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Work and Pensions

Volume 514: debated on Monday 19 July 2010

The Secretary of State was asked—

Work Clubs

My hon. Friend has been slightly modest with this question, because through his constituency he has been one of the pioneers of work clubs in the UK. We are looking at his experience, and we plan to announce our intention shortly to provide additional support, so that work clubs can be developed throughout the country in areas affected by unemployment.

I thank my right hon. Friend for those kind comments. Does he agree that one benefit of work clubs and job clubs is that the whole community is able help those who are out of work, while they are out of work, to get back into the world of work as speedily as possible? May I give him an undertaking that we in Banbury and Bicester stand ready to support any third sector, voluntary or other group—anywhere in the country, but particularly in the inner cities—that is trying to set up work clubs or job clubs?

My hon. Friend’s offer will be extremely welcome throughout the country. There are a small number of other clubs in operation, but we want to see that number expand significantly. Although there is a clear role for central Government in providing support through the Work programme to get people back into work, we also want to see communities and individuals engaged in helping others who are struggling to find work, and we will do everything we can, as we unroll our plans over the next few weeks and months, to ensure that those opportunities exist.

All Members want to see as much effort as possible to help people off benefits and into work, but how much has the right hon. Gentleman estimated it will cost to cover the predicted 100,000 extra people who will be out of work because of the Budget delivered by his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

The hon. Gentleman has clearly not adequately studied the small print of all the forecasts. The reality is that by the end of this Parliament we expect to have more people in employment—significant increases in employment as a result of our approach to dealing with the deficit. The previous Government left us with a completely unaffordable deficit; they left this Government and this country in deep financial difficulties. What we had from them was a culture of irresponsibility. We will put this country back on the rails.

I call Yvette Cooper. I had thought that the right hon. Lady wanted to come in on this question.

In my constituency we have two job clubs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the biggest problems facing people looking for work is that, when they look for fairly low-paid work, they find that they are better off staying on unemployment benefit? That is a real problem.

My hon. Friend is right, and it is clearly an absurd situation when work does not pay. We have to make changes, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is leading an effort to address that problem. In this country we have to ensure that work pays, and that we do everything possible to help people off benefit dependency and back into the workplace.

Pensioners

3. What assessment he has made of the likely effect on pensioners of his proposed changes to the welfare system. (8928)

Since the general election a number of changes have been announced to benefits and pensions. The most significant for pensioners was our decision, after 30 years of decline in the pension’s real value, to restore the earnings link with the basic state pension.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but he is well aware that the earnings link will not help pensioners as of January, when they start to pay their increased VAT. That increase amounts to almost £8 billion over the life of a Parliament, so when will the hon. Gentleman stick by his party’s promise during the general election campaign to fight any VAT rise? What will he do to protect those elderly people who, through no fault of their own, will be left with enormous debts, thanks to this Government?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that the country’s structural deficit is now more than £12 billion larger than it was thought to be at the election. I do not know where he would have got that £12 billion from. As for pensioners, not only will we ensure that we restore the earnings link, but in April 2011 the full value of the cash increase in the state pension will go through to the poorest pensioners on pension credit.

Does the Minister agree that if the pensions in payment today had been linked to the consumer prices index rather than to the retail prices index for the past 20 years, pensions would be 14% lower than they are now? Does not the proposed shift in the definition of price indexation represent a huge raid on pension benefits, which gets worse and worse as time goes on and makes all current and future pensioners poorer?

It pains me to suggest that the hon. Lady is being selective in her use of statistics, but if she looks at the increase in pensions as a whole—the basic state pension and additional pensions—she will see that we have linked the basic state pension to earnings, which over the course of 20 years, for a typical person retiring this year, will add £15,000 in extra state pension compared with price indexation, which was the policy of her Government.

In a written statement, the Minister said that the Government would force occupational pensions to be linked to the consumer prices index instead of the retail prices index. What powers do they have, or will they have, to take to make that happen?

I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions for her question, as this matter has not been well understood. Statute provides a floor above which occupational pension schemes have to operate. In other words, we will not force occupational pension schemes to cut their increases; we simply provide a floor, which used to be linked to the RPI and is now linked to the CPI. Schemes remain entirely free to go beyond that if they wish.

Industrial Injuries

4. What discussions he has had with the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council on industrial injuries linked to the mining industry. (8929)

Ministers have had no discussions with the IIAC about industrial injuries linked to the mining industry. However, my colleague Lord Freud is planning to meet the IIAC chairman and the council shortly to discuss their work.

In 2008 a report by the IIAC concluded that activities linked to the mining industry, such as kneeling under heavy loads, doubled the risk of suffering osteoarthritis of the knee. The activities described in the report apply as much to tin miners as to coal miners, but because the report made no specific reference to tin mining, former tin miners in Cornwall are being denied compensation. Will the Minister review the scope of that report to ensure that tin miners are treated fairly?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have visited his constituency and know what an important part the mining industry has played in his local economy over the years. We all very much hope that it will have the opportunity to do so again in future. I am very sympathetic to the points that he makes. I can give him an undertaking that I will discuss the matter with Lord Freud, and we will certainly make representations on his behalf to the IIAC to see whether the issue of the tin mining industry and those who have worked in it can be addressed again.

I am delighted to hear that the Minister is sympathetic to the mining industry and miners across the country. Can he give a guarantee that there will be no cuts whatever in the industrial injuries compensation that the Government provide to those in coal mining, tin mining and every other type of mining over the next five years?

It is the goal of this Administration to protect the most vulnerable in our society, and if people have significant issues in their lives we will do everything we can to protect them. Of course, we are facing a massive economic headache left to us by the previous Government. I expect to hear Opposition Members say, “Protect, protect, protect,” to us on many occasions over the coming months, but it would not be such a challenge to do so if they had not left such an enormous mess for us to deal with.

Youth Unemployment

The Government are committed to tackling youth unemployment. Young people can access a comprehensive range of opportunities, support and advice that will help them find employment, as part of the Work programme. As we introduce that programme, it will offer integrated employment support to young people, regardless of the benefit that they claim. I recognise the work that my hon. Friend has done in her constituency among young people. The results there are good, because youth unemployment is lower than the national average and has fallen over the past year.

In my constituency, at this time of year when there is seasonal work things are not so bad, but there are up to 470 young people under 24 claiming jobseeker’s allowance at other times of the year. Can the Secretary of State clarify what measures will be taken to boost apprenticeships to give young people better life chances?

Yes, I can. As my hon. Friend knows, we made provision in the Budget for more than 50,000 new apprenticeships. It is also worth remembering that one thing that the last Government set in train, and would have introduced had they been returned, was a hike in national insurance, which would have damaged any prospect of young people in her constituency being in long-term viable jobs. There is a good story to tell, which could not have happened if we had not taken over and found savings within the budget in our first year.

Given the gap that there will be between the prevention of the rolling out of the future jobs fund and the introduction of the Work programme next year, and as apprenticeships are a devolved matter, what practical help will the Secretary of State be able to provide for my constituents, particularly the 1,300 young people who are out of work in Glasgow North East at the moment? Do the Government not need to do more to prevent an autumn, winter and spring of discontent for young people in Glasgow?

There will not be a gap, all existing programmes are being extended, and the Work programme will be applicable to all those young people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Having only just gone into opposition, he might like to reflect on the past 14 years, and the fact that when his party left office it left us with more than 1.3 million 16 to 24-year-olds not in full-time education, employment or training. That is 200,000 more than were left to the Labour party in 1997. It is a shameful record, and we do not need lectures from Labour Members about youth unemployment.

How does my right hon. Friend plan to break the cycle of intergenerational unemployment? In my constituency there are many families in which no one works. That has a devastating effect not only on those families but on their communities.

My hon. Friend asks an important question. In the past 14 years huge sums of money have been narrowly focused on different groups, and we have forgotten that in households with families, far too many are out of work. That is one reason why child poverty has been so difficult to tackle, and why we must change the system. We want to consider how to make work pay for those on the lowest incomes, and how work can be distributed more among households and less just among individuals. Most particularly, we want people to recognise that it is more important and more viable for them to be back in work than on benefits. The complicated system that the previous Government introduced, with all its different taper rates and withdrawal rates, meant that people needed to be professors of maths to figure out whether they would be better off going to work or staying on benefits. Our job is to ensure that the system is simpler and easier to understand. Unlike the previous Government, we will value households that take a risk and try to go to work.

The Secretary of State will know that many young people get fantastic help from the voluntary sector through, for example, the future jobs fund, the youth guarantee, the working neighbourhoods fund, and also through small contracts with the jobcentres to help people into work. As he is cutting those programmes by more than £1 billion, does he think that the funding from his Department for the voluntary sector to help young people and others into work will increase or decrease in the next 12 months?

I would say to the Secretary of State—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I mean the shadow Secretary of State; I nearly made a mistake there. I would say to the right hon. Lady that we will provide sufficient funds as necessary for the voluntary sector. She should know from all our previous work that the voluntary sector is a vital part of finding people work and putting them in closer touch with their local communities. She goes on about the future jobs fund, and she must understand that we are continuing with the programmes that have already been let, but getting rid of those that have not yet been let. She knows that those programmes are incredibly expensive—far more expensive than the guarantee. We simply cannot afford them, because of the mess that the previous Government left, so she must understand that we will get people back into work through ensuring that the economy is back on track, providing apprenticeships, which offer real opportunity for young people, and ensuring that the national insurance hike that she was about to make will not happen.

The right hon. Gentleman will know that the consequence of his party’s Budget is to cut, not increase, the number of jobs in the economy. He will also know that he is cutting 90,000 planned and funded jobs from the future jobs fund. He did not answer the question about whether he would increase or cut the support for the voluntary sector to help get people into work. As he well knows, the Minister in the Lords has told voluntary sector providers that they are too small to get contracts under the Work programme. The Government have quadrupled the size of the contracts, and are locking out the voluntary sector for up to seven years. Is not the truth that all the right hon. Gentleman’s talk about the big society is simply a big con, to hide cuts in jobs, in help for the unemployed and in support to get people back to work?

It is ridiculous for the right hon. Lady to stand there, two and a half months after leaving government with the finances in a total shambles, and try to lecture us about youth unemployment. [Interruption.] I remind her that in the whole time for which Labour Members were in government, there were only three years in which they reduced unemployment for 16 to 17-year-olds. Youth unemployment rose throughout 10 years, and the Labour Government left it worse than they found it. No lectures from the right hon. Lady, please; only apologies will do.

Will the Secretary of State take no lectures from the Opposition on unemployment? In Wellingborough unemployment doubled under the Labour Government.

What would my right hon. Friend have said if he had been in my office on Friday, when a constituent came in and said, “My granddaughter works very hard. She’s a single mum and she’s just getting by, but she doesn’t have a council house. The other granddaughter has given up her job and is on benefits. She has a house and is better off”? Which granddaughter is doing the right thing?

Those who take the risk and try to work and take jobs are the people whom we want to support in society. The trouble is that endlessly under the previous Government, the levels of support for those who did not take a risk or a chance were too high for them ever to take those risks. The answer is very simply this: we will value those who try, and make sure that things such as housing benefit and unemployment benefit are set at rates that do not discourage people from taking work.

Child Poverty

7. What assessment his Department has made of the effect on levels of child poverty of ending the future jobs fund; and if he will make a statement. (8932)

The future jobs fund is directed at young working-age people. It continues to provide work placements, and all existing contractual commitments are being honoured. Next year we will introduce our Work programme. This will offer integrated employment support to young people, regardless of the benefit that they claim. The programme will help them move into sustained employment rather than temporary jobs. The Government believe that that will have positive impact on child poverty, and indeed all kinds of poverty, in future. However, the recent changes made by the Chancellor in the Budget will have no overall measurable impact on child poverty in the next two years.

I hope that the Minister will agree that a decent living wage is the best way, and the most efficient means, of combating poverty. The previous Government certainly knew and understood that, and supported and helped many people back into work, not only to their benefit but to the benefit of their families and communities. Will the Minister consider the implications of unemployment for poverty? Will the Government reconsider their proposal to scrap the future jobs fund?

What the hon. Gentleman does not understand is that the future jobs fund does not guarantee a sustainable future job. I agree with him about getting people off welfare and into work. Nobody will rise out of poverty by remaining on welfare. We want to change things and to get people back into work, but we want to get people into sustainable work. That is why we announced 50,000 additional apprenticeships, and why the Work programme will be geared to getting people into long-term sustainable employment. We will do people no favours by creating artificial short-term schemes that cost a lot of money which, thanks to the previous Government, we can no longer afford.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that child poverty can also be tackled by helping people on low incomes to get into work or, if they are in work, to earn more? There was talk of a living wage under the previous Government. I am no professor of maths, but is he aware that analysis of materials published by his Department shows that a single mother with two children under 11 who earns £250 a week suffers an effective tax rate of 90% as a result of benefit withdrawal and tax changes? Is not that a broken, complicated and perverse system?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We inherited from the previous Government a system in which there are tangible disincentives to move back into work. When people do the right thing and move back into work, they often face penal rates at which they lose the money they are earning, either through loss of benefits or through increased taxation. That must change if we are to create a genuine incentive for people to do the right thing and return to the workplace.

The Government have already cut the future jobs fund, child tax credits and housing benefit, which will increase child poverty in two or three years’ time. Will the Minister tell us whether, in addition to that, his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has proposed means-testing child benefit?

I have no intention of taking any lessons from the previous Government on child poverty—[Hon. Members: “Answer the question.”] The Labour party promised to halve child poverty by 2010, but missed that target by 1 million children. Its failure on child poverty was lamentable. By contrast, this Government will take steps over the next few years to reduce child poverty and to ensure that we do the right thing by the people in this country who are at the bottom end of the income scale.

Future Jobs Fund

8. What estimate he has made of the number of jobs in Kilmarnock and Loudoun constituency supported by the future jobs fund. (8933)

As the Minister seems to have no idea about the number of young people on future jobs fund projects at the moment, perhaps he will consider coming to my constituency and speaking face to face to those young people who feel that those jobs have been downgraded by this Government’s attitude to them as unsustainable. Will he ensure that each one of those young people is in a sustainable job within the next 24 months?

I just do not think that Labour Members understand. If someone is given a six-month job under the tag of the future jobs fund, the word “future” does not apply. It is things like apprenticeships that are genuinely about the future and about creating sustainable employment. That is why this Government announced 50,000 extra apprenticeships. That is why the work programme will focus on long-term opportunities. The tragedy of the future jobs fund is that it is precisely not a future jobs fund: it is a six-month work placement, at substantial cost to the taxpayer, at the end of which—in almost all cases—there is no job. That is a tragedy, but the fund was all about the engineering of figures under the previous Government—unlike the long-term strategy under this Government.

Disabled People (Work)

Nearly half of all disabled people are already in employment. However, many more could work with the right support, and want to do so. We have announced plans to implement the Work programme, which will provide personalised help to those and other customers to return to work, and we will also ensure that there is a specialist package of provision to help the most severely disabled people.

In my constituency, people are rightly worried about relatives with severe mental health disability attending the work capability assessment. Can my hon. Friend tell us what safeguards will be put in place for those people?

The work capability assessment was, of course, developed in consultation with medical experts and disability specialist groups. There will be an annual review to ensure that any problems with the assessment are dealt with, and there has already been a Department-led review dealing with some of the issues that my hon. Friend raises in connection with people with mental health problems. Modifications will be made, especially by expanding the support group to cover people with severe disability issues, to ensure that they are not inappropriately put into groups of activity.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the outstanding work done by Treloar college in my constituency in assisting students with very severe disabilities into work through their world of work and job coaching programmes. What can the Government do to encourage more firms to partner the college in such programmes?

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the staff who work at Treloar college and to the many volunteers throughout Hampshire—including in my constituency—who fundraise to help to support the excellent work that they do. It is an important independent specialist provider which supports people with some of the most complex and profound disabilities. Other providers can learn from Treloar’s how to work in partnership with local employers to provide youngsters with severe disabilities with skills that make them employable so that they can get into work.

Despite the best efforts of the last Government, there is still anecdotal evidence that people with disabilities are being discriminated against in the workplace. Can the Minister assure the House that every step will be taken to ensure that employers responsible for discriminating against people with disabilities will face the severest of penalties?

There is some important legislation in place that will help employers to understand their responsibilities. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the fact that we are only at the beginning of a process of implementing that legislation. It is about changing cultural norms in the workplace to ensure that reasonable changes are made to help more disabled people to do the work that they want to do.

In the coalition agreement, the Government pledged to reform the access to work programme. Will the Minister tell us what the timetable for that reform will be, and can she give us an assurance that the programme will continue to be funded at the same level in real terms as the current access to work programme? Or is reform just another byword for cuts?

I am sure that the hon. Lady will be pleased to know that I have already had meetings with officials and with employers who are participating in access to work, so as to understand how we can make it work better for more disabled people. The real challenge is to ensure that the money available supports more disabled people in an effective way, so that we actually get people into work rather than leaving them languishing on benefits.

Retirement Age

10. What public consultation will be held on proposed changes to the retirement age for state pensions; and if he will make a statement. (8935)

On 24 June we published a call for evidence for plans to increase the state pension age to 66 on a more rapid time scale. The closing date for that consultation is 6 August.

There is a general understanding of the need for such a change, but those who will be affected by what will be an arbitrary date desperately need the knowledge to enable them to plan their finances, to give them certainty and security in their retirement.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and we are seeking to move as quickly as possible to reach a conclusion on the change to the age of 66, to give people the maximum notice so that they can make appropriate plans.

Notwithstanding the need to increase the age at which people draw the state pension, will the Minister and his Department look into the social class dimension? According to the latest statistics, 19% of men from the poorest social backgrounds do not survive to get their pension. Those from poorer backgrounds, who often do heavy manual work throughout their lives, die much earlier in their pension careers than those from better-off backgrounds. Will he look into the social class dimension?

The right hon. Gentleman is very knowledgeable about pensions and social issues, and he has highlighted an important matter. We specifically referred to this in the call for evidence for the change to 66. The good news is that life expectancy is increasing across all social groups, but the factor that he mentioned is an important one, and we will consider it when we examine state pension ages.

Education Leavers

11. What steps Jobcentre Plus plans to take to assist education leavers into employment and training in 2010. (8936)

All education leavers claiming jobseeker’s allowance receive help and support from a personal adviser, access to jobs and a range of employment and training opportunities. These include help with job search skills, which is very targeted and very personalised. Help is also available from partner organisations such as Connexions.

Given the previous Government’s legacy of youth unemployment, is my right hon. Friend aware of the additional problem of education leavers with criminal records seeking employment through the route of rehabilitation? What is his Department doing to give young offenders a second chance to get on the employment ladder?

I think my hon. Friend will find that the unified Work programme will be one of the better ways of tackling that issue, because it will be very narrowly focused. If we get it absolutely right, it will be narrowly focused on the needs and problems of those individuals. The previous set of programmes was too disparate; now we can focus, and we should be able to help. Another issue worth raising, although it does not come under the remit of our Department, is what remains on people’s records, and I hope that in due course we will be able to look carefully at that. People trying for that second chance sometimes find that employers say no to them simply because they have been inside, and a compassionate society should try to do something about that.

Does the Secretary of State recognise the figure of 120,000 young people who will be added to the dole queue because of cuts in Government programmes such as the future jobs fund and the long-term guarantee for jobs, as well as the cuts to university places taking place in a different Department? Does he believe that Jobcentre Plus will be able to cope with that increased Government-led demand?

I do not recognise that. The right hon. Gentleman was in a Government who completely failed to deal with youth unemployment. They ended up leaving office with higher youth unemployment than they inherited. That is not something that we want to crow about, but it is the reality. We need to do better than that, but we also face the challenge of reducing the deficit that his party’s Government left us. I recognise his interest and his compassion, but unless we put the economy right, we will not be able to exercise either.

Will my right hon. Friend look this summer particularly at the 16-year-olds who are leaving school, to make sure that the jobcentre works not just with Connexions but with the relevant parts of the youth service to provide a much more integrated and much better informed set of opinions and advice than have been offered to young people in the past? There is an urgent need for 16-year-olds to have good advice between jobs and apprenticeships and further education.

I absolutely guarantee to do that, and I will talk to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State about it. It is worth bearing in mind what a real challenge this is for us. I have to repeat that, over the past 14 years, that group particularly was most failed by the previous Government. Before they carry on giving us lectures about it, they should recognise that failure and probably apologise for it.

Given that the Secretary of State says that the Labour Government failed young people and that his policies are going to be so much better, if youth unemployment goes up, will he resign?

Unless we can get retrospective resignations from the whole pack of the last Cabinet, I do not think that I should answer that.

Work Programme

We have had a large number of representations from organisations interested in and interested to participate in the Work programme. My colleagues and I have also had a series of meetings with interested parties among the provider community and the financial community.

Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to the Skipton and Ripon enterprise initiative led by Alan Halsall, chairman of Silver Cross Prams in my constituency, which has built a network of established business owners who are voluntarily giving their time to provide advice to anyone who wants to set up a business?

I will indeed pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s constituent. As well as Government action to address the problems, we should capture the valuable experience of communities and individuals in building businesses, and use it positively to help those who are out of work. We particularly want more individuals to move off benefits into self-employment. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend’s constituent and—I hope—others around the country will be able to make a big difference to these people as they seek to build their businesses in the years ahead.

Has the right hon. Gentleman had representations from the academic behind the new benefit system, who said that

“ministers should postpone plans to move 2.5 million incapacity benefit claimants on to the new employment and support allowance… until serious errors have been rectified… To go ahead with these problems is not just ridiculous. It is, in fact, scary”?

That was said by Paul Gregg, Professor of Economics at the university of Bristol.

If one looks at what the last Government first set up with the work capability assessment, I have some sympathy with that view, and I have changed some of these things. The last Government actually expected people on chemotherapy to be judged fit for work. We moved quickly to change that, and we have also set up a review of the work capability assessment, which will report by the end of the year. I have made sure that there is a voice on that from groups that have deep and detailed knowledge of the area. For example, we have the head of Mind acting as an adviser to the review. That is how we will get it right; we will do all we can to do so.

Carer's Allowance

The Government recognise that the UK’s 6 million carers play an indispensable role in looking after family, friends and members of the community who need support. We have set out our commitment to simplify the benefit system in order to improve work incentives and to encourage responsibility and fairness. We will consider carefully the needs of carers as we develop our thinking on welfare reform.

I thank the Minister for that answer. As you will be aware, Mr Speaker, carers are the unsung heroes in our communities, many of whom work seven days a week, 24 hours a day in return for a miserly allowance of £53.90. Fairness has been mentioned, but as a result of the VAT increase in the Chancellor’s Budget, that allowance is now worth even less. What will the Minister and her Department do to correct that unfairness?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question concerning an issue that I know he cares about and puts a lot of thought into. The carers whom I have met since taking up my position feel strongly that it is not only the financial benefits and supports that are important, as they also want the ability to get into work. At the moment, one in five carers are forced to quit work rather than to carry on, as they would like to. We will therefore focus on making sure that these people get access to flexible working, personalised budgets and direct payments and, in the long term, we will have a commission for long-term care. That is how we can ensure that the support for carers is in place. There were measures in the Budget that will help to make sure that financial support is there for carers, particularly in the area of housing.

There are 21,000 carers in Medway. They do an invaluable job which is often unrecognised, but the benefits system remains incredibly complex, and many are unaware of their entitlements. What plans has the Minister to simplify the system to make it more accessible to them?

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. Carers find it incredibly difficult to navigate the benefits system. We will do all that we can to remove any disincentives preventing people from going out to work. The one thing that we will not do is implement the policy of clawing back 1.5% of carer’s allowance, as the last Government did. That is the last announcement that carers would want to hear at this time.

Work Capability Assessment

16. What recent representations he has received from Citizens Advice on the employment and support allowance work capability assessment; and if he will make a statement. (8941)

I have read carefully the report on the issue by Citizens Advice. I have had meetings with its national leadership, and have also visited local volunteers to discuss the issues with them.

The evidence from Citizens Advice on Labour’s work capability assessment is clear and damning. It states that

“people are being inappropriately subjected”

to the assessment, that it

“is not an effective measure of fitness for work”,

and that it is

“producing inappropriate outcomes.”

The perception among my constituents, however, is that the Government are responding by making the test even stiffer. Can the Minister assure me that he is taking that evidence seriously?

Absolutely. I was profoundly concerned to discover some of the things that the last Government had done. That is why we are taking steps to address some of the problems, such as the fact that people undergoing chemotherapy have been expected to go to work, which is one of the examples of actions that were completely wrong. We have also commissioned a review by a leading professor, backed up by senior figures with relevant experience of matters such as mental health. We will seek to ensure that the work capability assessment, while being right, fair and proper in the system as a whole, is judged as effectively as possible so that it does not treat unfairly people in genuine need.

I welcome the Minister’s review of the work capability assessment, which is long overdue. Two thirds of sufferers from Parkinson’s disease have been deemed fit for work. Such people suffer from a long-term, complex, debilitating but also fluctuating condition. What assurances can the Minister give that his review will ensure that future assessments are not so crude as to brand them benefit cheats?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no way on earth that we would seek to brand people in that position benefit cheats. Our job is to find the right dividing line. When it is practical to do so, we should help people with disabilities into work. There is general agreement among all the groups who work with them that that is the positive and the right thing to do. However, we must also ensure that people who are genuinely not capable of working receive unconditional support, and all the care that we can possibly provide. That is where we will seek to draw the line.

Early Intervention

17. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the development of early intervention policies. (8942)

The hon. Gentleman’s experience and knowledge of these issues is unrivalled in the Chamber, and he has sought to present them on a non-party-political basis so that we can continue to discuss them. I have had a number of discussions with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I continue to discuss the issues with him. I hope that we shall be able to make progress, preferably on a non-party-political basis.

The Secretary of State will know that early intervention to help babies, children and young people to develop socially and emotionally so that they can make the best of themselves is one of the processes that depend heavily on the bolting together of small bits of funding, which are likely to suffer most in the current economic climate. Will he talk seriously to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about exploring other means of raising sustainable funds so that early intervention can continue for a generation, which will be necessary if we are to ensure that our young people get the best out of life?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the issue of early intervention is specifically lodged with another Department, but I take an interest in it, and guarantee that I will continue to do so. I can say without fear or favour that I think it has the greatest potential to change many of the lives that we talk about—lives of worklessness and poverty, including child poverty. It is arguably one of the most significant issues in the medium to long term, and I will do my level best to ensure that it is pursued.

Poverty

The Government are committed to creating a stronger society based on the principles of freedom, fairness and responsibility. The Cabinet Committee on Social Justice will be the forum in which Ministers look at how to tackle issues around poverty. The Committee will ensure that, for the first time, Departments must thoroughly examine the overall impact of their policies, so that we can avoid unintended consequences and the poorest being hit hardest.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Last Friday, I visited the Trussell Trust food bank in my constituency, and it became clear in conversation with Chris Mould, the director, that one of the principal reasons why the charity had to make £41,000 in grants of food aid in emergency circumstances last year was that benefits had been delayed. What steps can the Minister take to assure my constituents, and those of other Members, that such delays are minimised so that acute poverty—where people need food—will not occur again during the next five years?

Delays in getting benefits to recipients are obviously critical, particularly for those whose families face the toughest circumstances. I will look into the specific points that my hon. Friend has raised, but I remind him that we are in this position, with 2.8 million children living in poverty, because the previous Government left us with a very difficult legacy, and some of these issues will take some time to address.

Topical Questions

As a society, we are living longer and healthier lives, and we need to make sure that the state pension system is sustainable and affordable in the longer term. As such, I hope that the House will take note of the review that we are undertaking into increasing the state retirement age to 66, and I would like to take this opportunity to ask Members to add their contributions to the call for evidence as and when they can, because this is an important debate.

May I ask the Secretary of State about the issue of teenage pregnancy, which, as he knows, affects many constituencies around the land? We have a very high rate compared with other countries across the world and, unfortunately, research done by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests that many young women effectively choose teenage pregnancy and having a baby as an alternative career. What is the Secretary of State’s Department going to do, in association with other Ministers, to make sure that girls have a proper sense of self-worth, and that when they do have a baby they have a chance of getting into work?

The hon. Gentleman has, not for the first time, raised a very important issue. There is no magic wand to solve this, and crucially, as he knows from when he was in government, these are not stand-alone issues. Sometimes it is very easy simply to stigmatise a group of young women and say, “It’s all your fault,” when in fact they may well themselves come from broken families where they have only witnessed their own mothers going through the same circumstances and where men have not been involved. There is a much wider set of circumstances, therefore. Of course, making work pay for such women is important, as is recognising that, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) mentioned, we need to intervene very early. Most of all we need to make sure that people are ready, trained and able to take up work and that that work pays. That will help enormously in giving them an idea that there is a life beyond just having a child on their own and that sometimes they need support.

T2. Last week I met a constituent who had been on incapacity benefit for many years. Apart from the initial medical examination, he had not received an examination in nine years. Does the Secretary of State share my concern about a system that seems to let people down so badly? (8952)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are 2.2 million people on incapacity benefit and an additional 400,000 on employment and support allowance, and under the previous Government a very large number of them heard absolutely nothing from the state; they were simply left to rot on benefits. I think that is wrong. Many of those people could benefit enormously if we helped them back into the workplace. That will be a central goal of the Work programme. My one regret is that the Labour party did not do that years ago.

May I ask the Secretary of State particularly about the overall impact of the welfare changes announced in the Budget and since then, because he will know that, for instance, the value of carer’s allowance is being cut by about £135 a year over the next few years, which particularly hits women, and that the value of attendance allowance is being cut by about £185 a year over the next few years, again particularly hitting women? Has his Department done any assessment of the overall impact of the £11 billion of welfare cuts on women—yes or no?

We are assessing all the impacts of every change we are making. As the right hon. Lady knows, we will be publishing those relating to housing benefit, and as and when we have the full details, I will quite happily let her know.

T4. In my constituency, a large number of people—much larger than the national average—are pensioners, and in my region an amazing 22% of pensioners are in effective poverty. What will my hon. Friend be doing for the most vulnerable pensioners? (8954)

We need to ensure that, as well as lifting the level of the basic state pension, the most vulnerable pensioners, who receive the pension credit, get the full benefit of the increase that we will be introducing next April. However, in the longer term we do not want to allow people to retire poor and then try to catch them through a means test; we want to ensure that more people have, for example, workplace pensions, so that fewer people retire poor in the first place. That is a better strategy for the long term.

T3. Given the brief opportunity afforded by Lord Young for others to input into his review of health and safety legislation, what comfort can the Minister give my constituents that its motivation is a serious effort to ensure that the right protection is in place to prevent disasters such as the one that occurred in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin), at Stockline, rather than another excuse to trot out the usual litany of myth and distortion for the gratification of the Daily Mail? (8953)

The hon. Gentleman has to understand that any Administration must find a balance. If we regulate too much, there will be fewer jobs; at the same time, if we do not regulate enough, employees will be exposed to danger. We have to find the right balance between those two, and I do not believe that over the past 13 years the previous Government did that. They over-regulated, drove companies overseas and cost jobs. We will endeavour to ensure that we restore a degree of common sense, not simply to health and safety regulation but to the regulatory burden imposed on business right across government.

T5. People applying for jobs in areas that require Criminal Records Bureau checks often have to wait weeks or months for those checks to come through, and during that time they are ineligible to claim jobseeker’s allowance. Will the Minister look sympathetically at these rules, which have the unintended consequence of sometimes discriminating against British nationals? (8955)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. There are a number of areas we have inherited from the previous Government in which there is an almighty mess to sweep up. I give him my commitment that I will look at the issue he has raised and discuss it with colleagues at the Home Office to see whether we can find a better way of streamlining the system, so that problems such as the one he has outlined do not occur.

The Minister said that the disability living allowance budget will be cut by more than £1 billion by 2014. Can she tell the House which groups of disabled people are likely to see their benefits cut?

In the Budget the Chancellor made it clear that we need to look at the disability living allowance and put in place an objective assessment to ensure that money is going to the people who need it most. We will undertake a review, working closely with disability lobbies, to ensure that we focus on people who need that help the most.

T6. Does the Minister agree that more must be done to help the unemployed over-50s, who are not necessarily on benefits? A constituent of mine, Mr Kevin Forbes, who was made redundant, has applied for more than 4,700 jobs without any luck. What comfort can the Minister give him and many others that we will radically improve back-to-work schemes for the over-50s? (8956)

My hon. Friend raises an important point, not least about ageist attitudes, particularly among employers. One of the worst examples is that it is currently legal to sack somebody for being over 65. We think that that is outrageous. The previous Government talked about it, but we are going to change the law, and that will be part of a cultural change. We need to see longer working lives. Many people want to go on making a contribution, and, like my hon. Friend’s constituent, they are thwarted in their attempts to do so. We need to change that culture and to change attitudes.

It is always a pleasure to listen to the Minister. May I just ask him to face the House? It is a very natural temptation to look backwards, but facing the House helps us all.

I welcome the review of housing benefit, but does the Minister accept that it perhaps does not go far enough, inasmuch as it does not examine the role of landlords? Many are milking the system while neither taking steps to control antisocial behaviour by their tenants, nor undertaking appropriate repairs to stop the house—and, indeed, the whole area—falling into decay.

I agree, in part, with the hon. Gentleman, who raises an important issue, because housing benefit has been in need of a review. I know for a fact that the previous Government were reviewing it, so we are trying to complete that process. He is right to say that one of the biggest problems about housing benefit, and local housing allowance in particular, is that because it has been almost open-ended, landlords have pushed and pushed on rent levels which have then pulled up the amount of money that has flowed out; the increase has been £5 billion over five years. I will be discussing with the Department for Communities and Local Government whether there is a way in which we can rectify that, but he is right to raise it. I am glad that someone on the Labour Benches has made a positive statement about the need to sort it out.

T7. Further to the previous answer on disability living allowance, can the Minister say when these definitive objective tests will be produced? Does she accept that the budget has trebled because the allowance is so unclear? Does she also accept that objective criteria mean that some people who do not receive the allowance will qualify in future and that many who currently get it will lose out, so the sooner we have the clear criteria, the better for all concerned? (8957)

I reassure the right hon. Gentleman that we will be working quickly on this and we will be involving specialist disability lobbies. As he is no doubt aware, these are complex matters and we need to ensure that, whatever actions we take to unravel the problems that we have been left with, our solutions have long-term and sustainable merit.

My question is on pensioner poverty. Parts of my constituency are more than 1,200 feet above sea level and in the winter they can be very cold, so will the Minister guarantee not to cut the cold weather payments in the coming five years?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the underlying level of cold weather payments has been £8.50, which was increased to £25 for the past two winters. We are considering the rate for the coming winter, but we take representations each year on cold weather stations to make sure that they match the exact geography of local areas, for the sort of reasons that he gives.

T8. Will my hon. Friend inform the House of the estimate of the number of benefit claimants who are addicted to alcohol and/or drugs? Will she outline the opportunities that will arise under the Work programme to reduce dependency, which can often be both on drugs and alcohol, and benefits? (8958)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I know the amount of work that he has done in this area. Helping people who are trapped on benefits through drug and alcohol addiction is, as he knows, a top priority for the Government. It is estimated that in England there are 270,000 problem drug users on working-age benefits; information is not currently available on the number with alcohol dependency, but I am sure that if it were, the figures would be pushed up even further. The new Work programme will recognise the cost of helping someone with multiple barriers and will allow the flexibility to tailor the support that people need.

Given the Secretary of State’s commitment to my constituency, which includes Greater Easterhouse, and to children there, may I ask him directly to take the opportunity today to rule out the means-testing of child benefit?

I am enormously fond of the hon. Lady’s constituency, but as she knows, that is not an area for my Department; it comes under the Treasury brief. I can give her a guarantee that I have had no discussions with the Treasury about that matter.

T9. At my surgery on Saturday, Liz Harlow, a benefits adviser, told me that it is taking weeks to process applications for crisis loans. Given that they are described as loans that can provide help in “an emergency or disaster”, can Ministers reassure me that they will be processed more quickly in future? (8959)

My hon. Friend raises a vital issue. We need to ensure that crisis loans are administered far more efficiently than they are at present. I am aware that there are delays. I am happy to look not only into the individual case that he raises, but more systematically at whether the social fund is delivering—I do not think that it is.

Given the vital role that Jobcentre Plus staff play in getting people back to work and given that about 13,500 of them are on fixed-term contracts, some of which are due to end in November, can the Minister give the House an assurance that talks are taking place to extend or make permanent job contracts?

The previous Government recruited staff on a short-term basis—on short-term contracts—precisely because they were brought in to deal with a time when unemployment was rising. Unemployment is, fortunately, now falling. Inevitably, some of those contracts will come to an end and it will not be possible to keep those staff on. I very much hope that those who have built up good experience in Jobcentre Plus will be able to find alternative employment, given the fact that the employment services sector is growing and that the Work programme is lying ahead.

I very much welcome the comments made by my right hon. Friend a moment ago about housing benefit. There are particularly difficult problems in London, where housing benefit has contributed to some enormous discrepancies in rent. May I ask him to take a particular interest in the problem in the capital, where the poverty trap is one of the greatest in the UK?

We are fully aware that there might be peculiar circumstances in London and we have already trebled the discretionary allowance. We are still considering all these matters and making allowances, so I guarantee that we will continue to watch this matter. My hon. Friend is right that this has been a real issue—working people on low incomes have had to pay the bill for local housing allowance without being able to live in the sort of houses that those who are on local housing allowance and who are unemployed can live in. There is a real disparity and unfairness and we need to sort that out.

Does anyone on the Government Front Bench believe that we can effectively tackle poverty without also reducing inequality in wealth and income? Any one of them is welcome to reply.

Yes, the right hon. Gentleman is right that we must do both. Under the previous Government—the Government of whom he was a member—inequality was at its worst since 1961. Clearly, they did not think that we must do both, but we do.

My constituent, Jackie Sallis, acquired her lifelong disability at birth, has tried but invariably failed to hold down a job and has been in receipt of disability living allowance. As regards the review that the Minister has already mentioned, will she reassure us that adults with lifelong conditions will not be subject to a regime of constant medical assessments that try to prove them fit for work, which will be stressful for them, ultimately pointless and, presumably, very expensive for the public purse?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. As we pull together the procedures for the revisions to disability living allowance, we will consider just those sorts of things. We want to ensure that it is proportionate and that regular reviews are considered, so that the allowance can be given to those with the most need without putting too much pressure on those who will never move away from DLA.

The Minister will know that the Welsh Assembly Government have some of the most progressive policies on poverty alleviation. Will she—or any of the Front-Bench team—tell us what discussions they have had with Welsh Assembly Ministers and whether, should those Welsh Assembly Ministers express any reservations about the net impact of their policies on poverty in constituencies such as mine, they will take those reservations seriously?

I have spoken to the Welsh Secretary on a number of occasions and I have accepted her invitation to go and visit the Assembly—[Interruption.] I have not yet gone, but I have had correspondence with various Ministers. I promise the hon. Gentleman that he will have our eagle eye over the course of the process just as others have.

Order. I am sorry that we must move on, as there is an important debate to follow that is heavily subscribed—but not before we have heard a point of order from the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane).