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Topical Questions

Volume 541: debated on Monday 5 March 2012

The Welfare Reform Bill is expected to receive Royal Assent later this week and will mark an important moment, cementing a new contract with the country that states that we will protect the most vulnerable and provide a system that is fair to the taxpayer by making sure through universal credit that work will pay. I believe that those changes are long overdue and I am grateful to all in this House who have helped to get them on the statute book.

The shadow Chancellor claims today that families are better off on benefits, where so many were trapped during 13 years of complex Labour reforms. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that he will change all that with the universal benefit and make it his mission to ensure that no family is better off on benefits?

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that the whole purpose of the Welfare Reform Bill, including the universal credit, which is at the heart of it, is that people will be better off in work than on benefits. I am always astounded by the fact that although many Opposition Members quite legitimately say that they support the universal credit, during its passage through this House and the other place they have never actually voted for it.

I want to bring the House’s attention back to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey). She has exposed an important truth: a couple on the minimum wage were £3,000 better off in work under Labour but after the changes that will be made in April they will be £700 better off on benefits. Will the Secretary of State tell us how many people he expects to give up work because they will no longer be better off in a job?

I do not expect anyone to give up work, because the jobcentres and the jobcentre staff will work with people to ensure that, as far as possible, they work up the hours and take advantage of the benefits that come with working more hours. I say to the right hon. Gentleman, as ever, and to the Opposition that they behave as though when they left office they left a perfect situation, but they left a massive deficit and debts piling up. He was the one who said at the time that there was no money left, so perhaps he would like to tell us where he was going to get the money from to pay off some of the deficit.

Let me give the Secretary of State a simple lesson in economics: the more people who are in work, the more tax comes into the Treasury; the more people who are on the dole, the more we pay out in welfare payments. That is why welfare payments are going through the roof. The Work programme is in chaos, the Minister for the Armed Forces is saying that there is a crisis in the funding model, and now we find out that people will be better off on benefits than in work. Will the Secretary of State promise us that in the Budget he will fix the situation whereby it no longer pays to go out and get a job?

The only group that is in chaos is the Opposition. First, they have completely failed to admit and recognise that they left this economy in a desperate state. Secondly, they said that they supported key measures in the Welfare Reform Bill but have never voted for them. They also voted against some of their own measures, which we carried through in our Bill. The reality is that the right hon. Gentleman’s economics do not add up: going on a spending spree, spending £150 billion on benefits and achieving nothing is a failure.

We have a whole series of measures. We recently introduced a new fraud and error strategy, which is already having some success. Future fraud will be reduced now, and agreed by the Office for Budget Responsibility in a sense, but we will reduce future fraud right now by £237 million. The plan and target is for us to reduce it by about £1.4 billion by March 2015. These are major measures over and above what we were left by the Opposition, who seemed quite content to watch fraud and error spiral out of control.

T3. As you know, Mr Speaker, the Wedgwood museum in Stoke-on-Trent is one of the greatest museums in the world and is facing the liquidation of its collection due to faulty pension legislation. The problem lies with the 2008 occupational pension schemes regulation and the last man standing principle, which leaves a solvent employer liable for the whole of the deficit in a multi-employer scheme. That was never meant to apply to charitable collections. Will the Minister review that legislation before we sacrifice more of our national heritage to the lawyers? (97715)

When any charity or other organisation joins a last man standing pension scheme, it is important that it take proper advice about the liabilities it is taking on. Obviously, that is a general observation. On this specific case, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), has spoken to the chairman of the Pension Protection Fund about the Wedgwood museum, has explained the importance of the collection for the nation and has asked her whether she can find a way of preventing the collection from being broken up. That is something we all want to see.

T4. My constituent Vicki Gilbert relies on the disability living allowance mobility component, which gets her the blue parking badge she needs to go about her daily life. Despite the fact that she is an amputee with no possibility of recovery, she has been forced to go through periodic reassessment, and because of the backlog she has had to wait five weeks without a blue parking badge. Does the Minister agree that the process is superfluous in such situations, and will she look at this issue so that others in similar circumstances do not have to wait for their badge? (97716)

I know that blue badges are incredibly important for disabled people in getting out and about and I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), is looking into the issues to do with blue badges, and I will make sure that he is aware of the comments that have been made.

T6. Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont) from the Front Bench, do Ministers agree that the current restrictions on the National Employment Savings Trust that restrict transfers and limit the amount that can be saved each year diminish the pressure on other established providers to bring down their excess costs and charges? While the Government are reflecting on this, surely they are missing an opportunity to make pensions more affordable for everyone. (97719)

The previous Government put those restrictions in place for a good reason—to try to make sure that NEST focused on the bottom end of the market. NEST has had a positive effect and new entrants have come into the market, but we are continuing to look at that issue because we are determined to make sure that people have a choice of good-value, low-cost pension providers.

T5. My constituent Gillian Reeves is actively looking for work and is expanding her skills, knowledge and experience by volunteering for local voluntary organisations and charities in Somerset. Will the Secretary of State give some clarity to those who are keen to be out of the house and busy doing something useful but are advised by their jobcentre that they must limit their volunteering to 16 hours a week or lose their jobseeker’s allowance? (97717)

We now actively encourage people to volunteer. I prefer to see people out of the house and doing things. They have an obligation to keep up their job search while they do so, but I shall happily discuss this specific case because it certainly is not our intention that people’s volunteering opportunities should be limited.

One of my constituents recently had his adoption allowance cut because his child received disability living allowance. We managed to get that overturned but can the Minister make sure that guidelines are issued so that adoption allowance is not cut when DLA, which is intended to meet essential needs, is received?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. Disability living allowance is not linked to employment or income, so I shall look into the issue she raises in more detail.

T7. The Work programme is proving to be much needed and effective, but may I seek reassurance from the Secretary of State that there will be downstream activity from contracts so that small businesses and local community projects can also participate in delivering outcomes? (97720)

That is indeed happening. We now have several hundred voluntary sector organisations providing support to the Work programme in various ways, some on a localised level in local communities. They are an important part of the team delivering the project. It is a partnership between the public, private and voluntary sectors and it is making a difference to unemployed people, despite the attempts of the Opposition to put about negative stories which are completely without foundation.

I have a constituent with a degenerative, very painful condition who is due to lose his employment support allowance in two weeks. He feels a long way from the labour market. He also does not think he will be attractive to employers because of the degenerative nature of his illness, but to date he has had no advice or support from anyone about how he might go about getting the kind of job that he might be able to do. What advice would the Minister give my constituent?

We clearly have had to take a difficult decision on time-limiting, which we have debated extensively in the House. It will apply only to people who have another form of household income or who have savings in the bank. Everyone on ESA is entitled to volunteer for participation in the Work programme, so my advice to the hon. Lady’s constituent would be to discuss his situation with the jobcentre. There is specialist support available for people with health conditions and disabilities.

T9. What progress is being made to encourage people to get the best value for money when buying an annuity? (97722)

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. When people have saved for a pension, it is vital that they get the best possible pension out of it, and that may not be from the company they have saved with. That is why I very much welcome today’s Association of British Insurers code, which will be mandatory for members of the ABI and will make it much more natural that shopping around becomes the default, rather than something that one has actively to seek out.

The Department’s contract with Atos runs until 2015. We have taken no decisions about how the contracting structure will work beyond that point. Consistency of provision was necessary through the incapacity benefit reassessment process, but we will not take decisions on the detailed structure of the renewal of that contract for some while to come.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that rather than let the Socialist Workers party and their protest groups continue to confuse a good programme such as work experience with others, we should congratulate not only the companies that are doing so much for young people, but the young people who are taking up the scheme and have the motivation to build their CVs?

As ever, my hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. Work experience is a great programme, which is helping lots of young people to get into work at a reasonable cost to the Exchequer. Those two things need to be borne in mind. It is no good the Opposition sitting quiet, watching while trade unions back these anarchists and try to stop decent people getting into work.

People diagnosed with mesothelioma—141 former railway carriage builders in York have now died—can often claim compensation from their employer. The earlier they get compensation, the less they and their dependants need in benefits, so will the Secretary of State talk to the Secretary of State for Justice about fast-tracking these cases through the courts, as is currently done in the royal courts of justice in London, and making that a nationwide approach?

I am happy to have that conversation. We are also working hard with the insurance industry to make sure that we match employees who have suffered from the illness with employers who may have disappeared some years ago, to ensure that we find the employers liability insurance policies that can pay those employees the compensation that they so desperately need.

My constituent Andrew Taylor relies on the Motability scheme in order that he can work and live independently. His concern is that the personal independence payment thresholds will interfere with that. What assurance can the Minister give him, please?

I entirely understand the importance of mobility and being able to get out and about for disabled people. It is our intention that Motability should continue to be linked to the new PIP scheme. I take my hon. Friend’s comments into account.

Beverley Herbert in my constituency was one of six people recently employed on a work experience basis by a major pub chain. Within four weeks, four of the others had gone, and the two people who were there for eight weeks collecting glasses were given permanent jobs, but were sacked within two weeks. Does the Secretary of State agree that for the work experience programme to enjoy widespread confidence, safeguards are needed to ensure that it does not end up exploiting people and providing free labour?

If Labour Members really want to answer the questions about the work experience scheme, they need to talk to some of the young people who have been through it, got jobs in their thousands and are delighted by the support they have received. That is what a responsible Government do: try to tackle a real challenge, find the right way to solve it and do so in a cost-effective way for the taxpayer. It is just a shame that the Labour party is not more vociferous in its support for what we are doing.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a great shame that the Labour party seems unable to get behind the work experience programme and condemn the protests out of hand, and will he tell the House why he thinks that might be the case?

I have been wondering about that. Some right hon. and hon. Members—and some more so than others—have been conspicuous by their absence in this debate, and I sometimes wonder whether their trade union paymasters have something to do with their staying quiet throughout this whole debate.

The Welsh Assembly’s Labour Government have an initiative to help unemployed young people called Jobs Growth Wales. Do the central Government support it?

We support any sensible measures to tackle youth unemployment, because it is a challenge for all of us. The hon. Gentleman needs to answer this question: why is his hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) chairing a protest movement that is designed to stop young people getting the work experience opportunities that would get them into work and do the right thing for them?

Order. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) will not be answering anything now in the Chamber and is under no obligation to do so, but I know that the Prime Minister looks forward to doing so after his statement.