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Topical Questions

Volume 523: debated on Monday 14 February 2011

As I did not do so earlier, let me now welcome my shadow, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), to his post. I hope that we shall have engagements in the future, and I am sure that he will adopt a positive approach to measures that he believes will benefit the estate.

Indeed. I am glad to see that the right hon. Gentleman models himself very much on me, which is also very helpful.

I have had meetings today, and I have more meetings to come. I should also mention that we are getting rid of the default retirement age, which we consider to be a positive move overall for older people which should also help to boost the economy.

What advice or consideration has been given to small and medium-sized enterprises on how they should handle the removal of the statutory retirement age, and what advice can the Secretary of State give businesses on managing employees with physically demanding jobs?

The default retirement age is unlikely to have been used by many small and medium-sized enterprises; it tended to be used by larger businesses. Once it has been removed, employers should be able to dismiss staff, while obviously using the ordinary fair dismissal rules under the Employment Rights Act 1996. When employers can demonstrate that a retirement age is objectively justified, they can make a case for setting one. The key point, however, is that many large and many small companies have never used the default retirement age. They will argue that working with employees to secure a proper programme as they head towards their general retirement age is a positive move, and that employees should not be left lying there until the employer has to get rid of them.

T4. I recognise that the Secretary of State has made representations about the £1.5 million of bonuses paid to Remploy directors this year. Let me also say, before he mentions it, that that payment was originally agreed under the last Government. However, does he think it insensitive of directors to take £1.5 million in bonuses when in my part of the United Kingdom some 540 staff are potentially at risk of redundancy? (39828)

The honest truth is that I do not think it a good idea for people to do that in the present climate. There is currently a public sector pay freeze, we are imposing limits on bonuses, and I am asking staff in one of the lower-paid areas of Government to forgo some of their future pay rises. My simple answer to the right hon. Gentleman is this: I wish that those who are thinking about acting in that way would think again, and I also wish that I had not been left in such an invidious position by the last Government.

T2. Opposition Members have spent the past 50 minutes calling, in almost every question, for more Government spending, yet just nine months ago we famously heard the shadow Secretary of State say that there was no money left. Given the shadow Secretary of State’s willingness to offer honest advice, might my right hon. Friend reciprocate the favour and offer his own advice to his new opposite number? (39826)

Given my political career, I have given up giving advice to anybody, so the best thing the shadow Secretary of State can do is forge his own way and I will look to see how I can dismantle that.

T5. On Friday, I visited the Reeltime youth and music group in my constituency, where I met three young men who had got their jobs through the future jobs fund. They feel that the FJF is a great success for them, and so did the group. The Scottish Labour party agrees, and has today announced that it will create 10,000 places if it wins in May. Will the Government reconsider scrapping the FJF, or do they still believe youth unemployment is a price worth paying? (39829)

I sometimes think Opposition Members simply do not listen. First, as we have just heard, the Labour party left behind for us the most monumental financial mess, so there are not large amounts of money in the kitty to pay for the best support we could possibly deliver or all the things that we would like to do. The reality is that we have chosen to divert the money that we have into paying for apprenticeships. We have announced tens of thousands of extra apprenticeships, as we believe that they are a much better way of delivering support to young people. There are huge numbers of opportunities for young people to take advantage of an apprenticeship and build a proper career, and there will be more and more such opportunities as the spending review goes by.

T6. It concerns me when I meet constituents who have given away quite sizeable chunks of money to their children just as they approach retirement in the hope that the Government will then support them through their retirement. What steps are the Government taking to encourage people to save more for their retirement? (39830)

We are pressing ahead in the Pensions Bill with measures to make the process of automatically enrolling people into workplace pensions a reality, so from 2012 over a four or five year period, getting on for 10 million people will be enrolled into workplace pensions for the first time with an employer contribution. We believe that that will transform the savings landscape, and we need to make sure it pays to save.

T9. Recently, a constituent contacted me regarding his Atos Healthcare assessment. Three specialists had considered him to be unfit for work, yet it was suggested that he could be a bingo caller or a car park attendant. My local citizens advice bureau has identified many such cases which are resolved in favour of the claimant after an expensive review or appeal. Are there any plans to review Atos Healthcare’s delivery of medical assessments? (39833)

As the hon. Lady will know, soon after taking office we commissioned Professor Harrington to conduct a full review of the work capability assessment and the process around it. He has recommended a number of changes, which we are implementing as quickly as possible. I stand by the view that the assessment is the right way of helping people who have got the potential to get back into work. It is much better for those who can be in work to be so, rather than sitting at home on benefits, but we obviously have to make sure that the process is fair, just and proper and that we get the most accurate results possible.

T7. Given the news that there are more than 150,000 illegal immigrants claiming sickness benefits and maternity pay and that Europe is now threatening legal action under human rights legislation against this Government for planning to restrict those benefits, can Ministers give a clear assurance that the Government will stand up against Europe on this matter? (39831)

I can give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance on that. It is clearly absurd that illegal immigrants can access our benefits system. It is another example of the chaos we inherited from the previous Administration. I am the person who represents the Department for Work and Pensions and the Government in the European Employment Council, and my hon. Friend has my absolute assurance that I am fighting our corner to maintain the integrity of our welfare system, and will continue to do so.

T10. Some 21% of the young people in Erdington are unemployed, the Connexions office in Erdington high street has closed, projects funded by the working neighbourhoods fund and the future jobs fund now face closure, and 13 advice centres also face closure as a consequence of council cuts. There is therefore increasing despair among young people. Some years ago, the Secretary of State made a journey to a housing estate in Glasgow. Will he agree to receive a delegation of the young unemployed from Erdington, so that he can hear from them first hand just how mistaken his Government’s policies are? (39834)

Of course I will be happy to receive any delegation that the hon. Gentleman wishes to bring forward. The Government are absolutely clear about their determination to help get young people back to work. When he made his statement he must have recalled that only a few months ago his Government left us with almost the worst youth unemployment since records began. It is remarkable that under his Government youth unemployment rose during a period of growth. That is not much of a record for him to crow about.

T8. I want to raise the issue of family breakdown. My constituents often tell me that family breakdown involves not only the emotional turmoil of dealing with it, but the complexities of sorting out the financial arrangements and the accompanying delays. I would be grateful if the Minister would set out for the House the steps that the Government are taking to create a structure to ensure that parents can take financial responsibility for their children. (39832)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I refer her to the consultation paper on the future of the child maintenance system in this country, which we have been consulting on in recent weeks and through which the coalition Government are looking to provide more choice and support for parents, so that they can take responsibility on reaching maintenance agreements. We are also offering further services, such as a calculation-only service, and a new and improved statutory scheme, which will be stronger. Overall, we are trying to ask parents to take more responsibility. I remind the House that the previous Labour Government endorsed this approach and I remind Labour Front Benchers that Lord Hutton said that he was

“convinced that in general and in principle”—


“should form part and parcel of”—

the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission’s—


Indeed, we are following his advice—

Given that transport facilities offered by residential care establishments normally relate to social and care needs, not independent choice, could the Minister explain how the removal of disability living allowance from those in residential care is consistent with article 20 of the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, to which this country is a signatory? Has she assessed her policy against the commitment to the convention?

I can assure the right hon. Lady that we have assessed our policies in the right ways. I reiterate what I have said to her before, which is that the policy is trying to remove overlaps, not mobility.

In my advice surgery on Friday, a young couple came to see me in Darwen to say that they were £30 a week worse off for living together. It is a shameful legacy of the previous Government that people are worse off for living in couples and worse off when they go back to work. What this couple, and everyone else in Darwen, wants to know is: when will the universal credit end this situation?

My hon. Friend is right to say that this is one of the most invidious unintended effects of a benefits system, and this country found itself in a worse situation on the couple penalty that most others did because of the interplay and complexity of that benefits system. The universal credit will not immediately end all that, but it will make the situation much better for couples. When couples want to stay together, the Government should never be the thing that forces them apart. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) has made that clear and I back him up on it completely.

Block contracts with care homes often leave individual care plans unclear on what mobility costs are to be met by the home. What guarantees can Ministers give that no disabled person in residential accommodation will find their ability to leave their own home reduced as a result of the removal of the mobility component of disability living allowance?

Again, I reiterate that we are looking to remove overlaps, not mobility. The local authority contracts contain clearly articulated requirements for care homes to cover activities involved in daily living, which include providing access to doctors, dentists and local services, such as libraries and banks. In addition, in order to become registered, a care home provider has to undertake to promote the independence of the disabled people living in the homes that it is providing. We know, as do care home providers, that mobility is an important part of that independence.

This morning I met the BBC—the business breakfast club—in Hastings, which is a group of local employers. It raised with me its concern that when offering additional work to part-time employees of 16 hours, those employees often do not want to take it up because they find themselves worse off. Will the Secretary of State advise what will be done to even that out and make sure that work does pay after 16 hours?

The objective of the universal credit is that, all the way up the part-time process, whatever the number of hours worked, work should pay. That is particularly so for those who take jobs with low hours and low pay, paying them extra. They will be the greatest beneficiaries of the system. It is invidious that there are only two points in the cycle at which people are able to take up work and make any money. In future, work should pay: that is the incentive and we should get people back to work by enduring that it does.

The Minister mentioned the consultation on the Child Support Agency, which includes the suggestion that both parents should have to pay for use of that agency. Many parents on low incomes need to go to the CSA. Will not such charges, if they are made, simply be a tax on their children and mean that there is even less money to bring those children up properly?

Let me make it absolutely clear that there will be very clear ways in which such families can come to their own arrangements without incurring charges. If they feel that that is not possible, the statutory system will be there. Just to reassure the hon. Lady—the charges being put in place are only a fraction of the costs incurred in running the system. Indeed, the up-front charge that we are proposing for individuals on benefits is just one tenth of the cost of processing an initial application.

The Minister has made much of her proposal to remove the mobility component from residents of care homes as one that will reduce overlaps, but there is one group of people for whom there is no overlap at all—children who are in boarding schools because they have special needs. Will she drop that proposal in relation to such children?

I reiterate that we are still in consultation on this proposal and are listening carefully to all the issues that people raise. It is vital for children to stay in contact with their parents. The provisions for schools to do that are very clear and we will make sure that when school facilities are not available, there remains an ability to be eligible for disability living allowance, because children would not necessarily be resident in the home.

Despite all these fine words, have Ministers seen the complaints that have been much publicised in the past few days that the people being targeted are those with multiple sclerosis and other very acute disabilities? Some of those people have said that if their allowances and benefits are taken away, so severe is their illness that they wonder whether life will be worth living. It is a disgraceful state of affairs that people with the most severe illnesses are being targeted in the current campaign.

I would say this to the hon. Gentleman: our goal is to do the right thing by people who can make more of their lives. This is not about taking support from people who need indefinite support. We will make sure that people on incapacity benefit who need support and cannot work will continue to be in the support group and will receive a higher level of benefit payment than at present. For those who have the potential to work, we will give them the specialist help they need to do so.