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Topical Questions

Volume 514: debated on Monday 19 July 2010

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).