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Work and Pensions

Volume 526: debated on Monday 28 March 2011

The Secretary of State was asked—

Universal Credit

1. What assessment he has made of the potential effects on gender equality of the implementation of his proposals for universal credit. (49037)

Before I answer this question, I would like to take the opportunity to offer my condolences—and those, I hope, of the House—to my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), who had tabled a question for today, but whose husband tragically died last week.

As set out in the equality impact assessment published earlier this month, the effect of the universal credit measures and the Welfare Reform Bill on gender equality are approximately equal; and universal credit will see significant improvements in incentives for both men and women to work. We expect the new system will be particularly helpful to lone parents, including those who are looking for work that will fit in with their children’s schooling.

Many working mothers in my constituency are concerned that the universal credit will mean the loss of their working tax credit and access to child care support. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that support for child care costs will be provided through an additional element as part of the universal credit?

That is absolutely what we plan to do. We will bring forward our proposals shortly. The idea is that the available money will continue to be used for child care support. We recognise how important child care is in helping parents, particularly lone parents, to fit in their obligations to work and to look after their children.

Witnesses to the Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee stated last week that incentives for second earners to move into paid employment would be reduced in many cases under universal credit. Will the Secretary of State tell us what assessment has been made of the impact of the universal credit proposals on second earners and on women’s economic independence?

Yes. The majority of existing and potential second earners will not, on the basis of the figures I have looked at, be affected by the reforms, because the household already has earnings that take them beyond the reach of the benefit system. Approximately—I stress this is an approximate figure—300,000 second earners may see a deterioration in the incentive to increase their hours, and it is possible that some second earners will choose—or may choose as a result of their home commitments—to reduce or rebalance their working hours or leave. However, universal credit will provide much better incentives for the first earner, giving a greater choice to the household about how it wishes to spread its income.

The Secretary of State told us on Thursday that the Government have not yet decided how to support child care costs in universal credit. Is he yet in a position to assure women with children that in the new system they will be better off in work—after child care costs have been taken into account?

We are going to bring forward our proposals. It is because we acknowledge the importance of this area that we want to get it right. We are going to consult and we want people to recognise their priorities and have the opportunity to decide with us what they think those are. It is our intention—this can be stated absolutely, because it is the purpose of universal credit—to ensure that people will always be better off in work than out of work.

Disability Living Allowance (Halifax)

2. What estimate he has made of the number of people in Halifax who will be affected by planned changes to disability living allowance. (49039)

After disability living allowance reform, we will be spending broadly the same in 2015-16 as we spent in 2009-10. At present, some 5,480 people in the Halifax parliamentary constituency are in receipt of DLA. That is after a 30% increase in the number receiving DLA nationwide in the last eight years. We will work with disabled people and the organisations that represent them on the design and delivery of the personal independence payment. Until this work is more advanced, I am unable to predict precisely whether individuals will see a change in their entitlement.

I recently visited Mayfield house, a residential home in Halifax, to meet people who need and rely on DLA. The Government say that they are delaying their cuts to this benefit, but I hope they are not giving false hope to many of my constituents. Will they just admit that they have made a mistake and simply keep this benefit?

I thank the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to clarify the situation yet again, even though the Prime Minister did so last week in Prime Minister’s questions. The Government are not removing DLA mobility from care home residents from 2012. We made it clear that we have listened to concerns across the House and from disabled people. We will consider care home residents at the same time as all other recipients—both current and future claimants—as we develop the personal independence payment. What we have uncovered is an unacceptable way in which mobility is often dealt with in care homes, and we will look at that further.

Employment Support Services

3. When he plans to respond to the review of employment support services for disabled people conducted by Liz Sayce. (49040)

10. When he plans to respond to the review of employment support services for disabled people conducted by Liz Sayce. [Official Report, 1 April 2011, Vol. 526, c. 10MC.] (49047)

Liz Sayce is due to submit her independent review of specialist disability employment services by the summer of 2012. We look forward to her recommendations and will respond in due course.

I very much welcome this review, but will my hon. Friend assure me that it will also specifically consider the potential power of new media and new technologies to unlock additional training and employment opportunities for disabled people?

As I travel around and speak to disabled people in various types of employment, I hear from them directly how important new media are in helping people in that sector both to obtain jobs and to remain in employment. I am sure that new media opportunities will remain at the heart of the Government’s drive to get more people into work.

How is the Work Choice programme helping people with disabilities, especially those who need more specialist support?

As my hon. Friend will know, Work Choice was launched in October last year, and concentrates on both pre-employment and on-the-job support. We will support about 13,000 people a year through Work Choice—people who experience the most difficulties in obtaining employment—and I am sure that it will prove to be an important part of the Government’s programme.

Over the coming months, more than 11,000 people in Stockport will be required to attend a local centre run by Atos Healthcare for reassessment of their incapacity benefit. Disability Stockport is worried about the fact that the centre in Deanery Way does not provide easy access for disabled people on foot, and cars cannot park nearby. Atos has not consulted local disability groups about the choice of site. Will the Minister ask Atos to consult them, in order to ensure that the centre is fully accessible for disabled people before the assessment process begins?

It is vital for such assessment centres to be fully accessible. I should be delighted to take up the point and report back to the hon. Lady.

I am still confused after the Minister’s reply to an earlier question, in which she said that the proposal to cut mobility allowance for people in residential care homes had been withdrawn. Can she tell us why the proposal is still in the Health and Social Care Bill, and specify the nature of the continuing review of the proposal to which she and other Ministers have referred?

The provision in the Bill is intended to ensure that there are no overlapping payments for anyone who is receiving other forms of Government money. That is very straightforward. As I told the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs Riordan), the purpose of the review is to ensure that the most vulnerable members of our community are given the support that they need, and that the current confusion ends.

State Pension Age

4. Whether he plans to review the timetable for the raising of the state pension age for women born between December 1953 and October 1954. (49041)

We recognise the importance of giving people notice so that they can prepare, which is why the timetable for the state pension age changes will not begin to affect people who are due to retire until after 2016. However, life expectancy has increased dramatically. We believe that the timetable in the Pensions Bill provides the best balance between the impact on individuals and fairness to the taxpayer, who will fund the cost of that increased longevity.

I think that we all accept what the Minister has said, but it remains the case that a very small group of women who just happen to have been born at a particular time are affected. It cannot be beyond the scope of Government to do something for that group, who at present are being more disadvantaged than anyone else simply because of the time at which they were born.

My hon. Friend has raised an important point, but of course as soon as we do something for that particular cohort, another of people born a month earlier or later will say “That’s not fair”, and before we know it we will have delayed the change until 2020 at a cost of £10 billion. Although my hon. Friend asked his question in a characteristically beguiling way, I must tell him that there is no simple way of dealing with that one group.

The Minister will be aware that it is increasingly difficult for women over the age of 50 to obtain employment. Given the later pension age that the Government are introducing and the changes in employment and support allowance, women who find it impossible to obtain jobs may find themselves with no financial support at all.

The hon. Lady has raised an important point about the financial support available to the group concerned. In fact, about 70% of them are in paid employment, and that section of the labour market is doing better than other sections. We reckon that three in five of these women have built up occupational pension rights on which they will be able to draw before they reach the age of 66, and both ESA and JSA will be available in certain circumstances. A combination of sources of income will be available to them.

In his statement last Wednesday, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said that he was hoping for

“a new, more automatic mechanism for future increases in the state pension age based on regular, independent reviews of longevity.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 961.]

With longevity increasing by about a year every year, that brought to my mind the vision of a cohort of people who might never actually reach pension age. Will the Pensions Minister comment?

Tempted though I am, we do not propose to abolish retirement. What my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said was that we need to take account in a more automatic way. I do not recognise the improvement of one year per year, although it is rising very rapidly. The key is that we need to do things with proper notice and make sure people have successful longer working lives and therefore build up bigger pensions when they come to draw them.

I could not agree more with the points made by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders), because the Government’s proposals mean 500,000 women will have to wait for more than a year longer before they receive their state pension, while 33,000 women will have to wait for exactly two years longer. With 10,000 signatures now on a petition calling for a rethink, and full-page letters in today’s Times and Telegraph asking the Government to think again, will the Minister now accept that the strength of opposition both in this House and outside is too great for the Government not to think again?

I am surprised the shadow pensions Minister chose not to raise the issue of the state pension reform announced by the Chancellor in the Budget statement, which will be of particular benefit to this group of women. Many of the women who are aged about 57 spent considerable amounts of time out of work bringing up children, and we will reform the state pension system so that they get a proper pension for the first time.

Work Capability Assessment

5. What recent progress has been made on implementing the recommendations of the Harrington review of work capability assessment. (49042)

19. What recent progress has been made on implementing the recommendations of the Harrington review of work capability assessment. (49056)

We are committed to taking forward Professor Harrington’s recommendations so that we can make the system we inherited from the previous Government fairer and more effective. Many of the changes he proposed are already in place, and we will implement the remainder by the summer, to coincide with the first work capability assessments of incapacity benefit claimants taking part in the full nationwide reassessment.

I thank the Minister for his answer. What guidance and training will be given to decision makers and Atos Healthcare professionals on implementing the new work capability assessment effectively and fairly, and in particular what training will be given for assessing people with fluctuating conditions such as multiple sclerosis and ME?

Staff decision makers in Jobcentre Plus and Atos assessors are currently going through a renewed training programme to take into account the changes proposed by Professor Harrington. We have also now moved ahead with, and pretty much put in place, the recommendation to have champions in the network who specialise in dealing with some of the more challenging conditions which will undoubtedly be a factor in the assessments, and on which expertise may not previously have existed to a sufficient degree.

One of the findings of the Harrington report was that the Jobcentre Plus decision makers were not, in fact, making decisions; rather, they were simply rubber-stamping the Atos assessments. What steps have been taken to ensure that that is no longer the case, and will the Minister publish some figures on this so that we can have some reassurance that that has actually changed?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. That was clearly one of the flaws in the system we inherited. We have retrained decision makers, instructing them to take into account a broader range of evidence than simply the assessment so that claimants now have the opportunity to submit proper evidence from their own medical practitioners, and we have made it absolutely clear to decision makers that they are in charge. We have also introduced a process of reconsideration within Jobcentre Plus to reinforce that process.

The Harrington review contained some very welcome and important recommendations that the Government are implementing, including on increasing the discretion of Jobcentre Plus staff. In contrast, the Department recently introduced regulations making the descriptors for work capability assessments more prescriptive. As Professor Harrington will now be reviewing the descriptors as well, can the Minister assure the House that the Government will take into account Professor Harrington’s recommendations in that area, and look in general at the descriptors being applied to work capability assessments?

I can absolutely give that assurance. We want to get this right, and we have introduced these changes because we think they improve the process. For example, we expect more mental health patients to end up in the support group as a result of the changes we have introduced. I have made it very clear to everyone involved that if there are further ways of improving the process, as a result either of recommendations from Professor Harrington or of the experience of the national roll-out, we will move quickly to make the necessary changes.

I want to be clear on what the Minister is saying will be in place by June in respect of Professor Harrington’s recommendations, and whether that will include the new descriptors—I understand that they will be another year away. I ask about this because my constituents have already been through the system as they are the first to be migrated from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance. It is important to ensure that they have been assessed properly, because they will also be the first cohort whose contributory ESA will be removed from them after they have been on it for a year—there is an unfairness in that process too.

We will take all necessary steps to ensure that the decision-making process is correct. Professor Harrington did not recommend changes to the descriptors ahead of the national roll-out; he recommended that they should be part of the second year review process. I invited him to accelerate that work, and if and when he makes further recommendations, either before or as part of the second year review, we will move quickly to implement them.

Benefit Fraud

We are taking all necessary measures to try to clamp down on benefit fraud—we are using the latest technology—and we regard this as a key area for progress. The introduction of the universal credit, which will provide better flows of information around the Department, will make it easier to reduce fraud.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that his Department is not only sharing data with other Departments but using the services of credit rating agencies to detect fraudulent claims? Such claims not only unfairly burden the taxpayer but unfairly tarnish those in genuine need of help.

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. The Welfare Reform Bill improves the flow of information and data sharing within the public sector. I can also confirm that we are now working closely with credit reference agencies—he will understand if I do not give too many details, as I do not want to give the fraudsters advance notice of what is coming.

The Minister will be aware that companies such as Atos Healthcare, which is French-based, are paid about £100 million per annum by taxpayers, yet in Scotland alone 40% of those deemed “fit to work” won their appeal. Does he think that that is a good use of money? Would it not be better used tracking down those who are avoiding paying tax in this country?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the flaws in the system we inherited from his party when it was in government. We have taken steps to improve the process. The Harrington review was designed to ensure that we have a better and more just process, with fewer appeals being made. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about wanting to see the number of appeals reduced significantly, but it is the right of the individual claimant to appeal if they so choose.

Welfare Reform Bill

7. What assessment he has made of the potential effects on incentives to work of implementation of the provisions of the Welfare Reform Bill. (49044)

8. What assessment he has made of the potential effects on incentives to work of implementation of the provisions of the Welfare Reform Bill. (49045)

The Welfare Reform Bill introduces a fundamental reform of the benefit system and should ensure that work always pays. The universal credit will improve earnings incentives for some 700,000 people and could reduce the number of workless households by about 300,000.

Casual work and temporary work are important routes into employment, but many people are put off them, not only by benefit loss but by the complexities they will face. How will my right hon. Friend’s welfare reform programme help to address that disincentive?

One of the complexities that most people face is the fact that two Departments administer what are, in essence, benefits: the working tax credit and the Department’s own benefits system. One of the problems that occurs is that people in difficulty often find it difficult and stressful to figure out who they are supposed to notify of the changes taking place in their lives, their working hours and so on, and they have to go to two Departments to deal with two sets of figures. That will all be sorted out as we bring those together under one benefit. First, these people will not have to notify so many people, and secondly, universal credit will pick up a great deal of that through the real-time system.

Does the Secretary of State agree that in addition to the incentives in the Welfare Reform Bill, community initiatives such as the Enfield jobs club, which we launched this morning, play a vital role in securing employment, as does the support of a national charity such as GB Job Clubs?

May I take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend on his job club, whose launch I attended? This is a good example of an area where Members of Parliament can help enormously, because by working with their local jobcentres to set up these job clubs, which we now discover work incredibly well with those who are out of work, people can be given real enthusiasm and hope for the future.

Can the Secretary of State give a clear commitment that nobody will be worse off in work when child care and other costs, such as the cost of school meals, are taken into account?

With respect, I think the hon. Gentleman will have to wait until I bring the proposals forward. As I said earlier, there is no point in introducing the universal credit unless we stick with our principle that work should always pay better than being out of work.

Work incentives are only effective where there is work. As we now know, unemployment is projected to be at or above 2 million for the life of this Parliament. Will the Secretary of State update us on whether the Treasury has provided him with additional funding to expand the Work programme so that it can take up the additional demand from the workless?

The Work programme is well set to cope with all the ups and downs that might take place over the next few years. The reality is that the Opposition go on about there being no jobs, but even now, advertised through the jobcentres, nearly a million new jobs have been placed in the past three months—that is 10,000 a day and about half the total number of new jobs created in the outside world. I say to the hon. Lady, with respect, that we are making these reforms and changing this complex system because more than half those jobs are likely to go to those from overseas, which does not help at all unless we reform the system to ensure that British people get a shot at the jobs, too.

Stay-at-home Mothers

All parents have a responsibility to support their families, but we will make it as easy as possible for families to adapt their own working arrangements. The structure of disregards and tapers in the universal credit will make it easier for parents to move into financially rewarding work that they can balance with their child care needs. When the child is very young—pre-school age—one of the parents can always choose to stay at home or to work and, where parents are meeting their responsibilities by working to support themselves and their children, they will have the freedom to decide whether one of them should stay at home.

Does the move towards a single-tier retirement pension that recognises the contribution of stay-at-home mothers signal the value the Government place on the choice of women to give up careers and care for their children?

As my hon. Friend will know, at the moment parents caring for their children can claim credits for the basic pension, but the credit for the second pension is more limited and has only come in since 2002. Our proposals to put in place a single-tier pension would have the advantage of making one year of caring worth the same as a year of working.

Obviously, the Minister will be aware that it is not just women who bring up children, and it is often not just the parents, either. I have been speaking recently to groups such as Kinship Carers about the situation that arises when grandparents or older siblings are left with the responsibility of bringing up a child, often having to give up work as a result. What support is available for people in such a situation?

Obviously, we support the very idea of kinship care. It is an important way in which children can remain in family care when their own parents are unable to look after them. I believe that in April we will bring in some support to help them with their pensions, too.

Pensioner Poverty

We have restored the earnings link for the state pension and given a triple guarantee that the pension will rise by the highest of earnings, prices or 2.5%. We will pay the winter fuel payment in 2011-12 exactly as budgeted for by the previous Government. We have made permanent the increase in the cold weather payment from £8.50 to £25 a week.

I welcome the approach the Government are taking on this very important matter. What estimate has the Minister made, however, of the impact of the single-tier pension proposals on future levels of pensioner poverty?

We will shortly publish a Green Paper with a range of options for state pension reform. As my hon. Friend says, one of those is a single flat-rate pension. One of its great advantages is that whereas many pensioners do not claim their means-tested benefits and therefore live in poverty, everyone claims their pension.

Like many Members, I welcome the single-tier pension. Will the Minister help us consider whether there could be an interesting interaction between that and a lifetime savings account, whereby people can take money in and out of an ISA-style savings account?

Although policy on the tax treatment of savings is a matter for our friends in the Treasury, it is absolutely the case that the single tier provides a firm foundation for saving. Whereas under the current system, every pound one saves results in the clawback of means-tested benefits, a decent single pension will get one clear of means-testing to a far greater extent.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that thanks to the re-linking of the basic state pension with earnings, the typical person retiring this year can look forward to receiving an extra £15,000?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although earnings are temporarily depressed, this is a policy for the long term, as many pensioners will draw a state pension for 20 or 25 years. He is absolutely right to say that the typical person retiring this year will have an enhanced state pension of about £15,000 through the restoration of the earnings link.

Even with the Government’s reforms, the restoration of the link and so on, the basic state pension will still be below the official poverty level, and way below comparable basic state pensions on the continent. What are the Government going to do to address the problem?

We have a twin-track strategy that does right by today’s pensioners and that puts in place reform for tomorrow’s. For today’s pensioners, as well as restoring the earnings link we are looking at measures to make sure that people claim the means-tested benefits to which they are entitled, but we will also be consulting on a much firmer foundation of state pension for the future so that we guarantee that more people do not have to retire into poverty, as too many people have had to in the past.

On Radio Sheffield last week, the Deputy Prime Minister did not seem aware of the Government’s decision on the winter fuel allowance which means that pensioners will receive up to £100 less this year. Were the Minister and his team aware of the changes, and can he confirm that winter fuel allowance payments to pensioners will be up to £100 lower this year?

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister pointed out that the budget for winter fuel payments is exactly as budgeted for by the previous Government. The winter fuel payment increases that were, mysteriously, for two years before the election and one year after—I cannot think why—were always temporary. However, what we have not done is cut the cold weather payment, which the hon. Lady’s party had planned to do.

What made the Government think they could get away with reducing the winter fuel payment by £100 by smuggling it through and not mentioning it in the Budget statement? If they think that they have got away with it and that pensioners have not noticed, they should have been in my constituency at the weekend.

Well, the right hon. Gentleman must not have been paying attention last year when the Chancellor announced in his comprehensive spending review that the winter fuel payment would be exactly as budgeted for by the previous Labour Government. Perhaps he was not listening.

Pensions

13. What assessment he has made of the potential effects on pensioners of the uprating of pensions using the consumer prices index. (49050)

The net effect of the triple guarantee for the basic state pension—the figure we gave a moment ago—and CPI for the additional pension is estimated to be a lifetime gain of around £10,000 for the average person reaching retirement in 2011. The impact on private sector occupational pension schemes will vary from scheme to scheme.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that the triple guarantee will ensure that pensioners will receive a decent offering from the state in their retirement?

My hon. Friend correctly points out that for the past 30 years the value of the state pension has been falling and falling relative to the living standards of the working population. We are proud to have put a halt to that.

Obviously, this idea is at a very preparatory stage, but my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made it clear that pensioners will not simply face an increase in overall tax as would be the case if the two tax rates were simply added together. The idea is in its very early stages, a lot of preparatory and consultative work is going on, and I am sure that the Chancellor is entirely mindful of the points that the hon. Lady raises.

Pensions

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Chancellor announced in the Budget that the Government will shortly consult on various options, including one for a simpler state pension. In looking at these options one of our key priorities will be to consider how we deliver improved outcomes for women. Under proposals for a single-tier pension we would expect many women to benefit and we will publish more details of our proposals shortly.

I thank the Minister for that reply, and I warmly welcome the single-tier pension, which bears a striking similarity to the citizen’s pension on which he and I have campaigned. May I bring him back to the answer he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) about the injustice faced by women born in 1953 and 1954, which he said there was no simple way of dealing with? The Minister is widely respected for his great expertise on the intricacies of the pension system, so even if there is not a simple way of dealing with the problem, may I urge him to look hard to find a complicated way of tackling it?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. The issue, unfortunately, having dealt with the one-month cohort about whom I understand there is particular feeling, is that it is not only that group who face an increase of more than a year. When one looks at the neighbouring months, an obvious way of dealing with the problem is by delaying until 2020, but if we did that, we would soon rack up a £10 billion bill. That is the sort of difficult trade-off we have had to face.

New Enterprise Allowance (Merseyside)

16. What progress his Department has made on delivering new enterprise allowance support in Merseyside. (49053)

I am pleased to inform my hon. Friend that the new enterprise allowance was launched in Merseyside on 31 January. We have a partner in place to deliver the mentoring support, which is being done through the local chambers of commerce, and we have appointed a provider for the NEA loans service. The early signs are promising: we have had nearly 400 referrals from Jobcentre Plus to the mentoring service, more than half of whom are now working with a business mentor, and some of the propositions for new businesses are close to fruition.

Certainly, in the 1980s and 1990s the enterprise allowance was a great success in north Wales and I look forward to a roll-out to our part of the world. If the enterprise allowance is rolled out throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, what proposals does his Department have to ensure that the universal credit will work in tandem with the enterprise allowance scheme in order to ensure that work pays, even for the self-employed?

It is important to say that we recognise the need to ensure that the universal credit works with self-employment. In the detailed design of the universal credit, we will ensure that it aligns with initiatives such as the new enterprise allowance, but more broadly we will make sure that self-employed people can also benefit from the support that the credit offers. They are a crucial part of our economic future.

How will my hon. Friend ensure that we harness the skills and expertise of business to help unemployed people get their own businesses up and running?

In the context of Merseyside, we have been very pleased by the co-operation and support that we have had from the chambers of commerce. They are actively recruiting more mentors among the local business community. The lessons we have derived from Merseyside will enable organisations in other parts of the country and Jobcentre Plus to follow best practice in getting the scheme up and running nationwide in the course of the year.

Welfare Reform Bill

20. What estimate he has made of the likely effects on welfare expenditure of implementation of the provisions of the Welfare Reform Bill. (49057)

In real terms working age welfare spending climbed by 54% over the past decade from £48 billion in 1999-2000 to £74.7 billion in 2009-10. The explanatory notes to the Welfare Reform Bill report that there will be savings of some £960 million in 2012-13,rising to around £3.9 billion in 2014-15. We have also set aside £2 billion to cover the costs of implementing the universal credit.

This Government inherited a record Budget deficit, which rightly requires the re-examination of every Department’s spending. Instead of getting constructive suggestions from the Opposition, we too often get opportunism, including a demeaning comparison this weekend between protesters, civil rights marchers, people who fought for women’s rights and anti-apartheid campaigners. Does my right hon. Friend believe that the best way to bring down our welfare bill sustainably is to get people back into work by giving them the right work incentives?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The key is to get people back into work, to reform the system so that it is simpler and to ensure that work always pays. As we approach April, when the Darling plan was meant to start, I have yet to hear one single figure for anything that the Opposition say they would have reduced, had they introduced it. Instead, apparently, the Leader of the Opposition now lines himself up with Pankhurst, Mandela and Martin Luther King. Miliband does not quite work, does it?

What account does the Secretary of State take of arguments by disability campaigners such as my constituent, Mr Rhydian James, who points out that much of the increased cost of the system is due to demographic matters and to reduced under-claiming?

The hon. Gentleman will therefore be pleased with the design of the universal credit, because the one thing that it will tackle hugely, which is why there is an extra cost to it, is under-claiming, which will stop. Those who are eligible and who should have their money will be able to get it. Better still, that will improve the level of those coming out of poverty, as opposed to what happened under the previous Government.

The Secretary of State may recall a row that broke out when a family on benefits was moved into a house in Acton worth well over £1 million, which people on average salaries would only dream of. Does he agree with those constituents who tell me that these reforms are fair not only to those in work, but to the taxpayer? Why has it taken so long for common sense to prevail?

Most people who work hard and who are on marginal incomes will consider it reasonable that the benefits system does not pay more than average earnings, which turn out to be about £36,000 gross. Most people who are in work would consider that to be a reasonable level of income. Those who complain about that complain about something that they should have resolved anyway.

Of course, the Secretary of State will have received many representations from carers’ organisations about the Welfare Reform Bill and its likely impact. In reply to a written question I tabled last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), who has responsibility for disabled people, stated that she did not yet know what impact the new personal independence payment will have on carers, yet the Bill is now in Committee and PIP will be decided in just a matter of weeks. Will the Secretary of State confirm that PIP will remain a passported benefit from carers’ allowance, how many carers will be affected by the change and how many carers will lose as a result of the changes being introduced by the Government?

I can say to the hon. Lady, much as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has before, that we are reviewing all of this. The purpose is to ensure that those who are involved in caring will get greater and better support and that they will be better cared for themselves. The reality is that we chose for that reason not to take carer’s allowance into the universal credit, which the hon. Lady has not touched on, because that would have meant that some people might have lost out.

Disability Living Allowance

21. What plans he has for the future of disability living allowance; and if he will make a statement. (49058)

Disability living allowance will be replaced by the personal independence payment, which is a new, more transparent and sustainable benefit underpinned by an objective assessment of the barriers disabled people face in living full and independent lives. From 2013-14, working-age individuals in receipt of DLA will be reassessed against the new eligibility criteria for PIP.

It is so nice to have a Minister give such a full answer. In my constituency, people are worried that DLA is going to go and not be replaced by anything. I wonder where such false information is coming from. Does she have any idea?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and share his concern about the lack of understanding that people sometimes have about what we are trying to do. I can reassure him that the Government’s reforms are all about putting integrity back into the support available for disabled people, moving away from a discredited system of DLA in which, in terms of the higher rate for the DLA mobility component, more money goes to people who are drug and alcohol addicts than to people who are blind.

What can the Minister say to my constituent, Jordan Owen, who is deaf and blind, currently attending school and in receipt of the mobility component of DLA, but who may well lose it when he leaves school and moves into residential care?

The hon. Gentleman will of course have heard the earlier exchanges in which I said that the Government are not removing the mobility component of DLA from care home residents from 2012. We will ensure that the needs of individuals in care homes are assessed in the same way as those of everyone else in receipt of DLA as part of the PIP reforms.

What measures are the Government taking to ensure that assessments for PIP, the successor to DLA, are not as disastrous as those introduced under the previous Government for their work capability assessment?

I can absolutely give an undertaking to my hon. Friend that we are learning a great deal from the development of the work capability assessment, although I would stress to him that it is a very different sort of assessment that looks at the barriers people face in living independent lives, rather than the barriers they face in getting into work.

Last Thursday night I met representatives of Lanarkshire Ace, a group in my constituency that looks after adults with learning difficulties. They are terrified about the prospect of going through a reassessment for DLA. Will the Minister confirm that people with life-long conditions, such as adults with learning difficulties, will be exempt from a reassessment in future?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will take this opportunity to ensure that his constituents are not terrified about the future of DLA, and indeed the personal independence payment, because we are making sure that it will be a fair and transparent assessment. We will not be, as a rule, saying that individuals would be exempt from assessment, because we want to make sure that they are getting the right support, and we can do that only by looking at their needs.

Child Support Agency (ICT Systems)

22. What steps he is taking to improve the ICT systems operated by the Child Support Agency and its successor. (49059)

The CSA currently uses two IT systems. It was the intention of the previous Government to transfer all 1993 cases to the 2003 scheme, but this proved impossible because of deficiencies with the IT they commissioned. This situation is unacceptable, which is why the Government have decided to bring in a new single system to replace the current ones. We plan to introduce this from 2012.

I have previously written to the Secretary of State about my constituent, Mr Jonathon Little, who had arrears added to his current child support bill that were impossible for him to pay. The CSA told Mr Little that the payment period would be extended to 2014, but he then received a letter stating that the payments on account would be reviewed every six months. When I queried this, the CSA told me, “That’s just a computer-generated letter; we’ve had problems with those.” Will the Minister assure me that he will look into the matter as part of the wider improvements being made to the IT system operated by the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission?

I thank my hon. Friend for that example. She has just underlined the need for change, because the current system is not working as it should for all constituents. Indeed, there are now 100,000 cases that cannot even be dealt with on the current IT system—costing the taxpayer a great deal of money and, as she points out, the patience of a great many of our constituents.

Topical Questions

This Government inherited a youth unemployment crisis, and to tackle the problem the Chancellor’s Budget announced 100,000 new work experience places and funding for an additional 40,000 apprenticeships, on top of the 75,000 places that we announced last year. That is a far better way of helping young people into sustainable jobs and long-term careers than some of the rather expensive and ineffective programmes that we inherited.

I would like to associate myself and my local fishermen with the condolences that the Secretary of State paid to our hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray).

I, like many other hon. Friends, am taking on an apprentice, and I wondered what the Department was doing to support apprenticeships and work placements, which are so crucial to giving young people that first step in the workplace.

We are doing two things. First, we are supporting the programmes in a practical sense. We already have apprentices working in the Department, but we as a Department will take a lead in providing work experience places—including something like 4,000 throughout the Department per year. We will also actively go out and encourage organisations to come forward and take part in the work experience programme. I hope every company in the country—private, public and voluntary sector organisations—will give young people the chance to take those first steps in the workplace.

May I start by associating Opposition Members with the condolences expressed to the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray)? The circumstances that the Secretary of State outlined were extremely tragic.

May I return the Secretary of State to our debate this afternoon and ask about what the Prime Minister said to the House last week? He said that he had no plans to proceed with the removal of the mobility component of disability living allowance, and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, his hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) appeared to confirm that this afternoon. Yet, two hours after the Prime Minister sat down, his right hon. Friend the Chancellor said that he was ploughing ahead with making the savings. Whose side is the Secretary of State on? The Prime Minister’s or the Chancellor’s?

I am on the side of both of them, to be quite frank. I make it my business to be so—although it is not always necessarily reported accordingly.

The situation, as I, the Prime Minister and even the Chancellor have outlined, is very simple. We have a requirement to look at the whole disability living allowance spectrum, of which the mobility and mobility in care homes components are part. As I said the last time I was asked about the issue, we are absolutely setting out to make sure that the current overlaps and deficiencies in an incredibly messy and complex system, whereby local authorities, care homes and the Department all tread on each other’s toes, are sorted out and do not exist, so that the mobility component that is required for people in care homes will exist after we have completed that work.

I am grateful for that answer, which is familiar to many in the House. If the proposal were to be dropped, however, the Red Book would show that from 2013 the savings would be returned. In fact, it shows no such thing. Indeed, page 44 of the Budget states that up to £500 million more will be removed from the residential care component than originally planned; and, in a parliamentary answer to me, the Secretary of State says that 100,000 fewer people will be in receipt of DLA by the end of the Parliament. Can he see now why people with disabilities are so worried about his plans?

The letter I sent to the right hon. Gentleman and, I think, to others is quite clear. The point I am making, and I make again, is that the purpose of what we are doing—what the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) is engaged in—is to review a complex system, which does not work very well. Many people who need disability living allowance often do not get it; people, when they go back to work, are confused about whether they will still receive it; and people often feel that they should not take work because they think that the allowance is work-related, which we know it is not. So, that complex system, which the previous Government left to us, has to be reviewed. Many have welcomed the review, and at the end of it we will make decisions that benefit those who need DLA.

T3. I should like to ask the Secretary of State what advantage he sees in placing young people on to apprenticeship schemes as opposed to a six-month placement on the Work programme. (49064)

Essentially, the Work programme’s role is to help those who are longer-term unemployed and are struggling to get into the workplace. Our work experience proposals and apprenticeship plans are very much geared towards those who are newer in the labour market and looking for opportunities in the early few weeks of job search. Of course, the really stark comparison is between what we are proposing and the vastly expensive future jobs fund run by the previous Government, which has proved to be three or four times more expensive than even their relatively unsuccessful new deals. In my view, our programmes will make a difference in a way that theirs did not.

T2. Many of my constituents are facing lengthy delays in benefit appeals coming to tribunal. This causes real worry, but also financial hardship. What action are the Government taking to address this, given that demands on the Tribunals Service are increasing? (49063)

I am acutely aware of the issue to which the hon. Lady refers. We have been in detailed discussions with the Tribunals Service about this, and it is moving ahead with an increase in capacity that will help to ease the situation. We have also, for the national roll-out of the incapacity benefit reassessment, introduced a reconsideration stage at Jobcentre Plus level to try to reduce the number of appeals and to make sure that we get as many decisions as possible absolutely right.

T4. In my constituency, a large number of individuals come to my surgeries worried about being passed from pillar to post in the complicated welfare system that we have. Can the Minister give me some reassurance that the reforms are going to make it much simpler, especially in connection with people wanting to establish businesses? (49065)

I can give that assurance to my hon. Friend. We have inherited a system that has huge in-built disincentives and perverse incentives for people to do the wrong thing. The idea of this reform—the universal credit, alongside the Work programme—is that people have a clear understanding of what they will earn when they go to work. They will not need to have the brains of a professor in mathematics to figure it out; they will find it out themselves, and that will incentivise them to stay in work and not be put off by having to report to 50 different people.

T5. In his earlier response, the Minister implied that levels of winter fuel payment under Labour were based on the electoral timetable. In fact, the UK has the highest level of excess winter deaths, according to National Energy Action. Can he explain why pensioners in my constituency will be receiving less this winter than last? (49066)

For the first seven or eight years in which the winter fuel payment existed, it was set at exactly £200. For three years only, it was temporarily increased, and the budgeted amount was set to reduce this coming winter. Last year—the hon. Lady may not be aware of this—we ensured that poor pensioners got an £80 electricity rebate. This winter, subject to regulations going through the House, we plan that over 1 million poor pensioners will be entitled to a £120 electricity rebate—real help for people who need it.

T6. Next week, pensions get linked to earnings for the first time since Mrs Thatcher abolished the link in the 1980s. I do not think that pensioners have yet got all the good news messages that they should be getting from this Government. Can Ministers assure us, and pensioners, about what those messages are? Can they then make sure that every pensioner and pensioners’ organisation understands the range of good things from which they have already benefited thanks to Ministers in this Government? (49067)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I spend a good deal of my time going out around the country talking to pensioners’ groups. I shall be talking to one such group in Birmingham on Wednesday, and I will tell them that restoring the earnings link for the first time in 30 years will provide a firm foundation and dignity for pensioners. That is long overdue.

T8. Under new welfare rules, jobseekers will be required to undertake mandatory work activity placements such as stacking shelves for 30 hours a week for at least four weeks, and if they do not comply, their jobseeker’s allowance could be withheld. Can the Secretary of State tell me what safeguards are going to be put in place to prevent exploitation and whether sanctions will be placed on Work programme providers if it is found to be occurring? (49069)

The whole point about the mandatory work activity programme is that we listened to the advice of our front-line advisers on what they felt could make the biggest difference to the people they are working with. That is what this programme is designed to achieve in giving people an opportunity to step up their work search by getting involved in more full-time activity to get themselves focused on the challenge ahead. There will clearly be safeguards. Ultimately, the most important safeguard lies in the discretion of our front-line staff. There is no obligation for any staff member to sanction an individual if they judge a sanction to be inappropriate. They know and understand when a sanction is necessary, and when it is not, and that is guidance that we will continue to give to them.

T7. My right hon. Friend is no doubt aware that my constituents in Lincoln help to fund welfare spending in this country. Welfare spending has increased from £132 billion 10 years ago to £192 billion at present—an estimated real-terms increase of 45%. Will he assure me that even in these difficult economic times, this Government, unlike the last Labour Administration, will do all they can to help people in Lincoln who are genuinely able to move from welfare into work? (49068)

I can give my hon. Friend that reassurance. He should be reassured by the fact that this Government are doing more to reform the archaic benefits system, which is full of all the traps to which he referred. That will benefit those who are in work. One big reason why they have to pay more tax is that the last Government left us with a nightmare system that prefers to keep people out of work than in work.

Having work experience and money reserved for apprenticeships will not automatically equal a reduction in unemployment among young people. When will the Minister report to the House on the unemployment that is faced by young people, and what will he do if the numbers do not fall?

The hon. Lady needs to understand that this problem has been building steadily for the past decade. It happened in good years under the previous Government. We are dealing with the appalling inheritance of 600,000 young people who left school, college or university and have never worked. We think that our programmes will start to make a difference, that they will be better value for taxpayers’ money, and that they will be more effective than the previous Government’s programmes. Above all, we think that apprenticeships give the foundation for a lifetime of skills and employment. That is why they were such a centrepiece of the Budget.

T9. Severe autism sufferer, Alastair Bolan, and his family came to my surgery in Winchester on Friday afternoon. Like many families living with the condition, they are anxious about the move to personal independence payments. They made the case to me passionately that a one-to-one interview for Alastair would be an absolute disaster, as it would be for many like him who have been granted permanent disability living allowance with good reason. I know that the Minister is good at reaching out to organisations, so will she reassure me that she will continue to engage with the all-party group and autism charities to minimise the uncertainty that some people feel? (49070)

I can reassure my hon. Friend that both I and officials have met representatives from the National Autistic Society, which has put forward helpful thoughts on the new assessment. It has asked for the people who carry out the assessments to be trained in autism, for individuals to be able to bring somebody to a face-to-face assessment, and for them to be able to use the best supporting evidence. We agree 100% with its proposals.

By insisting that widows’ pensions should be treated as unearned income under the universal credit, widows will lose a large slice of their pension. How can the Secretary of State justify that?

The hon. Lady knows that we are looking at all these matters. I am happy to discuss that matter with her if she wants to talk to me.

T10. I have been approached by a number of constituents who are private landlords, who are concerned that they have not received payments that have been made to their tenants. What measures are the Government considering to alleviate that problem? (49071)

We recognise that payments do not always get through to landlords. There is a provision that allows direct payment when there are eight weeks of arrears, and we have added a provision under our new rules so that direct payment can be made to a landlord when it will secure or maintain a tenancy.

I was contacted last week by a constituent who is in her 50s, has advanced multiple sclerosis and lives in a residential home. Her elderly mother has moved into a nursing home on the other side of Aberdeen. The taxi that allows my constituent to visit her mother costs £50 there and back—exactly the amount she gets from the mobility component of disability living allowance. Will the Minister guarantee that my constituent will continue to have access to those funds after the changes to DLA, and that she will not have to go through a reassessment to make sure that she really deserves it?

As we have said before from the Dispatch Box, the intention of our measures to reform the personal independence payment is not to remove the ability of people such as her constituent to get out and about. We will now include the needs of people in care homes in the overall PIP reassessment.

A number of my constituents are facing redundancy. What extra help can the Government give those people, particularly those who have worked in their companies for a very long time?

I express my sympathy to those of my hon. Friend’s constituents in that position. Unemployment is a very difficult thing for anybody to experience. We have put together a number of different proposals. Most immediately, there is support through the Jobcentre Plus rapid reaction service in the immediate aftermath of redundancy. Schemes such as the new enterprise allowance, as it is rolled out across the country, will give people the opportunity to move into self-employment, and we will examine all other sensible ways of ensuring that we mitigate the impact of unemployment on people at what remain difficult times in the labour market.