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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 529: debated on Monday 13 June 2011

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Employment (Young People)

Work experience and apprenticeships are central to improving the prospects of young unemployed people. In this year’s Budget the Chancellor announced funding for an additional 80,000 work experience placements, with eligibility widened to cover the 18 to 24 age group. In addition, we have announced tens of thousands of new apprenticeships. We will also be providing early access to the Work programme for young people from the most challenged backgrounds.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. When the previous Government left office, apart from the record deficit, they left an extra 270,000 young unemployed. How are the Government working with business to ensure that new apprenticeships are what our economy needs to tackle youth unemployment and that we do not repeat the mistakes of the previous Government?

The Government have a very proactive campaign to engage employers, working with them to identify work experience places for young unemployed people. We have already located many thousands of opportunities for young people to gain their first foothold of experience in the workplace. In addition, my colleagues at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are working hard to engage employers in providing apprenticeship opportunities. So far they are being particularly successful in doing so and have met their targets for apprenticeships.

I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said about the importance of apprenticeships. There are 615 unemployed young people in my constituency. What other measures will he put in place to ensure that those young people have the skills they need to compete in the workplace?

The other policy that we will be introducing later in the summer is work academies, which will provide a mix of a short-term segment of training and a period of work experience, again designed to provide young people with a first foothold in the workplace and to give opportunities to those who do not have previous qualifications with a view to trying to get them into employment and build a lasting career.

May I congratulate the Minister on his statement today and on his announcement that the new Work programme comes into force around now? Does he accept, however, that at a time when there is a shortage of jobs, the new providers might well be placing in jobs those who find it easiest to get jobs anyway, and that we need a back-up scheme to ensure the involvement of those who find it most difficult to get jobs or who do not want to work? Will he keep his mind open about reintroducing at some stage the future jobs fund—not that he will do so under that name, but under a Tory name?

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I do accept that there is a challenge in placing some people into work, which is why we have created a differential pricing structure to reflect the challenge of getting them into the workplace. The problem with the future jobs fund was the cost relative even to the outcome costs of other programmes run by the previous Government. Of course, in straitened financial times we have to seek not only what works in employment terms but what is affordable.

Will the Government reinstate Labour’s jobs guarantee to ensure that young people are offered a job or training place after six months out of work?

What the hon. Lady does not understand is that Governments do not create jobs. Governments have to create an environment in which jobs are created by the private sector. Our job is to ensure that unemployed people are in the best possible position to take advantage of jobs when they are created by employers. It has been encouraging over the past few months to see the private sector creating far more full-time jobs, and I hope that that continues.

Universal Credit (Child Care)

2. Whether his plans for universal credit will ensure that people are better off in work after payment of child care costs. (58782)

We recognise the vital role that child care plays in supporting parents into work. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, we have set out a consultative process with some options for child care within universal credit, as I said we would. Alongside that, we have committed to spend all the money available in the current system for child care. It remains our intention that everyone moving into work will be better off when child care is included. People who transition into work will certainly be better off than under the current system.

Will the Secretary of State ensure that parents who work more than 16 hours a week will continue to get child care support to allow them to continue in work?

If the hon. Gentleman looks at our consultation, he will see that our plan is to spread the money to ensure that parents who choose to work for any number of hours—not just 16 hours, but across the board—can go into work and get the necessary support. I therefore think that the answer to the question is yes, and we are also keen to support parents who work fewer hours.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House what effect universal credit will have on child poverty and wider forms of poverty?

We estimate that universal credit as a static system, not even taking into account any dynamic effect, will lift 900,000 people out of poverty, about 350,000 of whom will be children. It is worth remembering that under the present child care systems that people have spoken about, at least 100,000 people do not get the child care for which they are eligible. Under universal credit, the take-up will be higher, so it will have a better effect.

The Secretary of State is right to recognise that support for child care is key to whether parents are better off in work or out of work. However, he promised the Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee that the Government’s proposals on child care support would be available before the Bill left Committee. That promise has been broken; he has simply been able to provide only a discussion of the options. When will he get a grip and come up with a policy?

I will get a grip the moment the right hon. Gentleman’s team decide whether they are in favour of the Bill or against it. I gather that the Leader of the Opposition has today moved like a wriggly worm and decided that he is both for and against it, which is really not surprising. The point of bringing forward our proposals is that the right hon. Gentleman and everybody else will have a chance to look at them and decide whether they agree with them. After the consultation, we will make it clear what our final proposals are. I think that that is fair. Last time, he complained that we did not consult him—he ought to make his mind up.

Workplace Health and Safety

4. What estimate the Health and Safety Executive has made of the annual cost to the economy of inadequate workplace health and safety. (58784)

The Health and Safety Executive estimates that the annual cost to Great Britain of workplace injuries and work-related ill health is currently in the order of £20 billion.

Last year, there were 152 fatalities and 26,000 major injuries in the workplace and more than 800,000 people suffered a work-related illness. As a consequence of the cuts, the HSE has withdrawn a large number of workplace inspections. How will the Government ensure that those figures do not increase year on year?

As a former union official, the hon. Gentleman will know that the biggest challenge we face is employers who cut corners and break the rules. I would have thought that he would welcome a change in policy that focuses health and safety inspections not on low-risk, good employer sites, which have taken up so much resource in the past, but on employers who are not playing by the book and who endanger their employees and the public. That is where I want our regulatory effort to focus.

As my right hon. Friend has said, we all agree that health and safety legislation, when applied correctly, is very useful and important, but does he also agree that when it is applied inappropriately and gold-plated, it can cost jobs and damage the economy?

I absolutely agree. Let me be clear that I believe it is extremely important to get health and safety right. As the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) suggested, we need to protect people against real dangers in the workplace. However, we have to understand that if the system is over-bureaucratic, it will lead to the closure of businesses and cost jobs, and that does nobody any favours. The job of Government is to find the right balance, and that is what we seek to do.

Universal Credit (Transitional Payments)

5. What arrangements he plans to put in place for transitional payments for those who will be affected by the introduction of universal credit. (58785)

A package of transitional protection is being developed to ensure that there will be no cash losers as a direct result of the move to universal credit where circumstances remain the same.

I note the Secretary of State’s reply, but has he not taken into account the criticisms made of the policy by Family Action? They are, first, that it will not apply to new recipients; secondly, that changes in circumstances leading to the loss of cash protection have not been sufficiently defined; and most importantly, that the failure to give a commitment to uprating cash protection in line with inflation could mean up to 400,000 people losing out in real terms as a result of the policy.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I would have thought he would welcome the idea that as we move to the new benefit, we are planning to cash-protect those who are already in receipt of other benefits. I do not think I really need to take too many lessons from his party, because when it scrapped the 10p tax band, it did not cash-protect anybody.

Will the Secretary of State accept that in ensuring that the transition means that people are cash-protected, he is managing to introduce the universal benefit, which would otherwise be almost impossible to do? That universal benefit will be of benefit to the work incentives of people up and down the country.

I am glad that my hon. Friend is more welcoming of the policy than the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain). Cash protection is there to protect those whose circumstances mean that they may have lost out slightly in the change to universal credit. They will not, because we will ensure that they are smoothed into the universal credit system unless there is a significant change in their circumstances. That is a positive gesture from the Government, and as I said, we do not need any lessons from Labour Members, who did not cash-protect people who were damaged when they scrapped the 10p starting rate.

Notwithstanding the fact that, as we have heard, the Government intend to provide transitional protection, will the Secretary of State explain why, for new claimants, their plans to abolish the disability element of child tax credit and replace it with a disability addition will mean a cut of 50% for families with disabled children? According not to Labour Members but to Family Action, that means that families with one disabled child, who are people in great need, are in line to lose £1,400 per annum. Why are disabled children bearing the costs of the Government’s welfare reforms?

I must say to the hon. Lady that they are not. Actually, our adjustments have been welcomed because they mean that more disabled people in difficult family circumstances will find themselves benefiting to a higher degree. Our changes will work well with universal credit. Also, the whole idea of bringing more disabled people into the work force has to be a good thing, or perhaps she disagrees with that.

Pensioner Poverty

We recognise that poverty is about more than income and have introduced a new pensioner material deprivation indicator. It takes into consideration both financial and non-financial elements of poverty, such as ill health and social isolation. It offers a more direct measure of living standards and, used alongside low income measurements, will provide a greater understanding of pensioners’ experiences of poverty.

I am very proud that many people choose my constituency to retire to, and I am extremely grateful for all the measures that the Government have taken so far to address the horrific levels of pensioner poverty bequeathed by the previous Government. However, the proposed almost double-digit price rises by energy companies threaten to undermine those measures. What more can be done to address that problem?

My hon. Friend is right that keeping a home adequately warm is an important part of the standard of living of pensioners. That is why it is included in the broader measure of poverty that we will introduce. I echo the words of my right hon. Friend the Energy Secretary, who said at the weekend that faced with double-digit price rises, we would encourage as many people as possible to shop around so that they do not have to pay those prices and can use the market to their advantage.

The previous Government tackled pensioner poverty with great rigour and success. How can we be assured that in changing the measures of pensioner poverty, the current Government are not simply trying to cover up a failure of their own policies? What assurances can the Minister give the House about the changes?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. The idea of measuring pensioner poverty in terms of material deprivation is supplementary to the income measures, and we will continue to publish both. I am sure he would accept that being just a penny or two above an arbitrary income level does not mean that people have a good standard of living if they are isolated or lonely. We aim to address all facets of pensioners’ quality of life.

Health and Safety Legislation

On 21 March, I announced an immediate review of health and safety regulation with a view to finding ways to simplify the regulatory burden on business. That review is being chaired by Ragnar Löfstedt, the professor of risk management at King’s College, London. He published a call for evidence on 20 May, the closing date for which is 29 July. We hope to publish the findings of the review later this year.

Some of the most inappropriate and burdensome health and safety recommendations on business come from unqualified, cowboy consultants. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is getting rid of cowboy wheel clampers; what are the Government doing to tackle those cowboy health and safety consultants?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. At the beginning of April, we launched a new online register of qualified health and safety consultants, precisely with a view to stamping out the cowboys. I want businesses and other bodies that need consultancy advice to work with qualified people who are capable of advising on what the law actually says, rather than working with people who would like to argue that the law does something they claim it says.

While the Minister is considering what reform to health and safety legislation might be necessary, I hope he will take into account the problems that the Health and Safety Executive has had at Sonae in my constituency. A major fire incident over the last few days has covered much of the industrial area as well as residential areas in acrid black smoke. Will he assure me that the HSE will work with the local authority, Knowsley council, the fire service and everybody else in the town, because we have reached the conclusion that this place should be closed down?

I am aware of the very unfortunate incident in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I cannot comment specifically on that investigation, but I can assure him that the HSE is investigating carefully what happened. Clearly, lessons must be learned. However, that underlines my view that the HSE should concentrate its resources on dealing with genuinely serious incidents and problems, and not on trivial matters.

Couple Penalty

The Government are committed to reducing disincentives in the benefit system. The universal credit provides an enhanced earnings disregard for couples which, along with the taper, will help low-income couples to keep more of their earnings in work. Obviously, over time, it is our intention to work further to reduce the penalty.

A widow and a widower each with two children who form a new couple relationship and decide to live together could be £9,000 worse off as a result of the proposed benefits cap. Given reports over the weekend of confusion among Ministers on the fate of the benefits cap, will the Secretary of State assure us that such a couple would not face a couple penalty?

Clearly, we do not, as the hon. Lady makes out, want to make anybody face any further induced couple penalties. Our plan is to ensure—over a period of time, but particularly in this Parliament—that we work to erode the couple penalty. However, it is worth reminding her specifically what happened under the previous Government, because the baseline that we have accepted is important. The OECD pointed out that a couple needed about 75% of the income of two single people, but the previous Government left them only 60% of those earnings. In other words, the previous Government took far more from couples than most other countries did. That is why we are in difficulty. She should reflect on that when she asks such questions.

Work Programme

I am pleased to tell the House that as of today, all bar four of the contract package areas for the Work programme are fully operational; that many thousands of claimants have already been referred to the programme; and that the first two job outcomes have been achieved in one contract package area, where the provider was particularly quick off the ground.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the providers that are participating in the Work programme? Does he agree that by involving that diverse range of providers, we can tackle the culture of welfare dependency and worklessness that grew under Labour, and ensure that work pays?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. One encouraging thing about the Work programme is the vast diversity of organisations taking part—from big international organisations to small businesses; and from some of our bigger more prestigious charities, such as the Prince’s Trust, down to individual charities—even a walled garden project is involved in Yorkshire—and many of our local colleges. Together, they can make a huge difference in what is a revolutionary approach to the problem of long-term unemployment in this country.

The Minister will remember an exchange of correspondence that he had with the Select Committee about TUPE cover. Now that the Work programme has gone live, the confusion over which posts will enjoy TUPE protection has continued. Of two contractors in the same area, one says that TUPE does apply and the other says that it does not—in some cases, to the same workers in some of the subcontracting companies. I urge the Minister to clarify this issue and ensure that his Department sets out clear advice about which positions have TUPE protection and the rules regarding people working in the Work programme.

The hon. Lady needs to remember that in many cases the programmes that we are replacing are very different to the Work programme. Pathways to work, for example, was simply six work-focused interviews. There will be cases in which TUPE does not apply. We have been very clear in saying to the providers that it is a matter between the providers themselves, the individuals and the former employers to resolve when and where it applies. It is not for the Department to offer legal advice to providers.

I welcome the speed with which the Work programme’s contracts have been put together, but some small voluntary organisations in my constituency who took an interest in it were not successful. Will the Minister reassure them that there will continue to be opportunities for them to play a role in getting people back into work more informally?

I can indeed. First, there will be further opportunities to contract to provide support for the Department. In addition, we do not believe that the supply chains to the Work programme providers are fixed in stone in perpetuity. The whole nature of the Work programme makes it desirable for the prime contractors to look for the best in the business at getting people into work. If any organisation is excellent, I am sure that it will find its way into the programme, even if it has not done so yet.

Youth Unemployment

The independent Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that unemployment will fall from its current level of 2.5 million to around 2 million by 2015. There is no separate forecast for youth unemployment, but over the medium term this would be expected to follow a broadly similar trend.

Fewer than 14% of my constituents are aged between 18 and 24, but this age group accounts for 35% of people looking for work. What is the Minister doing to ensure that private contractors in the new Work programme will not simply cherry-pick those areas of the country where it is easier to get young people into work and ignore areas performing less well economically, such as my constituency?

I would like to reassure the hon. Gentleman. One of the things that we wondered as we went in to the contracting process was whether we would see a difference in the level of interest between different areas of the country, depending on the nature of the local labour market. That was not the case: the competition was equally intense across all areas. I hope that the presence of the Work programme, offering young people support after nine months—and in some cases after three months—of unemployment, combined with the additional support that we are providing though Jobcentre Plus to provide work experience opportunities for young people, will make a significant difference to their prospects as the months go by.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to deal with youth unemployment is not just through the 250,000 apprenticeships, but the roll-out of the 24 university technical pre-apprenticeship schools around the country?

I do indeed agree. Those schools, the increased numbers of apprenticeships, the work experience scheme, the support being provided through the Work programme and the additional measures we have announced recently to support 16 to 18-year olds all show that we have a Government who recognise the problem of youth unemployment, understand its severity and are doing something about it.

Does the Minister think that the record level of youth unemployment has been made worse by the botched ending of the Connexions career service, which was withdrawn with no replacement put in place? No transition plan has yet been put into place.

The hon. Gentleman talks about the causes of youth unemployment. He should look back to when the current increase started in 2003-04, in the good years under the previous Government. He should ask why their policies failed so badly.

Disability Living Allowance

Throughout the development of the new personal independence payment, which will replace disability living allowance, we have had extensive discussions and consultation with disabled people, their families and organisations representing them. The insight of organisations such as RADAR, Mencap, Scope, the United Kingdom Disabled People’s Council and People First into how disability living allowance can fail to support disabled people is immensely valuable. We will continue to work closely with disabled people and their organisations as the detail of the assessment criteria is developed and tested.

On the recent “Hardest Hit” march, I met constituents who had the impression that disability living allowance was to end altogether and would not be replaced by the personal independence payment. Does the Minister agree that in representing these disabled constituents, organisations have to ensure that they communicate clearly with those who might be affected, who are some of the most vulnerable in our society?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important that the organisations working with us in the development of the new personal independence payment use that opportunity to ensure that the people whom they represent are well informed. We need a new approach to disability living allowance. The Labour party has already agreed with that, although we are still waiting to hear exactly what the Opposition’s plan would be.

The organisations that the hon. Lady read out quite quickly sounded like organisations representing people whose conditions do not vary hugely. There are people on disability living allowance who have conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, that can get hugely better and hugely worse. How much conversation has she had with organisations representing people with fluctuating conditions as well as those with progressive conditions?

The only reason I read the list out quickly was not to incur the wrath of Mr Speaker.

I would like to reassure the hon. Lady that I absolutely understand her point. Indeed, I am meeting organisations representing many people with fluctuating conditions. Importantly, we are also considering the findings of the work capability assessment to see how we can build into the new personal independence payment a way of ensuring that people with fluctuating conditions are well served.

State Pension Age (Women)

13. What assessment he has made of the effects on women born between 6 March and 5 April 1954 of his proposals to increase the state pension age. (58794)

Our proposed changes will equalise women’s pension age with men’s more rapidly than previously planned. Under the Government’s proposals, women born on 6 March 1954 will have a pension age of 66 and those born between 7 March and 5 April 1954 will have a pension age of up to a month less.

I highlight the plight of 33,000 women born in one month in 1954 who will be the worst affected under the pension retirement rules. In total, 500,000 women will be affected by one year or more than expected. When they get their pensions, they will be a lot better off than they would have ever been under the Labour party, but what can we do for women in this particular group, who will have to wait an additional two years for their pension?

My hon. Friend raised this important issue, I think, in last Wednesday’s debate when we were startled when she declared an interest in the question. Were we to address the concerns of that group of 33,000 women, we would find that women born one month before or after—who might be affected by a few months less, but still significantly—would ask for a change as well. The short answer is that to delay the whole thing till 2020, as some have suggested, would require an additional £10 billion to be found. She will understand why that is not possible.

The early-day motion calling on the Government to rethink these unfair changes to the pension system has been signed by 180 hon. Members, including 23 Liberal Democrats and three Conservatives. More than 10,000 people have presented a petition to Downing street asking the Government to think again, and the campaign is backed by Age UK and Saga. If the Government can U-turn on forests and, just last week, announce a U-turn on sentencing, surely they can listen and act upon the concerns of women now approaching retirement with fear and trepidation.

To the extent that we know what the hon. Lady’s policy is, it appears to be: to put it off for a decade. Unfortunately, one of the problems with the previous Government’s approach on so many difficult issues was to put them off and assume that somebody else would pay. On pensions, that would require another £10 billion to be paid by tomorrow’s national insurance payers. Does she think that that is a fair burden, given that the people retiring shortly will benefit from the greater longevity?

Costs of Disability

15. What estimate he has made of the costs incurred by a disabled person in the three months following diagnosis of their disability. (58796)

No such estimate has been made. Perhaps I should gently remind the hon. Lady that disability living allowance generally, and personal independence payments absolutely, are not related to a medical diagnosis. They are about considering people as individuals and looking at the impact of their disabilities on their ability to live independent lives. Circumstances, needs and costs will vary from individual to individual, and do not necessarily correlate to a diagnosis.

In Committee, the Under-Secretary said that the reason for the proposal was not savings and that she did not expect to make any savings from it. Yet people who fall ill with sudden onset conditions incur additional costs. They are not long-term unemployed or welfare dependent. Why is she making the change if not to make savings?

I think what I said in Committee was that there would be some savings but that they were modest. The principle of a six-month qualifying period was not intended to deny disabled people help in the short term. That help currently comes mainly but not exclusively from means-tested support, with the personal independence payment starting when costs become a burden to people, regardless of their income. That is why it is not means-tested.

Will the six-month qualifying period allow for special cases, such as people with a terminal illness, who might not survive six months?

I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend that that will be the case and that we will carry forward that provision from disability living allowance.

I am sure that it is not the Government’s intention in time-limiting employment and support allowance—the other disability-related benefit—to leave nearly 7,000 cancer patients potentially up to £94 a week worse off. Today, Macmillan Cancer Support and others warn that that is exactly the consequence of the Government’s policy. Will the Under-Secretary take the opportunity of the Report stage of the Welfare Reform Bill to modify that damaging policy?

The hon. Lady has asked about employment and support allowance. We will obviously ensure that people in the most difficult circumstances continue to receive the support they require through the support group. For disability living allowance, it is absolutely vital that we do not analyse people on their condition, but examine the problems that they encounter in living independent lives. I think that she would expect us to do that.

0845 Numbers

16. What recent representations he has received on his Department’s use of 0845 numbers; and if he will make a statement. (58797)

The Department—and, indeed, I myself—has received several communications from customers and their representatives asking about our policy on the use of 0845 numbers and whether we have considered changing to 0300 and/or geographical numbers. In the wake of those representations, I have asked the Department to undertake an internal review about our use of 0845 numbers and see what other options might be available to us.

I thank the Minister for that response, but given that benefit clients normally have no access to a landline, that calls from mobiles can cost as much as 40p and that they could be kept waiting for information on crisis loans and disability, should we not do more and consider talking to the Telephone Helplines Association about that to make faster progress than we are currently achieving with 0300 numbers?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We offer a ring-back service to anybody who is concerned about the cost of the call that they are making. None the less, there is a genuine problem and I have asked the Department to consider it and ascertain whether better options are available, particularly given the number of claimants who use mobile phones.

State Pension Age (Women)

17. What recent representations he has received on his policy on the date at which the state pension age for women will start to rise. (58798)

Several stakeholder groups, as well as individuals, have expressed concern about the changes we propose, although the majority of commentators agree that we need to increase the state pension age more quickly.

I wonder whether the Minister knows that some 1,200 women in my constituency will lose out. Does he understand that they are angry and feel cheated that pension payments, which they had every reason to believe they had paid for and were due will now not be paid to them? What does he say to those 1,200 women?

Perhaps a generation ago, those very women would have expected to draw a state pension for about six years less—that is a significant change that they have seen in their working life. They will still get the state pension for exactly the same time as someone a generation ago would have expected. We are trying to be fair between the generations and not load all the cost on the next generation.

The coalition agreement talks about equalising the state pension in 2020. Bringing forward the date to 2018 will not help to meet the Government’s target of getting the public finances in balance by 2015, but it will adversely impact a large number of women at very short notice. Will the Government think again and revert to the coalition agreement?

My hon. Friend has raised this issue with me before in debate, and although he is correct that the savings do not fall in the comprehensive spending review period, I would draw his attention to one number. Under previous projections, the national debt at the end of this Parliament was £1.4 trillion. If we were to delay the change, we would have to add another £10 billion. Someone has to get a grip on the national debt.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that question; indeed, we asked that very question in our Green Paper. We are looking at future changes to the state pension age, to 67 and 68, which are already legislated for. We believe that that needs to happen sooner. We are currently consulting and reflecting on the right balance between taking account of changes in longevity and giving people fair notice, and we would welcome the hon. Gentleman’s input on that point.

Housing Benefit (Shared Accommodation)

18. If he will assess the potential effect on the level of homelessness of the extension of the shared accommodation rate for housing benefit to single people aged under 35 years. (58799)

19. If he will assess the potential effect on the level of homelessness of the extension of the shared accommodation rate for housing benefit to single people aged under 35 years. (58800)

An equality impact assessment on this measure was published on the DWP website on 9 May 2011, but it does not contain a specific estimate of the impact on homelessness, because we cannot anticipate the behaviours of tenants or their landlords.

One of the big problems across the board for people aged under 35 is that, because of where they live geographically, or because of medical reasons or their lifestyle, they might simply be unable to reduce their housing costs and share, and therefore could face eviction. That would put more pressure on local authority housing departments, which are already under pressure because of the lack of affordable housing. Do the Government have any plan to help those local authorities meet those increased pressures?

We do indeed, and my hon. Friend, who has a strong track record on housing issues in this House, raises an important point. Over the next four years we will add a total of £190 million to the money going to local authorities, around two thirds of which will be discretionary payments to help just the sort of difficult cases that he mentions, plus other funding for local government to assist them.

I welcome that answer, but is it not likely that perhaps a third or more of the discretionary housing payments budget will be required for the disabled alone—and that is without considering other vulnerable groups—if local authorities decide to use it to stop them being forced to share? Is there not a case for simply exempting certain groups from the change altogether?

I can assure my hon. Friend that certain disabled groups have a blanket exemption: those who qualify for the severe disablement premium are automatically exempted from these proposals.

There is a particular problem in rural areas, where the housing stock is inflexible and where it is difficult to provide rooms for under-25s, let alone under-35s, as the North Wales Housing Association pointed out to me recently. It fears the drift to HMOs—houses in multiple occupation—particularly in seaside towns and urban areas. Can the Government introduce any flexibility on this issue?

Although HMOs are one response to the problem, young people will have a range of alternatives, which will differ from individual to individual. For example, one third of single people aged 25 to 34 live with their parents. I recognise that this is not an option for some, but it may be an option that others will take up. Some will use the Government’s “Rent a room” scheme—whereby an owner-occupier will rent out a room, from which they can get more than £4,000 tax free—and some may be able to rent a room from a social landlord, which is something that we are looking to explore more.

Benefit Payments (EU Nationals)

22. How many nationals of other EU member states are in receipt of benefits provided by his Department. (58804)

One of the things that I was surprised to discover in the past few weeks is that the Department does not keep any record—nor, indeed, did it under the previous Government—of the nationality of people who claim benefits. This is something that we are moving to address; indeed, we want to find a way to ensure that we do so.

It is indeed a scandal that we do not know how many EU nationals are claiming benefits funded by the British taxpayer. Is it not completely wrong for an eastern European citizen to be working in this country, with his family and children back home in Poland or wherever, and to be claiming and receiving child benefit at the British taxpayer’s expense?

My hon. Friend puts his finger on one of the anomalies of the European system which is causing concern not just in this country, but in other capitals around Europe. I have had many conversations in the last few months with fellow Employment Ministers in other EU countries, and there is a mounting debate about the need for rule changes that will set out exactly when and where benefits should and should not be paid.

Youth Unemployment

The issue of youth unemployment is one that the right hon. Gentleman would know, if he had listened to my earlier answer, is of great importance to this Government and the nation. We are taking urgent steps to seek to address it.

Despite excellent apprenticeship schemes such as the one at Airbus near my constituency, which employs about 100 apprentices a year, youth unemployment in Wales is, sadly, still higher than anywhere else in the UK as a whole. Given what the Minister said earlier about potential jobs being created, in the absence of a strong regional policy and with the scrapping of Labour’s job schemes, how can he guarantee that the jobs for young people will go to where the most young people are unemployed?

We need two things to solve the problem of youth unemployment. We need a strategy for growth, which was at the heart of the Budget put forward by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer a few weeks ago. We will continue to seek measures that will encourage business to grow, develop and create jobs in this country. Alongside that, we will continue to pursue measures, through work experience, the Work programme and other arrangements to support young people to make sure that they are as well equipped as possible to take advantage of those vacancies wherever in the United Kingdom they arise and wherever in the United Kingdom they live.

Topical Questions

Last week, we launched the Work programme—the biggest single such programme that the UK has ever had. It contrasts with the number of confusing and sometimes prescriptive provisions offered previously. We are adopting a personalised and flexible approach, which the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) spoke about earlier. It will involve paying providers by results, which we have explained, and will give them the freedom to innovate. The Work programme will deliver, we believe, effective and cost-effective support to help claimants into sustainable employment.

Rising fuel costs, 20% VAT, high inflation and cuts to the winter fuel allowance and local government budgets will all hit vital front-line services used by pensioners. I should be grateful if the Minister would explain to the pensioners of West Lancashire why the Government need a new material deprivation indicator to tell them what they already know—that the policies of this Conservative-led Government are hitting them over and over again?

The hon. Lady is right that we did not reverse Labour’s planned cut in the winter fuel payment. What we did is reverse Labour’s planned cut to the cold weather payment, which pays £25 a week every time the temperature falls below zero—and we ended up paying more than £400 million to cold, vulnerable pensioners, which is money that the Labour party would not have spent.

T3. In the context of the big society and mindful of the need for a variety of provision, what evidence is there that bidders for the Work programme have come from the voluntary sector and social enterprises? (58809)

There is a huge amount of evidence. Two of the main providers are voluntary sector based, and getting on for half of all the subcontractors in the programme will be from the voluntary sector. This will be the biggest boost to the idea of the big society. Now that we hear Labour Members are rethinking on welfare, we hope that they will have some good things to say about it.

The cap on overall benefits in the Welfare Reform Bill is an important part of the legislation, but yesterday the noble Lord Freud said on television that there was going to be a significant U-turn, as there were going to be exemptions. Pressed on the detail, he said:

“Well, it’s where we think that, you know, there’s something happening that is undesirable.”

I do not wish to be pedantic, but that is not a clear plan for reform. The Third Reading of the Welfare Reform Bill is on Wednesday. Will the amendments for this new proposal be on the table by then?

It is good to see the right hon. Gentleman again—long time, no see. I am glad that he has finally made it to the Dispatch Box. He should not believe everything he reads in the media. The reality is that this policy is not changing because it is a good policy. The reality is that nearly half of those of working age who are working earn less than £26,000 a year, and they pay taxes to see some people on benefits earning much more than that amount. As we proceed through Report and Third Reading, I look forward to seeing the right hon. Gentleman support and vote for the Bill because he believes that those on benefits should not earn more than those who are living and working hard.

The Secretary of State’s Welfare Reform Bill would be easier to support if we knew what difference it would make in the real world. We still do not know what it will mean for child care or for people with disabilities, and now we do not know what it will mean for the benefit cap either.

Since the Secretary of State took office, the Treasury has forecast that the housing benefit bill will rise by £1 billion. If he cannot tell us what his policy on exemptions is, will he tell us what Lord Freud’s current policy will cost taxpayers?

As I have said, we are not changing the policy. What my noble Friend Lord Freud was referring to was what we are already doing: making discretionary payments to ensure that the policy is eased in properly. [Interruption.] Hang on a second. The right hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He has just said that we are not cutting housing benefit enough. He ought to talk to those on his Front Bench who think that we are cutting it too much. That is the problem with the Opposition at the moment: they want to have it all ways. Today the Leader of the Opposition made a speech in which he said that Labour would be tough on benefit claimants and that those who were not in work would not receive social housing. I simply say to Labour Members that this whole idea of welfare and change is a lot of wriggly-worm U-turns from the Opposition.

Order. I remind the House that if we are to maximise progress, we need pithy questions and, from the Secretary of State and his colleagues, pithy answers.

T2. Members have already raised the issue of women born in 1954 who must wait an extra two years to receive their pensions, but those who have small occupational pensions paid for and planned for on the basis of the earlier retirement date and who then find themselves out of work before the later date will be adversely affected in terms of jobseeker’s allowance. Will the Minister review the rule and, specifically, the way in which it relates to those disadvantaged women? (58808)

The hon. Lady is right: there is often an interaction between the rules governing benefits such as JSA, occupational pensions and state pension ages. However, in cases in which people’s state pension age has risen, the rules governing working-age benefits are exactly as they have always been. Provision will be made, whether through employment support allowance, JSA or, in the example given by the hon. Lady, an occupational pension. We are not talking about leaving people with nothing to live on.

T4. The mental health charity Mind has suggested changes in the work capability assessment to capture better the complexity of the conditions of those suffering from mental illness. What reassurance can the Minister give about how the process can be enhanced to reflect those needs better? (58810)

We have already introduced mental health champions to the network of health care professionals who carry out the assessments, and we believe that the changes introduced at the beginning of April will bring more people with mental health conditions into the support group. However, we now have on our desks a new set of proposals from the charities which we asked them to supply to us. We are considering them carefully, and hope to respond in the very near future.

One important purpose of crisis loans is to cover emergencies when claimants have no money and payment of their benefits or tax credits is delayed. Because applications are now limited to three per year, families in my constituency already face the blocking of that route to help, not because they have failed but because of failings in the system. Will Ministers look at the system again and establish whether a more flexible approach could be adopted?

We recognise that it is nonsense for one part of the benefits system to lend people money to deal with the fact that they have not received benefits from another part of it on time. The whole business of alignment payments has become completely out of control. Under my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s universal credit scheme, the matter will be dealt with through advance payments of the credit. Clearly the idea that people can have multiple crises—up to 10 a year—does not produce a rational system, which is the reason for our reform.

T5. Will my right hon. Friend please update the House on the progress of the work clubs initiative? (58811)

Let me start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in establishing a national network of work clubs. Several hundred are now up and running around the country, some with a degree of help from Jobcentre Plus and others with none at all. I hope that this strong network of organisations will make a real difference to people looking for jobs, and that their number will continue to grow.

I opposed changes to Remploy made by my own party in government which resulted in the closure of my local factory in Woolwich. Before the Government implement any further changes under the Sayce report that may result in more closures of Remploy factories, will the Secretary of State contact the former employees of that Woolwich factory, and write to me telling me how many found jobs and are currently employed?

I should like to reassure the hon. Gentleman that this Government’s policy is to continue with the modernisation plan, and there have not been further closures of Remploy factories. We will, however, look carefully at the recommendations of the report issued last week, which included recommendations on the future of Remploy. We will fully consult on that before going forward, and I am sure that that could well include what the hon. Gentleman suggested.

T6. On behalf of Micklefield job club in my constituency, a strictly voluntary effort to help people back into work, and on behalf of GB Job Clubs, a charity that supports a national network of like clubs, may I ask what the Government will do to ensure that the state does not crush such voluntary provision? (58812)

I should like to reassure my hon. Friend that I have made sure that there are no attempts within Jobcentre Plus and the Department for Work and Pensions to track and monitor and data-manage and performance-manage. This is a grass-roots movement. Our role is to provide a degree of local encouragement, and sometimes some initial funding to clubs to get up and running, but after that it is very much up to them to shape their destiny, and up to us to champion their success, but not to interfere.

The DWP’s own research on the future jobs fund published last month demonstrated the value of Government subsidy for the employment of young people during an economic crash. Does the Minister agree with his own Department’s research, and will he therefore reconsider the possibility of a work subsidy for young people if their employment levels do not improve in the coming year?

The whole point of that research was to look at how we can get value for money—how many people we can get back to work, and what we can best do to support them. We inherited a terrible situation from the last Government, with youth unemployment having been rising for a number of years. The programmes we are introducing—such as the Work programme and special provision within that, and the innovation fund—will help them much more than lavishing huge amounts of money for very little return, such as through the future jobs fund.

T7. What are the Government doing to reduce conflict between parents in their dealings with the Child Support Agency? (58813)

Reducing such conflict by putting in place support for parents to work collaboratively at the time of family breakdown lies at the heart of the reforms that we are looking at. I think Members of all parties can welcome that, and it has certainly been welcomed by organisations in the charitable sector who work with families.

What were the terms of reference that the DWP gave to the Sayce team, what was cost of the report, and was the main beneficiary Radar?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I apologise for not quite hearing the end of it, but let me say that we commissioned the report to look generally at how employment programmes were supporting severely disabled people, including all the programmes currently run by the Department. It is a very fragmented bunch of programmes, and Liz Sayce has done an excellent job in pulling that together and recommending a strategy and the way forward. Yes, we did remunerate Radar, because it was required to have additional help to support it in the running of its business while Liz Sayce was helping us.

T8. I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s proposed reform of the benefit system, but how will universal credit help people who have been out of work take up part-time or flexible work if they are unable to take on a full-time job for any reason? (58814)

I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised this matter. The reality about universal credit is that it is aimed at those who cannot take on full-time work, or those who are transiting back to full-time work having been out of work for a little while. It will help everybody take up work for a number of different hours that suit their own particular conditions. It is particularly good for lone parents, and they will benefit for each hour they take better than they do at present.

The Government’s benefit cap will force many of my constituents to leave their home of many years, uprooting families, jobs, schools and communities. According to the right hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), on LBC just now, such people are making lifestyle choices. Is that the Government’s view?

The position on the benefit cap is very straightforward and simple: those who are on benefit should not receive more money than those who are working and paying their taxes. There are exemptions, of course, such as for those who are making the right efforts to get back to work—those on working tax credit, for instance—and those who are disabled, as well as for widows and war widows. They are exempted from this, but for the rest of them the following simple principle holds: “If you can, you should be helped into trying to work”, and £26,000 a year seems a reasonable sum of money to me.

T9. Many people are being tricked out of money by being offered lump sums, which turn out to be woefully inadequate, instead of their pension scheme. What steps are the Government taking on these incentivised transfers out of defined benefit pension schemes? (58815)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. We are determined to drive out the bad practice whereby, as he says, people are given a bung of cash, sometimes a few weeks before Christmas, and are then given a value for their pension rights which is well below what they are actually worth to them. I met the pensions regulator and other interested groups a few weeks ago, and we are looking very hard at whether regulatory change is needed.

In the light of earlier questions on the Health and Safety Executive, will there be more workplace inspections next year or fewer?

We have made it clear that we are seeking to reduce the number of proactive workplace inspections by about a third by removing from proactive inspection low-risk premises that have no record of problems. In that way, the HSE can concentrate its resource on dealing with those employers where there is a problem and fault has been found. Indeed, we are introducing a system of fee for fault to ensure that we recover money from those employers who are breaking the rules.

Changing from three to six months the period before which a claimant becomes eligible for the new personal independence payment not only means that people with sudden onset conditions, such as cancer or a stroke, have to wait longer for support, but it may affect their family’s access to carer’s allowance. Will the Minister investigate ways to enable those looking after loved ones who suffer sudden onset conditions early access to carer’s allowance?

It is important that we continue to view the personal independence payment very much as something that relates to an individual and the way in which their condition affects them on an individual basis. We are not intending to look at particular conditions, but we will be carefully examining the way in which the introduction of the personal independence payment affects benefits that are passported, such as carer’s allowance, and we will bear my hon. Friend’s comments in mind.

The Pensions Minister may recall that he kindly met me, the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) and a representative of the Twins and Multiple Births Association to discuss a modest proposal to amend the Sure Start maternity grant for parents of multiples. He undertook to come back to us on that, so I wonder whether he could update us on when he will be able to do so.

The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham rightly raised some specific issues relating to people who have had twins or other multiple births and the interaction between that situation and our changes to maternity grants, and I hope to be in a position to respond shortly.