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Work and Pensions

Volume 521: debated on Monday 10 January 2011

The Secretary of State was asked—

Work Programme

Happy new year, Mr Speaker. We published the full invitation to tender for the Work programme shortly before Christmas. Would-be bidders have until early February to submit their bids and we remain on track to launch the Work programme in the summer.

Downham Market has a community payback scheme that was initiated by volunteers. How will the community payback scheme fit with the Work programme, in which those volunteers are keen to get involved, as well as with voluntary work in my constituency?

That is an important point because many of those who go on to the Work programme will be former offenders or, in some cases, people going through community payback who are on welfare. I am in close contact with my colleagues in the Department for Justice and we are working together to try to ensure that we integrate their work on rehabilitating offenders with our work to get former offenders back into work.

In my constituency of Stafford, a number of local voluntary organisations and social enterprises are committed to getting people back into work. What assurances can the Minister give us that they will be taken into account when it comes to awarding the sub-contracts under the main contractors?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are very clear that we want to see small local community, voluntary sector, social enterprise and private sector groups having the opportunity to work alongside major contractors in the Work programme. We have been very clear to would-be prime contractors that if they do not bring together a consortium of smaller organisations that demonstrate the breadth of skills necessary to deliver support to all the different groups that will be helped under the Work programme, they will not be successful in their bids. That is of paramount importance.

I very much welcome the assurances we have received from the Minister about the small-scale organisations that are being brought in to the larger contracting. What assurances can he give my constituents and others in Cornwall who benefit from EU convergence funding that the locally identified priorities under that programme and the excellent work that has been done to get hard-to-reach groups of people back into work will continue and will benefit from the Work programme?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. At the moment, we are considering the next phase of the European social fund contracting. I am absolutely clear—indeed, the objectives of the scheme make it clear—that it must sit alongside the Work programme as part of a drive to help some of those who are furthest from the workplace to make the move back into work and to lift them out of poverty. That will remain a priority for us.

Is not the Work programme undermined from the outset by the cuts that the Minister is making to the child care component of the working tax credit, which will hit families in my constituency to the tune of some £500 a year? Why is he instituting such a disincentive to work?

The hon. Gentleman has to remember the financial mess his Government left behind. If we do not sort out the deficit and create a stable economic environment in this country, there will not be secure jobs in the future. That is and will remain our No. 1 priority.

On Thursday, I visited my borough’s alcohol and drugs service and spoke to service users and providers. One of the biggest problems found by people who have a history of misuse is moving from treatment into work. I hope that the Work programme will address that, particularly given the issues that I have been told that they have with Jobcentre Plus. We are told that the pricing system in the new programme will reward providers who help those who are hardest to reach. Will that pricing structure account for those with a history of alcohol and drug misuse?

The simple answer to that question is yes, it will. The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point and I want to refer to one other dimension of the issue. A key point is giving those people opportunities to volunteer while claiming benefit. Volunteering can be an extremely important part of the pathway from a long-term problem into work. We have changed the guidance for Jobcentre Plus and will proactively promote volunteering opportunities to those who face those challenges in the hope that we will help them take that extra step on the way.

Just before Christmas, the all-party Select Committee on Work and Pensions—may I be the first to congratulate its Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), on her well deserved honour in the new year’s list?—warned of a looming gap between the future jobs fund closing to new referrals of young people at the end of March and the start of the Work programme in June. In an article this morning, the Secretary of State, commenting on rising youth unemployment, promised that

“the programmes we inherited will remain in place until we replace them later this year.”

Can we therefore take it that referrals to the future jobs fund will continue until June?

I start by offering my congratulations to the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg). There are moments when awards are acclaimed in all parts of the House, and hers certainly has been.

We have already extended the contracts for all the legacy programmes, which people will take advantage of until June. There will be people on the future jobs fund in the new financial year, and we are working through the detail of the transition for the final few weeks before people join the Work programme. Obviously, some people will be referred for a short period before the start of the Work programme, and we will negotiate with the would-be contractors to ensure a smooth transition. Our goal is to ensure that there is proper continuity for all those who need specialist support.

Pensioner Income

2. What assessment his Department has made of the effects of changes to prices in January 2011 on the incomes of pensioners. (32643)

In April this year, benefits and pensions will be increased by more than £4 billion, more than three quarters of which will go to pensioners. In addition, price rises in January 2011 will feed through into the September 2011 price indices, which will be used in future benefit uprating.

Pensioners on fixed incomes will be among the hardest hit by the Government’s VAT rise. Will the Minister confirm that the VAT hike will mean that pensioners are worse off in 2011 under this Government than they would have been under the previous Government’s plans?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring to the previous Government’s plans. In his constituency, vulnerable pensioners, vulnerable disabled people and vulnerable families with young children received four or five cold weather payments this winter to help them with their fuel bills in January 2011. His policy, and the plans that we inherited, would have reduced those payments to £8.50 a week. We have paid £25 a week four or five times to vulnerable pensioners in his constituency.

I will give the Minister another try: will he accept that with pensioners set to pay an extra £217 in 2011 because of the VAT rise, the basic state pension rising by only the same amount as planned by the previous Government and now news that the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury cannot agree the £140 flat-rate pension that he has extolled, pensioners have very little to look forward to in 2011 but a lot to fear?

The hon. Lady used to be an economist, so I would not dream of suggesting that any of the figures that she has quoted are in the slightest bit dodgy. She will be aware that colleagues at Her Majesty’s Treasury have calculated that the impact of the VAT rise for each percentage point increase is just less than £1 a week for single pensioners. The 2.5% increase will cost pensioners £2.50 a week, which compares with our £4.50 pension increase this April, and there will be additional increases in 2012 because of the VAT rise, so I dispute her figures.

Jobseeker’s Allowance

3. What sanctions will be applied to jobseeker’s allowance claimants who fail to find work within the period set by his Department. (32644)

There is no time limit on entitlement to income-based jobseeker’s allowance. I remind the hon. Lady that the conditions that pertain to withdrawal of benefit are that individuals must be available for work and seeking work, and they have to sign up to an agreement. If they continually refuse to do any of that, that is when the sanctions come in.

I am aware that those sanctions will be applied after a decision by the independent decision maker. What reassurances can the Minister give me about the role of the independent decision maker and the criteria that will be used? I am particularly concerned about the appeal process, because, as one can imagine, mistakes can be made and there should be a right of appeal. I am keen that that right is open to anybody who is sanctioned in that way.

We will strengthen the role of the independent decision maker to ensure that decisions are made for the right reasons. The hon. Lady can rest assured that we will ensure that is the case. If she has any concerns, she should raise them with us, and if she has any thoughts, we are open to dispute.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one implication of this question is that jobs are not available in the marketplace? Just before Christmas, we conducted a survey in my constituency, where there were more than 700 job vacancies. People from Swansea are as welcome to take up those job vacancies as people from anywhere else in the country.

My hon. Friend is right. Over the past nine months, we have seen a huge increase in part-time work with more than 400,000 new jobs. [Interruption.] The answer to Labour Members is that jobs are being created even though we are coming out of a recession, which was brought on by their policies.

The Secretary of State’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), has said of the Government’s plans for the long-term unemployed:

“You have been unemployed for 12 months, you are passing the actively seeking work test…we are/the Government is saying that your housing benefit will be cut by 10% just because you have been unemployed for 12 months. I don’t understand why. You are on the breadline, you’ve been trying to look for work, you’re passing all the Government tests and you’re suddenly going to have your rent, which is your highest cost—your help with that—taken down by 10%. No logic behind that whatsoever.”

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House with which part of that statement he disagrees?

The reality is that the coalition—I emphasise coalition—position is that we will withdraw some of that money, 10%, before the 12 month point. The point about the 12-month stage is that more than 90% of all those seeking work will be in work by that point. That gives us an opportunity to make sure that those who are having the greatest difficulty can be properly reassessed, and if there are particular problems, they can be dealt with. It also acts as a spur and incentive to others who are not exactly playing the game in line with the question asked by the hon. Member for Swansea East (Mrs James). On balance, I think the coalition will find that the policy will work very well.

I listened with care to that answer, but given that the number of people who have been unemployed for more than 12 months, on the broader measure, went up by 41,000 in the most recent figures, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether the Business Minister is the only member of the coalition who thinks that the present proposals are “unsupportable”?

That is like my asking whether the right hon. Gentleman’s leader and his shadow Chancellor agree on everything, which I do not think they do. The coalition has a clear statement of policy and that policy exists. The reality of that policy is exactly as he has been debating and I would not trouble him to find out exactly what he agrees with his leader about after this morning’s statement that his side apparently now agree with most of the changes we are making.

Disabled Jobseekers

4. What recent representations he has received on his plans to help disabled jobseekers into work. (32645)

The coalition Government have an ongoing commitment to co-production, which involves disabled people in how our policies develop. The Government also regularly meet charities and voluntary organisations to discuss new policy ideas. For example. Mind, Mencap and the National Autistic Society are working with Professor Harrington as part of the independent review of the work capability assessment. On 2 December 2010, I also announced an independent review into specialist employment support for disabled people led by Liz Sayce, the chief executive of RADAR—the Royal Association for Disability Rights.

I thank the Minister for that response. One of my disabled constituents uses the access to work travel assistance, which has helped him into a full-time job, but he finds the monthly form-filling quite onerous and believes that his case is handled by several different people. Does the Minister have any plans to streamline the system and reduce the burden of paperwork on disabled people, perhaps by putting some of it online?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and underline the Government’s commitment to access to work. The monthly claim form is kept as simple as possible but we really have to make sure that we are protecting public funds, so we require confirmation that a customer has been in work during the month and any receipts. We must also make sure that we have a confirming signature. Such documents would go straight to one of our payments team and would, I hope, be dealt with quickly, with the payment being made directly into the customer’s bank account. If my hon. Friend’s constituent is having particular problems, I advise her perhaps to seek further help at Jobcentre Plus. We understand the importance of refining the administration of access to work. That is why we have introduced the pre-employment eligibility letter—to give individuals assurance about their eligibility for access to work funding when they are looking for a job, not just after they have secured it.

I thank the Minister for her response and commend the work she is doing in this field. Voluntary organisations in my borough of Bexley are very keen to assist the disabled into work and many are already doing so. What more can the Government do to help utilise the talent and skills of disabled people in the work force?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and I absolutely endorse his wish to have more local organisations involved in helping to get disabled people back into work. I know that through the Work Choice programme that we launched last year we already have Scope and the Shaw Trust actively working in his constituency in providing support for disabled people. I encourage him to ask more of his local organisations to get involved in that and other schemes.

The Minister will be aware that anyone who has come off incapacity benefit to move into work in the past two years was promised a two-year linking period, during which they could return to the benefit at the original rate. The new employment and support allowance conversion regulations, which are due to take effect next month, remove that protection, and those returning to work will be required to return to the ESA at the assessment rate for the first 13 weeks. Will the Minister urgently reconsider those new regulations, and their impact on a small number of benefit claimants who appear to have been affected by the backtracking on a commitment on which many of them had relied?

The hon. Lady brings up a very detailed point, and I should be very pleased to look at it with her separately, but I should underline the fact that in all the changes we are making, we want to make sure that we are judging disabled people on what they can do, not what they cannot, and we want to make sure that more disabled people are able to get back into work. At the moment, 50% of disabled people work, and many more want to, with the right support.

The Minister will be aware that the employment and support allowance has largely superseded incapacity benefit. In week 11, the claimant is assessed by a medical board. What plans does the Minister have to involve a claimant’s GP in future assessments, so that we can ensure that they are more accurate, as opposed to being a snapshot at week 11?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the decision maker will have access to all the medical records of any individual involved in that sort of process.

Enterprise Allowance

I am pleased to say that last week we announced that the new enterprise allowance would expand to become a nationwide scheme from next autumn. It will first be launched in Merseyside in about three weeks’ time, and it will be rolled out across those parts of the country that have a particular unemployment challenge from spring onwards.

I welcome the fact that the enterprise allowance scheme, which had such a positive effect in the 1980s, is being reinstated. However, I have a concern about the eligibility criteria: one has to have been unemployed for six months or more to be eligible. The National Audit Office noted in the 1980s that the longer someone spent on unemployment benefit before going into self-employment, the less successful that tended to be. Given that, will the Minister consider reducing that time and allowing people who have been unemployed for less than six months to go on to the scheme?

I would very much like to improve the support that we provide, but obviously we have to do that in the context of the finances that we have inherited from the Opposition. The big difference that the new scheme will make is that it will also take advantage of the expertise of existing business people. I hope that my hon. Friend, who has a strong track record in business, will look to become a mentor for one of the new business people. That is an important difference from the previous scheme; the new scheme offers both financial and practical support, and not just financial support.

Enterprise allowance will work all the better if young people are educated into the idea of creating their own businesses, yet thousands of people from Rotherham and other parts of south Yorkshire who go into work experience via the education business partnership scheme do not know whether the scheme will be continued. It is funded by the Department for Education, but we do not know whether it will be cut or continued. Could the Minister’s Department talk to the Department for Education and get a bit of joined-up government on this?

One of the things that we are doing is introducing changes to the guidelines to ensure that young people who find themselves unemployed have a much greater opportunity to get work experience in enterprises while they are on benefits. We have also announced tens of thousands of extra apprenticeships to give young people the chance to get involved in, and understand, business. Young people will be among those who are eligible to take advantage of the new enterprise allowance, if they are unfortunate enough to find themselves unemployed.

Jobseeker’s Allowance

8. What information his Department holds on the average cost to the public purse of an additional person being on jobseeker’s allowance in 2010-11. (32649)

Today, the JSA rate for a person over 25 is, as the hon. Lady knows, £65.45, and that will rise in April to £67.50. In 2010-11, the average weekly JSA rate was about £63.00. In addition, there are housing benefit, council tax benefit and employment support costs. However, the vast majority of jobseekers spend only a very short time in that situation; over half are back in work within 3 months.

According to the New Economics Foundation, there is a jobs gap in the north-east of 447,000 jobs, and PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that we will lose an additional 4.1% of our total jobs base as a result of this Government’s cuts. Ministers have spoken about help for the longer-term unemployed, which I welcome, but what assurances can the Secretary of State provide that those additional job losses will not simply represent additional benefit payments, as well as lives wasted?

The question that the hon. Lady asks is a pertinent one. The Work programme that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State was just speaking about is to make sure that those who go beyond a certain point at differing levels are swept up because they have particular problems. We need to deal intensively with them and use the private and voluntary sector. But to help earlier, Jobcentre Plus has been pretty successful at getting people matched up with the work that they need to be in and getting them back into work. When it comes to skills, the Government are increasing the number of apprenticeships—50,000 rising to 75,000 extra—which will help hugely with skilling, and the mentoring and work for yourself programme, which are part of the Work programme, will have a huge impact, by advising young people and enabling them to take the right jobs and get the right skills. The hon. Lady is right. Skilling up is important, but we think we will be on the right track to do that. Overall, the Office for Budget Responsibility said that employment will rise over the period.

Does the Secretary of State accept the Office for Budget Responsibility figures, revealed to my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), that an extra two thirds of a billion pounds will be spent on housing benefit as a result of rising unemployment over the next four years?

The OBR is independent and the Government of course accept what it publishes as independent figures. We go by what the OBR’s figures say. As the hon. Lady knows, we inherited a financial mess left by the previous Government. What we are doing is to make sure that we reduce the ballooning cost of, for example, housing benefit that she left behind—a bill that doubled in the past five years.[Official Report, 12 January 2011, Vol. 521, c. 6MC.]

Unfair Dismissal (Age)

We are moving in that direction. Our changes will abolish the default retirement age, and we will make sure that people can no longer be kicked out of work because they have reached a certain age. By getting rid of that, we will improve the economy and help older people find work for a longer period, which is beneficial to the economy and beneficial for those people.

In the recession redundancies have been higher among the over-50s than any other age group, including in Harlow. Many people, like my constituent, Kevin Forbes, who applied for more than 4,500 jobs, are worried that employment law is biased against older people. What are the Government doing, apart from what my right hon. Friend has just described, to make work fairer for the over-50s?

The reality for companies and for those who are seeking work is that, because of the need for employment over the next few years, we will need more and more of the skills that are present in the age group to which my hon. Friend refers. Therefore, companies have to reach the sensible solution, which is that people who have those skills and ways of doing their jobs can stay in work much longer. The Work programme will be set up so that they can be helped back into work if they become unemployed. My concern is that companies should recognise that older workers have huge value, well beyond the cost of paying their wages.

Constituents in Northampton have raised with me the fact that they have been forced to retire because of their age before they were ready to do so. As I know my right hon. Friend accepts, older people offer a wealth of experience and skill. What progress have the Government made on the consultation on the default retirement age?

The consultation has gone very well. We are sifting through the responses. There have been more responses than we anticipated. The vast majority have been positive, although there are some, in some areas of business, that were not as positive as we had hoped. We will publish those results and press on. I can guarantee to my hon. Friend and the rest of the House that we will press on with the issue.

I am glad to hear that the Secretary of State is keen to extend fairness to workers. It is important that people are not discriminated against, regardless of their age. Does he agree that unfair dismissal is unfair dismissal whenever it takes place, and that any steps that the Government take that make it easier for unscrupulous employers to sack people without the right of appeal will be a retrograde step?

I am not aware of any plans to change that. I agree that it is important that older workers in particular are recognised for the skills and benefits that they bring to the company concerned. Whatever changes are made, we must recognise that it should not be easier to get rid of somebody for the wrong reasons. If an employer has the right reason for getting rid of somebody, that is one thing, but people who are working hard should not lose their jobs just because they are older.

Will the Secretary of State assure older people that he will not make it more difficult for them to pursue unfair dismissal claims by lengthening the qualification period for claims?

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he asks a question that is a direct concern of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. However, from our point of view I have no such plans. It is a matter that he might wish to raise with the relevant Department.

Fixed-interest Income Bonds

12. What assistance his Department provides to pensioners who rely on fixed-interest income bonds. (32654)

For pensioners with savings, the Government ignore the first £10,000 of their capital when assessing them for pension credit, as a result of which almost nine out of 10 pension credit applicants have no capital taken account of at all. In addition, to support all pensioners the basic state pension will rise by £4.50 this April and the standard minimum guarantee for pension credit by £4.75.

About one third of my constituents are on pensions, which are often very small. What plans do the Government have to help older people who live on small incomes for which they have saved all their lives to build up?

My hon. Friend raises the very important point that falling interest rates and rates of return on savings tend to affect older people in particular. When we look at state pension reform, the return to saving and the reward for saving will be a particular priority for us. Many pensioners have their savings in very low-interest accounts, sometimes paying as little as 0.1%. There are much better rates out there, and I encourage all pensioners to shop around extensively to find the best rates possible.

Pension Credit

13. What estimate he has made of the number of people in receipt of pension credit who will receive reduced payments as a result of the change to the timetable for the equalisation of the state pension age. (32655)

Just to be clear, no one currently receiving pension credit will have reduced payments at all because of the revised state pension age timetable. In future, however, we anticipate that about 120,000 households could be affected by the increase in the pension credit qualifying age as a result of the change to the equalisation timetable between 2016 and 2020.

Given that we know that the poorest pensioners are some of those who will be hardest hit by the Government’s changes in respect of equalisation, will the Minister consider de-linking entirely the increase in the qualifying age for pension credit, which is paid only to the poorest, and the increase in the threshold for women’s pensions? He says that he is worried that the relationship with his Tory masters is a bit cosy; here is an opportunity for him to strike a rare, Liberal, fair blow.

The hon. Gentleman is right that, on average, people of lower social classes and on lower incomes tend to have a shorter life expectancy. The good news is that life expectancy is rising for people on all income levels, so as we raise the state pension age, it is only right and proper that we raise the starting point for pension credit. It would be very strange to go on paying at 60 something called pension credit when the state pension age rises, as under the previous Government’s plans, to 66, 67 and 68.

In a reply to a written answer, the Minister admitted that half a million women will have to carry on working for longer than a year as a result of accelerating the equalisation of the state retirement age. In particular, women who were born in 1954 and expected to retire in 2018 aged 64 will not now get their state pension until they are 66 in 2020. That strikes me as incredibly unfair. What is the Minister going to do about it?

The hon. Lady is right: of the 5 million people who will be affected by the increase in the state pension, a relatively small age group will be affected as she describes. It would be an option to go more slowly, as the previous Government did, but, if we deferred all changes until 2020 in order to deal with the point that she makes, it would cost an extra £10 billion. Once again, we have a suggestion for £10 billion of extra spending but no suggestion of where the £10 billion might come from.

Welfare Reform (Multiple Births)

14. What recent assessment he has made of the likely effects of his welfare reform proposals on families with multiple births. (32656)

The changes that we have proposed for welfare reform are intended to make work pay for everyone and to tailor specific back-to-work help to meet individual circumstances. Approximately 10,000 births in the UK are multiple births, from a total number of 800,000 births.

Reforms to the Sure Start maternity grant have protected cases where the first birth is a multiple birth; the Sure Start maternity grant will be payable for all children when the first birth is a multiple. I would welcome any further views or thoughts from anybody about what they feel we ought to be doing about this issue.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply and declare an interest, as the father of one-year-old twins.

Although having twins is a very rewarding privilege, it is, as has been remarked before, often a case of two for the price of three. Research undertaken by the New Policy Institute on behalf of the Twins and Multiple Births Association, or TAMBA, shows that multiple-birth families will suffer more than most under the proposed reforms. May I ask the Secretary of State whether he or one of his Ministers will meet me and representatives of TAMBA to discuss some of the perhaps unintended consequences of their reform proposals for families with multiple births?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his twins; I have four children, and one at a time was quite enough. I hope that he benefits greatly from that double-up. We will definitely see him and any group that he wishes to lead to discuss the matter further.

I welcome the Government’s decision to pay a maternity grant for each child when the first birth is a multiple birth, but does the Secretary of State not accept that parents can face exceptional costs when a multiple birth follows an earlier, single birth? Could he not apply the same rationale and pay the maternity grant in those circumstances?

The issue that my hon. Friend has raised is complicated. We are looking at it and discussing it, and I am happy to take it further with him if he wishes. However, it does add complications to an already complicated system.

Claimant Count (Wellingborough)

16. What his most recent forecast is of the claimant count in (a) Wellingborough and (b) the UK in 2011-12. (32658)

The Department for Work and Pensions does not itself produce forecasts of unemployment. However, the latest UK claimant count forecast for 2011-12, published as part of the Office for Budget Responsibility’s autumn forecast, was 1.52 million at the start of 2011-12, falling to 1.47 million at the end of the financial year. I am afraid that no figures are produced at constituency level looking ahead.

Having watched the skill of my hon. Friend over the years in combating the former Chancellor and Prime Minister over the increased level of unemployment in his constituency compared with 1997, I am relieved to be able to stand at the Dispatch Box and note that unemployment today is lower than it was under the previous Government. Let us hope that it stays that way.

I thank the Minister for his kind words. Every Labour Government have left power with unemployment higher than when they came to power. When they came to power, unemployment in Wellingborough was 1,826; when they left, the figure was 2,916—an increase of 60%. Does the Minister agree that the Labour party is the party of unemployment and the Conservatives are the party of employment?

I have heard the hon. Gentleman’s question with some delectation, but sadly it relates not to the policy of the Government but to that of the Opposition. I call Mr David Winnick.

In view of some of the propaganda put out by the Government and their supporters, saying that unemployed people are reluctant to find work, I should tell the Minister that over the past few weeks the local press in my area has reported that where there are vacancies, more than 100 people have applied for one single vacancy. Does that not demonstrate that up and down the country the unemployed are desperate to find work?

I have never doubted that there are very large numbers of people on benefits who want work. Our challenge is to make sure that there are sustainable jobs for the future. That is why we are investing in apprenticeships, trying to create a better climate for business and trying to make Britain a good place to create employment for the future. The great tragedy of the past decade is that the previous Government failed to do those things in good times.

No one in the House wants to see the claimant count rise—most especially, no one wants young people to have to add themselves to the rolls of the unemployed. Given what has happened in the past few months, does the Minister now think that summarily cancelling the future jobs fund was the right choice?

The whole problem with the future jobs fund was that, first, it was extremely expensive—twice as expensive as the new deal for young people; and secondly, it did not create long-term jobs. This Government believe in creating apprenticeships, which create skills that lead to a career, not in six-month expensive work placements that lead nowhere.

Disabled Jobseekers

I raise the example of a constituent who is almost entirely blind—among a number of other disabilities—and is trying to set up his own business. As hon. Members can imagine, that involves a lot of communication with the local DWP office. My constituent needs that communication to be in an e-mailable form because he has a machine that will read the message for him in confidence without personal information being seen by his carer. The local office has said that it can send communication only by letter, citing security as a reason. Will the Minister look into that unsatisfactory situation?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I share his concern about the rigidity of the rules regarding e-mail and the effects that they can have on certain aspects of the running of the Department. I assure him that we will be looking at that.

Figures show that people with a disability find it more difficult to enter the workplace. What discussions has the Minister had with her ministerial colleagues from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills about the number of employers who are showing a genuine interest in employing people with a disability?

I not only have discussions with BIS, but have gone out to talk to employers about their commitments to employing disabled people. There are some great examples of major and smaller employers who have a real commitment to ensuring that disabled people have a level playing field when it comes to taking on jobs. Through that and the support provided by access to work and other programmes that the Government are running, I am sure that we can help more disabled people to get back into gainful employment.

Is the Minister satisfied that the people who operate the Motability scheme and those who sit in judgment on appeal tribunals are aware that the Government’s intention is to encourage disabled people into work? Those people should not drive disabled people who had work out of work by taking away their Motability cars.

I can assure my hon. Friend that we greatly value Motability’s work in supporting not only disabled people who are in employment, but disabled people who are not in employment. We will be ensuring that that scheme is robust into the future. Many thousands of people enjoy the support of Motability and get great value from it.

Pensions (Administrative Burden)

19. What steps he is taking to reduce the burden of administration on businesses arising from pension provision. (32661)

We are taking forward the recommendations of the independent “making automatic enrolment work” review, many of which were aimed specifically at making automatic enrolment in workplace pensions more straightforward for employers.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Although it is crucial that the Government do everything possible to get people to save for their retirement, does he agree that currently it is even more critical to reduce the burden of red tape and bureaucracy which is preventing small businesses from creating the new jobs we desperately need?

My hon. Friend is right to suggest that we need to minimise the burden of quality workplace pension provision on firms. When the pensions Bill is published, she will see that all the changes we are making to the provision for enrolment in workplace pensions are deregulatory and will reduce the cost and burden for firms.

Disabled Jobseekers

20. What recent representations he has received on his plans to help disabled jobseekers into work. (32662)

I thank the Minister for her earlier response. I have been concerned that the number of people with mental health disabilities referred straight on to jobseeker’s allowance has been greater than the number of people with physical disabilities. Can the Minister give an assurance that those undertaking workplace capability assessments will have access to high quality mental health expertise, and will she or the Minister responsible meet representatives of mental health charities from my constituency?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. That issue was looked at in detail as part of the Harrington review. The Government accepted all the recommendations put forward by Harrington and I assure her that mental health champions—one of the proposals put forward—will be in place by March. I believe that the Minister for Employment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), will be meeting my hon. Friend to discuss those matters further.

Although I support the recent changes to access to work, which have offered a reassurance to prospective employers that they will be able to use ATW, I am concerned that the money available is to be reduced. Will the Minister reassure me that the access to work fund will always be adequate as the Government’s policies rightly help more disabled people back into work?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I can reassure him about the Government’s commitment to access to work. I can go one stage further and say that more people will receive support from access to work this year than received it in the final year of the previous Government, and that that support will continue. We will be considering how we can make access to work provide really good value for disabled people and for the taxpayer.

Severe Weather (Vulnerable People)

23. What assistance his Department has provided to vulnerable people during the recent period of severe weather. (32665)

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. Can he confirm that, contrary to various scare stories that we have heard in recent weeks, cold weather payments will continue into the future?

As my hon. Friend suggests, there are two systems of support during the winter months: the winter fuel payment, which the Chancellor has confirmed will continue on exactly the basis budgeted for by the previous Government; and the cold weather payments, which will not continue on the basis budgeted for by the previous Government because they were going to cut them by two thirds and we are going to keep them at £25 a week.

The Minister went some way towards answering my question about what is going to happen to the winter fuel payment, but can he categorically confirm that we will not see any changes to it in the next economic year?

To reiterate, the Chancellor of the Exchequer made it quite clear in his comprehensive spending review statement that we will be sticking to the budgeted plans for winter fuel payments for future winters.

Topical Questions

I am concerned that the figures show that some 600,000 16 to 24-year-olds in the UK have never held regular work since leaving education. While this is a tragedy for them, it is part of a much longer-term problem that is not just to do with the recession. Unemployment among 16 to 24-year-olds stood at about the same level in 2008 as it had in 1997, despite some £3 billion spent on young people via the new deal and other programmes. That is why we are planning to phase out the old schemes with the new enterprise allowance scheme and the new Work programme and provide for 75,000 more apprenticeships as part of our package to improve the situation.

I am particularly concerned about the 820 young people in my constituency who are starting the year without a job. I spent some time in my local jobcentre in Ilkeston before Christmas, and I am very impressed with the efforts being made by staff there to help young people. However, can my right hon. Friend assist the House by setting out what efforts the Government are making at this time to help young people to access apprenticeships and skills training?

As my hon. Friend will know, the Government are increasing the number of additional apprenticeships from 50,000 to 75,000 over the period of this Parliament. We are also bringing forward the Work programme. It is interesting to note that young people who have been out of work for a long time, as that is defined, will be entering the Work programme a month earlier than they would have done under the new deal for young people, which will be very good for them. Prior to that, jobcentres will work very closely with young people to make sure that they get the right choices and opportunities. It is worth noting that we are also doing an awful lot in trying to get those who are still at school set ready for the world of work when they leave school.

On the subject of unemployment, the Government are meeting businesses in Downing street today and asking them to create jobs, but in its latest forecast published since the last DWP questions, the Office for Budget Responsibility revised upwards its unemployment forecasts for 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. Does this not confirm that it is as a direct result of the Government’s macro-economic judgments that the unemployment queue is now forecast to be longer and the unemployment bill to be higher?

The right hon. Gentleman seems to forget the financial situation that we inherited from his Government. I know that it is an uncomfortable fact, but the reality is that we had a major recession and we are taking the decisions that are necessary to get this economy back on track. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the OBR forecast, he will see that we are going to create many more new jobs and that unemployment will be falling all the way through the rest of this Parliament.

I have recently received a number of complaints that jobcentres are sending applicants for jobs to which they are not at all suited. Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that with the introduction of the integrated Work programme, there will be new checks and balances to ensure that applicants are not sent for jobs for which they are totally unsuitable?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important that we try to match individuals with the vacancies that are best suited to them. Under the Work programme, providers will not be paid if they do not give people the right opportunities and they do not get the jobs, because there is a payment by results system. That system is the best route to ensure that those who are on benefits for the longer term get the best possible support and access to vacancies.

T2. There has been a move from up-front, face-to-face contact at the jobcentre to more telephone systems. What plans do the Government have to reintroduce more face-to-face contact in jobcentres throughout the UK? (32669)

We welcome the hon. Gentleman back to the House after a breathless new year. We intend to find the right mix between the different channels of access to Jobcentre Plus. Many younger claimants prefer to access services online, many claimants prefer to deal with such matters face to face, and others are happy to apply for benefits and deal with such matters over the phone. The trick is to get the right mix, and that is what we will seek to do.

T3. Atos Healthcare, which provides the Department’s medical examiners, has told me that it does not provide physiotherapy services in its assessments of incapacity benefit claimants. Will Ministers consider including core physiotherapy checks for Atos so that people who are in genuine need of help and those who claim to have bad backs but are not in such genuine need can be better identified? (32670)

I am a little confused by my hon. Friend’s experience, because tests and assessments of people’s physical capabilities are carried out under the work capability assessment. Our goal is to ensure that the WCA continues to improve and is the best possible mechanism. I am happy to talk to him about his constituents’ experiences.

T4. Further to the Secretary of State’s previous answer, will he confirm that unemployment will return to pre-recession levels by the end of the Parliament? (32671)

We stand by the OBR forecast that unemployment will rise slightly in the coming year and, thereafter, will fall year on year.

T5. My constituent William Pender approached me to say that the removal of the mobility component of disability living allowance from his son, who resides in a state-funded care home, will leave his son more isolated, because the care home can provide only limited trips out. I invite the Minister to confirm that the full and true nature of my constituent’s mobility needs will be properly catered for under the new system after the reforms. (32672)

Local authorities’ contracts with care homes cover daily living activities, which may include providing access to doctors, dentists and local services such as libraries and banks. In addition, care homes have an obligation to help residents to pursue their independence. Our proposals will therefore remove an overlap in public funding.

T7. The Government’s ethnic minority impact assessment of the housing benefit changes states that it is not possible, because of a lack of data, to make a proper assessment. In my constituency, it is estimated that 8,500 people will be displaced. On the register, 64% of claimants are from ethnic minority backgrounds. That rises to 83% and 84% for the most vulnerable groups of those in temporary accommodation and those in houses of more than four people. Will the Government assure me that they will do what they said they might do and conduct further research into the disproportionate impact that the changes will have on ethnic minorities? (32674)

I do not recognise the estimate of 8,500 displaced families. We have made changes to the proposals so that the changes to housing benefit will be phased in and existing tenants will have nine months’ protection starting from the anniversary of their claim, with the result that local authorities will have time to manage the transition and that there will be more direct payments to landlords, so we will be able to negotiate rents down. We will of course monitor the impact of the changes as they go on, but 8,500 displaced families is not a number that we recognise.

T8. Although I welcome the Government’s payment by results model as a way of delivering value for the taxpayer, the challenge for a lot of small organisations is that it will pose huge cash-flow problems. They will have to deliver the work and pay their staff, and then they will be paid by the Government. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that small organisations that can deliver effective work programmes are not disfranchised by the Government’s payment by results model? (32675)

I recognise the problem to which my hon. Friend refers, which is one reason why we have been absolutely clear to would-be bidders for the prime contracts for the Work programme that we expect them not simply to build but maintain a network of smaller providers. Where they have such cash-flow problems, it will be the big guys with the capital who are expected to carry the burden. In addition, we have put in place the Merlin standard, a code of conduct for contractors that basically states that if they do not do right by smaller organisations, and if they treat them badly commercially, they can lose their contracts.

T9. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the establishment of the York Disabled Workers Cooperative, in which former Remploy workers, with the support of the GMB union and others, have established a factory making garden furniture and other products and selling them directly to the public? Does that not show that there remains a place for supported employment factories in the UK, and will she bear that in mind in the context of the review of Remploy? (32676)

I join the hon. Gentleman in applauding the work of the York Disabled Workers Cooperative. It is important that we consider new ways of ensuring that organisations can help disabled people to have sustained employment, whether through social enterprises, Remploy’s enterprise services or factories.

Special Metals Wiggin is a large and important employer in Hereford city, but it has several hundred pensioners who have not had an increase in their company pension since 1995 and who have therefore suffered a more than 50% loss in the value of their pensions. Will the Minister examine the matter, and is he prepared to meet pensioners’ representatives to discuss it in more detail?

I am happy to look into the individual situation to which my hon. Friend refers. In general there are statutory requirements for the uprating of pensions in respect of service post-1997, but occasionally, when schemes are wound up underfunded and fall under different regimes, different indexation rules can apply. I would be very happy to receive more details and to meet my hon. Friend.

Given the importance of tackling social security fraud, which depends in part on promoting a sense of responsibility and honesty across the whole of society, does the Secretary of State agree that that is undermined by the widespread tax evasion by rich individuals and companies? If honesty is good enough for the poor, surely it is good enough for the rich.

Of course if one defines tax evasion as doing something utterly illegal, it is quite wrong and we should bear down hard on it. That is the reality for everybody—if they do something that is beyond the law, that is wrong and we should bear down on them no matter how wealthy they are. That should be a rule for everybody, not just for the poor.

The Secretary of State may be aware that in my constituency, we have enlisted the support of companies and the voluntary sector to host a jobs fair on 21 January, to create local jobs for local people. That could not have been done without the support of the jobcentre agencies. Will he encourage other jobcentre agencies, as a matter of policy, to support the idea?

I congratulate my neighbour on his role in that idea, which reflects the fact that as the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), has made clear, Jobcentre Plus has worked really well in various constituencies to try to get work clubs going. In fact, the level of work club start-ups so far has been beyond what we expected at this point. Jobcentre Plus and my hon. Friend need to be congratulated, and I look forward to coming to see him in his constituency this Friday.

The Demos report “Counting the Cost”, funded by Scope, shows that the number of disabled people who currently live in poverty is far higher than official estimates show, as their lower incomes and higher living costs are not taken into consideration. What action will the Secretary of State take to rectify that anomaly?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The Government are doing two things. First, they are ensuring that more disabled people can get into employment. As I said earlier, around half of disabled people are in employment; many more want to work and cannot. The coalition Government have made clear their commitment to access to work as a way of helping disabled people into work, as well as to the work of the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), through the Work programme and Work Choice. However, we also recognise the extra costs that disabled people face, and our reform of disability living allowance and the introduction of personal independence payments will help to ensure that we have a robust mechanism in place, which is not means-tested but can support disabled people. I am glad to hear that the Opposition will perhaps support some of our reforms of disability living allowance.

More than 100 disabled members of Chippenham’s Gateway club have written to me about the mobility component of disability living allowance, which they use to fund their transport to voluntary-run activities, which make a huge difference to their quality of life. Given the Minister’s earlier answer, how can we ensure that care homes begin to meet those transport needs so that such activities can continue, even after her reforms?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I do not think I can be clearer than to say that it is a condition of the registration of care homes that, when practical, they promote the independence, participation and community involvement of their residents. That is an important part of their job, and it is important that we ensure that disabled people who live in care homes continue to enjoy an independent life. Of course, if they are looking to move into employment, they are also eligible to apply for funding from the access to work scheme.

Of the representations that the Government have received from pensioners’ organisations on the change from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index, what proportion was in favour and what proportion was against?

The consultation that we undertook on the RPI-CPI change was about occupational pensions, and the majority of responses were from occupational pension organisations. Unsurprisingly, as CPI is generally lower, members of the schemes were not so keen and those who have to pay for the schemes were rather keener.

Is the Minister aware that, at the weekend, the disability charity Scope described her plans to remove the mobility component of disability living allowance as “a callous decision”, which would

“result in people being prisoners in their own homes”,

and that disability lawyers have expressed concerns about the compatibility of the changes with the European convention on human rights? When will the Minister join the growing national consensus that the plans are unfair and unacceptable, and withdraw them?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It is important to make it clear that our proposals apply to people who live in residential care homes, not those who live in residential accommodation. That was slightly unclear from the question. Obviously, any measure that the Government propose is subject to a full impact assessment, in which human rights and other legislation will be examined in detail. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we have already taken advice on the matter, and that the measures fully comply with human rights legislation.