Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 526: debated on Monday 28 March 2011

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.