or training—and it has had a high success rate. We heard some very moving stories from young people who had been through the project. The funding for this successful project comes to an end in March, and it is looking for funding to take the project forward. May I urge the Secretary of State to enter into negotiations with such projects in order to get secure funding? (304087)

I am very encouraged to hear the stories of how successful Charlton Athletic is being in engaging with young people in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Last week, I was at Stamford Bridge to take part in the launch of the premier league Into Work initiative, which is trying to do similar things. It might be worth Charlton’s linking up with the premier league and Richard Scudamore on that work.

I am happy to discuss funding with my hon. Friend to see whether there is any more that we can do.

T5. Given the exchanges that we have had on Questions 4, 11 and 18, and the Government’s attempts to suggest that nobody who is on existing benefits will suffer, can the Minister give the equivalent promise that those in future need will have equivalent benefits in cash? (304090)

The hon. Gentleman knows that we have a Green Paper, on which we are consulting, to provide—[Interruption.] To answer the sedentary question, the problem is that we have an ageing population with increasing demands, and we need to find solutions in order to meet those demands. We have a Green Paper, which we are consulting on, and we are listening carefully to what people have to say. We need to ensure that those who are most vulnerable—those in the greatest need—[Interruption] If the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) would listen, I repeat that those in the greatest need require support and care, but all she is doing is scaremongering about elderly people in a vulnerable situation. We will come forward with a national care service that will be popular and will meet the needs of future generations, whereas the Conservatives have a blank sheet of paper and can offer nothing other than—

T7. The future jobs fund has the potential to provide 134 new jobs in my area after the Conservative-controlled local authority submitting bids to the fund. However, can the Minister help me with a dilemma—namely, how does the position of my local authority square with the position of the Conservative party? (304092)

My hon. Friend knows that the future jobs fund is creating jobs in the Dumfries and Galloway council area in gardening, community development and customer services. I take on board his comments in welcoming it. As for how it squares with the policy of the Conservative party centrally, it does not. The Conservatives opposed the investment, and the borrowing that financed it, which has been spent on the future jobs fund. Without that investment put in by this Labour Government, my hon. Friend would not have those 91 jobs in his constituency.

T6. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that poverty, unemployment and repossessions started to rise as early as 2004? (304091)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that as a result of the support that we have put in, particularly for those who are at risk of losing their mortgages, the number of repossessions has in fact been considerably lower than people expected at the beginning of the recession. That has helped a lot of families who had lost their jobs and were at risk of losing their homes to stay in their homes and to get additional support, whether from their local council, from the Government, or from their mortgage company. That has been helpful, and it means that we have not been turning our backs on people as the hon. Gentleman’s party did in the early ’90s.

T8. Despite resistance from the official Opposition, the Access to Work scheme has proven extremely successful in either getting disabled people back to work or getting them the benefits that they are entitled to. However, there remains a problem for people with autism in trying to get back into work or get their benefits. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State meet representatives from the National Autistic Society to explore whether the difficulties can be solved? (304093)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his commitment to working with people with autism and all disabilities. We seek to provide more opportunities to get into work, and disabled people have seen employment levels rise by about 10 per cent. in recent years, assisted by Access to Work, for which we are doubling the resources to about £138 million, helping about 34,000 people. However, we do need to do more to help people with autism, and I will be pleased to meet him and representatives of the NAS to discuss how we might make Access to Work more flexible and tailor-make it for people such as he refers to.

T9. Despite promises of action back in October, Ministers have continued happily to pay for a family of Afghans to live in a seven-bedroom, £1 million townhouse in west London. Will they now offer the same right to homeless ex-British soldiers living on the streets of London? (304094)

As I said in answer to an earlier question, the number of people being paid exceptionally high levels of local housing allowance, which I agree are not acceptable, is very small indeed. We will bring forward proposals to tackle the problem in our consultation document on housing benefit, but the hon. Gentleman sheds no light whatever on the matter by suggesting that it is somehow to do with immigration.

On 1 November 2008, the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission took over the Child Support Agency, which had a woeful record of using its enforcement powers. Can the Minister tell me, if not today then later, how many driving licences were removed in each of the past five years? Was that power ever used?

I am sorry, but I cannot give my hon. Friend that information immediately. I will have to write to him. As he knows, that is an additional power that we are using to get more non-paying, non-resident parents to pay the maintenance that they owe their children.

T10. I sat down at the weekend to help a constituent fill out an application for disability living allowance, and I was appalled at the length and complexity of the form. Have Ministers ever tried filling one out for themselves? If so, what suggestions do they have for making the process far less lengthy and complex? (304095)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will appreciate the competing demands in any benefit form. On one hand we must get the right information, and on the other we want to ensure that there is no fraud and mitigate against appeals, which we want to reduce. We have recently revised the DLA form for children, which has been welcomed by a number of children’s organisations. We keep all benefits under review and work in partnership with a range of organisations that advise us, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and his constituent understand those competing demands.

In a few moments we will hear more about smarter government. The Department is leading the Government’s “Tell us once” programme, which reduces the number of times individuals have to contact Government to tell them about changes that have affected them. How is it going?

The “Tell us once” initiative has been very effective, bringing together a number of agencies. For example, there has been some excellent work on bereavement in particular, especially children’s bereavement, by St. Guy’s and St. Thomas’s hospital and Lambeth council. We want that successful initiative, which reduces bureaucracy and eases people’s pain, to be expanded, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be satisfied with the responses on it that come forward.

Will the Secretary of State be able to offer any Christmas cheer to those of my pensioner constituents who are victims of Equitable Life?

The hon. Gentleman will know that Judge Chadwick is currently reviewing the circumstances of many people who were affected by Equitable Life, and that there are a lot of problems for a lot of pensioners who have been badly affected. The Government have said that additional support should be given, and we are waiting for Judge Chadwick’s response.