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Topical Questions

Volume 536: debated on Monday 28 November 2011

I am pleased to announce today the publication of the Löfstedt report on health and safety legislation. We have accepted its findings, including the recommendation to move about 1 million self-employed people out of health and safety regulation altogether where their work activity poses no potential risk or harm to others. I believe that the report is good for everybody and will help us put some much-needed common sense back into health and safety.

At a recent meeting of the Basildon and Thurrock branch of Epilepsy Action, concerns were expressed that the work capability assessment does not fully take account of the debilitating effect that a condition such as epilepsy can have on a person’s ability to work. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that those conducting the work capability assessment do understand the complexities and intermittent nature of neurological conditions such as epilepsy, and that those are taken into account when making the assessment?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. We are expecting further work from Professor Harrington about fluctuating conditions shortly, but I have also extended an invitation to voluntary sector groups that specialise in particular conditions to come into Jobcentre Plus and give briefings and training sessions about those conditions to our decision makers, so that we do everything we can to ensure that we get this right.

With the OECD forecasting that unemployment is set to spiral to more than 9% in the next year or two, it is clear that the squeeze on working families will only get tighter and tighter. Can the Secretary of State remind the House how much extra it is budgeted will come off tax credits over the next year?

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that he needs to wait until the autumn statement to have all those figures set in place—if such a thing does exist.

I am happy to write to the Secretary of State with his own figures. Budgets laid out by the Chancellor project that more than £3 billion will come off tax credits and child benefit for working people, starting from next April. That squeeze is already serious, and that is why it is unacceptable to propose a further squeeze on tax credits in order to pay for the Secretary of State’s failure to get young people back to work.

On Friday, the Deputy Prime Minister was asked where the money for the new youth contract would come from. He said:

“Well the money clearly comes from the Government”.

He is full of insight. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he has been rolled over by the Deputy Prime Minister and that tax credits will be squeezed to pay for his failure to get young people back to work?

Just in case the right hon. Gentleman has missed the point, I remind him that decisions about tax credits are a matter for the Chancellor. I am surprised that he does not know that, because he was once in the Treasury himself. That reminds me that he is the individual who left a letter saying that there was no money left. Where does he think we were going to get the money from to get our successful programmes under way? The answer is that we have made a great start through the work experience programme, the Work programme and the changes to universal credit. We as a Government are doing more to get people back to work than anything his Government did when they were in power.

T2. What assessment has the Minister made of the potential effect on UK defined benefit pension schemes of the European Union proposal to review the institutions for occupational retirement directive and align it with the solvency II directive? Is not that just a further EU assault on the hard-pressed UK occupational pension sector, and the last thing we need? Will the Minister stand firm against that? (82845)

We are gravely concerned about these proposals. The UK Government do not accept the need for new solvency arrangements for defined benefit schemes based on solvency II, which would have potentially serious effects for UK defined-benefit pension schemes. We are especially concerned about any proposals that would increase costs for employers at a time when we are looking to keep costs down, or that might affect the vital role pension funds play as investors in the UK. We will oppose these proposals.

T4. Has the Minister revised his previous estimate that, by 2012, 25,000 single parents will be in work when their income support ends when their youngest child is five years old? Does he not accept that unemployment in my area, Hull, is at a record high, thanks to his Government’s policies? (82847)

I am always astonished by the Opposition’s defeatist idea that trying to get single parents back into work to support their children is somehow a bad thing. The reality is that the hon. Gentleman’s Government left this country bust, and without any money to do any of the things that he wants to do. They keep spending the same money again and again in their proposals. It is time that they grew up and got on with the real opposition that we expect.

T3. The Secretary of State will be aware that it is still possible to study David Beckham, Harry Potter and surfing as part of degree courses in the UK. Following the Government announcement about the youth contract, can he assure me that he is in touch with the Department for Education to ensure that young people are equipped to deal with jobs in the real world? (82846)

My hon. Friend is right. It is of paramount importance that our higher and further education systems are as focused as possible on delivering the right skills for young people. The partnership that now exists between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which is responsible for these areas, and ourselves is unprecedented, and it is making a real difference.

T5. I was appalled to hear the sort of advice that jobcentre staff had given to a Master’s graduate in Liverpool. She was told to stop claiming her jobseeker’s allowance and, instead, to carry out an unpaid internship. Does the Minister of State think that that is morally correct? If he does not, what will he do about it? (82848)

I obviously cannot comment on that specific case, but what I can say is that anyone who is going through a work experience placement can continue to draw their benefits. That is the big difference that we made. Under the previous Government, somebody who was offered a work experience place was forced to lose their benefits.

T6. Does my right hon. Friend agree that many people of both sexes, in Gloucester and elsewhere, who are currently without a pension will benefit considerably from the on-time and on-budget auto-enrolment that will arrive next summer? Does he also agree that many more people, especially women, would benefit from the current proposal under consideration for a single-tier state pension? (82849)

I absolutely agree. Auto-enrolment is not a negative; it is a positive. The fact that the Government are to plough ahead with it, that there will be no exemptions and that all companies will be brought under its scheme is critically important. I support the proposals of the pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb). Furthermore, the reason that we were left in such a parlous position, with too many people owing money, was that not enough people in Britain had saved; now is the time to start changing that.

T7. Last week, the Office for National Statistics revealed that the real value of average median wages has declined by 3.5% this year, with an even bigger fall for the lowest paid. Does the Secretary of State recognise the impact that the child tax credit has in improving the living standards of the low paid, and would it simply not be an attack on the poor to refuse to uprate the child tax credit in line with inflation next April? (82850)

I need to remind the hon. Gentleman that whatever our opinions on this, it is a matter for the Chancellor and not the Department for Work and Pensions.

T8. Over the past 12 months, unemployment in my constituency has fallen by 13%. According to the headline on the front page of the Rugby Advertiser, that is the largest fall in the country. In contrast to the picture painted by the Opposition, there are some good news stories. Does the Minister agree that in dealing with unemployment, this Government are taking the right steps? (82852)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I congratulate all of those who are involved in the labour market in his constituency. This is an important point. All we hear from the Opposition is doom and gloom and that inevitably depresses those who are looking for a job. We should start to talk in a more positive way about the real opportunities that are still out there, even in these difficult times.

The Department itself recognises that many people will simply flow through the Government’s Work programme without securing a proper job at the end of it. How many people does the Minister estimate will end up on his mandatory workfare placement scheme after the Work programme? Does he have an estimate of the numbers?

The whole point about the Work programme is that it is uncapped; we have not set specific targets for it. The community action programme, which was announced a couple of weeks ago, is designed to help those who do not find a role through the Work programme. I would be delighted if it achieves 100% outcomes, but it probably will not. We have been determined to ensure that we do not simply send those who do not find a job in the first two years back home so that they end up sitting on benefits doing nothing. They will be asked to take part in a constructive and positive programme of useful work in our community that will, I hope, build their skills and give them a better opportunity to go back into the process, and to get a job the second time around.

There has been a 42% increase in apprenticeships in Thirsk and Malton. There are currently almost 700 vacancies. How can we marry up the apprentices, when they have finished their apprenticeships, with the local vacancies?

I hope very much that most employers will view taking on an apprentice as a precursor to giving them a permanent job. Nevertheless, we need to ensure that the support we provide through Jobcentre Plus and Work programme providers, as well as the work that we, as Members of Parliament, can do to support the growth of job clubs and enterprise clubs, will make it much more likely that if something goes wrong and an apprenticeship does not last, the skills built up will still lead to a role elsewhere and a longer-term career.

There have been several recent cases in Newport in which children with autism have been routinely turned down for the mobility component of disability living allowance only to be successful on appeal—although many are discouraged from appealing. Will the Minister consider this matter, and does she understand that this is precisely the kind of issue that is making many of my constituents extremely fearful of the new assessment for the personal independence payments?

The hon. Lady will be aware that there have been no changes in the assessment or eligibility criteria, so I am not sure why there might be perceived changes in the case she raises. I am obviously happy, however, to pick up on any issues that she wants to raise with me separately.

Here last month, the Minister with responsibility for disabled people said that she wanted to reflect on the Low review into personal mobility in state-funded residential care before announcing her final decisions. I am glad that the matter has received careful attention since then, but when might she be able to lift this cloud from over disabled care home residents and their families?

I thank my hon. Friend for his assiduous attention to this issue. We are considering very carefully Lord Low’s extremely helpful report and will come forward soon with our final response.

A constituent of mine, Abigail McGhee, was engaged to, and living with, the father of her two young children when he sadly died. Her application for widowed parent’s allowance was declined on that basis. Will the Minister reconsider the application of this benefit for people who find themselves in that sad position?

Yes, I will, and if the hon. Gentleman would like to send me the details of that case, I will pay particular attention to it.

May I thank my right hon. Friend for his Department’s swift adoption of the Löfstedt review’s recommendations today? Does he agree that when introduced they will have the capacity not only to reduce the burden of red tape on organisations, but to improve their understanding of health and safety and therefore its effectiveness?

I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to him and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), who took part in the panel working with the TUC, the British Chambers of Commerce, John Armitt, who runs the Olympic Delivery Authority, and Professor Löfstedt himself, for putting together a report that gives a really good blueprint for the future of health and safety regulation that will ease the burden on business without endangering life and limb in the workplace—the core purpose of health and safety laws.

Following on from that question, will the Minister confirm that there will be no attempt to remove any necessary protections preventing injuries and the causes of ill health in the workplace? Has he agreed with the Treasury that the necessary resources will be made available to his Department to do the very detailed work that Professor Löfstedt recommends?

I regard good health and safety as of paramount importance. Britain can be proud of having the best record on health and safety in the workplace in Europe, and nothing that the Government do will undermine that. I can confirm that it is my view and that of the Health and Safety Executive that it has the necessary resources to get the job done and to deliver in reality on this very good report.

I have been very encouraged by the participation of employer groups and the TUC in the Löfstedt proposals. The fact that we had people from both sides of the employment and political spectrums supporting the report at this morning’s launch was a tribute to the work of everybody involved. It is a sign that we now have a cross-party blueprint for the future of health and safety in this country.

Since last May, an extra 155,000 working households have been forced on to local housing allowance—an increase of 42% on the previous year. Is that because rents have risen or because wages have fallen?

As the hon. Lady knows, when we entered office we inherited a housing benefits system in a mess and local housing allowance was already spiralling —it has approximately doubled in the last 10 years—so she should look at what happened before as much as at what happens now.

Does the Secretary of State agree that new policy announcements from his Department should be made to Parliament first?

Does the Secretary of State agree that new policy announcements from his Department should be made to Parliament first?

I am glad that I asked for the question to be put again—and I am glad I heard the answer. Very satisfying.

I was particularly disappointed to hear the reply that the Minister with responsibility for disabled people gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire). The Minister seemed to imply that the only way one could trust a disabled person to tell the truth was in a face-to-face interview. The Government seem hellbent on making every disabled person go through multiple face-to-face interviews to get any kind of benefit. She was disparaging about filling in a form and getting supporting medical evidence. Dame Carol Black has said in her most recent reports that there should be fewer face-to-face interviews for employment and support allowance. What is the Minister’s response to that?

The problem with disability living allowance is that 70% of those currently in receipt of it have it as a lifetime award, and do not have the necessary updates and reassessments to keep track of whether that assessment is right. Having a face-to-face assessment in the first place means that disabled people get the opportunity to talk to a health care professional about their condition and ensure that they receive the right support.