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Work and Pensions

Volume 534: debated on Monday 24 October 2011

The Secretary of State was asked—

Youth Unemployment

It is good to see so many people in the Chamber who have discovered an interest in work and pensions.

Work experience and apprenticeships are central to improving the prospects of young unemployed people. We are making up to 100,000 work experience placements available and strengthening the links between the work experience programme and apprenticeships. We are also providing additional Jobcentre Plus help for 16 and 17-year-old jobseeker’s allowance claimants and offering earlier entry into the Work programme. It is worth reminding ourselves that of the 991,000 16 to 24-year-olds who are unemployed under the International Labour Organisation measure, 270,000 are full-time students. Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) will be aware that Harlow is one of the Government’s new enterprise zones.

I am, of course, delighted that Harlow is an enterprise zone. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way of cutting youth unemployment is to encourage Government contractors to hire apprentices? Figures from the House of Commons Library show that if just one apprentice was hired for every £1 million of public procurement, it would instantly create 238,000 apprenticeships and cut youth unemployment by a quarter.

My hon. Friend is right. Under the new arrangements, suppliers must provide an apprenticeships and skills report within six months of the contract start date. The idea is that they will periodically show their progress towards meeting a commitment to employ 5% of apprentices in delivering the Department for Work and Pensions contract to which they are entitled. Work programme providers will be paid primarily for the results that they achieve, which means that they will be under pressure to do a similar thing.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that under the previous Government, youth unemployment rose by 40%. Will he reassure the House that the measures he has just outlined will ensure that under this Government we do not have a repeat of that shameful record?

My hon. Friend is right that youth unemployment rose from about 2004, regardless of a growing economy. One problem was that when the previous Government came to power, there was a guaranteed training place for all 16 to 18-year-olds, which they scrapped. That was one of the worst, most short-sighted decisions that any Government have ever made.

Youth unemployment in Blaenau Gwent grew by a massive 12.8% last year. The Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion has highlighted the benefits of the future jobs fund, which helped 500 young people in my constituency. Will the Secretary of State look at bringing back the future jobs fund, given the current crisis of youth unemployment?

As the hon. Gentleman should know, we made a commitment to complete the placements that had been committed to until March. That meant that there were nearly 64,000 additional places under the future jobs fund, bringing the total to 105,000 places. We believe that the future jobs fund was an expensive way to try to get people into employment. Almost half of those who went in have ended up back on benefits.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development which suggests that only 12% of employers planned to recruit school leavers aged 16 in the three months to September 2011, and that just 15% intended to recruit school leavers aged 17 to 18? That issue was raised during my visit to Lincoln college on Friday. I suspect that he is as concerned as I am by those statistics. Will he tell the House what the Government will do to encourage employers to invest further in our youth?

We are talking a lot to employers about that problem. My hon. Friend is right about it. I return to the answer that I gave my hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) about ending the training scheme. That really affected 16 to 17-year-olds. I have brought in the £30 million innovation fund to look at ways in which we can give people approaching the age of 16 better skills for the work force. Employers have told us that many people who leave school at that age are simply not ready for work. We have allowed jobcentres to work with many of those people to get them ready for work. My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) is absolutely right that this matter is a priority for us.

Youth unemployment is now the highest it has ever been. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Chancellor that Britain is now “a safe haven”?

I am not quite sure what the right hon. Gentleman’s linkage is in that question. Youth unemployment is high now, which is deeply regrettable, but he needs to take some responsibility for that. We have to remember that when we came into power, after a period of growth before the recession, the level of youth unemployment was higher under the last Government than the level that they inherited back in 1997. Frankly, his lectures on youth unemployment are like crocodile tears in the desert.

Since this Government have taken office, they have closed the future jobs fund and shut down the flexible new deal, and replaced them with a youth work scheme that costs less than the Department spends on stationery and guarantees interviews, not jobs, and with a Work programme that turns out on closer inspection to be all programme and no work. Meanwhile, youth unemployment is going through the roof.

I looked for the Department’s flagship youth unemployment policy on its website this morning, and what does it say?

“Page not found. The page you are looking for may have been removed or moved to the National Archives.”

So much for the priority that the Government gave to youth employment.

The last time unemployment was this high, it was not the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) who was trying to bring down the Government over Europe but the Secretary of State himself, the commander-in-chief of the Maastricht rebels. Instead of today’s debate, on which the Prime Minister has wasted so much time, should we not be having a debate about how we put a proper tax on bankers’ bonuses to get 100,000 young people back to work?

I must say, the right hon. Gentleman coming up with the wrong page suggests more about his ability to negotiate the website than about the Department.

I repeat to the right hon. Gentleman what I said before: it is time the Opposition took responsibility for the mess that they got us in before we took over. Since we walked through the door we have had in place work clubs, work experience, apprenticeship offers, sector-based work academies, the innovation fund, European social fund support, the skills offer, the access to apprenticeships programme, Work Together, the Work programme, Work Choice, mandatory work activity and Jobcentre Plus. He has to recognise that under Labour’s watch, youth unemployment rose to a level higher than that at which they found it in 1997. It was a disgrace.

Multiple Sclerosis Sufferers

The Government are committed to ensuring that individuals with conditions such as multiple sclerosis have the support that they need to find, and remain in, work. A comprehensive range of work support for individuals with serious fluctuating conditions is provided through the Work programme, Work Choice and Access to Work.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. May I convey the wishes of my constituents in the local MS society for there to be better ways forward than those provided under the previous Government?

I agree that the work of the Multiple Sclerosis Society is to be applauded, and I am sure that the Lancaster, Morecambe and district branch will join many other organisations in welcoming the measures in the Welfare Reform Bill, which is currently in the other place, including universal credit. Those measures will address the unacceptable imbalances inherent in the current welfare system, to ensure that people suffering from fluctuating conditions such as MS cannot be written off to a lifetime of dependency in future.

Department for Work and Pensions research on disability living allowance in work has indicated that those receiving DLA are, on average, more severely impaired than others and have a greater likelihood of multiple disabilities, including mental health conditions. Additionally, they are disadvantaged in the labour market because of the types of their impairment, and carry the greatest employment disadvantage.

The new personal independence payment assessment has been criticised by 23 leading disability organisations as being too medicalised and not taking into account the social and environmental barriers that disadvantage disabled people in the jobs market. Will the Minister share with us just how many disabled people she expects to get back into work as a result of her DLA proposals, given that the only figure that we have on the record is that the Government want to make a 20% cut to the DLA budget?

I am somewhat surprised that the right hon. Lady tries to link disability living allowance to returning to work, given that in the past she has held the position that I hold now. It is absolutely clear that DLA, and indeed the PIP, which will take over from it, are not linked to work. I should think we would want to make that clear to people who are listening to these questions.

A recent report by the Work Foundation found that up to 44% of people in the UK with MS retire early due to their condition, a higher percentage than the European average of just 35%. What plans does the Minister have to support individuals with MS to stay in the work force once they are in employment?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I know that he does a lot of work in this area, and I welcome his contribution. He will be aware that through the Sayce recommendations, we are specifically considering how we can increase the role of Access to Work. That could have a particularly positive impact on people with MS. We already have a budget of some £105 million supporting about 35,000 people through Access to Work, and the Sayce recommendations indicate that the number could be doubled if there is a reprioritisation of how Government money is used.

Work Programme

4. If he will publish monthly information on the number of people successfully placed in jobs by Work programme contractors and the cost per job outcome. (75987)

We are working to guidelines set by the UK Statistics Authority to ensure we publish statistics that meet high-quality standards at the earliest opportunity. Statistics on referrals and attachments to the Work programme will be published from spring 2012 and job outcome data from autumn 2012. We will also publish the average cost per job outcome for claimants who have been on the programme for 24 months as part of our transparency indicators.

I have to say that I am very, very disappointed with that reply. I cannot understand why it will be more than 12 months before the Government produce statistics on job outcomes and the cost per job. After eight months of the future jobs fund, we had the statistics on job outcomes for the first four months of the scheme. I cannot see why the Government should take any longer than that. What do they have to hide?

I have the utmost respect for the hon. Lady, but she needs to look again at how the Work programme works. We are not making an outcome payment to providers for six months. That is a really good deal for the taxpayer, because before providers can receive payment, they must ensure not simply that that have got somebody into work for a week to boost statistics, but that they keep them in work for a sustained period. The Government cannot produce robust statistics under the guidance produced by the UK Statistics Authority if we try to do so earlier.

Is not the key point about the Work programme that payment by results and packages tailored to individual needs are likely to make the cost per successful job outcome lower, and the number of jobs achieved higher?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The whole point of the Work programme is real investment in the long-term unemployed. Providers will take the requisite time to get them into work, but the Government will pay the bill only when people are successfully in long-term employment. That is a much better deal than under previous schemes from the previous Government. He is right that the Work programme is a much better deal for the taxpayer.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General says that openness and transparency on public services data will be a

“core part of every bit of government business”,

so why not this bit of Government business? Why is the Minister not only refusing to publish performance data but banning Work programme providers from publishing their own data, as many did under the new deal and would like to do now? He is threatening to withdraw their contracts if they publish that data. What is he trying to hide, and will he at least lift that ban?

The right hon. Gentleman clearly was not listening to the answer I gave a moment ago, but he would also do well to remember that his Government set up the current rules on national statistics. He would surely want statistics to be published properly and in an appropriate time frame, under the guidance of the UK Statistics Authority. I do not believe in giving information out haphazardly. Let us do it properly, according to the guidance and process he set up when he was in government.

Credit Unions

Since 2006, the Department has spent more than £100 million through its growth fund to encourage credit unions. In addition, since March this year, a further £11.8 million has been invested. The Department is now conducting a study into how best we can support credit unions and will report shortly.

Only 2% of people in this country are members of credit unions such as the excellent Money Box in my constituency, compared with 44% of people in the United States. What role can Jobcentre Plus play in helping credit unions to reach more people?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his involvement with the all-party group on credit unions and his commitment to the cause. Jobcentre Plus is keen to work closely with credit unions, and we are currently piloting a scheme in Manchester and Newcastle in which jobcentres share office space to see whether they can assist credit unions at a local level.

I declare an interest as a member of the Staffordshire credit union. For more lending, we need more saving. What steps are the Government taking to encourage payroll saving in credit unions?

The process of long-term saving through auto-enrolment in workplace pensions is imminent, but there has been a big growth in workplace coverage of occupational workplace individual savings accounts, which is an encouraging development. We are looking to see what more we can do to encourage that trend.

Many who use credit unions also need help to access credit advice. What is the Minister doing to help those who will lose out when he scraps the £27 million financial inclusion fund from next March?

One of the things we are looking at as part of our feasibility study on the future of credit unions is their crucial role in supporting people who need financial advice and assistance. That work will report back to the Department next month.

I declare an interest as one of the almost 3,000 members of the Bridgend Lifesavers credit union, which has loans of more than £500,000 but savings of £1 million and is keeping people out of the hands of doorstep loan sharks and the sadly growing numbers of pawnbrokers on our high streets. What can we do to ensure that people see credit unions, rather than doorstep loan sharks, as the way to save and borrow?

I welcome the hon. Lady’s endorsement of credit unions, and I am pleased to say that, last week, the House of Lords approved the legislative reform order that will pave the way for credit unions to expand. My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) asked about the difference between the USA and the UK. One of those differences is that many of our credit unions are small and have not been able to stand on their own two feet and become viable. We are determined to enable them to become viable so that they can perform the functions that she set out.

Work Capability Assessment

7. When he plans to bring forward new work capability assessment descriptors for mental health and fluctuating conditions. (75990)

We have received suggested descriptors for mental, cognitive and intellectual function from Professor Harrington’s working group. Given that they represent a substantial departure from how the current assessment works, we are considering what impact they will have and will come forward with proposals soon. We have not yet received any recommendations from Professor Harrington’s separate working group on fluctuating conditions.

In July the Minister received recommendations for changes to the mental health descriptors from Mind, the National Autistic Society and Mencap, and although he says that the Government will be bringing forward proposals shortly, will he specify when those changes will be implemented?

The challenge facing us is that the recommendations will involve a complete change of the work capability assessment, not simply for mental health issues, but for physical issues, and is therefore a multi-year project. We are considering whether we can incorporate elements of the recommendations into the current approach much more quickly. I am concerned to ensure that we do the right thing by people with mental health conditions, and I want to ensure that we take any sensible steps as quickly as possible.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that our approach should focus on what can be done to help people back into the world of work and on helping them with what they can do, rather than on any scintilla of a suggestion of people being punished for what they cannot do?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a crucial point. We are not trying to do people down, but looking to help those with the potential to make more of their lives to do so. The assessment is all about working out who has the potential to get back into the workplace, and through the Work programme, we can deliver the specialist support that they need to do so.

This morning I met members of Headway East London concerned about the impact of this situation on people who are looking for work but feel that they are being penalised when they find it and then cannot cope with it. They talked about the chaos of the benefits system. When will the Minister be coming forward with these proposals and reassuring my constituents that they will be in a better position?

We are taking significant steps to sort out the problems to which the hon. Lady refers. The introduction of the universal credit in 2013 will completely transform how our benefits system works. It will be much easier for people with disabilities to move back into work step by step—initially, perhaps, by doing a few hours’ work and then by entering part-time and then full-time employment. It will transform their prospects.

Given Atos Healthcare’s past performance, no one has faith in the ability of the current work capability assessment or Atos fairly to assess fluctuating conditions in particular. Will the Minister work with Atos to ensure that the new descriptors are implemented as soon as possible and that Atos staff receive additional training to improve their performance and restore the faith of claimants and the general public in the assessment process?

I will have to wait and see what the recommendations are, but as a result of Professor Harrington’s first report, it is now decision makers in Jobcentre Plus who take the decision about an individual. I have told charitable groups representing people with a variety of conditions that the door is open to them to brief, train and discuss with those decision makers the issues facing such people so that they are as well informed as possible.

Last week I met representatives of the Royal National Institute of Blind People, who expressed concerns about the descriptors attached to vision. Will the Minister meet the RNIB and other representatives of blind and partially sighted people to address those concerns so that we have vision descriptors that are fit for purpose?

I have regular meetings with groups representing not just blind people, but those with various disabilities, and I will continue to do so. The object of the exercise is to help those who are blind or visually impaired back into work. Surely it is much better to find them a place in the workplace than leave them on benefits for the rest of their lives.

Unemployment

Although unemployment is up by about 79,000 since the election, employment is slightly higher, at 29.1 million, and International Labour Organisation unemployment slightly lower, at 2.56 million, than the Office for Budget Responsibility thought it would be at this point. The total number claiming one of the main out-of-work benefits fell by about 25,000 over the last year to August. The number claiming incapacity benefit or lone parent benefits fell by nearly 140,000, while the number claiming jobseeker’s allowance rose by 115,000 over the same period. Jobcentre Plus has taken 1 million new vacancies in the last three months and there are 460,000 unfilled vacancies at the moment, up 1,000 this quarter and 5,000 on the year.

The question was about unemployment, which is at its highest since the last Tory Government lost power. We have no growth, and we need it to cut unemployment and the deficit. Will the Secretary of State support measures such as a temporary VAT cut on home improvements, which is supported by 49 business organisations, including the Federation of Master Builders and the Federation of Small Businesses, and would create jobs in small businesses in the construction industry?

I felt that I answered the question. The hon. Gentleman might not have liked the answer, but I none the less answered it.

We do not agree with the Opposition’s suggestion of a VAT cut. It is also worth gently reminding the hon. Gentleman that he is part of a party that in government saw a huge rise in unemployment and stagnation of the economy, so before we get lessons and lectures from the Opposition, it would be nice for them to say, “We’re sorry for the mess we left things in.”

State Pension (Women)

9. What steps he is taking to help women who are most affected by the state pension age proposals contained in the Pensions Bill. (75992)

16. What steps he is taking to help women who are most affected by the state pension age proposals contained in the Pensions Bill. (75999)

We have amended the Pensions Bill so that women with the largest delay in receiving their state pension will find this delay reduced by six months.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but what support is the Department offering to those who will have to work longer as a result of the revised state pension age timetable?

Now that we will hopefully have certainty about the dates next week—subject to their lordships’ approval—we will want to ensure that people know exactly when their retirement date is. We will write to 750,000 people shortly, so that they know where they stand, and all the services of Jobcentre Plus and the Work programme will be available to those who become long-term unemployed later in life.

I congratulate those on the Front Bench on changing their minds on this issue. A number of female constituents have written to me expressing enormous gratitude for the fact that we have changed the position for the better. Does the Minister agree that this shows that we care about women in particular and, even more so, that Labour left us with such a mess that we are having to sort it out now and do things that we are not necessarily happy with?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The change that we made—a commitment to ensuring that the changes are fair as they affect women—cost £1.1 billion. The difference between us and the Opposition is that their policy cost ten times as much and they had no idea where the money would come from.

The Minister knows how important auto-enrolment is to ensuring that future generations retire on a decent pension, but the Government’s Beecroft report on deregulation looms large on the horizon. Can the Minister reassure the House that whatever Beecroft recommends, no business large or small will be allowed to opt out from auto-enrolment?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his new role in the House. I much enjoyed his attempt to persuade the House last week that £11 billion was not very much if we divided it by 10 and by the national debt. In answer to his question about auto-enrolment, I can assure him that 2012 goes ahead as planned, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said at the Dispatch Box last week.

Harrington Review

11. What assessment he has made of progress towards implementation of the recommendations of the Harrington review of the work capability assessment. (75994)

We took steps earlier this year to ensure that all the recommendations in Professor Harrington’s first report were implemented in time for the start of the national migration from incapacity benefit. I expect to receive Professor Harrington’s second report, telling us how well he thinks we are doing on that front, shortly.

Given the Minister’s earlier comments, I am sure that he is well aware of the progressive and incurable nature of Parkinson’s disease. A constituent of mine with Parkinson’s has been called for his third work capability assessment, despite appealing the previous two incorrect decisions by Atos and the decision makers. Will the Minister undertake to meet me and Parkinson’s UK, so that he can understand better how in practice the work capability assessment, rather than helping people who can work, too often hounds those who will not get better?

The hon. Gentleman has to understand that one of the great failings of our welfare state over the past decade has been that we have left people on the sidelines year after year without checking to see what their condition is or what the potential alternatives are. I am very happy to meet Parkinson’s UK and the hon. Gentleman. I well understand the challenges that the disease presents for those who are unfortunate enough to suffer from it, but we cannot simply go back to a situation in which we leave people year after year without even checking what their condition is.

Right to Reside Test

12. What assessment he has made of the potential effects on the payment of benefits of the reasoned opinion from the European Commission on the UK’s right to reside test. (75995)

19. What assessment he has made of the potential effects on the payment of benefits of the reasoned opinion from the European Commission on the UK’s right to reside test. (76002)

We accept our responsibility in supporting EU citizens who work here and pay their tax and national insurance, but it is clearly completely unacceptable that we should be asked to open our welfare system to people who have never worked in or contributed to the United Kingdom and who have no intention of doing so. We are considering all the details of the Commission’s reasoned opinion, but we are absolutely committed to ensuring that the UK retains control of its welfare policies.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his robust remarks. What steps is he taking to ensure that the UK is not burdened further by benefit tourism?

The best way for us to get the message across to the Commission about the need for change is to demonstrate that this is not a matter for the UK alone. I am therefore forging partnerships with my counterparts in other member states, most of whom have the same concerns. We have to make the Commission recognise that this kind of land grab of an area that should be a national competence is unacceptable. It has all kinds of political connotations, and the Commission must change its view.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his previous answer. Can he tell us what steps his Department will be taking to monitor foreign nationals who are receiving UK benefits?

I can indeed. One of the things that surprised me most on taking office was the fact that the previous Administration had made no attempt whatever to identify how many people from overseas were receiving benefits. We are now doing that work. We aim to publish the results in the next few weeks, and we will aim to learn lessons from what we find.

Personal Independence Payments

14. What recent discussions he has had with organisations representing disabled people about the face-to-face assessment process for personal independence payments. (75997)

Officials and I have met a broad range of disability organisations in relation to our proposals for the personal independence payment. We have also set up a dedicated group specifically to involve disabled people and their organisations in the design and operation of the new PIP process.

Two organisations representing blind people—Action for Blind People and Blind Aid—are based in my borough. One of the concerns that has come to the fore recently is that people who are registered blind, who are clearly blind and have been so for some time, should not have to present themselves to be checked when being assessed for their disability benefits. Can the Minister confirm that, where there is a clear, settled condition, there will be no need for people to be unsettled by having to prove again what is obvious to everyone?

Although face-to-face consultations will be an important part of the personal independence payment for most people, I have made it clear throughout all the debates that they might not be appropriate for everyone, especially when there is sufficient evidence on which to make an assessment. It is important, however, to treat everyone as an individual, because there is a coincidence of multiple disability for many individuals.

Unemployment

The latest figures published by the Office for National Statistics show 2.6 million unemployed, on the International Labour Organisation measure—a rate of 8.1% of the labour force.

The latest unemployment figures show that 35% of all jobseeker’s allowance claimants in Stockport are from the most disadvantaged area in my constituency. Unemployed people from disadvantaged areas are likely to remain unemployed for longer, so what steps will the Minister take to ensure that disadvantage does not become further embedded in our community?

The structure of the Work programme will mean that, for the first time, we will be paying a higher rate for the help provided to those who come from more challenged backgrounds, in order to encourage providers to make an investment in helping them. That will be an important part of getting them back into the workplace. Under the previous Government’s schemes, there was one flat rate for everyone, but our pricing structure reflects the real need to focus on people who are struggling in life.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the ways to reduce unemployment is to make sure that people set up new businesses? Does he agree that the new enterprise allowance, which we in Hastings and Rye welcome, should also be directed at both disadvantaged people and young people, to make sure that the widest possible number of people are able to set up in business?

I agree, and it is very much my hope that the new enterprise allowance will generate a significant boost to new enterprise, small businesses and self-employment in this country. In the way that it is structured, it is aimed at those who have been out of work for more than six months, so I hope it will deliver exactly what my hon. Friend hopes for, which is to support people who have potential but who face the greatest challenges in getting back into the workplace.

Young and disabled people are more likely to rely on public transport to get to work, yet the right hon. Gentleman’s Government’s policies are leading to cuts in bus services and unaffordable fare rises. How is that helping to get unemployment down?

When I listen to Labour Members bemoan the cutbacks, I am always astonished that they seem to fail to understand that it is down to the mismanagement of the previous Government that we are having to take these difficult decisions—and we are having to take many such decisions. They should be looking in the mirror in the morning and saying, “Whose fault is this really?”

Social Fund

In addition to general discussions on welfare reform between Scottish Government Ministers and the Department, both Lord Freud and I have corresponded directly with Scottish Government Ministers about the planned social fund reforms.

I am grateful for the lack of information in that response. [Laughter.] The Minister will be aware that there is every possibility that the legislative consent motion relating to the Welfare Reform Bill, which includes the reform of the social fund, will not be granted consent by the Scottish Parliament. Will the Minister tell us what is his plan B to ensure that vulnerable people in communities in Scotland receive the crisis loans that they require?

Let me point out that the bulk of crisis loans will remain available under a UK-wide scheme. The devolution of the social fund relates principally to community care grants and a small amount of crisis loans. In our view, that money is better handled locally, close to the communities in question, and we hope that the Scottish Parliament will take the opportunity to have the money that is available and to spend it in Scotland, which is what it always tells us it wants.

Jobcentre Plus

18. What recent assessment he has made of the capacity of the Jobcentre Plus network to administer the benefits system during periods of rising unemployment. (76001)

The Department for Work and Pensions reviews work loads and staffing regularly to ensure that there is capacity to pay benefits and help people find work. On average, the DWP aims to clear jobseeker’s allowance claims within 10 days. It is currently clearing them in 9.6 days, nearly five days faster than five years ago.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Twenty-two jobcentres and 17 benefit processing centres are due to close. While I understand that the Government are saying that they are going to try to avoid compulsory redundancies, there is no doubt that staff will be forced out of their jobs. Overall, the unemployment figures are reaching 3 million. In my constituency, the claimant count went up by 10% in the year to September. Surely we are going to see a worse service provided to claimants. Will the Minister undertake to provide regular performance statistics to this House?

What the hon. Lady does not understand is that we inherited a network of half-empty buildings. I am sure she would agree that it makes no sense to fund, for example, two or three jobcentres within a mile of each other in a city centre. Rather than cutting back—the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) mentioned bus services—I would like to protect the services that we can possibly protect, and making our network of jobcentres and benefit delivery centres operate more efficiently and effectively seems a very good way of trying to ensure that we protect front-line services.

Housing Benefit

20. What estimate he has made of the potential number of tenants who could accrue rent arrears as a result of implementation of his proposals to restrict housing benefit for social tenants in accordance with household size. (76003)

We have made no estimates of the number of tenants who would get into rent arrears as a direct result of implementing our proposal, as it is not possible to predict exactly how people will respond to the change or what choices they might make in response to a potential shortfall.

The Minister says he has made no such assessment, but the Housing Futures Network estimates that eight out of 10 tenants will struggle to make up the shortfall in lost benefits as a result of these proposed changes, with a third likely to go into rent arrears. That will increase the level of bad debt of housing providers and is likely to mean less investment in new affordable homes. Is the Minister concerned about that?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing our attention to the Housing Futures Network research. What she did not quote was the fact that a quarter of respondents said that they were likely to downsize, which presumably means making better use of the housing stock, while 29% said that they would be either quite likely or very likely to move into work or increase their hours, which is a positive response. There are real issues about rent arrears; we are working closely with social landlords to assist, but there will be positive impacts from these policies, which also need to be borne in mind.

Hard-working families in my constituency often see families on housing benefit receiving more than they themselves receive as a result of going out to work. Can my hon. Friend confirm that as a result of the new measures it will always pay to work?

My hon. Friend will be aware that we have a range of policies to ensure that it pays to work, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's universal credit being central among them. The caps on housing benefit and the limit to the 30th percentile in the private sector are also designed to level the playing field between those in low-paid work and those on benefit.

Employment and Support Allowance

21. What the average length of time was for an appeal in respect of a decision on a claim for employment and support allowance in the latest period for which figures are available. (76004)

In the current year, the average actual clearance time between the Department’s receiving an appeal and its being lodged with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service was 35.2 days. That, of course, includes the time allowed for individuals to produce new evidence about their circumstances. The average time taken from receipt of an appeal at HMCTS to the date of the first appeal hearing was 23.2 weeks. That information covers 1 April to 31 August 2011, the latest period for which figures are available.

I thank the Minister for his detailed answer. Will he take this opportunity to refute press reports that he will cut the ESA of people who appeal against assessment decisions, especially in the light of the information that 40% of cases are being won on appeal?

What I expect to see as a result of the changes following Professor Harrington’s review in the summer is a significant reduction in the number of cases that go to appeal when the Department’s initial review and the reconsideration are upheld. In order to ease pressure on individuals, we have tried to ensure that there is a proper reconsideration service in Jobcentre Plus, so that they can produce new evidence at that stage and need not use the Courts Service at all.

Will the Minister look into the delays and difficulties experienced by visually impaired claimants who are being transferred from incapacity benefit to the ESA? I have no time to go into the details of this case today, but after more than four months a constituent of mine is still unable to submit a claim because of a lack of support and assistance, and she is not the only person in those circumstances. Will the Minister look into the difficulties experienced by this very vulnerable group?

It is difficult for me to comment on an individual case, but we certainly do not want to see people in difficulties. If the hon. Gentleman will write to me with details of the case, we will look into it for him.

Child Care Costs

22. What estimate he has made of the potential effect on the number of women leaving work of his planned reduction in refundable child care costs. (76005)

We are not planning any reductions in support for child care. In fact, as the hon. Gentleman will have noted, we recently committed ourselves to investing £300 million more in child care support under universal credit, on top of the £2 billion already spent on child care support. As a result of that support, some 80,000 more households will be eligible for child care, which must be welcome.

I am not sure that the Secretary of State’s message has been conveyed to the public. Many working families are very concerned both about the high price of child care and about the fact that it is rising, and believe that they will be worse off as a consequence of the changes that are being made. How does the Secretary of State propose to ensure that his message gets across, to Labour Members as well as those on the Government Benches?

I know that the hon. Gentleman holds genuine views on these matters. Obviously we must ensure that we listen more to people, and explain to them the changes that universal credit will bring. The end of the 16-hour rule and the provision of child care for those working fewer than 16 hours a week will be of major benefit, particularly to lone parents. Under the present system, some 100,000 people do not take up the child care support element of working tax credit to which they are entitled because they are not aware of it, so this will be a big breakthrough.

Crisis Loans

All crisis loans are repayable, and the vast majority are repaid, albeit sometimes over several years. Of the loans issued in 2003-04, more than 95% have so far been recovered.

It seems from answers given by the Department that each year only half of what is paid out in crisis loans is repaid. The police have reported to me that they have evidence of fictional crimes that people invent in order to obtain crime numbers enabling them to gain crisis loans. Can the Minister explain what is being done to ensure that the amount of money being repaid increases, and to stop the abuse of the system?

In order to give my hon. Friend a sense of scale, let me tell him that we lent a little over £200 million in crisis loans last year, and less than £500,000 was written off as unrecoverable. As I have said, the vast majority of loans are recovered, but I share my hon. Friend’s concern that the money should be lent correctly. Localising parts of the crisis loan system will lead to much closer local scrutiny of the purposes for which the money is being lent.

Child Poverty

24. What assessment he has made of the effect on child poverty of benefit changes in (a) 2011-12 and (b) 2012-13. (76007)

Treasury projections show that modelled tax and benefit reforms announced since Budget 2010 may result in a small reduction in child poverty in 2011-12 and 2012-13. These include above-indexation increases to the child element of child tax credit by £180 in 2011-12 and £110 in 2012-13.

I am slightly puzzled by the Secretary of State’s response. I am sure he is aware of the research published last week by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation predicting a huge rise in the number of children living in relative poverty—of perhaps 500,000 more—despite the Government’s introduction of the universal credit. Does he accept that child poverty is predicted to rise under his rule?

The hon. Lady should not be so surprised given that I responded to the question she asked. The IFS projection deals with the tax and the benefits systems, but there are wider issues; we are addressing the pupil premium and other areas, which we think will also have an effect. The IFS projections are based on the premise that absolutely nothing changes, and I remind the hon. Lady that the last report showed that the previous Government were going to miss their 2010 targets before they left office.

Topical Questions

From today, and following the written ministerial statement laid in the House on Friday, employment and support allowance claimants who are eligible to volunteer for the Work programme will be referred to Work programme information sessions. Claimants in the support group will be able to opt in to the sessions. That will form part of the work-related activity component for those in the work-related activity group—WRAG. This is an important step in giving claimants a taste of the support available through the Work programme.

Does the Secretary of State agree with last week’s comments by the Minister for Housing and Local Government that under-occupiers should not be bullied out of their homes, and will he now withdraw his proposals for social tenants which would result in exactly that?

T4. Further to the Atos question asked earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jenny Willott), does the Secretary of State agree that the company is not fit for purpose, that it treats many claimants in an unacceptable way, and that, frankly, it is time that its contract was terminated? (76012)

My hon. Friend needs to understand that Atos is simply a subcontractor to the Department for Work and Pensions. It does not take decisions about individuals. It simply operates to a template, which was mostly established under the previous Government. Of course we must be sensitive, but Atos and our other subcontractors are as careful as possible about the job that they do. Ultimately however, it is the Department itself that sets the policy and implements the processes, and that must take responsibility for the outcomes.

Given the Secretary of State’s complaints about the free movement of European labour and his leadership of the Maastricht rebels in the ’90s, may I ask why he will not be demonstrating some conviction and consistency this evening? Why is he putting his position and his party before his principles, and his career before his country, in the debate on Europe this evening?

Order. It is always a pleasure to listen to the hon. Gentleman, and that is, indeed, a topical question, but it suffers from the notable disadvantage of bearing absolutely no relation whatsoever to the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. I will give a seminar to the hon. Gentleman later, further and better to explain the point, but there is no requirement on the Secretary of State to respond to that question.

Given the relatively small employment market in Northern Ireland, does the Secretary of State believe, based on his discussions with Northern Ireland Ministers, that enough jobs can be created for those leaving employment for the Work programme financial model to be effective in Northern Ireland?

As the hon. Lady rightly says, all these issues are devolved to Northern Ireland. We have regular contact with the Northern Ireland Administration, and my colleague, Lord Freud, has regular meetings with them on behalf of the Department. We all, of course, want to see growth and employment in every part of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, and to see all our welfare-to-work policies, both devolved and otherwise, bear fruit.

T7. In the Welfare Reform Bill Committee on 10 May the Minister with responsibility for disabilities, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), assured us that she would not remove mobility benefits from disabled people without additional support being in place. Would she care to update the House on progress in determining the level of support that will be available to disabled people, including care home residents, through personal independence payments? (76015)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to do that. As he is aware, we have been examining this issue more broadly and our research is well advanced. The independent review chaired by Lord Low has been examining some of the same issues, and it is sensible to reflect on the outcome of his important work in advance of our final decision. Lord Low is due to report on 3 November and I will announce our final decisions shortly after.

If Harrington does bring forward improvements to the work capability test, will the Minister give a commitment to review all those past cases seen and commissioned under Atos, where bad mistakes may have been made?

Of course, every claimant who goes through the work capability assessment has the right of appeal. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that when Professor Harrington carried out his first assessment last year he said to me clearly that although he had recommended improvements, we could and should go ahead with the national incapacity benefit migration. I have accepted his recommendations.

T10. Ministers will be aware of the difficulties that young people face in finding employment, and the challenges are naturally greater for those with disabilities. Will the Minister provide an update on Government plans to help young disabled people to get back into work, following the recent Sayce review? (76018)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. As she will doubtless be aware from her own constituency, the aspirations of young disabled people are no different from those of any other people. That is why, through the Work programme, the Work Choice programme and the access to work scheme, we will give young disabled people all the opportunities they need to progress into work.

T3. The Secretary of State seemed surprised that we do not share his love of statistics. I wonder whether it was he who briefed the Prime Minister last week, leading to the Prime Minister claiming at Prime Minister’s questions“that 500,000 people have jobs who did not have one at the time of the election.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2011; Vol. 533, c. 893.] The Prime Minister was not at his most eloquent last week. However, according to official figures, between April to June 2010 and the most recent figures—June to August 2011—employment is up by just 87,000. We do not like the Secretary of State’s statistics when they are wrong. Does this not prove that the Government do not have a plan for tackling unemployment? (76011)

The hon. Lady is missing something out. One of the most regular refrains from the Opposition over the past few months has been that, as we have had to make necessary changes in the public sector as a result of the financial mess they left behind, the private sector would not be able to take up the slack. The truth is that although we have had a bad quarter for unemployment, we have seen more than 500,000 extra jobs in the private sector since the election and more jobs created in the private sector over the past year than have been lost in the public sector.

Under new housing benefit rules, foster carers who claim housing benefit will be penalised for having bedrooms occupied by foster children because they will be deemed as “under-occupied”. At a time when we need more foster carers, not fewer, what are the Government doing to address that anomaly?

My hon. Friend has a good deal of personal knowledge of this issue. I refer him to the comments made by Lord Freud when it was raised during consideration of the Welfare Reform Bill in the Lords. He observed that this is a serious issue and that he is keen to ensure that we respond appropriately to that important point.

T5. A record number of employment and support allowance claimants are wrongly assessed as fit for work. They cannot claim ESA while they await their appeal hearings, yet appeals are taking anything up to 15 months to be heard. What is the Minister doing to make the system better and, more importantly, quicker? (76013)

The hon. Lady needs to remember that the system we inherited from the previous Government caused the problems to which she is referring. We made changes after the Harrington review last year that were all in place earlier this summer for the start of the national incapacity benefit migration. We have yet to see the statistical outcome of that, but I am confident that we will see a fall in the number of successful appeals as a result of our decision to implement the Harrington recommendations in full.

For auto-enrolment to have the maximum impact, it is important that seasonal short-term employees have an equal opportunity to be part of it. Will the Minister outline what incentives the Government are putting in place to encourage take-up by short-term and seasonal employees?

We must strike the right balance in respect of those who work for an employer for a very short period, in order to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy. Those who are with a firm for more than three months will be within the scope of auto-enrolment, and those who work for a shorter period will still be free to opt in and trigger a contribution from their firm.

T6. Will the Minister reassure my constituents that the assessment for the personal independence payment will be fit for purpose and will not repeat the experiences of the work capability assessment? (76014)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She will be aware that last May we published the assessment criteria, that we have been testing those through the summer with 900 disabled people, and that we are working with more than 50 disability organisations. I hope that that assures her that we will ensure that it is very much fit for purpose.

I very much welcome the Government’s plans to streamline advice and information and advocacy services, with the big possibility of a much enhanced citizens advice service. Will the Minister assure me that benefits advice and advocacy will be very much at the heart of the new service?

Is the Secretary of State aware that it is proving impossible for MPs to make telephone inquiries to Work programme providers, outsource providers and work capability assessment providers?

We are extremely keen to see close relationships between local Members of Parliament and Work programme providers. If there is any issue in making that happen, we will happily act as middlemen to make sure the doors are opened.

T8. As the Minister will be aware, there are approximately 2,000 local government employees in Scotland who administer housing benefit. He said in a recent parliamentary answer to me that those people are in his thinking in relation to the introduction of universal credit. Can he give any reassurance to the House that those people’s jobs will be protected and will be considered as part of the new system? (76016)

We have said all along that, when it comes to administering universal credit, all those who are responsible for administering various parts of it now will have an equal opportunity to show that they are the most efficient and most effective.

I thank the Government for amending the state pension age for one category of women. May I press the Government and the Minister on the transitional arrangements for those women who will not have a reprieve, because presumably the unemployment benefit will not be as high as the state pension to which they would have been entitled?

My hon. Friend is right that there will still be people who face a significant increase in their state pension age. Working-age benefits will be available, including jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance. Some such women will also have access to occupational pensions and other forms of income and we will support those who seek to carry on working up to their new state pension age.

T9. On Saturday, I joined more than 1,000 people in Newcastle for one of the many Hardest Hit campaign rallies across the country, in which people expressed anxiety about cuts to local care and support services, jobs and essential benefits for some of the most vulnerable in society. Given that disabled people are already twice as likely to live in poverty, what does the Minister have to say in response to their concerns? (76017)

I regularly meet all the major organisations that are involved in the march. I can reassure the hon. Lady that we are doing work in the Department for Work and Pensions and through the Department of Health, with an extra £7.2 billion going on social care, an extra £3 million being put into user-led organisations and £180 million going on disabled facilities grants. Those are all additional areas of expenditure that disabled people should welcome.

One in five young people in Hartlepool is without employment, education or training. That is the highest proportion anywhere in the country and is the direct result of Government decisions such as the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance and the cancellation of the future jobs fund. Given the astonishing complacency of the Secretary of State’s earlier answers and given that he has not given a fig about young people throughout this Administration, what practical, tangible steps will he put in place so that young people in Hartlepool are not a neglected, forgotten or lost generation?

I must say to the hon. Gentleman, as I have said to many others, that these problems with youth unemployment are deeply regrettable but, most importantly, while we in government look after the economy and want to see greater levels of growth, he, like all his colleagues, needs to take account of the fact that we are here because of the mess that his party left the economy in and the debts and the deficit—which we have to get rid of.

A constituent of mine has been taken off disability living allowance and was told in May that his appeal was ready to be heard at a tribunal but that the backlog meant that it could not be heard until April next year. That is an 11-month wait; does the Minister think that is an acceptable length of time?

I am very happy to discuss an individual case such as that with the hon. Lady if she would like to talk to me at another point.

Has the Minister with responsibility for disabled people received any reports of Remploy factories having to turn away work? If so, does she agree that, at a time when there is criticism of the financial performance of some of those factories, that would be perverse given that we want those factories to be taking on as much work as possible?

The Government are absolutely committed to Remploy and are continuing to fund the modernisation plan. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are looking at the future of Remploy—not just the factories, but employment services. If he has particular examples of current practice that he is concerned about, I would be delighted to talk to him about that. I am not aware of any such business being turned away.

Does the Minister consider £22.60 enough to live on as a personal allowance to provide clothing, toiletries, travel and socialising? If not, why does the Minister expect my disabled constituents from the Percy Hedley Foundation who took part in the Hardest Hit campaign to—

The hon. Lady may be referring to disability living allowance. That is available for part of the costs that disabled people incur. There are many other ways that the Government support disabled people.