With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on welfare reform. Let me say in advance of that that I have tried to give the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), as much time on this as possible, and I am open to more questions. I thank him for his co-operation in that.
In this House in October, I set out our resolve to secure a welfare system that I said should be fit for the 21st century, where work always pays and is seen to pay by those who are engaged in it. Following consultation since then, a broad positive consensus has—I think—emerged. That consultation ranged very widely, from Citizens Advice to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and across the political divide as far as we could go.
The White Paper that we are publishing today therefore sets out reforms that will, I hope, ensure that people will be consistently and transparently better off for each hour they work and for every pound they earn. We will cut through complexity to make it easier for people to access benefits. The intention is to cut costs, reduce error and do better at tackling fraud. The detail is published today, and the White Paper should be available in the Library. Let me take this opportunity to thank all those in the Department and beyond who have helped to build and write it, working very long hours to make sure that we could get it out today.
Perhaps I could take this opportunity to remind the House of exactly what problem we are trying to solve. It does not relate to any sort of party political point; we are dealing with a structural issue that has grown throughout successive Governments. Five million people of working age are on out-of-work benefits; 1.4 million people have been on out-of-work benefits for nine of the past 10 years; 2.6 million working-age people are claiming incapacity benefits, of whom about 1 million have been claiming for a decade; and almost 2 million children are growing up in workless households—one of the worst rates in Europe.
Some have said recently that it is not reform that is necessary or important, but jobs. Well, this is a long-standing problem in our country. We have a group of people who have been left behind, even in periods of high growth. That is the issue. Even as 4 million jobs were created over 63 quarters of consecutive growth from one Government to the next, millions of people in Britain remained detached from the labour market. Some 4.5 million people were on out-of-work benefits before this recession even started, notwithstanding the growth in jobs that I referred to. These reforms are about bringing them back in. I want them to be supported and ready to take up the 450,000 vacancies that even today, as we begin to emerge from recession, are available in the economy. It is also worth reminding the House that of all the jobs that were created, the vast majority, in terms of net take-up, were taken by people coming in from overseas, because businesses could not get people in this country to do the work and therefore had to seek people elsewhere.
The key to solving this problem is to solve the wider social problems associated with worklessness. The measures in the White Paper to get this process under way are the first key strand of our welfare reforms. By creating a simpler benefits system, we will make sure that work always pays more than being on benefits. By reducing complexity, we will reduce the opportunities for fraud and error, which currently cost the taxpayer approximately £5 billion a year.
I think that everybody in the House would accept that work is ultimately the best route out of poverty. At present, some of the poorest people who take modestly paid jobs can risk losing £9 or more out of every £10 extra they earn. The universal credit must put an end to some of the perverse disincentives that make it so risky for the poorest to move into work.
The highest marginal deduction rates for in-work households will fall from 95.8% to an absolute limit of 76.2%—that is with the conjunction of tax and the withdrawal—and there will be a single taper rate of about 65% before tax. That means that about 1.3 million households facing the choice of whether to move into work for 10 hours a week should see a virtual elimination of participation tax rates of over 70%. With single tapers and higher disregards, the system will be simpler and easier and people should be able to keep far more cash in their pockets when they move into work.
The guarantee will—I hope—be crystal clear: if people take a job, they will receive more income. Some 2.5 million households should get higher entitlements as a result of the move to the universal credit, and the new transparency in the system will produce a substantial increase in the take-up of benefits and tax credits. Taken together, we estimate that those effects will help lift as many as 350,000 children and 500,000 adults out of poverty. That is just our analysis of the static effects of reform. Analysing the dynamic effects is not always easy, and it is often best done in retrospect, but we estimate that the reforms could reduce the number of workless households by around 300,000.
Let me also provide assurances about the transition. We will financially protect those who move across to the universal credit system. There will be no losers.
A far simpler system, which operates on the basis of real-time earnings, will also reduce the scope for underpayments or overpayments. We all know from our experience as constituency MPs that that can create anxiety and disruption, and can prove very difficult to correct. Our simplification and reform will help to end that particular problem. As well as reducing official error, these changes will also make life far more difficult for those who set out to defraud the system. They are a very small group of people, but they are there none the less.
The system will be simpler, safer, more secure, fairer and more effective, but it will require investment. Some £2.1 billion has been set aside to fund the implementation of the universal credit over this spending review period, and I have been assisted in that work by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who has agreed to and guaranteed the investment programme.
This is not just expenditure; it is also investment. We are investing in breaking a cycle of welfare dependency, which I believe is a price worth paying. The universal credit will provide a huge boost to individuals who are stuck in the benefit trap, reducing the risk involved in taking work and lifting 850,000 people out of poverty in the process. That investment will produce a flow of savings, as a simpler system will help to drive out more than £1 billion of losses due to fraud, error and overpayments each year. On the wider economic considerations, dynamic labour supply effects will produce net benefits to this country, as greater flexibility helps businesses and fuels growth, particularly in the high street. We will invest the £2.1 billion provided in the spending review 2010, seeking a multi-billion pound return.
That is how we will make work pay, but as I said earlier, and as our document states, it simply will not be enough. We also have to support people as they make their move back to work, and the two issues cannot be separated. That is why we are moving ahead with our new Work programme, which will provide integrated back-to-work support. It will pick up and bring together many of the programmes that were in place before, and add to them to create a comprehensive system of support. That is why we have already started a three-year programme to reassess the 1.5 million people who have been abandoned for years on incapacity benefit. The Opposition started that process before the election for the flow of new claims, and we are now trialling it in two cities.
Essentially, this is our contract: we will make work pay and support people to find a job through the Work programme, but in return we expect co-operation from those who are seeking work. That is why we are developing a regime of sanctions for those who refuse to play by the rules, as well as targeted work activity for those who need to get used to the habits of work. That will be a selective process, targeted at those who need to do it, not at everybody. It will be targeted as required, using the understanding and knowledge of those based in jobcentres.
Furthermore, evidence from the already existing work capability assessment, which the last Government started, shows that 36% of people withdrew their applications before reaching the stage of being assessed. The knowledge that they are likely to be assessed has a stark effect on those who may be trying to defraud the system. That underlines the effect that the system could have on those who are currently working while claiming benefits.
This new contract, in which we do our best to help people find work, to make them work-ready, to make work pay and to say that they will always be better off in work than on benefits, is a fair deal for the taxpayer and a fair deal for those who need our help. I commend the reforms in the White Paper to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, for advance sight of it and for his personal helpfulness and co-operation preceding it.
I will deal directly with the principles underlying the universal credit. Both our parties want a simplified benefit system in which less money is clawed back as people move into work. That is why I have been very clear since I started in my position that if the Government get the approach right, we will support them. Pension reform was the subject of significant cross-party working in the last Parliament, and I sincerely hope that welfare reform can be in this Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman can count on Labour’s support when he is pursuing laudable aims, even when it appears that he cannot count on the support of his own Chancellor.
In office, we introduced the working tax credit, which substantially reduced the marginal deduction rates. It halved the number of people facing marginal deduction rates of 90% or more. The Secretary of State has just mentioned that matter. From reading his work in opposition, one cannot fail to see some of his ideas as welcome steps. His dynamic welfare paper promised a 55% taper rate, lower marginal deduction rates for every family, £2 billion a year more going into the pockets of families and £500 million a year less being spent on administration.
The Secretary of State now appears to want to set a taper rate for the universal credit of 65%, 10 percentage points less generous than he advocated in his previous paper. The impact of that was described by his own Centre for Social Justice thus:
“Setting it higher than 55% would increase MTRs”—
marginal tax rates—
“for those working households in receipt of benefits other than Housing Benefit (even if their net income was higher than today). As a result, there would be a negative impact on earnings, and on the number of second earners in employment.”
From an initial inspection of what we have been offered today, it seems that in this Parliament we will get a higher taper rate, higher marginal deduction rates for some families, no additional money overall going into the pockets of families and a £2 billion increase in administration and start-up costs. Is that proof that there is no plan so worth while that the current Chancellor of the Exchequer cannot delay or damage it?
There is real concern that some of the measures imposed on the Secretary of State in return for allowing the universal credit to proceed are contradicting the policy aims that he has set out today. On the Government’s own figures, because of the June Budget 20,000 more people next year will face marginal tax rates of 90% and 30,000 more will face rates of over 70%. That is because of the Government’s plans to increase taper rates for tax credits. We must remember that phase 1 of the implementation plan for his dynamic benefits plan was to reduce tax credit taper rates from 38% to 32%. From this March, the Government are increasing the taper from 38% to 41%.
The small print of the Green Paper published in the summer read:
“The changes in the June 2010 Budget will increase the maximum Marginal Deduction Rate to 95.95 per cent.”
That is before even taking into account changes in the spending review, such as real-terms cuts in working tax credit and top-up low wages. Can the Secretary of State explain the approach that his Chancellor is adopting, and can he guarantee that as a result of these changes no one will have a higher marginal deduction rate? Will he tell the House whether anyone—for example, people who currently receive tax credits but not housing benefit—will face higher marginal deduction rates under his approach?
According to the IFS, of which the Secretary of State spoke approvingly in his statement, the tax credit and benefit changes announced in the June Budget mean that the poorest two deciles of the population will lose about 2% of their incomes over the coming Parliament, more proportionately than the rest of the population. Can he therefore inform the House whether all the analysis being bandied around today about out-of-work households moving into work and children being lifted out of poverty is relative to the position today, or only to the position after the substantial losses that people will face because of the Government’s already-announced cuts to benefits in this Parliament? Can the right hon. Gentleman simply provide the figures for this Parliament? Do the Government expect child poverty to have fallen or risen by the end of this Parliament? The Office for Budget Responsibility predicts that an extra £700 million will be spent on unemployment benefits because a longer dole queue following the June Budget has consequences for the welfare bill.
The right hon. Gentleman has allowed all this to happen in return for the Treasury allowing him to spend £2 billion on the new system. Can he give us today the breakdown of the £2 billion secured for the implementation of the universal credit—the IT breakdowns and the transitional costs for affected families? Can he pledge that he will not raid any other part of his departmental budget in this spending review for this purpose if it turns out that that money is insufficient? How does the right hon. Gentleman respond to reports in The Times today that he will need to secure another £2 billion on top of the £2.1 billion that he referred to in his statement to guarantee his pledge, which he repeated to the House today, that
“There will be no losers”?
Is the Treasury underwriting the promise that he has just given the House?
To conclude, securing headlines—I have to admit that my colleagues and I came to understand this over 13 years—is a lot easier than securing reforms. This morning, the Secretary of State said in an interview on the radio:
“This is about saying to people: if you try, if you co-operate, if we work with you and work pays and you still can’t get a job then our duty is to support you.”
How can he possibly reconcile those words with the plans his Government have announced to cut 10% of the housing benefit of anyone who cannot find work within a year, even if the jobcentre thinks that they are taking all the correct measures? When he gets to his feet, the Secretary of State can perhaps explain to the House how he justifies that measure, whether it is set to continue permanently within the planned universal credit and, frankly, how it fits with the principles that he set out on the radio this morning.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman spent so much time saying how much he supported this measure—that is really helpful. He then dwelt on a lot of things that were not necessarily relevant to it, but I will come to those none the less.
I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman seems to be less than positive. I had hoped that he would consider this to be a major change, which would benefit the very people he says he is in favour of supporting. There is absolutely no question but that this measure will support and improve the quality of life of those who are likely to be affected. When he gets to the White Paper, I would draw his attention to a chart on page 53, which shows that the bottom deciles—this is from the moment that he left office right the way to the moment set out in the chart—will actually improve their life quality dramatically, taking all matters into consideration and sweeping all the way up to the moment we implement this. The poorer will be better off, and I wish the right hon. Gentleman could have taken the opportunity to welcome that. That is the reality for him and his party, and if I were in his position, I would have been a little more positive.
We believe that child poverty will fall. Let me just deal with the story in The Times about the money, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. The fact is that the £2.1 billion is a full envelope for spending review 10; it is absolutely enough to get us to that point. I said to the right hon. Gentleman privately, and I say again publicly, that as we implement these measures over three years of this Parliament and a further two years of the next Parliament, more money will, of course, be required, and that is guaranteed, but we will come to that in the spending review for the next spending review period. [Interruption.] Yes, it will be guaranteed, because we have to implement this programme.
Within that £2.1 billion, we will also invest in setting up essential IT systems. The right hon. Gentleman knows, because we have spoken about this, that these are medium-level IT systems. Even in his time, the Department for Work and Pensions handled these systems very well, and there were no problems with them at all. The money will also be used to support the running of the new system and the migration of current benefit and tax credit recipients from today’s system. Within that, we will also guarantee, as I said, that nobody loses out.
On the IT challenge that we dealt with, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, even in his time, we managed to implement some very similar projects and to operate them very well. This is by no means a monolithic system like the Rural Payments Agency or the National Offender Management Service. During his time, the DWP had a strong record of successful IT delivery on systems such as the employment support allowance system, which was roughly on the same scale, and the pension reform system. Both were similar IT systems and both were managed without any particular problems. We are determined that the IT situation will be managed very well, and that we will be able to complete the process.
The support that, as the right hon. Gentleman says, we will give to those who are transiting is covered in the £2.1 billion. I repeat that we will protect those people who, for particular reasons, find themselves on slightly lesser moneys for as long as they stay in that situation. As they move up, they will gain dramatically. Even if they were to fall back, relative to where they were, they will gain dramatically. The reality, I hope, for the Opposition, as they think this over carefully, is that even if they were to return to power, this system would benefit those people.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the taper rate. The taper rate that we talked about when I was at the Centre for Social Justice was an optimum taper rate with everything taken into consideration. The taper rate itself involves a decision, which a Government of any hue would take, about how to set the balance between what we can afford and how much we will be able to give people as they go back into work. The real issue here is not that the taper is 65%. Even with 65%, all those who go back into work will be better off as they work through the hours. If the right hon. Gentleman is saying to me that he would prefer a 55% rate if he were in power, that is fine. He just has to tell me where he intends to get the money from, and that is the issue I have not heard him or his colleagues say anything about since they left us with the worst budget deficit in living memory. I only ask the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to think of this as a positive measure. Even if they were in power right now, it would help the poorest in society absolutely dramatically.
The introduction of workfare is about 25 years overdue. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on grasping that nettle and I hope that he will not let go of it. One aspect that he did not touch on was the operation of the jobcentres. Jobcentres are no longer jobcentres, but benefit-processing centres. Will he say just a little about how he intends to address that issue?
I understand the point that my hon. Friend is making. The reality is that we will reform the whole jobcentre process to make sure that it dovetails with what we are trying to do. Yes, of course, there are areas where some of the advice that is given is not always necessarily of the highest quality, but most jobcentres, and most of the people who work in them, are determined to help the individuals they meet, to advise them properly and to get them back into work. Of course, the Work programme will include private and voluntary sector organisations, so we will tap into the very best qualities and skills that lie outside the jobcentres. My hon. Friend should rest assured that this will only get better.
The creation of a single working-age benefit is the holy grail of welfare reform, and the Government will need to be congratulated if they can pull this off, especially if they fulfil their promise that there will be no losers. I am sure that the Work and Pensions Committee, which I chair, will watch the issue carefully. However, I am still not clear as to where the tax credit system fits into the universal credit. The Secretary of State did not answer the questions from the shadow Secretary of State about where they will fit. Will there, for instance, be a single application form to cover the Treasury-delivered benefits and the DWP benefits?
The problem right now is that when people make applications, they have to make at least two completely separate applications at the same time if they are going back to work. There is literally no communication between HMRC and the DWP about what they are sitting on and what they are making their calculations about. That is why the reconciliation at the end of the year is so gross and why we so often have major overpayments and then try to claw money back. The purpose of these proposals is to bring everything together so that we have one single point from which to take information. Therefore, the tax credit system and the DWP system will come together to create this single taper withdrawal. In future, as people’s circumstances change as they go into work—in the past, if they did not inform HMRC or the DWP, they might have been overpaid because they did fewer hours—the information will automatically cascade back to the centre, and we will know what people are doing, so they will be paid exactly what they are meant to be paid. There will be no chase for the money at the end of the year, which, as the hon. Lady and many others know, causes fear and worry among far too many constituents who find that they have been overpaid and have to pay the money back.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his ambitious programme of welfare reform? Among the most important components in it are the steps that he is taking to overcome one of the greatest problems in the system, which makes people reluctant to take work when it is available. Not only might people not earn much more in work than on benefits, but they fear that the job they take might be short-lived and that they might then find it difficult to get back on to benefits if they become unemployed again. Will my right hon. Friend spell out what that involves and, in particular, how he will tackle the problem of people fearing that they might lose housing benefit?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the great fears that people have, particularly in respect of housing benefit, is that it can take a month or so before they get their benefit back as they come out of work. Because that will be included at the point at which they make the application and because that is tapered into the benefit, there will be a seamless change or transfer. As they come out of work, they will do so with their gross amount exactly as it should be—the thing that will change is the level at which they taper. In other words, the amount will be what they are necessarily paid in benefits. They will not suddenly have to make a reapplication—there will be a seamless process—which should get rid of exactly the fear that my right hon. Friend talks about.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg), I congratulate the Government on their intentions to make work pay and simplify the system. I very much wish that project well.
The Secretary of State will be well aware of Labour Members’ concerns that spending announcements to date have hit women twice as hard as men. Will the universal credit be assessed on a household basis? If so, what assessment has he made of the impact of moving money from purse to wallet within that model and of the impact on women?
The system will assess at household level, but of course, the beauty of that is that we will understand better what household needs are. Two things that will hugely benefit women will flow from that. First, in knowing what that household should have, we will have a much higher take-up rate. Therefore, the in-work poverty that has been terrible until now will hugely be resolved. The second aspect that is really good for women is that, as the hon. Lady knows, many women who have caring responsibilities do short-hours work. The proposal will hugely benefit them because they will retain more of their income as they go into work. They will be beneficiaries, which I hope helps her.
I, too, welcome today’s announcement, particularly the expected effect on poverty and especially child poverty. This is a critical reform—as the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg) said, some of us on the Work and Pensions Committee have been pressing for it for a number of years.
Who will run the mandatory Work programme? Will that involve third sector partners? How will the Secretary of State ensure that the programme remains distinct from the community sentence programme?
The Work programme will start well in advance of today’s proposal—we anticipate that it will start next summer. There will be a set of contracts on a regional scale that will involve the private and voluntary sectors. Organisations will run programmes against a set of outcomes, for which we will pay them, so that as they deliver and get more people back to work, they will be paid for those results. That will be carefully balanced so that we do not pay them for dead-weight costs that might otherwise have been in the system, but it will certainly be clear.
I welcome very strongly the strategic direction of the Secretary of State’s statement, but comparisons will inevitably be drawn with the 1940s. That should remind us of the importance of the work ethic and the fact that citizens have both rights and duties when it comes to benefits and work. It also reminds us of the importance of employment policy. I say that not in a partisan spirit, but because I think there is a real difficulty. Churchill’s coalition Government and Attlee’s Labour Government took measures to move towards full employment—with great success. When a Government take 1 million jobs out of the economy, both public and private sector, does the Secretary of State understand my concern about the chances of success of the good strategy announced today?
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s words of welcome—I particularly value them because I am a huge admirer of his, as he knows. He is right to draw the parallel with the 1940s, not for anything to do with Beveridge, but simply because high withdrawal rates were possible in the system that was set up at that time because the people involved were mostly men who were either in work or out of work—there was very little part-time work in that sense, so withdrawal rates had no effect. Today, because of the nature of part-time work, withdrawal rates cause real problems for people, particularly as they go back to work.
On jobs, I simply say this: yes, as the economy grows, those jobs will be created, but let us not forget that in the past three months, over 1 million jobs went through my jobcentres, and 450,000 jobs rotate through them every week.
Unfortunately, there has been much scaremongering about the impact of welfare reform on those who are disabled or who have mental health conditions. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the most vulnerable members of society will still get the support that they need?
Yes, I can give such an assurance to my hon. Friend. We have for some time needed to simplify and streamline the current disability payments and to target the support obviously and particularly on the most severely disabled people through the universal credit, which will happen, and through reform to disability living allowance. DLA will not be incorporated into the universal credit—it will continue as a separate allowance because it is non-work related. I can promise her that that is uppermost in our minds in the design of the system.
The Government and employer organisations have confidently asserted that the expected huge rise in unemployment owing to job losses in the public sector can and will be ameliorated by the creation of jobs within the private sector, albeit neither can put a time scale or numbers on that assertion. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that the changes will not be used by employers in the private sector to drive down wage levels to at or below the national minimum wage?
May I first of all say that I hope Labour Members do not simply continue to hope for the worst and preach? The reality is that even in the past few weeks and months, there have been more than 300,000 new private sector jobs. As I said, more than 1 million jobs went through the jobcentres in the last three months and were found for people. Today’s statement is about making people better off. If I were sitting where the hon. Lady is sitting, I would say, “How wonderful if the bottom three deciles improve their incomes.” The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) may laugh, but in her time in the Government, they spent money and failed and left us with a deficit. Labour Members should apologise for that.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement, particularly as the previous Government’s approach to welfare reform was more Ethelred the Unready than Nixon in China. Is he aware that more than 8,000 people in my constituency are on out-of-work benefits? That is one in 10 people. Will the Minister assure them that the universal credit will protect the most vulnerable and give others a real incentive—more money, not less—as they find jobs?
The universal credit is about what happens to people as they seek and go back to work. Benefit levels for disabled people—whatever their condition—will continue and be maintained. Those who need support will receive it, but the most beneficial thing for people in my hon. Friend’s constituency is simply this: we are at last going to try to get to that group who have been left behind. More than 5 million people were left behind without jobs in workless households during the high years, with children in poverty. That is what we hope to break. I hope that that is seen as a positive message.
I applaud the Secretary of State for his announcements today and for his efforts to incentivise work, but I still have an arithmetical problem despite his answers to previous questions. I am struggling to see how 450,000 job vacancies divide into the 5 million people that the reforms aim to help. I am hoping that he can explain.
This universal credit comes in over a period of four or five years. In the time over which it is implemented, even under the hon. Lady’s most pessimistic forecasts, the British economy will grow and create more jobs. The Office for Budget Responsibility, which is independent, forecasts growth of some 2.5%, which will lead to much higher numbers of private sector jobs. The reality is that we must prepare the ground. The important thing is that people are better off as they go to work and take those jobs. The point of the proposals is to break the cycle of people saying, “It’s not worth me going to work and it is worth me staying on benefits, because work does not pay.” The proposal is about work paying.
As my hon. Friend knows, there is a slightly complex group of benefits and supplements with respect to disability. DLA is non-work related, but there are disability supplements for jobseeker’s allowance. Many of the disability organisations that we consulted said that the one thing they hoped for from the reforms is that the Government value disabled people, which we believe we do, and give them a chance to go back to work. Apart from the fact that we are creating work choice, the key thing is that the taper rate comes with a disregard. If we give disabled people on the universal credit a larger disregard on their income, we give them more money, which allows them a beneficial position as they go back to work.
The Secretary of State knows that work is good for people’s mental health, but he will also recognise that many people who have severe, long-term mental health problems find it difficult to keep permanent employment. What reassurance can he give that such people will not be discriminated against by the benefits system or by employers?
I completely agree that such discrimination is unforgivable, and we have to change such attitudes if they exist. The real beauty of our proposals is that we will be able to adjust rates according to people’s incapacities. So individuals with particular problems or disabilities will be much more valuable in the workplace than they are now. That is the one thing that the organisations said to us—that those people want to be in the mainstream and in work like everyone else. Our proposals will help that more than anything we are doing at the moment.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement? My constituents in Kettering will be right behind him. Often the difference between making more money in work and lounging around on benefits at home is the travel costs to and from work. How will they be taken into account in the calculations?
My hon. Friend is right about travel costs. The key point is that if someone going to work retains significantly more money, their travel-to-work costs become much more affordable. Therefore they are able, as other people in work do, to make decisions about travelling to a job over a slightly longer distance. That will be wholly beneficial to those who are out of work.
In his statement, the Secretary of State used the fact that 37% of ESA claimants did not proceed to full assessment to insinuate that people were withdrawing their claims because they were trying to cheat the system. Current ESA claimants are people who have newly fallen sick, and they are not long-term claimants. Most of them recover from their illnesses during the assessment period and get back into work, so I ask the Secretary of State to withdraw that assertion.
I made no such assertion. What I was demonstrating was that if you put a check in place and ask people to demonstrate their situation, those who are bent on a different purpose will naturally fall out. I used the last Government’s work capability assessment programme to illustrate how that affects new entrants. I was by no means casting aspersions on anybody who is going through the programme, because they deserve what they get.
Many of those who are out of work will need to update existing skills or acquire new skills to help them get back into the world of work. What is my right hon. Friend’s Department doing to try to ensure that people who are out of work can access skills through the further education sector and other means?
This comes back to the Work programme, because it will be about drawing in mentors from the private sector to advise people on setting up businesses and to give other support and advice. The mentoring programme will allow us not only to get people into work, but to mentor them until they get the work habit. That is the critical point. Once they get the work habit, they will be capable of looking after themselves.
The minimum wage plays an essential part in making work pay. Has the Secretary of State forgotten that he was completely opposed to the minimum wage and did all that he could to prevent its introduction? Will he ensure that he makes work pay not only by reducing benefits?
There are several ways to make work pay beyond what I am doing. Making work pay by leaving people with more of their own money in the first instance will be a major step forward. The minimum wage is a good indication of how to set the base below which people should not fall. Another area in which the Government have also made a start is lifting the tax threshold for the poorest people. As we have said, we intend to move that all the way up to £10,000, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that.
Will this targeted work activity effectively be a stick—a humiliating sanction—which will not work, or will it be a carrot and a golden opportunity that will build a bridge between joblessness and the workplace, which would be welcomed by unemployed people and the voluntary sector?
I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the mandatory work placement. May I explain to him that there has been some over-excited commentary on this proposal? It will be available to jobcentre staff who will be able to use it for two categories of people. First, if someone has been out of work for a long time and comes in, clearly demoralised and with very little self worth, and does not feel that they can get up in the morning—as normal people do when they go to work—they can be put on one of these placements, which will give them a start time and a place of work to go to. All the interviews we have done with people on this scheme have said that they benefited hugely from it because it got them up and out. They will still be brought back in to the jobcentre to look for jobs.
The second group is those people who, we suspect, may actually be already working. Placing them on such a programme does something quite neat: it means that they cannot go off and do the work that they are doing and claim benefit. Instead, they have to make a choice.
I am sure that we all want to be assured by the Secretary of State’s best attempts at a “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” version of his reforms, but we have to test them for the people in the places we know where low employment is an enduring problem. Do the projections for the universal credit include Northern Ireland? In answer to the Chair of the Select Committee, the Secretary of State mentioned bringing the tax credit systems and the DWP systems together. Has he factored in the Social Security Agency in Northern Ireland and discussed the implications with the Minister responsible?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have been over there and discussed these matters with my opposite number. I want the reforms to apply to Northern Ireland, and they will. The area has particular problems, as he knows, and we need other devices to overcome those. However, people are unemployed and without work for much the same reason as over here, and I therefore look forward to being able to implement these reforms in Northern Ireland.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement this afternoon. It will do an enormous amount to help people to get back into work. Does he agree that it is important that we have a well-informed debate about this and will he join me in rejecting the ill-informed comments by the Archbishop of Canterbury? Perhaps my right hon. Friend could invite the Archbishop on one of his frequent visits to an area where he could see first hand some of the problems that these communities face, so that he may be better informed in future.
I have not had a chance to read the White Paper this morning, but my understanding is that the universal credit will be introduced from October 2013. The Secretary of State mentioned IT issues, and HMRC’s business plan says that the update of the PAYE system, which will be integral to the transition to the universal credit, will not be complete until April 2014. How will the Department reconcile the date for the introduction of the universal credit with the delayed completion of the update of the PAYE system the year after?
I am grateful for that question because it allows me to get rid of a slight misunderstanding. HMRC’s programme is about upgrading the whole of the PAYE system. What we are dealing with comes before that and we do not need all that. We need two important things. As employers collect and collate the information about circumstances anyway, they will download it to the Department each month, instead of waiting until the end of the year. We need two data streams, one sending data through, the other sending data across. That needs a software programme, but it is well below what is being done to PAYE. We will be able to do that on a real-time basis and it will happen before the PAYE changes.
The last Government spent more than £35 billion on child poverty, and they are to be applauded for making some changes and lifting 100,000 children out of poverty. We should be conscious of that and I will not say anything other than that that was the right direction of travel. However, that was a lot of money to spend to get what was quite a narrow effect, and child poverty rose relatively speaking after 2004. The best approach, we think, is the universal credit, because take-up rates will improve, allowing families who do not know what they are eligible for to take the money. That will automatically improve the quality of life for those families and have a huge effect on child poverty.
As I understand it, the new contract that the Secretary of State will introduce will begin from day one of a person’s unemployment, so he will be tearing up the old contract and the entitlement to benefit of people who have paid national insurance. Furthermore—as the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) pointed out—the sanctions regime will also be introduced at that very early stage. Does not the Secretary of State realise that it is an extremely inefficient way to run an economy to force people with high skills into jobs for which they are not suited? We do not want physics graduates on the checkout till.
I am saddened by the hon. Lady’s question. She is wrong. First, the contributory principle still exists. The contributory benefits will run in parallel; we are not getting rid of those. Secondly, she said that we should only ever get people into jobs that their top qualification allows them to get. I think that getting people into work is the most important starting point, and from there they can move on. [Interruption.] Oh, quite the contrary! I have been unemployed, and I would have done anything to get a job.
My local jobcentre told me last week that many well-paid caring jobs are not being taken up by jobseekers. As well as addressing the disincentives in the current benefits system, do we not need to encourage jobseekers to be less picky about the jobs they go after? Every job is of value.
I agree that all jobs have a value, and that we want people to get jobs, to move on and to be assisted in getting better and better pay and circumstances. Carers will benefit from this system because it allows them to balance their work and caring responsibilities by picking the hours that suit them. Carers organisations have told us that the critical point is that often carers are locked into one set of hours that do not suit them. This system will allow them to take the relevant hours while fulfilling their caring responsibilities.
The Secretary of State will be aware that jobcentre staff already have sanctions they can take out against people who they believe are avoiding going back to work. This morning, on the “Today” programme, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) pointed out, the Secretary of State suggested that, where people are working with jobcentre staff and searching for work in earnest, the Government’s duty is to work with those people to find them jobs. Does that mean that, where someone has been unemployed for a year, jobcentre staff will have some discretion in deciding whether they should continue to receive benefits, if they have been earnestly searching for work?
The hon. Gentleman makes a legitimate point, which is that jobcentre staff still retain some discretion when they believe that somebody is making every effort. As he knows, the key is to deal with people who are simply making no effort to find work. The previous sanctions regime existed on that simple basis—in other words, if somebody is not trying, they will be sanctioned, but if they are trying, they will not be.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on grasping the nettle on this difficult issue. May I ask him about part-time and seasonal workers? Will he outline in more detail the support that will be available to allow them to take jobs and help them back into work, while saving the taxpayer money?
There is an important feature to the new system that will help people taking seasonal work. In the past, as they shifted their work patterns, the system took a while to catch up, and often overpaid them and caused them difficulties when it tried to withdraw the money. This will benefit them greatly.
I very much welcome any support for people to get back into work, but I am a little concerned. As always, the devil is in the detail. The document states that nobody will lose out under the reforms, but it also mentions capping housing benefit after 12 months and so on. Will the Secretary of State assure me that nobody will lose out under the reforms?
It is a sad fact that in Wellingborough there is a subculture of young people who have never known a family where anyone has ever worked, and who have always lived off benefits and in social housing. They come to my surgery to try to get a bigger house. How do we break that cultural trend? It is not just about incentives; we have to break the culture.
Alone, this would not be enough, but my point is that it will run in parallel with the Work programme, which will get to unemployed people, such as the young people going to my hon. Friend’s surgery, early and wrap around them a process that gets them away from that culture. Often they come from homes where there is no work. This programme will get them to see and work through the fact that being in work is the best and most important thing if they want to take control of their lives.
Can the Secretary of State explain why areas of highest unemployment will suffer most in the transition to the new Work programme? In Glasgow, there will be a six-month gap between the current programme ending and the new Work programme starting. What will fill that gap? This transition will affect thousands of people in the city of Glasgow alone.
We are introducing the Work programme as fast as we can, and the summer target for that is critical. It will make a huge difference. However, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that the biggest gap is the one left to us by the last Government, as a result of the major deficit and their failure to fund any of the programmes that they said they would.
I warmly welcome today’s announcement, like Members on both sides of the House. I also welcome the rhetorical conversion of the Labour party to the importance of incentives and marginal withdrawal rates. It is a pity that they have not been a part of the discussion over the past decade. Once the programme is fully implemented, how many people will benefit from lower marginal withdrawal rates?
I can give my hon. Friend the exact figures later. I can tell him now, however, that there will be a huge uptake, because the marginal withdrawal rates will be so much better for those going back to work. I hope he will forgive me if I cannot give the figures on the spot. However, they will be significant, and people going back to work will benefit enormously. That will be a real incentive for those going back to work. He talked about how the Labour party has been converted. Sometimes, listening to Labour Members’ questions, I wonder whether they have been converted or just hate the idea that somebody is doing something they should have done 10 years ago.
The Secretary of State has said that getting people into work is the most important thing, and I agree with him. He has also given an undertaking to continue to help people with disabilities to gain employment. However, his Department has cut access to work grants to assist employers in adapting work places to facilitate the employment of people with disabilities. These are particularly important for small and medium-sized enterprises, where jobs will be created. Does he think it is time to rectify that mistake?
Let us be clear. I do not want a higher welfare bill, and I do not support those who cheat the benefit system, but I do encourage the Government to take equal measures against those who cheat on their tax. The statement of about 1,200 words mentioned children only twice, in acknowledging that more than 3.5 million children will still be left living below the official poverty line. Where does the statement:
“We are developing…sanctions for those who refuse to play by the rules”
place households with babies, infants and children of school age?
A variety of programmes affect some of those groups, and the hon. Gentleman will know that extra money has been refocused on early years. The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) are producing reports on this. We are looking at dealing with those areas separately. If the take-up improves, which it will because it will be automatic, it will directly affect a significant number of people. We genuinely believe that even in a static state about 350,000 children will be lifted out of poverty. That has to be a pretty good start compared with what happened before.
The Secretary of State said that carers will be able to adjust their working patterns according to their own time scales and choose their own flexible hours. How will he ensure that employers agree to that according to the carers’ needs, rather than the employers’ needs?
The point about this system is that because it does not say that people can work for 16 hours—or whatever it is—they can go back into work. Because work pays in every hour they take, they will be able to look at 10 or 15-hour jobs—or whatever—that may be available. For each one, they can make an adjustment and say, “Well, that would suit me. I’d be able to take that,” whereas before—[Interruption.] Employers will have to advertise those jobs, because they will be available now and people can do the work. The point that I am making is that people can take those jobs now because they pay, whereas before it would not have paid them to work those hours.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the best ways to make work pay is to ensure that it pays not simply a minimum wage, but a living wage? What does he intend to do about that? Can he also give me an assurance that there will be some joined-up thinking and that those who are genuinely seeking work, even if they are out of work for more than a year, will not have their housing benefit cut?
The policies on housing benefit stand as they are. On the hon. Lady’s point about a living wage, I genuinely believe that the reality is that what we are doing is the best way to ensure that households end up with a living wage. In the past, because the system was so difficult and complicated, the first person into work in a household would often not be able to earn enough money to support the household. Because it will pay more to be in work, the process that we are introducing will give the first person in a household who goes into work a greater opportunity to earn enough money to support the household, allowing the option for the second earner to be just that: an option, rather than an absolute must.
In the real world, is it not the case that 18 unemployed people are chasing every vacancy and that two thirds of our unemployed people have each applied unsuccessfully for 11 positions? Let me also tell the Secretary of State that the sum of his recent utterances about the unemployed reminds one of his constituency predecessor, who at a time of mass unemployment in the 1980s told the unemployed to get on their bikes. Now, apparently, it is buses.
The reality is that the hon. Gentleman should welcome the programme that I am introducing today, because it will improve the lives of the poorest in society. I am sorry that he chooses to cavil about this. My comment on buses was simply this: people on low incomes in London and many other cities recognise that it is sometimes necessary to travel to their places of work. That is the key point. Frankly, I do not need any lectures from him, and if he and his party—[Interruption.] No, they should be prepared to accept that the recession that he refers to is the recession that they left us.
I am proud to represent a town that exists because it has work, and I am proud to have been part of a Government who, for the first time in nearly 20 years, reversed the increase in child poverty. However, I am concerned that the Secretary of State’s announcement will not achieve what I believe he intends to achieve. We know that the best way to tackle child poverty is to increase women’s income. In Slough, the average bus fare is about £3.50. His taper says that people will keep 35p in every £1 that they earn. If a woman is doing a job that she can get to while her children are at school—for four hours a day, say—she will have to work the whole time just to pay her bus fares, ending up with £4 more. Will he not take the advice of his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and do something about the cost of travel to work?
The hon. Lady has to admit that the one group that will be hugely affected in a positive way will be women going into work, because so many are engaged in caring and work and in having to balance the two. They will be paid more for the hours that they work, because they will retain more of their money. Of course there might be disputes and debates about whether we need to support people with travel costs, but it is a bit rich for the Opposition to give us lectures about travel costs after they left us without having done anything about them at all.
A few moments ago the Secretary of State said that if an unemployed person is trying to get a job, they will not have sanctions placed on them. Can he please explain how he reconciles that with the 10% cut in housing benefit for those who have been unemployed for more than a year?
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) asked a reasonable question about the gap between the end of the current programmes and the start of the new programme. I am afraid that the Secretary of State departed from his general tone by giving him a fairly party political response. Will he take the point seriously? A gap of three to six months will be extremely significant, so if the new schemes are not ready, why can we not consider extending the current schemes in the meantime, to ensure that we do not leave people without the support that they need?
I believe that the programme that we have set out and the timings that we have set for it—it starts next year in the summer—will help all those who need support to get back into work. We can debate or argue about the gap, but my general view is that as employment rises and as we start that process, we will see more people going back to work, and we will be able to support them in a better way than through the previous programmes, which we believe actually cost more money than they returned.
Before we move on to the next statement, it might be convenient to remind the House that only those who are here for the statement can ask questions about it, and, just as before, I ask for single questions and pithy answers please.