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Topical Questions

Volume 547: debated on Monday 25 June 2012

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.