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Topical Questions

Volume 555: debated on Monday 10 December 2012

I welcome the announcement made in the autumn statement last week that housing support for those living in supported exempt accommodation will be disregarded from the benefit cap. We have listened to the concerns of organisations including Refuge, Women’s Aid, the National Housing Federation and others. That announcement addresses their concerns, meaning that individuals in very vulnerable circumstances, including those fleeing domestic violence, will be protected.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the direct payments pilot schemes, which are taking place before universal credit, before the bedroom tax and before the changes to council tax benefit. Is he aware that the pilots are showing an increase in rent arrears due to an increase in partial payments? If that remains the case at the end of the pilots, is he prepared to change policy to make it easier for rent payments to be made direct to the landlord?

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The figure I gave in my response to the last of the questions showed that, in actual fact, the pilots are beginning to show categorically that if there is proper management by local authorities, the number of people defaulting is very low. That we can deal with. [Interruption.] Instead of playing games, paying this direct and treating housing benefit tenants as children, does he not think that part of the reason why they crash out of work early is that they cannot cope with the extra responsibility? By getting them ready for that responsibility before they go to work we are doing them a favour, and that figure shows we are supporting them.

T2. Later this week, my constituent Danny Shingles will go into hospital to have a debilitating polycystic kidney removed. I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that cysts on kidneys burst, poisoning the body and creating great discomfort. While preparing for his operation Mr Shingles is also having to appeal a decision to stop his disability living allowance and employment and support allowance, despite the fact that after his operation he will be entitled to have them again. This is causing my constituent much unnecessary stress, so will the Secretary of State review the guidance given to assessors to ensure that all factors, including the scheduling of operations, are taken into account when making decisions about whether someone is entitled to benefits? (132051)

I do not believe that there will be a dole rise. The reality is that, under this Government, in the last year we have seen more people back into work; more private sector jobs than were ever created by the previous Government; and more women in work. Unemployment levels have fallen and youth unemployment levels have fallen. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would like to apologise for the total mess his Government left us.

The Secretary of State clearly does not know, so let me help him. The Office for Budget Responsibility says that the dole bill will rise by £6 billion as a result of his failure to get Britain back to work. To pay that price, he is proposing an uprating Bill which, I am afraid to say, sounds all wrong to me. It is wrong to take £4 billion from tax credits, it is wrong to take £300 million from maternity pay, and it is wrong that this strivers tax is going to hit 4,500 working families in his constituency. He should be fixing welfare reform, not flogging working families. Perhaps he would like to tell the House this afternoon just what share of the savings from this uprating Bill is going to come from working families.

I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that our unemployment figures are better than those originally forecast by the OBR. I remind him—as if he needed reminding—that he left this Government with a 6% fall in GDP, an economy that was on the rack, and debt that was higher than that of any other country in northern Europe and rising every year, with £120 million a day being spent on the interest. Let me remind him of one other thing: he has voted against every single change and every cut we have made to deal with that debt. The Opposition are irresponsible and not fit for government.

T3. I welcome the introduction of universal credit next year. However, will the Secretary of State outline how my constituents without bank accounts will in practice be able to access universal credit? Does he agree with the suggestion made by Westgate ward Councillor Paul Toleman that Post Office accounts could be a useful alternative mechanism? (132052)

It is correct that Post Office accounts would be a useful measure in ensuring that we can give people the right kind of choice and the right kind of places for their accounts. Under universal credit, people will be given an opportunity to begin to live their lives in the same way as they would live them if they were back in work. That is a critical and huge change that will allow them to get back into work rather than not have to make the changes that could change their whole outlook.

T5. The Secretary of State failed to answer the substance of the question put to him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) a few moments ago. Of those affected by the 1% uprating, 81% are women and 60% are in work. Is not the reality that this Government are clobbering the strivers? (132054)

I remind the hon. Gentleman that in the autumn statement we yet again raised the threshold, which allow an extra £5 a week for families. Families on low incomes are better off and the average family is £125 better off as a result of the autumn statement.

T4. Further to earlier questions on this matter, PATCH—Pembrokeshire Action to Combat Hardship—a charity that deals with poverty issues in west Wales, is concerned about the housing component of universal credit. Will the Secretary of State confirm how he intends to define “vulnerable tenants”? (132053)

Vulnerable tenants will be defined as they always have been, as people who for various specific reasons are unable to cope. All those people will be considered carefully and all the mechanisms that we are putting in place—this is the point that makes universal credit different—mean that by ensuring that we identify those who have difficulties, we can get to them and sort out their problems rather than just dealing with the symptoms, such as their being unable to make their payments. We need to deal with why they are in debt, what is happening to their families and whether, say, the family is drug addicted and start to put those problems right before they crash out of work later on.

T7. The DWP recently published an evaluation that confirmed a net benefit of £7,750 per participant from the future jobs fund, a scheme that originated in my constituency. That can be set alongside Barnsley college’s successful sector-based work academy, which is already demonstrating its effectiveness in getting long-term unemployed adults into work. Does the Minister understand why, when it comes to reducing long-term unemployment, my constituents have more faith in those schemes, which originated in Barnsley, than they do in the Work programme, which came from his Department? (132056)

The hon. Gentleman should reflect on the fact that the sector-based work academy is part of the Youth Contract. It is effective and is an idea put forward by this Government. I am pleased that it is working well in Barnsley. The other thing in the Youth Contract that is working well is work experience, which is as effective as the future jobs fund but 20 times cheaper. The Government can demonstrate that we are giving help to get people into work, and are giving much better value to the taxpayer.

T8. What further measures is the Department taking to ensure that the benefits assessment process takes into account applicants with invisible disabilities, such as autism, that are often accompanied by speech, language and communication problems? (132057)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. That is why, for example, we encourage people who feel that they cannot communicate at an assessment to take a friend or a carer with them to help in that process, and we gave support to people to help them to complete the ESA50. We want to make the process of assessment as easy and as straightforward as possible by giving vulnerable claimants the help that they need.

In my constituency, organisations such as Yellow provide accommodation solutions for young people under 25 so that they can get into work. In his deliberations on the future of housing benefit for the under-25s, how will the Secretary of State identify those youngsters who have suffered traumatic family break-ups, dysfunctional families, and sexual and physical abuse and separate them from the others? It is a genuine practical question.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we would make every effort to ensure that those most vulnerable people would not necessarily be included in a change like this. As I said earlier, this is not a policy at the moment; it is a consultation, and we are happy to listen to anybody about the groups they think ought not to be included in such a policy. I have an open door in that regard, and he is more than welcome to come and see me.

T9. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best outcomes for children are where at least one parent is working? Does he also agree that all Government measures should try to support the best outcomes for children and families? (132058)

I do agree with my hon. Friend. Universal credit should help that enormously through its disregard process, which I call the work allowance. The allowance of a couple with a child will be more than £6,000 when they go back into work; under the present system it is only £520, and under the Work programme it is a little more. The difference is enormous and will provide a real boost and a real income to families and support them at home.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the ever-increasing number of workplace pensions that are wound up in mergers and takeovers, as happened at Whitbread where former employees have lost their pensions. Will he review the legislation in order properly to protect people’s pensions on mergers and takeovers?

We are obviously concerned when anybody does not get the pension they were expecting. The regulator has powers where corporate restructuring has been designed to avoid pension liabilities. If the hon. Gentleman gives me more details of the case, I will be happy to look into it.

T10. People with HIV report poor levels of understanding of their condition by Atos assessors. This may be because the guidance is outdated and lacks information on living with HIV. Will Ministers be monitoring the guidance issued on such conditions? (132059)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. One of Professor Harrington’s recommendations was that the medical directors of charities review the guidance and some of the bases of assessment for conditions. I can assure him that the guidance for HIV/ AIDS is being reviewed by the medical director of the Terrence Higgins Trust.

The hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey) was right to draw attention to the rising tide of real concern and anxiety among those threatened by the bedroom tax. How many households will be directly affected by the bedroom tax?

We published a full impact assessment as part of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, which deals with this and also breaks it down on a regional level, so the figures are already available to the House.

Getting to a job interview can sometimes be a challenge for people looking for work, so many jobseekers will be pleased to hear about a new scheme launched today called Bus for Jobs, which provides free travel, initially during January, for those seeking work. In my constituency that will be Stagecoach Midlands. Does the Minister agree that the scheme is an innovative approach by the Government to help people to find work?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is important. As we heard earlier, for some people the cost of travel is a barrier to employment, and I am delighted that the major bus companies have worked together to provide free travel in January. That is on top of the additional support that Jobcentre Plus and Work programme providers offer to ensure that we get as many people as possible into work.

Yesterday on the Directgov website, DWP job ID 438253 advertised for female presenters for Loaded TV working at home on internet babe chat. The advert has now been removed from the website, but does the Secretary of State think that DWP should be accepting and promoting jobs for internet babe chat? What does it say about this Government’s values on work?

I remind the hon. Lady that it was this Government who changed the rules: under her Government, it would have been wholly acceptable, I suspect. The new system is in its national pathfinder and will, I hope, be rolled out before Christmas. We already have checks in place: more than 6,000 jobs, 60 attempted employer accounts and 27 bogus employers have been blocked so far, and we act swiftly if complaints are raised. I remind her that, on average, more than 5 million daily job searchers are working on this system. It will be a massive improvement and will benefit jobseekers, so the hon. Lady should not carp about the odd difficulty that arises. We get rid of the bogus jobs.

I congratulate the Government on extending Access to Work to disabled people on work experience and on removing the need for small companies who employ fewer than 49 people to pay for Access to Work. Will the Minister look seriously at extending Access to Work to disabled people on the Work programme because of the additional cost of their disabilities?

My hon. Friend has a great track record of championing the rights of people with disabilities. I will look carefully at the proposals he has made and work with the Minister responsible for disabled people to get the best possible outcome for people with disabilities. It is important to help them get into work.