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Topical Questions

Volume 552: debated on Monday 5 November 2012

We have been rolling out the innovation fund, which has so far been very successful, as I said in answer to an earlier question. About 11 social impact bonds have now been launched. The successful bidders in the second round, Prevista, Social Finance and 3SC, will deliver support for our most disadvantaged 14 and 15-year-olds, restoring hope and aspiration to young people in care who are disengaged from school and involved in gangs, crime and drugs. It is a very, very good project.

Dr Sue Atkinson, a mental health professional in my constituency, recently told me about the appalling misjudgments that she and her colleagues have witnessed, when their clients’ needs and capabilities have been completely ignored in the work capability assessment process. Why will the Secretary of State not act now to review and revise a system which is clearly failing?

There is an awful lot of lost memory among Opposition Members. It was they, when they were in government, who set the process up. It is this Government who have made all the alterations, thanks to Professor Harrington, that have improved the situation. We are doing exactly what the hon. Lady requests. I wish she would speak to members of her Front-Bench team and avail them of that information.

T2. Disability Cornwall has expressed concern to me that its good name has been used by the company Atos when bidding to undertake the personal independence payment assessments, when in fact no such discussion regarding a potential local partnership has ever taken place between Atos and Disability Cornwall. Does the Minister agree that this may have resulted in Ministers being misled? Will the matter, therefore, please be investigated? (126324)

To correct my hon. Friend, what the contract said was, “Should we win the contract, the sort of people we would look to negotiate with would be Disability Cornwall”—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) is passing comments from a sedentary position; she may be thinking of a different matter altogether. In regard to Disability Cornwall, Atos’s position was that should it win the contract, it would look to negotiate with Disability Cornwall.

May I first associate everyone on the Opposition Benches with the words of commemoration for our much treasured colleague, Malcolm Wicks, who is sorely missed?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the introduction of universal credit is proceeding according to its original timetable?

I can indeed. As we have said, we will start the process nationwide in October, although we have introduced an earlier start for a pilot programme, as the right hon. Gentleman is aware, because he came into the office to talk to me about it. He knows very well that, as I explained then, the four-year process will be completed exactly as we have intended, on time and on budget.

That is curious, because last year the Secretary of State told us that every new claim for out-of-work support would be treated as a claim for universal credit from next October, but the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), told Parliament on 26 October that the rules for universal credit from 2013 onward are still “under development.” What on earth is going on? On Atos, on caps on pension charges and now on universal credit, it does not appear that the Secretary of State has got a grip.

If the right hon. Gentleman does not mind, I must say that that is a rather pathetic question. The reality, as he knows very well—he came into my office to discuss these matters and we showed him exactly what we are doing—is that there is no change. The reality is that over the four years we will bring universal credit completely online—it will be completed by 2017. I wish he would spend more time working on his brief, rather than writing books on China.

T3. Like all hard-working taxpayers, I support the Government’s attempts to reduce benefit fraud. However, I have recently received correspondence from a terminally ill constituent whose support has been wrongly withdrawn. Will the Minister assure me that those who truly deserve support, such as my constituent, will benefit from our introduction of a fairer welfare system? (126325)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. That is exactly why we have been working with Professor Harrington to implement the findings set out in his report. One of his findings relates to cancer sufferers, which is why we published new guidance last month on how they should be treated under the work capability assessment.

T6. Many of my constituents who devote a great deal of effort to providing Atos with detailed medical supporting evidence will be deeply disappointed with the Minister’s earlier answer. What steps is he taking to ensure that Atos takes full account of medical evidence when determining work capability assessments— (126328)

I appreciate that the Minister is eager to answer and look forward to hearing from him. I ask that because at the moment Atos is simply ignoring that evidence.

What the work capability assessment does is assess people’s ability to work. It is a review of their capability and functionality, not a diagnostic assessment. That is why the assessment takes place. Of course, it is right that claimants bring along medical evidence, but it must be read in conjunction with the Atos assessment. Decisions about eligibility for employment and support allowance are made by DWP staff, not Atos.

T4. The Government have made it clear that although they are keen that most people should be able to deal with the direct payment of housing benefit, that will not be appropriate for all. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House, and those outside who are concerned about women’s refuges and their futures, that direct payment may be waived in those circumstances? (126326)

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. We are already in discussions with such groups and have made it clear that anybody suffering domestic violence will immediately be taken through the system and the money will be paid directly. The refuges, as we have already said, will get their money and there will be no hesitation. That is an absolutely critical area and it will be provided for completely by universal credit.

T9. My local citizens advice bureau is getting 30 new work capability assessment cases every week, and 80% of them are won on appeal. That is because the Government are forcing sick people who have cancer or brain damage or who are dying back into work. It is a disgrace. When will this barbarity end? (126331)

As I have said a few times today—I will continue to say it—this process was put in place by the previous Government, a Government the hon. Gentleman supported. What we are looking to do is ensure that those people who can work get the support they need to get into work, rather than abandoning them to a lifetime on incapacity benefit, which he seems to think is the better option.

T5. Is the disabilities Minister satisfied that the proposed descriptors for the personal independence payments adequately recognise the impact of Crohn’s disease, colitis and irritable bowel syndrome on the daily lives of our constituents who live with those conditions and the invisible disabilities that they endure? (126327)

I am indeed. As my hon. Friend will know, it is not about the condition, but about how each individual person copes with the condition; and yes, I am happy with the criteria.

T10. The Fair Pensions report, “Whose Duty? Ensuring effective stewardship in contract-based pensions”, highlights the relative lack of quality standards being applied to UK schemes, as opposed to other jurisdictions such as Australia. The Minister referred to active steps being taken in relation to auto-enrolment. Do those steps extend to re-visiting actively the qualifying criteria and the default fund guidance? (126332)

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the important issue of governance. We do not think that we have a significant problem with the early stages of automatic enrolment for the biggest firms. They are coming in at a low cost and are well governed. The issue will arise further through the process and we are indeed looking at the quality of schemes into which people are auto-enrolled, including charges and governance.

T7. What progress is being made to ensure that work capability assessments are sensitive to fluctuating medical conditions such as stroke care? (126329)

My hon. Friend makes a useful point. Professor Harrington highlighted in his second review the issue of fluctuating conditions. We are working on an evidence base to look at descriptors for fluctuating conditions, to make sure that they are taken properly into account in the work capability assessment.

When the Government started to move people from incapacity benefit to employment support allowance, provision was made for those who were particularly or very disabled so that they would not have to go through the work capability assessment and would go straight into the support group. However, a number of my constituents have been moved from incapacity benefit and on to the work-related activity group of ESA without first going through a work capability assessment. How widespread is this, how many people is it happening to, and why is it happening?

I would be grateful if the hon. Lady supplied me with the evidence she mentions. There are clearly situations in which people go straight into the support group without undergoing a work capability assessment. It depends on the information supplied when they originally make the application.

T8. The scandalously high rate of youth unemployment was perhaps one of the previous Government’s worst legacies, and my constituents warmly welcome the creation of 1 million new jobs and 600,000 apprenticeships. Does the Secretary of State agree that in rural areas young jobseekers face particular challenges in accessing small, fast-growing companies in the rural economy, and will he join me in supporting the local voluntary big society initiative launched by The Norfolk Way—it started a work club and enterprise bursary in which local entrepreneurs support jobseekers—in Mid Norfolk last week? (126330)

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does in his area. I absolutely agree with and support what he says. It is really interesting that youth unemployment was rising in the previous Government’s last six years, even in a time of growth. They fiddled with the figures so that anybody who was unemployed for more than 10 months went on a course; most of them ended up returning to unemployment, where they started from zero again. The then Government deliberately and falsely capped the figure. We are honest about it and tell the truth.

We have been told that Professor Harrington’s recommendations on the introduction of mental health champions to improve work capability assessments have been implemented, yet only two mental health champions cover the whole of Scotland and both of them are based in the central belt. What steps have Ministers put in place to measure the effectiveness of mental health champions?

We have introduced a mental health champion in every single assessment centre throughout the country. We have asked Professor Harrington not only to look at new changes, but to review changes that have already been proposed and to monitor their effectiveness. We will continue to follow that process.

On the housing benefit demonstration projects, what assessment has been made of potential budgeting accounts—so-called jam-jar accounts—to help people manage all their finances and build up a savings pot?

My noble friend Lord Freud has already discussed with all the financial institutions how to construct systems that support people who may have budgeting issues. The phrase “jam-jar accounts” is an unsophisticated term for such systems, but by and large they help people apportion the money necessary for their rent, food and so on, so that they can see that money flow in and then take it out. On housing benefit, a key area of the local housing allowance will be that we will not allow people to build up arrears of debt. We will intervene early to make sure that that does not happen, which should help landlords understand that we will support them.

Ministers assured us that the flexibilities introduced for lone parents on jobseeker’s allowance under Labour would continue, yet the number of lone parents who have been sanctioned has risen dramatically. In a written answer on 24 October the Minister said that the reasons for sanctions were exactly the same as those for other jobseekers. Can the Secretary of State explain exactly how those flexibilities are being properly applied and what training is being delivered to personal advisers in Jobcentre Plus?

I think we all believe that it is important that where lone parents can work, they should work, because that helps to boost their income and that of their family. Guidance is given to personal advisers on jobseeker’s allowance to ensure that the sanctions regime is applied appropriately to lone parents, as in the case of all jobseekers.

It would be pretty negligible because it is paid to everybody, and it would therefore be impossible to figure it out. Across the board in the Department for Work and Pensions, we are beginning to see a downward pressure on fraud and error. My hon. Friend will be pleased to see that over the next few years we will be saving considerable amounts of money.

How many people who have been medically retired from their jobs with severe conditions are being put through the work capability assessment and having their benefits attacked?

I do not have the precise figures to hand, but I will look into them and write to the hon. Gentleman. It is important to remember—I think there is agreement on both sides of the House about this—that working helps many people’s medical conditions; there is very strong evidence to support that. That is at the heart of the work capability assessment that Labour introduced when in government, and we are trying to sort out the problems with it.

With 70% of social housing tenants having no access to the internet, will the Secretary of State update the House on what progress he is making for a low or no-cost social housing tariff to be overlaid on the existing BT Basic package to enable social housing tenants to access universal credit online?

In fact, many more people access the internet daily than a lot of people think. Some 78% of all benefit recipients access the internet, and about 48% do so on a daily basis. Obviously it is our job to try to get that figure up, because if people cannot access the internet that affects their employment prospects given that 92% of all jobs require some computer skills. This is an opportunity and, yes, we are looking at that passported benefit to make sure that those who need the money get the money directly.

Universal credit is due to be up and running in less than a year. Surely by now the Secretary of State should be able to give us some detail about who will be eligible for free school meals.

We are talking to the Departments involved about how best they want to make this work. They will make it work, and we will come forward very soon with some very clear indication of how it is going to work. The hon. Lady should rest assured that the purpose of this is to make sure that those who need and deserve the money get the money, and I can guarantee that that will be the case.