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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 531: debated on Monday 18 July 2011

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Employment Law

As part of the cross-government review of employment-related law we have implemented a number of easements for employers’ automatic enrolment following independent review, which will save small employers about £90 million a year, including increasing the earnings level at which automatic enrolment applies, introducing a simpler way for employers to check their existing pension schemes meet the required standards and introducing an optional waiting period of up to three months.

The Secretary of State’s Department is responsible for a huge amount of employment law. May I urge him to work closely with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on its review to ensure that the Government make a cross-departmental effort to free small businesses up to take on staff?

My hon. Friend definitely may. We are working closely with BIS in all it tries to do and my Department is doing quite a lot to help small employers. We listened carefully on auto-enrolment, we made a change to give a little more time and that helped small businesses enormously.

Defined-benefit Pension Schemes

2. What steps he is taking to address incentivised transfers out of defined-benefit pension schemes. (66530)

We recognise that employers need some flexibility to manage their scheme liabilities and that well-managed transfer exercises can be a useful tool, but we are concerned about scheme members being offered cash inducements to encourage them to take a transfer that might not be in their best interests. We have discussed the issue with a number of industry groups and we are actively looking to see what action needs to be taken to combat any bad practice.

As the Minister knows, I support him on the principle that enhanced transfers do not necessarily advantage many members of pension schemes. What does he think about the other side of the equation, however? In my constituency of Gloucester, we have at least a dozen very successful family-owned manufacturing firms whose ability to grow is impeded by the residual liabilities of their closed DB schemes. How does the Minister think we can balance our responsibilities to members of the scheme with the desire to help such companies grow?

I enjoyed my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency, when we discussed pension issues with local employers. The important consideration is fairness, as he says. We have no problem with people transferring out of such schemes in a fair exchange, but because these are complex and difficult financial transactions we must ensure that people have the proper advice and information on which to make such choices.

The reality is that most occupational schemes are disappearing, private pension schemes are often not good value and are subject to stock-market vagaries, and millions of people will not be in any kind of pension scheme in the future. Is not the real long-term solution a compulsory state earnings-related pension scheme for everyone?

We believe that both the state and the private sector have an important part to play. We have published Green Paper proposals for state pension reform that would provide a firmer foundation, perhaps of the sort that the hon. Gentleman has in mind. We also believe that many people could be in decent-quality workplace provision with an employer contribution and that is why we will begin auto-enrolment as planned next year.

Work Programme

The Department for Work and Pensions completed the launch of the Work programme by the end of June and it is now operational in all parts of the country. I have now visited a number of the providers and their centres and I am pleased to see the progress they are making.

I welcome the Government’s measures to help unemployed people in my Lincoln constituency, but what assurances can my right hon. Friend give me that the Work programme will provide my constituents with sustainable, meaningful and long-term employment?

There are two things about the Work programme that will help my hon. Friend and his constituents. First, the providers are free to deliver whatever solution works for the individuals—a crucial difference to past programmes—and, secondly, they are rewarded not simply for getting people into work but for sustaining them in work for periods that can be as long as two years and three months. I hope that will deal with the challenges in the labour market in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

On Friday, we welcomed the Minister to the Stafford jobs fair and the Shaw Trust in the Stafford constituency. How extensive is the role he foresees for the voluntary sector in providing the Work programme?

The voluntary sector has a crucial role to play in two ways. First, we have a wide range of voluntary sector organisations contractually involved in the Work programme, delivering support to the long-term unemployed. I also believe that a local community activity such as the excellent jobs fair that my hon. Friend organised in his constituency, together with Stafford Works, is an ideal example of how Work programme providers and the local community can work together to deliver real back-to-work support for the unemployed.

Early indications would suggest that the numbers being referred to the Work programme are much higher than many of the providers expected under the contracts they signed. What guarantee does the Minister have that people will not sit on the Work programme without any intervention for some time until the providers gear up to have the staff to deal with the numbers they face?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is a marked contrast to the start of the flexible new deal under the previous Government when providers went for weeks and weeks without people being referred. I am very encouraged by the start of the Work programme and by the response of providers, which are contractually obliged to provide minimum levels of support to people who are referred. As far as I can see, that is precisely what is happening: support is starting and is working well. There are courses, support and learning taking place up and down the country.

Should we hold out much hope for the Government’s Work programme if the Government are not successful in meeting their immigration target?

The right hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of migrant labour on many occasions. It is a challenge for Work programme providers to make sure they can deliver a work-ready work force to potential employers in areas such as his constituency to take advantage of the excellent opportunities that exist in companies such as the Contact Company, for example, which I visited recently. I strongly believe that if providers get local workers ready for the work force, they will be taken up eagerly by local employers.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways of getting people back into work is through apprenticeships? Will he ensure that the Work programme is linked carefully into the Government’s apprenticeships scheme?

I absolutely agree. One of the most important steps the Government have taken has been significantly to increase the number of apprenticeships available, particularly for young people. It is absolutely clear under the Work programme agreement that a successful placement in an apprenticeship counts as a job outcome under the Work programme. I hope that will mean there is a clear link between the two.

Steve Kerr of the London Voluntary Service Council has questioned whether the Work programme

“will succeed…or simply make matters worse through sidelining the voluntary sector.”

What action is the Minister taking so that the voluntary sector does not continue to feel sidelined through the Work programme?

The hon. Lady is absolutely wrong. The voluntary sector is not being sidelined. On Friday in Stafford I visited the Shaw Trust—a major voluntary sector organisation that is already delivering support to people under the Work programme. There are many other organisations such as Groundwork delivering support right across the spectrum and there is specialist help available from some of the specialist groups. The Work programme has been designed to attract best practice, of which there is much in the voluntary sector. That is why it is such an important part of the Work programme.

Employment (Disabled People)

The Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that disabled people have the same opportunities as everybody else to reach their potential in work. The Work programme, Jobcentre Plus, Work Choice and Access to Work provide a range of support to do that. I announced on Monday 11 July the Government’s response to Liz Sayce’s review of specialist disability employment programmes. We have a consultation running until 17 October and I urge everybody to participate in it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. Will she confirm that the budget for specialist disability employment is being protected and that it will be spent more wisely than it was in the past?

I thank my hon. Friend for that very good question and I can confirm to him absolutely that the budget is being protected. I also urge him to look at Liz Sayce’s report, which suggests that perhaps 35,000 additional disabled people could be supported into work from the same budget. That is something we would like to consult on and look at some more.

I am sure that the Minister will join me in commending the work of the Spinal Injuries Association in Milton Keynes. Indeed, she might like to visit it the next time she is passing by, as a visit there would show that many of its employees are disabled. It gives a clear example of how tailored work programmes are the best way of getting disabled people back into work. Is that an approach that the Government will pursue?

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing my attention to such good work in his constituency. I shall certainly consider trying to visit if I am able to. He is absolutely right that we should focus on the individual rather than on the institution—that is a common theme coming out of the Sayce review.

May I ask the Minister something that the disabled in my constituency ask me? Once the disabled have got jobs, what support and advice will there be for employers so that they can maintain the disabled in those jobs?

We already have in place Access to Work, which provides just the sort of support that my hon. Friend is talking about, but all too often that support is, perhaps, focused on the job rather than on the individual. One of the reforms that the Sayce review is talking about is how we can make sure that Access to Work is focused on the individual and not just on particular jobs. In some instances, however, employers are involved in co-funding, so this issue needs to be looked at with care. We are looking at it in our consultation.

On Thursday I will be visiting the Remploy factory in my constituency and meeting some of the 20 staff who work there. Over the past year they have invested in new equipment and through hard work have won new business. What does the Minister suggest I say to them?

It is excellent that the right hon. Gentleman is visiting his factory and showing staff support, as he clearly is. As he knows, we are consulting, through the Sayce review, about the future of Remploy. We want to make sure that Remploy factories are successful in the future. At present every single one is loss-making, and half the employees in Remploy across the board—I am not sure of the position in his constituency—do not have work to do. That is not an acceptable situation. We need to look for ways of remedying a situation that we inherited and through the Sayce consultation we hope to do that.

Is it not unfortunate that the future of Remploy is once again in the melting pot? May I remind the Minister—we had a conversation about this—that in 2008, the last time people went through voluntary redundancy in Remploy, only a quarter of those made redundant got new jobs? In my own Remploy factory in Aberdare, only one person is at work. Surely it is better to keep disabled people in work, doing jobs that they have done satisfactorily for a long time?

We have indeed had some important conversations about the matter. It is not for me to answer for the record of the previous Government, although I point out to the right hon. Lady that 40% of disabled people who left through the 2008 redundancy scheme retired. The figures that she quotes need to reflect that. I can assure her that we will do everything we can to make sure that people affected by any changes in the future are given the support that they need.

Has the Minister had any discussions with the Department for Social Development in Northern Ireland about some of the excellent initiatives that it is undertaking, particularly in relation to young people coming out of school and college?

We have many conversations with the devolved Administrations. I cannot recall anything about that subject particularly, but I will pick that up later.

Child Support Agency

7. What steps he is taking to prevent disagreements between parents in their dealings with the Child Support Agency. (66535)

The current child support schemes can entrench conflict and they do not encourage parents to work together in the best interests of their children. We are taking steps to draw on a range of support to help parents collaborate to reach family-based arrangements for child maintenance wherever possible, which we believe will help the ongoing involvement of both parents in a child’s life after separation.

People in Rossendale and Darwen who deal with the CSA tell me that they find that the CSA’s approach creates trouble in what is already a strained relationship. Will the Minister please update the House about the practical steps that are to be taken to introduce a more conciliatory approach?

My hon. Friend is getting to the heart of the reform that we are looking to put in place under the future scheme, which is to make sure that parents such as his constituents get the right support up front from specialist organisations that can help them with their parental relationship post-separation. There is a growing body of evidence to show that that is one of the main determinants of whether people have an effective child maintenance regime in place after separation.

Does the Minister believe that £30 million over four years over the whole of England will be sufficient to achieve her aims? That is the £30 million from the Department for Education which is for all sorts of relationship counselling, not just in relation to the Child Support Agency?

The hon. Lady is right: finances are tough, but she is well aware of the situation that we inherited. The Department for Education is not the only Department to invest in parental relationship support. The Department for Work and Pensions already invests well over £5 million a year in the options service, which does an excellent job, as far as it goes at present, in providing some of the support that I would like to see augmented in the future.

Some parents with care had spent years trying to get money out of absent ex-partners with no success before the CSA imposed a deductions of earnings order. The Government propose to close all existing cases when the new scheme is up and running, including those with deduction of earnings orders in place. Although I welcome the Government’s emphasis on parents working together to solve problems, can the Minister reassure me that where there is a long history of non-payment, cases will not be closed and families left with no money at all?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and that is just the sort of detail we are working through. It is absolutely our intention to ensure that transitional arrangement are in place to help parents in the situation she describes to have continuing payments into the future, and I am certainly making that a priority.

Disability Living Allowance

We have announced that we would not remove the DLA mobility component from people in residential care from October 2012 and would consider the issue as part of our wider reform to introduce the personal independence payment. It is only right that we consider carefully the needs of this particular group to understand their current circumstances before we come to any final decision on how best to address their needs in future.

If that is the case, perhaps the Minister can explain why these savings still appear to be in the Chancellor’s Red Book. Has she discussed the matter with her colleagues in the Treasury?

The hon. Gentleman has probably raised this matter with me before. The Red Book reflects the current position, which is that support for care home residents is being reviewed alongside the broader reform of DLA. The figures in the Red Book make it clear that those savings will be made as part of the Government’s overall reform of the programme, which is very consistent with what I have said, and will be part of the reform of PIP.

I take it from the Minister’s answer to the previous question that the loss of £160 million for disabled people will continue. I draw to her attention the launch today of an independent review of the mobility component of disability living allowance, led by Lord Low of Dalston CBE and overseen by the charities Leonard Cheshire Disability and Mencap. It has been launched because they have lost confidence in the Government’s review. Unlike the Government’s review, the Low review includes clear terms of reference, calls for evidence and representations from disabled people themselves. If the Minister is sure of her ground on this matter, and in the interests of transparency, will she commit today to participating in the Low review?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question—I think. The deficit does not go away, and I think she needs to remember that. We have to ensure that we have sufficient money to have a sustainable disability living allowance or personal independence payment into the future, and I look forward to working with her on ways of achieving that. With regard to the additional evidence that will be put forward as part of the Low review, I obviously welcome any additional information that will help us, along with the 5,500 submissions we have received as part of the DLA consultation. This is a really important issue and I am glad that the hon. Lady is getting involved in finding the right solution, because obviously that is important for us all.

Employment and Support Allowance

9. What plans he has to issue guidance to prospective applicants on the evidence required from them to receive employment and support allowance. (66538)

ESA claims are normally made by phone. A statement is then sent to the claimant setting out any additional evidence necessary to support the claim. If claims are made using a clerical form, notes are provided about evidence that may be required. There are no current plans to issue further guidance, but this is constantly kept under review.

I thank the Minister for that answer and am pleased to know that this is under review. Answers to my written parliamentary questions show that in Chippenham nearly half of all unsuccessful applicants who appeal win their cases at tribunal, in some cases by presenting evidence that they did not know they were to produce when they first made their application. Does the Minister recognise that these successful appeals are a costly process that do not represent value for money for the taxpayer and cause unnecessary heartache and hardship for the people concerned?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and want to see fewer cases going to appeal. This is one reason why we have stepped up the reconsideration process in Jobcentre Plus, so after the initial decision is made we actively seek out further evidence, if such evidence exists, and use it to reconsider our decision. I hope and expect to see the number of successful appeals reduce significantly as a result.

Local Jobcentre Plus officials have advised me that there is already a significant delay in the work capability assessment test in my local area because the assessments are taking around twice as long as was originally predicted. Can the Minister reassure the House that this is not the situation across the whole country and that there is no backlog in the work capability assessments, with all that that would imply for claimants and for the service?

We have remained on schedule to start the process for individuals. It is not the case that assessments are taking twice as long. There is an early element of bedding in for the personalised statement, as was recommended by Professor Harrington, but we are not aware of any long-term factors that would change the timetable for the whole reconsideration process.

Work Programme

10. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of user groups in assisting people with disabilities to obtain work through the Work Programme. (66539)

I regard the role of specialist organisations and specialist user groups as extremely important for the delivery of the Work programme. They, above all others involved, will be able to provide the specialist support that individuals with particularly serious challenges in their lives face in trying to get into the workplace.

I thank the Minister for his answer. However, given that only 230 disabled people secured work through residential training colleges last year, at an average cost of £78,000 per person, will the Secretary of State commit to implementing the recommendations as set out in last week’s Sayce review on allowing such colleges to develop as centres of excellence and to adapt their provision to operate directly in provider markets—for instance, as subcontractors in the Work programme?

We are considering the Sayce recommendations and have not yet formally responded about our decisions on whether to adopt most of them. However, my hon. Friend makes a sensible point. I have visited the Queen Elizabeth Foundation for Disabled People near my constituency in Surrey, where I said to people that I would encourage them to look to see whether they can enter the Work programme to provide specialist support as subcontractors. I hope that all the colleges will consider taking such an approach.

Departmental Jobs (Relocation)

11. Whether key suppliers to his Department are required to consult him on any planned relocation of jobs abroad. (66540)

Let me start by saying that we will not offshore any DWP jobs. I share the hon. Lady’s concerns regarding work being done offshore by suppliers. Many of the Department’s subcontractors began using some offshore staff under the previous Government. The Department is exploring how future offshoring can be minimised and whether jobs currently offshored could potentially be moved back to the UK in future.

I welcome the Minister’s reply. As he no doubt knows, the north-east has some of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Hewlett Packard’s decision to offshore jobs in Newcastle supplying his Department with IT will not help matters. Santander recently announced that it is bringing all its call centres back to the UK following pressure from customers. As Hewlett Packard’s customer, what concrete steps is the Minister taking to achieve the same result?

I have already had a meeting with Hewlett Packard to discuss the issue, and I expect to have another such meeting shortly. The hon. Lady refers to call centres. All the Department’s call centres are sited in the UK. We have the biggest virtual contact centre in Europe, and it is very good, I believe; I applaud the professionalism of the staff who work in it. I would expect to see many similar offshore centres return to the UK in future, because, in my view, British-based staff are the best contact centre staff.

Child Care (Universal Credit)

I made a commitment to provide more detail during the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill and am still on track to do so in time for its scrutiny in the Lords. We are considering the advice and suggestions raised in productive discussions held with MPs, peers and lobby groups, along with recent written responses submitted by attendees. It is going very well and we are learning a lot from those responses.

Will the Minister guarantee that the Government’s stated aim that universal credit will always pay will be in place for all families where child care costs are taken into account?

That is absolutely our intention. That is why we are listening carefully to what people have proposed. The whole point about child care is that it should be there to support particularly women going into work who have caring responsibilities. We are reviewing this to make sure that that continues to be the case under universal credit. That is the whole point about the consultation. In other words, where we may be wrong, we can get that corrected and make sure that we come forward with a really good package in time for the debates in the other place.

What is now the Government’s policy on the benefit cap in universal credit? The Secretary of State has told us that the policy is not changing, but press reports from Liberal Democrat sources contradict that by saying that the issue is far from settled and that the cap might not apply to existing benefit recipients. Then, last week, the Minister with responsibility for employment confirmed in a letter to me that “easements” are indeed being considered for existing recipients. So was the Secretary of State mistaken, and is the policy changing or not?

The policy is not changing. The right hon. Gentleman should have written to me and my colleague at the same time, and we would both have given exactly the same answer. We have always said that in the course of the cap, we will look at any difficult cases. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] We have always said that. One would always do that in a transition, just as we are doing with housing benefit. I remind the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues that the cap will come in at a gross level of £35,000 a year. I would very much like to know what their position is on the cap, because so far we have heard absolutely nothing about whether they support it or are opposed to it. Perhaps they will tell us now. Most people out there are in favour of it.

Personal Independence Payment

13. Whether the mobility component of the personal independence payment will be available to people living in residential care. (66542)

We are reviewing the existing evidence and gathering more to determine the extent to which there are overlaps in provision for the mobility needs of people in residential care homes. The work is continuing and we will make a final decision on the way forward when it is complete.

For the residents of Shaftesbury Court in Lowestoft in my constituency, the mobility component plays an important role in enabling them to lead active lives in the local community. Can the Minister confirm that the PIP will be sufficiently well designed and funded so that that can continue?

I note my hon. Friend’s assiduous support for his constituents in Shaftesbury Court. He also raised this issue on Third Reading of the Welfare Reform Bill. I reassure him that we will consider the needs of people who are in receipt of DLA as we move forward with PIP, regardless of their place of residence. We are doing a great deal of work to ensure that there is sufficient support so that people get the mobility that they require.

Does the Minister realise that in the good society—I do not know about the big society—we care about the disability mobility component? It would destroy people’s lives, including the lives of people in the Leonard Cheshire home in Huddersfield, if it was taken away, because the ability to get out and see something of real life is an essential quality of the good life and the good society.

That is why, as we announced, we are not removing the mobility component from DLA in October 2012. We will ensure that people who live in care homes get sufficient support under PIP.

I recently met constituents in my local Leonard Cheshire home in Crook who are very concerned about losing the mobility element of DLA. The Minister subsequently wrote to my local newspaper, The Northern Echo, advising that those people were wrong to worry about this and that they would not lose it. Is that the Government’s position or is it subject to the review? Are the Government just not sure yet?

I, too, have visited Leonard Cheshire homes, and I have met Leonard Cheshire representatives to discuss this issue. I assure the hon. Lady, as I just said to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), that we are not removing the DLA mobility component in October 2012. We will look at the needs of care home residents alongside the needs of all other recipients of DLA as part of the broader PIP reform. Perhaps she can take that message back to her constituents. It would be great to get some good information out there.

Young People (Employment Support)

We are doing three things to help young people into work. Our work experience scheme will provide an opportunity for up to 100,000 young people to get their first taste of the workplace over the next two years. We have launched tens of thousands of new apprenticeships that are designed to build a career for young people. Through the Work programme, we are providing specialist back-to-work support for those who are struggling to get into work, the longer-term unemployed and those who come from the most challenging backgrounds.

In an area like Great Yarmouth, which has above average unemployment and in some cases third generation unemployment, those projects are hugely important in getting young people back into work. To help promote the opportunities for businesses, will the Minister outline how many people have undertaken and will undertake work experience this year?

The latest figures show that at the end of the first quarter, give or take, about 10,000 young people had so far benefited from our work experience scheme. Employers have so far committed to provide about 35,000 places. I am very optimistic that the scheme will deliver real opportunities for young people, some of whom have started to get into work through the placements.

Unemployment in the ’80s and ’90s was devastating for young people and gave us a generation with no jobs, no hope and no future. Has the Minister evaluated how much long periods of unemployment for a young person cost the UK economy?

There is no doubt that long periods of unemployment for young people are damaging both economically and to them personally. The hon. Lady will therefore welcome the fact that youth unemployment is lower today than it was at the time of the general election. I hope and believe that the specialist support that we are providing through the Work programme, the placements that we are providing through our work experience scheme and the extra apprenticeships for young people will make further inroads into that total.

I had the pleasure of visiting a small engineering business in Meltham a week ago. It has a big contract for making the suspension for the Ocelot Land Rover, and it is going to employ an extra 50 people over the coming 12 months. Can we learn lessons from the previous Government, who left power with 250,000 more young people unemployed, so that we can ensure that as private companies expand and take on workers, they give real emphasis to employing young people?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is why the extra apprenticeships that we have launched are so important. His experience is the same as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy)—who is no longer in his place—at whose jobs fair several leading engineering companies were looking for young people. If we deliver the apprenticeship opportunities, the private sector is out there ready to create the jobs for young people.

With people living longer and being employed in jobs longer, with people coming in from outside this country and taking up the cheap labour jobs, and with there being no law in effect that means that anyone taking up an apprenticeship has to be below a certain age, what is the right hon. Gentleman going to do in the years ahead to ensure that young people get employed?

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, describing some of the failings of the previous Government. What we have to do is ensure that we have a work-ready, well-trained work force of all ages, ready to take advantage of the opportunities that arise, when they arise. We can do that through more apprenticeships, through the specialist support in the Work programme, and through work experience placements that give young people their first taste of the workplace. I am delighted to say that youth unemployment is lower today than it was when his party left office.

Work Programme

The Work programme was launched last month and has long-term goals. Sustained jobs, not quick fixes, are what will change people’s prospects, particularly for those who are long-term unemployed. That is what the Work programme will pay for. The Department expects to release statistics on referrals to the Work programme from spring 2012, and on job outcomes lasting three or six months from autumn 2012.

During the last recess I spent several days in my local Jobcentre Plus office and saw for myself the contribution that a number of small voluntary organisations are making to getting unemployed people back into work in my constituency. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that, as part of the Work programme, there will still be a role for such small local voluntary organisations?

I absolutely can give my hon. Friend that assurance. There are about 500 organisations from the voluntary sector involved, large and small, ranging from the Prince’s Trust and similar-sized organisations through to local projects such as a walled garden project in Yorkshire. There is space for any organisation that delivers excellence in getting people back to work, and those that are really good at doing it have every reason to become involved in a payment by results approach.

What steps are the Government taking to respond to the local variability in job opportunities, so that people are not penalised in the benefits system merely because jobs are not available in their area?

One of the things that we expect the Work programme providers to do is match individuals to vacancies. Even in Wales, as we know from the debate that the hon. Gentleman and I had last week, there are a significant number of vacancies. There has been private sector growth in the past few months, and unemployment has fallen. We have to ensure, through the work of Jobcentre Plus and the Work programme providers, that people on benefits take advantage of opportunities when they arise.

Several Members have mentioned jobs fairs in their constituencies. We had one in Watford two weeks ago, to which 5,000 people came and at which more than 600 jobs and apprenticeships were on offer. As we speak, three weeks later, 50 jobs and 30 apprenticeships have been offered, predominantly to young people. As the fair was organised with Jobcentre Plus and seems to be a formula that helps, at no cost whatever to the taxpayer, is the Minister prepared to circulate the idea to other Jobcentre Plus offices and assist in organising such events?

Absolutely, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work. There have been a series of successful jobs fairs in Enfield North, in Stafford, in Reading East and now in his constituency. I would say to Members on both sides of the House that they are a really good way of bringing together local employers, local unemployed people and others who can help them, and Jobcentre Plus and the Department will help any Member of Parliament who seeks to get such a fair up and running.

Personal Independence Payment

18. Whether he plans to review his proposal to extend the personal independence payment qualifying period from three to six months. (66547)

A key principle of our welfare reforms is simplification of the complex benefit system, and that proposal is a simplification by bringing the qualifying period for personal independence payment into line with other disability benefits, while providing the sort of supports that people need with their long-term disability problems.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on multiple sclerosis, I am very aware of how concerned many organisations are about the Government’s proposals. Will the Minister outline how she expects extending the qualifying period will impact on those with fluctuating conditions, especially when many of them will simply not be able to receive any support elsewhere?

I do not think that the qualifying period will particularly adversely affect individuals with fluctuating conditions, because this is about distinguishing between long-term and short-term disabilities. To qualify for PIP, a person will satisfy a six-month qualifying period, and be expected to meet the overall qualifying period of 12 months. That adopts the common definition set out in the Equalities Act 2010, for consistency.

State Pension Age (Women)

19. What steps he is taking in respect of women affected by proposed changes to the state pension age. (66548)

While the Government remain committed to treating men and women equally in state pensions sooner, and to equalising at age 66 sooner, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said on Second Reading of the Pensions Bill:

“I recognise the need to implement the change fairly and manage the transition smoothly…I say to my colleagues that I am willing to work to get the transition right, and we will.”—[Official Report, 20 June 2011; Vol. 530, c. 50.]

I thank the Minister for his answer, but 1,300 women in my constituency will have to wait up to two years to receive their state pension following the changes made by this coalition Government. Indeed, I have received a huge amount of mail on this issue, in which constituents have described the Government’s plans as unfair, unbelievable and cockeyed, among other things. Notwithstanding transitional relief, will the Secretary of State think again and give those affected enough notice to plan adequately for their retirement?

Clearly, there is a balance to be struck between catching up with the very dramatic improvements in life expectancy, which are moving ahead faster and faster, and recognising the need for fairness and notice. We are trying to strike that balance. We recognise that we need to refine the Bill’s proposals to do so, and we will come back with proposals.

May I thank the Minister for his answer in that regard? Will he give some reassurance to those in Thirsk, Malton and Filey who have written to me? Successive Governments, and the Turner report, have said that it takes some 10 years to plan for retirement. Will that be reflected and recognised in the Government’s transition proposals?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, if we were to delay the whole transition for 10 years we would need to find an extra £10 billion of savings out of the £30 billion in the Pensions Bill. We believe that many of the people who are affected by the transition are affected by a lot less than the two years that the hon. Member for Livingston (Graeme Morrice) mentioned. We are therefore trying to tackle those who are most adversely affected, and I am confident that we will be able to do so.

May I take this chance to wish the Pensions Minister a happy birthday?

The House knows that changes to the state pension age mean that 500,000 women in their mid-50s will have their pension delayed by more than a year, and 33,000 will have to wait an extra two years. We all welcomed what the Secretary of State and the Minister said about transition on 20 June, yet in Committee the Government tabled no amendments to their legislation, and we have heard not a word from the Minister or the Secretary of State on what those transition arrangements will look like. With the recess starting this week, what hope can the Minister give to those 500,000 women that the Government will put in place some transitional arrangements for a fairer timetable that gives people the chance to prepare, and gives them some certainty as they look forward—they hope—to their retirement?

I thank the hon. Lady for her good wishes for my birthday, and reciprocate by offering her good wishes for her wedding later this summer.

On the specific issue that the hon. Lady raises, she and I have spent the best part of 20 hours debating such things in Committee over the last couple of weeks. The Government wanted to give the Opposition the chance to bring forward some fresh thinking, and we were therefore rather disappointed when they simply retabled the amendments that they had tabled in the House of Lords. We were looking for some fresh thinking—but as it has not come from the Labour party, we will have to do it ourselves.

Employment and Support Allowance

20. What estimate he has made of the number of people diagnosed with cancer who are in the work-related activity group of employment and support allowance and have claimed it for over one year. (66549)

In November 2010, the latest month for which we have figures available, there were 1,730 people receiving employment and support allowance for over one year in the work-related activity group where the primary condition was recorded as neoplasms—that is, people diagnosed with cancer.

Many cancer patients receive treatment for more than a year, and face losing their employment and support allowance while still receiving treatment. How many people receive cancer treatment for more than a year, and would therefore lose ESA under the Government’s plans?

Under the changes that we have introduced, more people suffering from cancer will be in the support group receiving ongoing unconditional support than was the case under the previous Government. The changes that we have made to contributory ESA are a direct consequence of the previous Government’s financial mismanagement. We have had to take some tough decisions on budgets, and this is one of them. We have formed the view that if people have other financial means available we cannot continue to pay them ESA indefinitely. That is a natural consequence of the failings of the hon. Gentleman’s party, not a choice we would have wished to have to make.

Will the Minister reconfirm his commitment to examine whether people on oral chemotherapies should automatically be placed in the support group, rather than in the work-related activity group as they currently are?

I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that we have now received proposals from Macmillan Cancer Relief and Professor Harrington that contain some valuable suggestions and ideas. We have not finished our consideration, but we hope to make an announcement shortly.

Child Support Agency

21. What steps he is taking to prevent disagreements between parents in their dealings with the Child Support Agency. (66550)

Does the Minister agree that one of the causes of conflict between both resident and non-resident parents is the unacceptable delays that their cases face when being processed by the Child Support Agency, and has she any plans to bring measures forward that would reduce those delays?

The average wait at the moment is more than two months for a new application to be processed, and that can lead to non-resident parents unavoidably accruing arrears—a problem that we inherited with the present very difficult system. We have plans to undertake a fundamental reform that will considerably improve this, and lead to a much shorter time for processing claims, which will bring considerable benefits.

Has the Minister had any discussions with the Secretary of State for Education about the future of Sure Start? The Conservatives, before they were elected, gave a solemn commitment to retain Sure Start, yet in Coventry the cost is being passed on to the local authority.

Order. That question was extremely tangentially related to dealings with the Child Support Agency—but I am sure that the Minister’s ingenuity means that she will adroitly cope.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the potential importance of Sure Start in child support. Indeed, we are talking to our colleagues in the Department for Education about possible opportunities for Sure Start to work with the Child Support Agency. We already have a trial—set up under the previous Administration—looking into that issue, and Ministers in that Department have ensured that sufficient funding is in place to keep the Sure Start network working.

Topical Questions

I wish to take this opportunity to thank the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) for the tremendous work on early intervention that he has delivered to us. The report highlights the vital importance of early intervention for the prospects of today’s children as well as outlining recommendations for making early intervention happen through growth on the social investment market.

What assistance should Jobcentre Plus staff be giving to people with dyslexia, and what monitoring does the Department carry out to ensure that such people are not discriminated against?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question; it is important that we deal with people’s jobs needs in a very individual way. Jobcentre Plus has disability advisers who have special knowledge of dyslexia, and it is something that requires continued support.

On 11 July the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), confirmed that his Secretary of State had seen analysis by the Department for Communities and Local Government suggesting that his benefit cap could make 40,000 people homeless, and actually cost more than it saved. I do not mind who answers this question, but will someone please confirm whether the Minister himself also saw that analysis?

This was a piece of analysis with enormous implications for the way in which the policy was implemented. This piece of work was so important that it was sent to the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Secretary of State. What was it that was so important about that analysis that it was not given to the Minister actually putting the legislation through this House? Will he now ensure that the analysis is produced before the House of Lords reaches the relevant debate?

The right hon. Gentleman has written to me about this point and I have written back—but there is nothing like re-exercising the exchange—so he will know that the figures to which he refers were internal, not verified and out of date. Since then, as I have said to him, the DCLG and my Department agreed the impact assessment that the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) stood on at the time of the Welfare Reform Bill and which we still stand on today. We should bear in mind the fact that—I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman is aware of this—there are huge behavioural changes involved. The whole idea behind the cap—we still have no idea whether the Opposition support it or are against it—is that we believe that capping those benefits at gross £35,000 a year is reasonable. Instead of trying to dance on the head of a pin, perhaps he would like to give some leadership and tell us whether his side actually supports the cap.

T2. Following the decision by the Payments Council not to phase out personal cheques, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he intends to change his Department’s plan to phase out payments of benefits and pensions by cheques, which is causing concern to blind and visually impaired people? (66555)

We believe that the current DWP cheque service does not well suit people with a visual impairment. For example, a cheque is sent by post with no distinguishing mark on the envelope and we ask blind people to sign for the payment. We are working with customer representatives, including the Royal National Institute of Blind People, to design a simple payment system that works better for people. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that there is no plan to require a personal identification number as part of that process.

T4. In 2010-11 there was an increase in incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance appeals of 167% on 2008-09 figures, and 50% of incapacity benefit appeals were decided in favour of the appellant. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that independent welfare benefit advice is available equally across the country, so that the figures do not reduce simply because claimants have no access to advice? (66557)

I hope that the figures will reduce because the quality of decision making within Jobcentre Plus improves as a result of the recommendations made to us by Professor Malcolm Harrington. As the hon. Lady will be aware, we have strengthened the reconsideration process and are telephoning rather than writing to claimants, particularly to ensure that we get better medical evidence. I do not want cases going to appeal; I want them resolved properly, satisfactorily and accurately within Jobcentre Plus.

T3. One of my constituents living in Murdishaw, one of the most deprived estates in Runcorn, recently contacted me about the current housing benefit arrangements. My constituent believes that it is deeply unfair that people living on low incomes in areas such as Murdishaw are paying through their taxes for unemployed Londoners to live in multimillion pound houses in trendy parts of the capital. Will the Minister stand up for my constituents and ensure that housing benefit is capped at a fair level? (66556)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that the Government do not want people in low-paid work put at a disadvantage relative to people who are unemployed. We believe that they should face no worse a situation. That is why we have introduced a housing benefit cap that will particularly affect central London and reduce the local housing allowance from the 50th to the 30th percentile—to make things fair between those who are on benefit and hard-working people in low-paid jobs.

T6. Does the Secretary of State accept the analysis of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that, with child benefit being frozen and child care support through the tax credit system being cut by 10%, families with children will need to earn 20% more this year than last to meet the soaring costs of child care? What will he do about universal credit to ensure that lone parents, in particular, do not face an unacceptable financial burden because of his changes? (66559)

The whole purpose is to ensure that lone parents have an opportunity to get back to work and to support themselves through work. The hon. Gentleman referred to the work of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. We do not always accept everything that comes forward; there are often analyses that we do not accept. He will understand that from his time in government. As far as we are concerned, reducing to five the age of a lone parent’s child at which the lone parent goes back to work—following the Labour party’s age reduction to seven—is the right thing to do. Getting lone parents to take control of their lives through work has to be good for them.

T5. In April I held a successful jobs fair in Reading, with nearly 2,000 people in attendance and 40 companies offering 1,500 jobs. I will be repeating it in September. What specific improvements in the service offered to them will my unemployed constituents get from the Work programme? (66558)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on being another author of a successful jobs fair project. The Work programme will offer the long-term unemployed in his constituency, including those from the most challenged backgrounds, much more tailored and specialised support, as well as infill training and other support, which will enable them to get into work on a scale and of a quality not seen before. Not only that, but they will be supported to stay in work too.

T7. When will the Minister announce the so-called transitional arrangements for the women most affected by his accelerated timetable for introducing changes to the state pension age? (66560)

Any changes that require primary legislation will be considered when the House considers the Pensions Bill on Report later in the year.

T8. The overall cap on benefit will result in some larger families living in expensive rented accommodation through no fault of their own being expected to live on £100 a week. May I suggest to the Secretary of State that the solution to that problem is to have two completely separate caps—one for housing benefit and one for the rest of benefits—so that families will not be left in poverty simply because of which part of the country they live in? (66561)

The purpose of the cap is not to make people homeless or put them in difficult situations; the purpose is to try to restore the balance, so that when people enter work they do not suddenly have to lose their house because, owing to the withdrawal of housing benefit, they can no longer afford to pay for it. It is not a kindness to leave somebody in a house that they cannot afford and then put them through all that difficulty when they go to work. We are certainly looking at all those transition issues, and we will discuss them further with my hon. Friend.

During his last outing at DWP questions the Pensions Minister undertook to respond to me imminently about Sure Start maternity grant for parents of multiples. Can he tell me how imminent is “imminent”?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for assiduously pursuing that issue. Following oral questions I had discussions with Ministers on the point that he raised, and I hope to come back to him shortly.

I recently led a competition in Hastings to find a young entrepreneur to set up in business, and was amazed and delighted at the quality of the young applicants. Can the Minister assure me that the new enterprise allowance providers will also focus on young people who might not consider themselves to be entrepreneurs, but who often have the energy, commitment and ideas to set up in business?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the support that she has been providing to young entrepreneurs in her constituency. It is not simply the new enterprise allowance that will provide support for young people on benefits to set up businesses; many of the Work programme providers are also introducing specialist support, including one that is setting up a microfinance fund for new entrepreneurs. Self-employment is an important route out of unemployment, and we will continue to do what we can to support it.

Over the last 15 months I have been dealing with a constituent who has raised a complaint against the Child Support Agency about a flawed calculation that it made of payments due. Can the Minister say what the Government will do to address both the opaqueness of the CSA’s processes for dealing with such complaints and the length of time that they take?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that issue. As she and many other hon. Members will know, the Child Support Agency has administration problems. That is why we are looking at fundamental reform, particularly of the computer systems, which we hope will address the problems that her constituents are still having to endure.

Unlike prisoners, those detained under the Mental Health Act 1983, including Ian Brady and Peter Sutcliffe, are entitled to receive incapacity benefit. Will the Minister tell the House what the Government intend to do about that?

I agree with my hon. Friend that that is an anomaly. It is also something that the Department is reviewing as we speak, and we will give more details in due course.

Incapacity benefit reassessments have been causing great distress, and even suicides, among those with mental health problems. Some 95% of those polled said that they did not believe that they could trust the assessment to take their mental health condition into account. What changes will be made to ensure that people with mental health problems will have them taken into account in the work capacity assessment?

As the hon. Lady will be aware, that was one of the key questions that we put to Professor Malcolm Harrington last year. As a result of his recommendations we have introduced a number of mental and cognitive champions among the providers in the assessment network. We are also considering a range of further recommendations from mental health charities, and we have instructed our decision makers to take careful account of evidence of mental health problems when reaching their decisions.

North Staffs Remploy in my constituency is so successful that it has had to put on an additional shift to meet demand. Indeed, if it were not for the layers of senior management drawing funds out of Remploy like some leech, it would be very profitable indeed. Will the Minister look carefully again at the Sayce report, and at what happens during the consultation, so as to ensure that my constituents who use Remploy, and who say that it is definitely fit for the 21st century, can continue working for it?

The hon. Gentleman will know from reading the Government’s response to Liz Sayce’s consultation that we are looking for new ways to run Remploy. If he feels that there is a way in which we could run it better in his constituency, I ask him please to contribute to the consultation.

Does the Minister think it acceptable that, in chasing an outstanding payment of more than £30,000 for a mother in my constituency, the CSA sent just one letter to the father’s known address, and accepted the result when it came back marked “Moved away”?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to suggest that the CSA should be doing much more to ensure that both parents are responsible for their children’s financial future, post-separation. That is at the heart of our reasons for reforming the CSA and the approaches that it takes. We want to put that responsibility at the heart of the service that we are delivering.

It was the Government who created the anomaly of half a million women being affected by the acceleration in the increase in the pension age, and it was the Government who said that they would make transitional arrangements. I was therefore astonished to hear the Pensions Minister say earlier that he was looking to the Opposition to come up with ideas for those arrangements. The Government have dug this hole, and it should be the Government who get themselves out of it.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said on Second Reading of the Pensions Bill that while we stand by its principles, we will indeed consider those who are most affected. We had hoped that the way to listen to the views of the House would be to listen to some fresh views in Committee, but unfortunately none was forthcoming.