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Topical Questions

Volume 519: debated on Monday 22 November 2010

We are busy working very hard on employment programmes. I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the very positive employment figures from last week, which indicate that the Government’s direction of travel places employment growth at the heart of all we do.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer and I note the earlier comment by the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), that economic growth should not be talked down and that jobs are being created. How are the providers of the Work programme going to work with employers to identify those jobs and make sure that people are placed in private sector jobs as we go forward?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The difference between this Government and the previous Government will be that the Work programme—the most comprehensive, integrated work programme in existence, certainly, since the war—will make a huge effort to get those who have been out of work for the longest periods ready for work so that they actually get to work. As the economy grows, those jobs will be greater in number. A key point that I made earlier is vital to her question: for all the growth under the previous Government, prior to the mistakes they made that brought us the recession, most of those jobs went to people from overseas because British people simply were not capable of doing that work. That has to change.

May I take the Secretary of State back to his claim that job creation will be vital and ask him specifically about what the Office for Budget Responsibility has stated will be the estimated saving from threatening the long-term unemployed, about whom he has just spoken, with the 10% figure? Do the OBR’s estimates on how much that policy will save include an expectation that it will move more people into work, or is no significant saving in terms of work incentives expected? Do the calculations simply show OBR figures for the number of people who are going to continue with no job but less money? What do the OBR figures indicate?

The OBR figures show two things: significant growth during the course of this Parliament and significant growth in private sector employment. Our changes in housing benefit will get rid of a disincentive to taking those jobs, which a significant number of people failed to take under the previous Government, who failed to do anything about it.

T2. My constituent Rachel Clark, who has learning difficulties, enjoys working as a volunteer at a coffee shop run by the charity MacIntyre. Until recently, she received a therapeutic allowance but unfortunately that practice has had to stop for fears that it is in breach of national minimum wage legislation. Given that all parties were happy with the arrangement and that Rachel is happy to carry on as an unpaid volunteer, can we look into this grey area of the law? (25132)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We can be clear that individuals such as his constituent are able to undertake volunteering opportunities. Indeed, that is something we have been encouraging as part of the Olympics and Paralympics, and it does not cause any problems if they are in receipt of state benefits.

T4. May I ask Ministers to look again at the proposal to reduce housing benefit by 10% for people receiving jobseeker’s allowance for a year? The Minister for Housing and Local Government said this morning that people in social rented housing will be kicked out of their homes if they go into work, and under the proposal on housing benefit, people will be kicked out of their homes if they do not go into work. (25134)

I always appreciate the hon. Lady’s advice. We certainly keep all that under review and intend to do so all the way through until we introduce the Bill. However, having said that, there is a lot of good evidence out there to show that we have to give people some sort of incentive not to decide to refuse that work. We believe that that is one of the areas where a lot of international evidence shows that such a spur actually helps people to do that.

T5. What can the Secretary of State do to assure unemployed people in Staffordshire Moorlands that the Work programme will help them to find not just employment, but sustainable employment? (25135)

One of the key differences in the Work programme, compared to previous programmes, is that it will pay providers not simply for getting someone into work, but for supporting them while they are back in work over an extended period. That is crucial to ensuring that people do not come off benefits, stay in work for a few weeks and then return to the unemployment registers, as has so often happened in the past.

T9. Is the Minister aware that his own Department’s statistics show that the impact of restricting local housing allowance to the 30th percentile in Glasgow is that 92% of recipients in one-bedroom properties will lose out by, on average, £7 per week? The Glasgow Housing Association told me on Friday that that is likely to lead to higher levels of rent arrears and lower levels of available investment for its properties. Does not that show how unfair and badly designed the proposals are? (25139)

I can only agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman on the manifesto on which he stood for election, which stated that we have to cap the rents that we are paying. His analysis assumes a static situation in which rents do not change. The Department puts more than £21 billion into the local housing allowance. If we changed the rules for that, we would change the market. We are trying to put pressure on rents so that they will go down, which will improve the situation.

T6. The whole House will welcome the news that unemployment is on the decline and look forward to the introduction of the Government’s Work programme. However, my right hon. Friend will be aware of the particular issues facing the north-east. What steps is he taking to ensure that there is support in the meantime for those seeking employment in the region? (25136)

My hon. Friend will be aware that I am always extremely concerned about the employment situation in the north-east. I was therefore extremely pleased this summer to see an increase in private sector employment of 17,000 in the region. I was disappointed, however, that the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance barely changed, which simply underlined for me the need for the Work programme to deliver real change in that area. However, the introduction of the new enterprise allowance and some of the other measures that we are taking to support small businesses, as set out in the Budget by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will help to continue the process of job creation in the private sector in the north-east, which is what we all want.

As the Secretary of State and his team develop their longer-term thinking on social security, including for state pensions, what emphasis and importance will they place on the contributory principle?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. We believe that a link between what people put into the system and what they get out of it is important, and we are looking at ways of modernising that principle. He will know that the contributory principle, as it currently exists, was invented in the 1940s when the assumption was that men worked and women stayed at home. We live in a modern world and need to modernise the contributory principle.

T7. What measures will be contained in the Work programme to ensure that the unemployed in rural areas get the help they need? (25137)

One of the benefits of working with smaller organisations as well as the larger prime contractors is that we can get the input of specialist organisations with expert knowledge of the rural community and the rural jobs market. I believe that the contracting structure we have set up maximises the likelihood of prime contractors identifying the right organisations to deliver support in rural areas.

My constituent, Mr Edwards, is in receipt of the independent living fund, which empowers him to buy services to meet his needs. Uncertainty over the future of the fund is causing him and his family great concern. When will the Government end that uncertainty?

As the hon. Lady knows, the uncertainty is a result of the previous Administration not having correctly financed the independent living fund. That led to the trustees of the fund having to close it to new applicants. We have already undertaken an informal consultation about the future of the fund, and will shortly come forward with a formal consultation. My overwhelming requirement will be to make sure that existing recipients continue to be well supported.

T8. Will the Minister confirm that barriers to employment vary from one part of the country to another, that he has abandoned the one-size-fits-all policy of the previous Government, and that personalised help is being given to people seeking to get back into the employment market in accordance with their needs? (25138)

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. It is particularly true for areas of the country that have high levels of incapacity benefit dependency. For the first time, we will be attempting to provide real support to people who have been on incapacity benefit long term and are found fit for work or potentially fit for work through the work capability assessment. I am convinced that the specialist support that we can bring to bear for those people will make a particular difference in those parts of the country where the problem is substantial.

Most jobseekers will become eligible for entry into the Work programme after they have been on jobseeker’s allowance for a period of 12 months. Can the Minister explain how it is sensible that at precisely the moment at which they become eligible for the extra support of the Work programme, they will see a cut in their housing benefit because of the period that they have spent on JSA?

The hon. Lady must understand that we are seeking to maximise the incentives in the system. What we inherited from the previous Administration is a system that is full of disincentives to go back to work. If we do not remove some of those disincentives, create a push to get people back into work and combine that with support to do so, we will end up with the same 13 years of failure as we saw under the previous Government.

T10. The Barry branch of the mental health charity Mind often advocates in favour of service users at work assessment appeals, with a very high success rate. This demonstrates the difficulty in assessing people with mental health illnesses. What action is the Minister taking to ensure that they are treated fairly in the new work capability assessment? (25140)

My hon. Friend will see tomorrow, with the publication of the Harrington review, some innovative suggestions about how we can deal with that problem. It is a very real problem. I am determined to ensure that we do everything we can to avoid people with mental health problems being wrongly diagnosed by the assessment. I pay tribute to Paul Farmer of Mind, whose input into the process has been hugely valuable.

May I bring the Minister back to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) about the cuts to housing benefit? The cuts to local housing allowance are the same cuts that will make people in Chesterfield up to £11 a week worse off. Will the Minister confirm that that was not in the Labour party manifesto and is nothing to do with the cap? Will he set the record straight?

On the contrary. The Labour party manifesto said that people who were in work should not be in worse accommodation than people who are out of work. That implies the 30th percentile change, and that is what we have implemented.

What are the Government doing to prevent hardened drug addicts with consequent mental health issues claiming DLA in the normal way, which goes straight into their veins and up their noses? What are the Government doing to improve the situation and stop this waste of public money?

As my hon. Friend knows, we are undertaking a thorough review of the assessment process concerning DLA. Those are just the sort of issues that we will be looking at in detail.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the Government’s plans to accelerate the increase in pension age will come as a cruel blow to a whole generation of women in this country, because the financial reality of motherhood and family life makes it much harder for many women to build up a pension comparable to those of men? What provision is being made for women aged 54 to 59?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that no woman aged 59 or 58 is affected at all by the changes. However, we are equalising men’s and women’s state pension ages somewhat more rapidly. No one will be affected until 2016, and those who are most affected and who have the longest increase in working life will have a period beyond 2016, so they will have at least seven years’ notice of the change.

I warmly welcome the long-overdue review of the work capability assessment, but does the Minister agree that there are problems after the assessment, and that the time spent going through appeals and tribunals is far too long? What steps is his Department taking to rectify that?

There are two aspects to what we are doing. First, we are seeking to improve the process not simply within the assessment itself, but before and after, in the way that individual cases are handled. I hope that that will make a difference. Secondly, my Department is working with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that we streamline and improve the appeals process, create extra capacity to deal with any appeals that result from next year’s migration and have a system that works as effectively as possible.

The Secretary of State knows how vital Remploy and other supportive workshops are in helping people back into work. Will he outline the steps that the Government are going to take to promote that through public procurement, and will he or one of his Ministers meet me and trade union representatives to discuss the matter?

The hon. Gentleman knows from the recent spending review settlement that Remploy’s modernisation plan and funding are in place, and we will continue to monitor its performance against that. I have already met trade union officials about Remploy’s future, and I will continue to do so as we move forward with the modernisation plan.

I, like many other hon. Members, have been contacted by a number of constituents whose pension provision has been seriously affected by the collapse of the former Ford UK parts manufacturer, Visteon. Will the Secretary of State meet me to explore how we might best help those who have been most adversely affected?