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Topical Questions

Volume 534: debated on Monday 24 October 2011

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.