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Topical Questions

Volume 529: debated on Monday 13 June 2011

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.