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Topical Questions

Volume 531: debated on Monday 18 July 2011

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like re-exercising the exchange—so he will know that the figures to which he refers were internal, not verified and out of date.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.