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Topical Questions

Volume 521: debated on Monday 10 January 2011

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.