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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 547: debated on Monday 25 June 2012

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Employment and Support Allowance (Appeals)

1. How many people have found work following a refusal of an appeal for employment and support allowance. (113178)

The Department does not hold statistics specifically on destinations after appeals, but we carried out a detailed report, published earlier this year, on the destinations of people on jobseeker’s allowance, income support and ESA. Individuals found fit for work by the tribunal may claim jobseeker’s allowance. Jobcentre Plus will provide employment support, or the claimant can access support through the Work programme at a time that is right for them.

Our experience in Derbyshire is of people moving from the employment support allowance on to jobseeker’s allowance, and not into work. What is the Minister doing to move people off the employment support allowance and not on to another benefit, but into work?

Of course, the purpose of the Work programme is to provide specialist back-to-work support. Those moving off ESA have early access to the Work programme, and those still on it can volunteer for the programme at any time, if they are not mandated to it.

Given that there are now 400,000 more jobs in the economy, the bulk of which have been taken by people who, by and large, are not eligible for benefits, because they are workers from abroad, might not loss of entitlement to benefit—for good cause—spur some people to get jobs and thus result in more jobs going to British people?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. I have made it clear that I would like employers in this country to offer opportunities to local workers, but those workers need to be there—they need to be keen, energetic and wanting that work. I hope and expect that our Work programme providers will provide that energisation.

The Minister will know that, as well as the people looking for work following a refusal of appeal, many people win their appeal. Having won an appeal, however, they then have another work capability assessment, but the information that led to their appeal being won is not made available to the people undertaking the second WCA. Will he look at this situation in order to prevent people from going through a cycle of assessment, followed by appeal, followed by assessment?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the system set up by the previous Labour Government set a prognosis time for an individual—an estimate of how long before they could return to work. It is that, rather than anything else, which guides the timetable for repeat assessments. I have taken steps to stretch that timetable post-appeal, but I do not want to leave people stranded on benefits for the rest of their lives if we can possibly help them find employment.

The Minister will be aware of the 1996 personal responsibility Act, passed by President Clinton, which limited an individual’s entitlement to out-of-work benefits to a period of five years over their lifetime, and which, according to American research, cut the welfare roll by 60%. Will he follow that model?

I studied that model carefully. One reason why we have adopted various programmes requiring people to undertake full-time work is to create a sense of urgency for them in finding employment. I am not convinced, however, that government is good enough at managing data to manage, for long periods—many decades—at a time, the kind of systems set up in the United States.

The Minister did not provide the data that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) asked for. He holds the parliamentary record for the abuse of statistics, having been rebuked for three separate offences by the UK Statistics Authority. Will he now sort out the shambles in his Department, do what he promised in January and lift the Work programme data ban?

The right hon. Gentleman does talk a lot of nonsense sometimes. First, he cannot add up—I have not been rebuked three times by the Statistics Authority. Secondly, the Work programme is progressing well, and I will publish further data on it soon.

Until today, the Government have told us that benefit reform plus the Work programme would sort out the welfare system, but this morning the Prime Minister said that they will not be enough. Will Ministers now sort out this chaos? Would not lifting the ban on data be a good place to start?

Let me give the right hon. Gentleman one piece of data: 80,000 fewer people are on out-of-work benefits today than when his party was in power.

State Pension

The Chancellor confirmed in Budget 2012 that the Government will introduce a simpler, single-tier pension for future pensioners set above the basic level of the means test to better support saving for retirement—and I am pleased to say that the Prime Minister has reiterated that commitment today.

Will the Minister assure the House that, were such a scheme to come in, existing pensioners would not be permanently disadvantaged relative to new pensioners? If that is the case, is it possible to explain it in plain and straightforward language so that everyone can understand it?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We need to explain what are often very complex matters in simple language. The simple truth is that today’s pensioners have got the best deal in a generation through the restoration of the earnings link, which will be real cash in their pockets year after year, and that the new system will cost no more than was going to be spent in any case. We are taking a planned budget, simplifying the system, but not treating anyone adversely.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but there is real anxiety among current pensioners that with the introduction of the single-tier pension they will become second-class citizens. Will he give an assurance and take that point on board?

I do appreciate that point. It is often not well understood that pensioners coming down the track—tomorrow’s pensioners—are due to receive substantially higher pensions on average without our reform because the state system has been maturing. Our reforms are not doing that—it is in the system anyway—but our reforms do take the money and simplify so that today’s workers have a simpler system into which to retire.

Will the Minister give an undertaking that those coming down the track—[Interruption.] I am already there; I am one of those pensioners being discriminated against. Will he give an undertaking that those who would be entitled to a higher pension than his flat-rate pension would provide will get the entitlement that they have paid for and not his lower flat-rate pension?

I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman that the next generation of pensioners will be well looked after and specifically that the starting point for our calculation will be what people have in the bank—that is to say, rights already accrued—and specifically, therefore, if people are heading for a pension of more than £140 at the point we change it and have got that in the bank, it will be respected.

We are hearing from all sides today concern and anxiety about the move to a flat-rate, single-tier state pension. In order to end that anxiety and to answer these questions, will the Minister confirm that a White Paper will be published on this reform? Will he tell us when it will appear?

I am pleased to give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that a White Paper is under active preparation and will be produced.

Work Capability Test (Cancer)

3. What his policy is on the application of the work capability test to people with cancer; and if he will make a statement. (113180)

We are committed to supporting people who are diagnosed with cancer in the most sensitive, fair and appropriate way. We are currently analysing responses from our informal consultation on the effects of cancer treatment and will publish a consultation response later in the summer. However, we have already put in place changes that have increased the range of cancer patients who receive ongoing unconditional support.

My constituent was treated for breast cancer in July 2010. She was deemed fit for work by Atos before the post-op results were received. The tribunal found in her favour and awarded her employment and support allowance in January 2012. However, her ESA entitlement was stopped in April because of the introduction of the Government’s 365 day rule. She was reassessed in May 2012 and found fit for work again. Her employer has held her job open but cannot re-employ her until she is deemed fit for work by her doctor. This is obviously extremely bad for her health. Will the Minister agree to meet me about this case?

It is obviously very difficult to talk about an individual case, and I am afraid that I make it a matter of policy that Ministers do not become involved in individual cases. What I would say is that it is extremely important that we provide support for all cancer sufferers who can potentially return to work to do so at the earliest opportunity. That is much better for them than being stuck at home on benefits.

As a result of the Government’s review, will the Minister confirm that there is now much better understanding of cancer treatments, and that many people undergoing oral chemotherapy, for example, will now be placed automatically in a support group, which did not happen previously?

It is absolutely our intention to include for the first time people going through oral chemotherapy in the support group. The actual detail will be resolved in the review that is being carried out at the moment. We shall publish the outcome later in the summer. I stress again that this Government have broadened the range of cancer patients in the support group who receive long-term unconditional support until they are potentially able to make a return to work.

Jobseeker Training

I have regular meetings with the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to discuss provision for the unemployed. We believe that we have forged a closer partnership between the two Departments than has existed in the past. We want to ensure that all unemployed people who have a skills gap receive the support that they need in order to fill that gap and return to work.

Starting new businesses could generate real growth for the UK economy and create more jobs. I recently held a seminar in Hounslow on entrepreneurship for women to encourage them to accept the start-up challenge. What is my right hon. Friend doing to encourage jobseekers to become entrepreneurs, and to help them acquire the skills that will enable them to succeed?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that she has done, not only in holding the seminar but in organising an extremely successful jobs fair to help her unemployed constituents to find work. I believe that, through the launch of the new enterprise allowance, we have created a mechanism that will allow unemployed women in particular, and also unemployed older workers, to move into self-employment. They have a wealth of experience to bring to it, and I hope that the allowance will create a bridge, supported by mentoring, to enable them to do so.

Training and benefit levels are inexorably linked by the Government. This morning the Prime Minister said that regional variations in benefit rates would affect areas such as mine in Wales, the north of England and Scotland much more than areas elsewhere. Will the Minister tell us whether he supports that, and whether it is supported by his hon. Friend the Pensions Minister?

I congratulate Opposition Front Benchers: this is one area in which they have made a major contribution to the debate. It was the Labour party that began the argument about the regionalisation of benefits. It was entirely sensible for the Prime Minister to take up that challenge, and we should have a proper national debate about whether this is the right approach for the future.

I welcome what the Minister has said about training. Does he agree, irrespective of certain quite loud noises off that have been heard recently, that the coalition is making the fundamental changes that will ensure that work always pays in future? That is a policy that I heartily endorse.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The universal credit, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is pioneering and which will be launched next year, will make a huge difference. As for the skills agenda, one of the coalition’s other achievements is the big expansion of apprenticeships. That is making a real difference to the prospects of unemployed people, particularly young unemployed people, giving them a chance to build up skills that can lead to a lasting career.

The recent scandal involving the unpaid jubilee steward has exposed the fact that some companies out there, under the guise of offering training to Work programme participants, are exploiting them as cheap or unpaid labour. What checks does the Minister carry out on companies that use Work programme participants?

I must say that I think it is pretty poor when the eventuality of a bus arriving two hours early is turned into a scandal by the Labour party. In fact, as part of a training and development programme, a group of volunteers were participating in a national experience that would build skills which could take them into other employment. I think that the hon. Lady should welcome that and not criticise it.

What support is available to 16 and 17-year-olds who are released from young offender institutions such as the one in Werrington, in my constituency, to ensure that they receive the training that they need so that they can get back on the right track?

That is an important issue. One of the challenges that we face is that 16 and 17-year-olds are often not on benefits. Together with the Department for Education, we are introducing a new programme, which will begin in autumn and will be funded by Payment by Results, to engage, support and develop the skills of that particular cohort of young people. We cannot abandon them, as has happened far too often in the past.

Benefit Claimants (Medical Assessments)

We asked Professor Harrington to carry out a series of reviews of the work capability assessment, and have implemented the recommendations of his first review. We are continuing to work closely with him, and are ensuring that lessons learnt from the assessment are built into the design of the new personal independence payment.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, there were problems with the system that we inherited. It was a harsh system, which we have been working hard to make work better, and I hope he will join us in supporting Professor Harrington’s work in this area, which is leaving us with a work capability assessment that better serves the people of this country.

Work Experience

6. What recent assessment he has made of the benefits for jobseekers of undertaking work experience. (113184)

18. What recent assessment he has made of the benefits for jobseekers of undertaking work experience. (113198)

Early analysis shows that approximately half of participants are off benefit within 21 weeks of starting a work experience placement. I am delighted that, despite a campaign run by anarchists and members of the Labour party, just like hon. Gentlemen on the Benches opposite me, to try to blight the chances of these young people, employers continue to come forward to join this excellent scheme. Young people have overwhelmingly shown that they want this valuable experience by continuing to volunteer to do their part.

It is good news that young people and people on work experience schemes come off them within 21 weeks. How does that compare with the new deal set up by the previous Government?

It compares very favourably. First, it is better. Secondly, it costs a lot less. Labour paid huge sums of money up front, whereas we pay the jobseeker’s allowance. The key point is that not once has any Opposition Front-Bench Member got up to defend this work experience programme, which many of their colleagues attack and try to destroy.

Will my right hon. Friend remind us how long a young person can stay on the work experience scheme before they lose their benefit, and how that compares with the situation under the previous Government?

This is the interesting bit, because the previous Government legislated for work experience before they left office and now attack it, but they allowed people only two weeks, which was not enough time for them to get the experience they needed. We have given people two months, and a third month if the employer offers them either an apprenticeship or a job.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, much like work experience for students in education, work experience for the unemployed plays a vital role in their securing the right habits in order to secure full-time employment eventually?

Yes, and one interesting fact is that although the ex-Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Prescott, attacked the scheme that had some difficulties in relation to young people learning and training, it turns out that the vast majority of them wanted to do it. Moreover, they got an experience that has allowed them to go after jobs at the Olympic park paying over £9 an hour, which they would not have had an opportunity to do if the Opposition had had their way.

Clearly, young people in particular will benefit from being able to acquire and demonstrate skills that are of value in the workplace. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should be doing everything we can to encourage employers to give similar placements?

I agree with my hon. Friend. One of the big problems we had was that some people, including the Labour party and those anarchists, have tried to stop those companies from doing that. I sometimes get confused as to who the anarchists are and who the Labour party members are when I look at the Opposition line-up, but the reality is that this is good for the young people who do it; it is good in terms of their experience; and they actually ask for it in the first place.

When travelling around my constituency, I have been very struck by how enthusiastic young people are to get work experience. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, despite what the cynics say, young people are very keen to get work experience because they know that it helps prepare them for a real job?

I agree. Actually it is so good that they volunteer for it; I wonder whether we should run a work experience programme for those on the Opposition Front Bench.

It is very difficult for Opposition Members to get a word in on this one. Is not the Secretary of State being rather silly, because most people know that if the work experience is of high quality and does not displace other people’s jobs, we are all in favour of it? Is it not about time that all of us on both sides of the House made sure that we had decent schemes for young people, which are of high quality and lead to jobs?

I respect the hon. Gentleman and I am grateful for those comments; I wish that everybody else on his side of the House approached this issue with the same attitude. Work experience has resulted in about half those going on to it getting off the benefits roll. They want to do it—this is really important—and what they are getting from it is experience they cannot otherwise get. Employers say to people time and again, “We can’t employ you because you don’t have experience,” yet they could not get that experience. Surely this has got to be a good thing for them and a good thing for all of us.

I, too, support good quality work experience that genuinely enhances employability, but as the Secretary of State seeks to roll out this initiative, what steps are his Department taking to ensure that high quality is maintained and that such work experience does not become a way for employers to churn cheap labour at the bottom?

Of course, the hon. Lady is absolutely right, and the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), is absolutely focusing on this issue with Jobcentre Plus. If we hear of any programmes that are not in that category, we will not allow young people to go on them. However, the key thing to bear in mind here is that this gives young people a real chance to get something they can sell to an employer. We should all back that, and I wish that more people were like the hon. Members who have just spoken.

The questioners on the Government Benches asked about recent assessment of work experience, but the Secretary of State responded by talking about figures that he has been punting for several months now. Has he carried out any further assessment since the pilot project that produced those figures, which is nearly a year old now, given that the only other published assessment, of mandatory work experience, suggested that it did not work?

We published these figures two months ago, but if the hon. Lady really wants to press me, I hear anecdotally from those in the Work programme that it is even better.

The Secretary of State may be interested to hear that Birmingham Labour went into the local election campaign promising work experience, so it is wrong to say that the Opposition are against it. However, the purpose of all this is to get people into work, and that requires a skills base. Has he assessed how much of the extra training of some people within companies is merely replacing what they are already doing, and how much is genuinely new commitment by companies to the training of young people?

We believe that the programmes brought forward to us, and which these young people are volunteering for, constitute genuine experience that they will gain and that the companies were not necessarily providing before. Of course, I fully accept that we want to ensure that those are high quality, and I congratulate the hon. Lady, not for the first time, on genuinely looking at this issue from the point of view of the problem and how we solve it. I wish there were more people doing that, but the trouble is that Opposition Front Benchers absolutely do not attack those who spend their time trying to destroy the work experience programme.

We introduced mandatory work experience under the flexible new deal and we support, as we have heard from a number of my hon. Friends, proper work experience that leads to jobs. However, why did the Secretary of State scrap our scheme and instead pour millions into a mandatory work activity scheme that his own Department says has no impact? Should he not sort out this shambles before announcing his next set of half-baked changes?

I see that the Opposition have discovered one word that they can now all say because it is not too long for them: shambles. The only shambles that we see is what is going on on their Front Bench. The reality is that we did not persist with the two-week work experience programme because all the young people told us that it did not work—they needed more time. That is what you do: when you hear the truth from people who need your support, you act on it, like we did, and give them that extra time.

Social Security (European Commission)

7. What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on the influence of the European Commission on UK social security policies. (113185)

20. What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on the influence of the European Commission on UK social security policies. (113201)

I continue to have concerns about the efforts of the European Commission to increase its influence over the social security policies adopted by national Governments. I am working closely with European colleagues to resist encroachment on our national welfare systems, and last week met with some of them to discuss this. I am determined that social security should remain a national matter, and will continue to resist efforts by the EU to interfere.

I am very grateful to the Minister, who has almost answered my question. Does he share my view that social security policy should be left entirely to member states, and what does he believe that we can do in practice to ensure that that is the case?

I think that it has to be overwhelming pressure from member states. The Austrians, for example, are now facing a case in the European Court that would have a similar impact on them as the court cases we are facing in this country. I increasingly find that other member states are recognising that this is a problem. The best way for us to deal with it quickly is to work together to get the Commission to rethink policy totally on this front and to do what member states believe is right.

My experience, Minister, of the European Commission is that it always wants to seek more powers, so I welcome your answer but I think you need to redouble your efforts to make sure that we do not hand over social security policy to the Commission.

May I point out gently to the hon. Gentleman that I have provided no answer and am making no efforts, but that the Minister might be able to answer?

I am absolutely clear that we have to get the Commission to change. It is, after all, part of a collection of member states, all of which believe that the current direction of travel is wrong. We have to win battles in the Commission, the Parliament and the European Court. I will not hesitate to take legal action in the European Court wherever we have grounds for arguing that the Commission is acting against the terms of the Lisbon treaty and its predecessors.

Remploy

Within the commercial process Remploy has encouraged any proposals for the businesses, including bids that are social enterprise models. I, and DWP officials, have met social enterprise organisations, and I have also announced that funding of up to £10,000 is available to support employee-led proposals, including social enterprises. That money can be used for expert advice and support, including legal and accountancy support.

Many social enterprises feel as though they have been totally excluded from the consultation at Remploy. The consultation period has been an utter shambles; it has been chaos and confusion from day one. As a result, will the Minister consider restarting the consultation period in the best interests of the disabled people at Remploy?

The hon. Gentleman and I have a shared objective of wanting to make sure that we work together with people affected by these announcements, and I do not think he would want to create any situation where we had to continue with this period of uncertainty for any longer than we already have. He is wrong to say that we should rerun this consultation; it is going forward in the way that it should. We have received 65 expressions of interest for Remploy businesses, and I am looking forward to working with those individuals and those organisations to see how many of those bids we can take forward.

Will the Minister advise the House as to how many organisations have been consulted so far and how many people were involved in that consultation?

The process that we have been undertaking involves all the individuals affected by the announcements that we have made. I have made it plain to the Remploy board that communication through this period of 90 days is very important; we have put a great deal of emphasis on that. Under the previous Administration, 29 factories were closed and none of them was taken forward outside Government control, whereas we are working hard and we have received 65 expressions of interest for Remploy businesses to move outside Government control. The House should welcome that.

Does the Minister recall that the Sayce review stated clearly that there was “total consensus” among disabled charities and organisations that Remploy factories were

“not a model for the 21st century”?

Does the Minister agree that placing a concrete cap on the aspirations of disabled people, as some Labour Members wish to do, is morally wrong?

I have to applaud my hon. Friend for saying things that Labour Members sometimes do not agree with. He is very courageous in that. The Government have set out their commitment to equality. It would not be right for us to see an increase in the amount of money being spent on segregated employment if we have equality at the centre of our thoughts—and we do.

Separated Parents

It is unacceptable that only 50% of children in separated families benefit from an effective child maintenance arrangement. That is why we are fundamentally reforming the child maintenance system, and it is also why we recently launched our consultation on shared parenting.

To turn to the issue of contact, does the Minister agree that it is a fundamental right of every child to know and have a relationship with both parents, and that parents who stand in the way of that right are abusing the rights of their children?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he has done in this area and for his private Member’s Bill. He is absolutely right that all the evidence shows that children who maintain contact with both parents have a much better outlook on life. We are considering not only shared parenting in our consultation, but how we can help more families to work together on child maintenance outside the statutory system in a way that will help them work together on all the issues around a child’s life.

Does the Minister think that making it more difficult and more expensive for parents to access their maintenance payments will make life easier or more difficult for children of separated parents?

The hon. Lady will know that today we have announced a £15 million scheme to put in place the sort of support that I know she would want for separated parents, so that they can work together more effectively. I do not agree with her that our proposals will do anything other than make life better for children in separated families by ensuring that more money is flowing to them, whether that is inside the statutory system or outside it.

To return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), does the Minister agree that it is essential that children automatically have access to both their parents, and that should not be the case only when it is proven to be unsafe? Up until now, the Government’s wording has been that it should happen when it is safe, but it should be only when it is unsafe that it should not.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There should be a presumption of a meaningful relationship with both parents post-separation, and the proposals we are working on for child maintenance will underline that by helping parents to realise that it is their responsibility to work together to support their children, whether they are in a relationship together or whether they are living apart.

The Minister announced today that £14 million is being spent, partly on an app that can be downloaded by couples who are thinking of splitting up,

“to help them through the painful process of separation.”

Will she confirm that the first two people to download it were the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister?

My hon. Friend is potentially selling short our announcement today. Indeed, working with all the leading charitable and third sector organisations in the sector, we are looking for new ways to ensure that we have the appropriate support in place for families, whether through telephony, local face-to-face support or a web application. Perhaps Mrs Bone might like to take a look at that and give me her views, too.

Work Capability Assessments (Appeal Tribunals)

14. How many people are waiting for appeal tribunals on the outcome of work capability assessments. (113194)

At 31 December 2011, the latest date for which data have been published, 63,500 appeals were outstanding in which the work capability assessment was a factor, down from 84,100 in October 2010. There are always a number of live appeals at the various stages of processing before being listed for a tribunal hearing.

The fact that 63,500 people are in limbo is a disgrace, and waiting for appeal results is damaging people’s health, particularly those who have mental health problems. What is the Minister doing to try to rectify the situation, and when can we expect waiting times for appeals to be at a reasonable level?

I think that the hon. Lady has misunderstood the situation. There will always be people who are waiting for appeals. If they put in an appeal submission today, they will not have a tribunal hearing this afternoon. There is always a gap to allow everyone involved to prepare for the hearing itself. We are doing everything we can to reduce the backlog of appeals, as we inherited a massive backlog two years ago from the previous Government. The figures I have just set out show that we have succeeded in reducing that. We have reduced it as far as possible, but there will always be people in the pipeline waiting for appeals, because they simply do not happen on the same day as the application goes in.

My constituent, Mrs W, was placed in a work capability assessment group on 7 April. She appealed and waited until September when she was successful, like 40% of those who appeal. Shortly afterwards, she was recalled for a further assessment. Will the Minister consider giving work capability assessments tribunals the ability not just to assess the rightness of decisions at the time they are made but to decide when the assessments need to be made, cutting the number of people in the revolving door, waiting for appeals?

The hon. Lady will know that when the present system was set up by the previous Government, they built in a system of prognosis times, which set a rough estimate of the next time an assessment should be held. As I said, I have now taken steps to lengthen that period when somebody has been through an appeal, but she should be under no illusion: the system she talks about is the one set up by her own party.

The Minister should know that, at the end of last year, more than twice as many people as the Courts and Tribunals Service’s target figure were having to wait more than six months for appeals, at a cost to the Ministry of Justice of more than £40 million in the first year of this Government. When the tendering process for assessments for personal independence payments begins, will he seek options to ensure that any contractor that partners with the Government takes its share of the risk and of meeting the costs of decisions that are overturned on appeal?

The decision-making process lies within Jobcentre Plus and the decision makers work to a template established by the Department for Work and Pensions, but the reality is that under the Human Rights Act 1998, passed by the previous Government, the courts have decided that everyone has a right to appeal, and if people do not like the decision made, whether it is right or wrong, a large number will choose to appeal. We will do everything we can to get the decisions right, but we will not be able to stop people appealing.

Unemployment and Housing Benefit Costs

21. If he will estimate the likely change in unemployment and housing benefit costs in 2015 compared with estimates made in the 2010 autumn statement. (113202)

In 2015-16, we expect to spend around £220 billion on benefits and personal tax credits. That includes an estimate of spending on jobseeker's allowance and housing benefit which, taking account of the latest assumptions from the Office for Budget Responsibility, is around £1.4 billion higher than was expected in 2010.

Is not the truth that just one in eight of housing benefit recipients are unemployed and that 93% of new claimants are in households struggling in low-paid work, with falling real wages but paying soaring rents to largely private sector landlords? Instead of forcing 380,000 young people under 25 back in with their parents or onto the streets, should not the Government be dealing with surging rent rises, building social housing and introducing a proper living wage, to deal with the biggest squeeze on living standards for 90 years?

Can I remind the hon. Gentleman which Government introduced the local housing allowance, as a direct result of which rents rocketed? As for our changes to housing benefit, the latest report, published about a week ago, shows that only about 1% of those affected have to move; a third have now said that they will seek work, which is a positive effect; and something near a half have not seen any rent rises or negotiated them downwards, so rents have been falling.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on introducing the benefits cap. Can he give more details of what has happened since housing benefit was capped? Also, in the light of the Prime Minister’s speech today, will he commit the Government to consider reducing the benefits cap from £26,000, which my constituents think is still far too high?

I shall certainly relay my hon. Friend’s views to the Prime Minister as part of the overall review. When we made the changes to housing benefit, we were attacked by the Opposition for “social cleansing” and all those dangerous things we were supposed to be dealing in—[Interruption.] No, no, by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) and his team. On the one hand, his team accuse us of social cleansing; on the other, he accused me the other day of not cutting deep enough on housing benefit. The only shambles here is their position on housing benefit.

A million young people are out of work. Now, the Prime Minister wants to deny housing benefit to under-25s, pushing thousands into becoming homeless and punishing workers on low pay or in an apprenticeship who need housing benefit to keep a roof over their head. Does the Secretary of State agree with the chief executive of the YMCA, who says it is

“difficult…to think in our 168-year history of a proposal more detrimental and having a negative impact”,

and the chief executive of Crisis, who says that the Government are being “irresponsible” and should concentrate instead on creating badly needed jobs and building badly needed affordable homes?

We are doing all those things. The housing benefit changes are necessary to bring back under control a budget that was spiralling under the Government the hon. Gentleman supported. In almost 10 years, we saw that budget rise from about £11 billion to £21 billion. That was madness, and it was their lack of control and their creation of the local housing allowance that led to that problem, so we will take no lectures from him or his hon. Friends about what is right or wrong in relation to housing benefit.

How many young people under 25 does the Secretary of State think will lose their jobs as a result of the measures that his Prime Minister is proposing?

I am not aware that any would lose their jobs. I am aware that, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), the housing benefit changes that we have introduced are already leading to a large number of those who were not in work now seeking work. That is the difference between us and the Opposition—we believe that these changes should be about helping people to become independent; they think welfare is about making people dependent on them.

Topical Questions

Today I am announcing the Department’s plans better to support jobseekers allowance claimants who are members of Her Majesty’s reserve forces. We plan to amend the JSA regulations with effect from next month so that claimants who are in the military reserve can attend their required 15-day annual training camp without having to terminate their claim. This will mean that Jobcentre Plus can actively encourage claimants to join the Territorial Army without facing unnecessary and burdensome administration difficulties.

I thank my right hon. Friend. In Nuneaton and the north of Warwickshire, unemployment has decreased since the last general election. Not being complacent, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) and I are running a jobs fair this Thursday, where a number of local and regional companies will be offering 220 jobs and 50 apprenticeship placements. Will my right hon. Friend welcome this and give a message of support and encouragement both to those companies and to the people in our constituencies looking for work?

I am very much aware of the event being held by my hon. Friend and his colleague. This is another great initiative by Members on the Government Benches. There have been a number of extremely successful jobs fairs. This one is poised to be another, with really good jobs on offer to unemployed people. I commend my hon. Friend enormously. I am grateful to all the organisations taking part. It is a credit to the community in his area that they are coming together to help the unemployed.

This morning the Secretary of State said on the “Today” programme that universal credit is on time and on budget. Can he confirm that to the House?

That is very interesting. The Minister with responsibility for unemployment told the House that all out-of-work benefits were supposed to be treated as universal credit applications from October 2013. The DWP newsletter from last month says that that now will not happen until mid-2014—nine months late. The project is supposed to cost £2 billion, but answers to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) say that it is £100 million over budget. Universal credit is not on time and it is not on budget, and the Secretary of State does not know what is going on in his own Department, so is it any surprise that the Prime Minister had to announce another revolution in welfare reform this morning? The last one appears to be collapsing into chaos.

Universal credit is on time and on budget. This is so typical of the right hon. Gentleman. He knows that universal credit is a programme that will be introduced over four years. He needs to go and check his figures again. There is something rather pathetic about the way he pauses on little figures and seems to think that that spells something. Universal credit will do more to get people back to work and it will rectify the mess that the previous Government left. It is on time and it is on budget.

T7. How many fewer benefits are there for people who are out of work than there were at the last general election? (113210)

I am pleased to say that there are 80,000 fewer people on out-of-work benefits today than there were at the time of the general election. It is worth the Opposition noting that as regards youth unemployment, when we take into account all the policy changes that have taken place, and if we strip out the ways in which the previous Government hid people and kept them off the unemployment register, youth unemployment is down as well.

T3. A constituent has contacted me about a Work programme placement that is both unsupervised and offers no training. Is not the Minister worried that Work programme providers, such as A4e, deem that satisfactory? (113206)

If the Work programme providers do not deliver the right support, they will not be successful and they will not be paid. That is the joy of the system that we have put in place. The previous Government put hundreds and hundreds of millions of pounds up front into the pockets of providers. We make the providers put their own money up front in a commitment to deliver support to the long-term unemployed, get them into work and help them stay there.

T9. Does the Minister agree that pensions tax and pensions means-testing help destroy our pensions system? What are the Government doing to ensure that it always pays to save for a pension? (113212)

My hon. Friend is right that at the moment there is a concern that if people save small amounts of money, all they do is deprive themselves of means-tested benefits. That is why our state pension reform is absolutely essential to ensure that when people do save they are better off as a result, and we look forward to that being a firm foundation for auto-enrolment when it starts later this year.

T4. Is not the problem with the Government’s benefit to work programme the fact that due to economic policies and failures there are no jobs for people to go to? For every five vacancies, there are so many people chasing them that there is no chance of them getting work. When will the Government do something about growth so that people can get back into jobs? (113207)

We are working extremely hard to support our economy and to support businesses to encourage them to grow and develop. We have had some very good news in the past few weeks at Ellesmere Port, with Jaguar Land Rover, and in the north-east with the investments in Redcar. Those developments are all good news for jobs. Since the election, there are 400,000 more people in work in this country. Our challenge is to ensure that we get young British unemployed people into those jobs and that we have fewer people coming from overseas and getting them.

May I press the Minister on the answer he gave earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess)? Notwithstanding the difficulties of those facing youth unemployment, can he confirm that the youth unemployment figure today is lower than it was under the last Government?

When we take into account all the policy changes, I can indeed confirm that. The Opposition keep saying that long-term youth unemployment has gone up under this Government, but the previous Government hid the true picture of youth unemployment by moving people on to a training allowance. They did not then show up in the figures and that masked the true picture. We are being open and honest and telling the truth about the challenges that we face.

T6. As Member of Parliament for Ogmore, I have a direct and democratic interest in knowing how many of my constituents who are ex-incapacity benefit and are now on jobseeker’s allowance have been referred to the Work programme. Has the Minister now lifted the ban on disclosure of that information, as he promised in January, and if not, why not? (113209)

We have already published the referral numbers to the Work programme and we continue to publish estimates of the number of referrals to the Work programme. Every single person on employment and support allowance has access to the Work programme today, and every single person who moves from employment and support allowance to jobseeker’s allowance has access to the Work programme within three months.

While we must all welcome the public acclaim given to the Olympians taking part in the Paralympics, does the Minister agree that those with learning difficulties who have their own special Olympics are seldom given the same level of acknowledgement for their skills and abilities?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. However, the Paralympics will give this country a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to showcase the talents of disabled people. I recently had the privilege of speaking to Channel 4 about how it will be covering this event and to meet some of the six disabled people who are now trained commentators who will be showcasing this amazing event.

T8. Perhaps my earlier question was not clear, because I did not get a clear answer from the Minister, so I wonder if he could answer my question this time. With the number of people who go through a process of work capability assessment, followed by appeal, followed by assessment again, will he undertake to ensure that the information on which tribunals decide that people are not fit for work is made available to those making the decisions for the following work capability assessment, so that people do not get caught in that cycle? (113211)

Yes, I get what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. We are currently working with the tribunals service to get written decisions passed back to Jobcentre Plus for decision makers. That will be introduced within the next month.

Having had a very useful meeting with Winchester Mencap on Friday, may I tell the Minister that it is particularly concerned that some of the flexibility of incapacity benefit should be built into employment and support allowance, as in the experience of many people with a learning disability, any paid work offered often peters out after only a few months?

These are issues that we are very sensitive to. We do everything we can to ensure that the support we provide to people with different forms of challenge and disabilities, through the Work programme and work choice, delivers the best possible and most tailored support. We will always engage with the charities involved and discuss how we can enhance the support we provide.

The food bank in Plymouth has seen the number of people using it increase by 700 since April. It has clear evidence that the reason for this is the problem in the transition from contribution-based to income-based benefits, which in some cases lasts between four and eight weeks. Families are being left without money and are having to resort to the food bank, or in some cases, the skips behind supermarkets. What is the Secretary of State doing in his Department to ensure that that gap is reduced significantly?

I accept the hon. Lady’s point and will look at the situation carefully to ensure that that does not happen. I will say that when we came into office food banks were not allowed to put their literature in jobcentres; the previous Government did not allow that and did not want them anywhere near jobcentres. We have since allowed them to put their literature in jobcentres. Jobcentre advisers are also telling people about that, so some of that expansion is due to the fact that people did not even know about this before we told them about it, which I think is fairly reasonable.

Given the increasing evidence of market failure in the private pensions system and the Financial Services Authority’s recent estimate that between 30 % and 50% of private pension pots now go on charges, will the Government consider putting a cap on charges before auto-enrolment comes in?

I am pleased to say that the early evidence from auto-enrolment—firms are already choosing schemes —is that average charge levels are coming down very dramatically, compared with the stakeholder charge caps that used to be in force, for example, with a norm of around 0.5% for last firms, which is radically below the levels we have seen in the market in the past. However, we need to keep this under review and have reserve powers to cap charges if we think they are becoming a problem as auto-enrolment is rolled out.

In their efforts to get people back into work, will Ministers please make more of an effort to work with colleagues in the Treasury on tax credits? Constituents of mine are taking three-month contracts, ringing up to get the forms, which then take six or seven weeks to arrive, and when they are returned they are being refused the tax credit because there is only four weeks of the employment left. This is putting people off taking temporary work and really is—I use the word again—a shambles.

The hon. Lady knows that we are not yet responsible for tax credits, although under universal credit they will eventually come in. I will certainly relay her comments to the Treasury and ensure that that does not happen. I agree with her that everything we do to promote work, even part-time work, is very important.

Can the Minister confirm that over 800,000 new jobs have been created in the private sector since the election and that one of the fastest growing sectors in the sector is cyber-security, as it is in my constituency, where there is an insatiable desire to hire young people who have skills, particularly in ethical hacking?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The point she should make, quite rightly, is that these are new and growing industries where there are real threats to computers and people using them, and that is why the industry is growing. More than that, in the past three months we have seen a fall in unemployment and a rise in private sector employment, even though we have been moving more people from incapacity benefit, ESA and lone parent benefits to jobseeker’s allowance, so it has been a success in difficult times and we should applaud that.

Of the 54 existing Remploy factories, how many does the Minister expect still to be running at the end of this Parliament, whether they are called Remploy or go under another name?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we are in the middle of a commercial process, and therefore I do not know the answer to his question. However, I hope that as a result of the work being done we can, as Liz Sayce’s recommendations suggest, set those factories free from Government control. I remind him of the comments made by the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) back in November 2007:

“The reality is that without modernisation Remploy deficits would obliterate our other programmes to help disabled people into mainstream work.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2007; Vol. 468, c. 448.]

We agree with that statement.

The Labour party has been critical of the proposed regionalisation of benefits. Will the Secretary of State remind the House which senior politician first recommended the idea?

I understand that it was the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), who actually called for a debate, but as soon as we got a debate he told us that we were debating the wrong thing, which is rather strange.

Many of my constituents have raised concerns with me about the forthcoming bedroom tax, especially given the lack of affordable alternative housing in Wolverhampton. Specifically, can the Secretary of State reassure me that individuals or families with disabilities who are in adapted housing, and who have waited some time to secure it, will not be subject to reductions in their housing benefit as of April next year?

We have ensured that local authorities have a substantial amount of money in discretionary funds to take into account the kind of situation that the hon. Lady describes, but the reality is that in the social rented sector we have about 1 million spare rooms, and at a time when people are queuing up on waiting lists throughout the country, it makes no sense for the taxpayer to pay for that.